A slice of Queensland -1885 in poetry

An introduction

In the second half of the 19th century, the poetry reading audience, even in Queensland, was much bigger than it is today. One of the reasons for this is that today’s audience has many more options for entertainment. People had to do something with their time back then, before radio,  movies, TV,  Netflix, and hand-held devices.

More importantly, the subject matter chosen and the language used by poets was aimed at a much more general readership. The published poems of the time were also often more concerned with public, rather than personal, subjects.  For that reason, as Elizabeth Webby notes: 

A study of early Australian poetry, if properly based on materials from newspapers and magazines, as well as on that which appeared in collections, can provide much information about prevailing literary concerns, tastes, and styles. [1]

This article surveys the Queensland poems that appeared in its leading State wide weekly, The Queenslander, in a single year, 1885. As you will see, the poems provide an interesting and readable insight into what Queensland life was like for a major slice of its population 130 years ago. But you will also see themes and pre-occupations that have carried through to the present. 

The world in 1885

So much about the world of 1885 is different from today. The population was just 1.5 billion, or a 5th of the population now. 

Britain was the dominant nation, the super power of its time, with an empire that remains the biggest the world has ever seen.  Most white Australians called Britain ‘the mother country’ or, more simply, ‘home’. 

But things weren’t so peaceful in the UK. The year began with the defeat of the British forces, led by General Gordon, at the siege of Khartoum. This was the first serious military setback Britain had encountered since the 1840s, but more significantly for the Imperial British, it was the first time that Britain had been defeated by an African leader. NSW became the first Australian colony to offer troops to an Imperial war, much to the chagrin of the other colonies, because it did so without telling them.  

Britain was fighting on many fronts, and in 1885 it had to ward off threats from Russia in Afghanistan, and faced war in Burma, while committing troops to take land from the Boers in South Africa.

British domestic politics was also in upheaval. The fall of Khartoum led to the resignation of the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, and unrest in Ireland continued to be a political issue at Westminster. In cricket, England won a closely contested Ashes series, 3-2. 

Imperial fires were also burning in Europe. Early in the year, the Berlin Conference established the principles by which European powers could occupy and colonize Africa. In Germany, Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz invented the first internal combustion engine powered vehicle, the Reitwagen. The people of France dispatched the Statue of Liberty to New York Harbour as a gift to the people of the United States, and in America, the 30 year old George Eastman invented modern photographic film. 

The first motor vehicle

In English literature, Mark Twain published the first edition of his most famous book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in France, Emile Zola published Germinal, while in Britain Richard Burton published his translation of the 1001 Nights, and Thomas Hardy was at work on The Mayor of Casterbridge

In poetry, Gerard Manley Hopkins was at work on some of his finest sonnets, exploring the boundaries of religious faith and metrical form. But these poems were not to become widely known for 30 years. Instead, in England, poetry was still dominated by the figure of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. 

Australia in 1885. 

Australia in 1885 had a non-indigenous population of between 2.7 and 2.9 million. Politically, it was a collection of 5 self-governing colonies, as Western Australia, though first settled by Europeans in 1829, did not gain representative government until 1890. 

1st Federal Council

A movement for the establishment of a single, federated union of Australia had begun to stir in the 1870s, but it gained real impetus in 1885, when the Imperial Parliament passed the Federal Council of Australasia Act. This gave participating Australian States, together with the Governments of New Zealand and Fiji, the power to make laws on limited matters of common interest, such as extradition. More importantly, it created a forum for dialogue among the states, which laid the basis for the constitutional conferences of the 1890s. 

In literature, though most people lived in the cities, the predominant theme was that of the relationship of man and the bush. From London, Queensland born author, Rosa Praed, published her novel The Head Station, and the NSW poet Philip Holdsworth published his only book of poems, Station Hunting on the Warrego. The convict motif remained remained to the fore: in 1885 Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life, first published in 1870, was republished in its shortened (and more popular) form, as For the term of his Natural Life

Queensland in 1885

By 1885, Queensland had existed as a separate self-governing colony for 25 years. It had a non-indigenous population of a little over 310,000, an increase of more than 1000% since separation from NSW at the end of 1859. 

Violent storms in south east Queensland heralded the coming of the new year.  According to the Brisbane Courier, these caused minor flooding in Toowoomba and low church attendances in Brisbane[2].  Queenslanders still saw themselves as ‘colonists’ battling an alien landscape. The Courier’s editorial noted that Queensland’s politics:

mainly hinge on the phases of our great struggle with the wilderness and the devices we employ for subduing it and rendering it a fit habitation for civilized man.’[3]

Brisbane only accounted for about 20% of the state’s population. It is not surprising, then, that Queensland largely depended for income on sheep, cattle, sugar, and gold. As a result, the regional and agrarian influence was strong in Queensland politics. 

However, in 1885, the premier was a liberal, Sir Samuel Griffith. The principal political issues in that year concerned the population of, and provision of infrastructure to, the regions, mixed with tensions between new small agrarian landholders and the squatters (or ‘Pure Merinos’), who had held their lands since the 1840s.

Queensland had imported ‘kanaka’ labour from Melanesia to work cotton and then sugar plantations since the 1860s. The issue was always controversial, and divided Queensland both

Two sides of the separation movement

internally, and from the other states.  Though some were opposed to the trade because they thought it inhumane, much of the opposition was based on claims that the importation of black labour denied white men jobs. In 1885, Griffith sponsored laws which prohibited further importation after 1890, and the Griffith Government voted to provide loans of £50,000 to Mackay farmers on condition that the cane they milled was grown by ‘white labour’[4]. The financial aid provided may also have been an attempt to quell an ongoing movement to create a separate North Queensland state. 

Government, then as now, played a big part in the development not just of society, but of the economy. The Griffith administration sought (with some difficulty) to raise £10,000,000 from the London capital markets, and was only saved from financial embarrassment by a bridging loan from the Bank of England. The government built all the railways that were developed in that year, and led the extension of defences at Thursday Island, Townsville and Lytton, to ward off a feared Russian invasion. Taxes were raised to build a rabbit-proof fence at the NSW border, and a law was passed which allowed districts, on a 2/3rds vote, to ‘close public houses’ without compensation.[5]

Temperance and barmaids
Temperance Cartoon

Technology was on the march. From 1878, limited telephone services had become available in Queensland. The first experiments in the provision of electric lighting to Brisbane began in 1882, just six months after electric lighting was provided to New York. In 1885, the first horse drawn tram services commenced. In Brisbane, improved infrastructure and communications meant eager property developers were advertising for new subdivisions in Wilston, Hamilton, and Sherwood. 

The agricultural and pastoral sectors were hampered by a drought, which had started in 1884, but mining was boosted by the discovery of gold at Croydon, and horn silver[6] near Herberton. 

Queenslanders were as concerned with international affairs as domestic concerns. At the beginning of the year, Germany had formally annexed the north-eastern part of the island of New Guinea. And it was with international events that the closing editorial of the Brisbane Courier for the year was concerned:

Whether we are willing or not, we have now to play our part on the stage of this great world; and it is becoming more evident each year that our future depends on the manner in which we play it.[7]

1885 in Queensland poetry 

The only book of poems published in Queensland in 1885 was Mary Hannay Foott’s Where the Pelican Builds.  But poems and short stories were commonly featured in newspapers, which had proliferated throughout the state since the establishment of the Moreton Bay Courier in 1846. 

The poetry that was published was of variable quality, but its themes and subjects reflected the preoccupations of the readership. Often, the poems had the kind of topicality that we see in today’s political cartoons. For example, take this verse, chosen more or less at random, from the Mackay Mercury of 21 March, about Samuel Griffith’s attempts to influence the local economy:

Nil Desperandum![8] Our Sam rules the roast,

And the sugar trade nearly has given up the ghost;

Our fields lie untilled and our laborers have fled;

And our prospects, so bright once, are dying or dead.[9]

Some of the poetry which was published was reprinted from the pages of interstate and international publications. These works usually appeared under the heading ‘Selected Verse’. Poems published for the first time appeared under the heading ‘Original Verse’.

The most important publisher of original verse in Queensland was The Queenslander. This was a weekly newspaper, published in conjunction with the Brisbane Courier which aimed at a Queensland wide audience. From its second edition in February 1866, it published poetry, and it became self-consciously literary from about the mid-1870s. By 1885, in many ways, it rivalled the Sydney Bulletin in literary output, and perhaps importance. 

In that year, The Queenslander published nearly 80 pieces of original verse. It featured contributors from NSW and Victoria, leading Queensland poets such as George Essex Evans and Mary Hannay Foott, as well as promising contributions from a number of young authors. Much of its poetry was published pseudonymously. Light verse was often featured in a column called ‘Flotsam & Jetsam’.

The poems that were published in 1885 show a wide variety of themes, pre-occupations and perspectives: war, politics, religion, nature, the opening up of the land, drought, escape from the land, life in the cities, love, and death. 

The increasing militarism of the times is shown by the 13 poems that are concerned with war. Most of them are about the Sudan, but concerns are also expressed about the situation in Afghanistan (The Russian Advance, 25 April). Even the war poems show surprising variety: alongside the most jingoistic verses are poems which show a more human understanding of war: Windsor Castle Barracks (also April 25) shows empathy for the wives and children of the defeated British forces, who are evicted from their homes before the soldiers’ return:

Clear out from here! Your rooms vacate!

Windsor Castle Barracks 

Lodge where and how you may;

Hungry or homeless set your fate

At pennies twelve per day. 

More of the poems are directly political than we would expect to see in contemporary poetry. The Situation (21 February) satirizes the effect of the Griffith administration on sugar prices and A Political Suspiration (27 June) records the fall of the Gladstone prime ministership. While a number of the poems deal with recognizable Queensland themes, poets are also starting to see Australia as a single (somewhat cheesy) place, if not a single nation:

May peace abide in Australia’s shore,

And may all her industries thrive;

May all the blessings of old Eighty four

Be with us in new Eighty five.[10] 

There are more poems about the bush than the city, and the bush poems explore the themes which were made famous a decade later by Paterson, Lawson, Ogilvie and others. It’s a land not yet tamed. The Dingo Hunt (28 March) by ‘R.N.G’ (Robert Gunn) records the killing of a dingo who had threatened a flock of sheep:

And now may jumbucks jump for joy,

And crows croak loud in woe;

For sheep no more he will destroy

Nor ever hunting go. 

The poet presumes the right to displace the native wildlife. It’s little wonder then that when the subject turns to aborigines, the right to displace is also a given. 

Wrapped in a ‘possum skin

A typical news piece

There many an ancient gin, 

Cowered with a hideous grin;

Picaninnies wondered…..

Mourn for these warriors old;

Yea for their knell was tolled

When first explorers bold

Hunted them onward!

                                         From The Camp of the Dark Brigade (10 October)

However, if the land has been conquered, the climate is still master. So two poems from the year deal with the enduring drought, Drought (16 May) and How Long, O Lord (17 October):

Drought-stricken plains stretching lifeless and bare,

Drought-stricken river beds lifeless and dry,

Drought-stricken carcasses tainting the air,

Nature despairing re-echoes the cry, 

                How long, O Lord!

And the land can easily take you, if you are not forever vigilant. So Lost (15 August) is one of many examples of the recurrent theme of the lost child in Australian colonial literature Poets, even light-hearted ones, are also beginning to take the landscape as a metaphor for the human condition: The Lay of the Diprotodon (27 June) is an example which assumes the reader's knowledge of an ancient, extinct species of giant Australian marsupial, and sets that as a backdrop for some gentle satire.

But for me, the most compelling poem of the year is one of the last to be published. The Camp Fire (5 December) is a bush yarn about the perils of alcohol, and as near as The Queenslander gets to publishing a folk song. The editor’s comment on the poem notes: 

THE following verses have been sent to us by a correspondent in the country, who states that he does not know the author's name—that he received a copy of them from a traveller. 

 In the 1920s a more complete version of the poem appeared as The Stockman’s Tale and later still, in a different form, as My brother Ben, and I. This is the earliest version I can find of the poem. It contains elements of the myth of the outback, a land which is almost exclusively rural, and male. The principal peril is alcohol, and the poem is openly didactic, at a time when the temperance movement was strong. I find the poem compelling not because it’s well executed (there are problems with meter and clunky rhymes), but because I can envisage it being transcribed, carefully, by hand, in a remote part of Queensland, more than 130 years ago. Can you? 

The Camp Fire, along with the other poems published in The Queenslander in 1885, have the capacity to bring us in brief, unmediated form, an understanding of the Queensland of then that became the Queensland we know now. It was racist, militarist, and for the most part fervently British, it assumed that the white settlers had the right to conquer and exploit the land, if only they were good enough and brave enough. But it was also, despite its status as an underpopulated and under-developed land, optimistic and positive. 

The Courier’s closing editorial for the year ends on that note, and so will I: 

We close the record of the old year with thankful satisfaction, in spite of many difficulties and misfortunes, and we open the record of the new with well-grounded confidence and hope. [11]

Click here to go to an index of all The Queenslander’s original poetry of 1885.  

[1] Webby, E. Early Australian Poetry, Sydney, Hale and Ironmonger, 1982, ix.

[2] The Courier, Thursday 1 January 1885, p5,  http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/page/84812?zoomLevel=2

[3] Ibid, p4.

[4] Fitzgerald, R. From the Dreaming to 1915 A History of Queensland, St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1982, p184.

[5] Brisbane Courier, 31 December, 1885, p4.

[6] A silver ore, now more commonly known as chloroargyrite.

[7] Brisbane Courier, ibid.

[8] Roughly, don’t despair.

[9] Edwards, James A., Nil Desperandum, in Mackay Mercury and South Kennedy Advertiser, 21 March 1885, p2.

[10] Rae, J. Happy New Year, in The Queenslander, 3 January 1885, p9.

[11] Brisbane Courier, 31 December, 1885, p12.