Life before Canberra
We first meet Mrs West (1823-1913) in The Queanbeyan Age newspaper after she dies aged ninety years. We meet her and get to know her only as Mrs West, which is the beginning of her life after death.
Mrs West is not mentioned by her Christian name or by her maiden name, it is as if her life before death has become a mirage in the Dreamtime that even as a child she was as old as the ancient land she had come to live in.
Such is the story of Mrs West – gleaned from her obituary in The Queanbeyan Age, in 1913, the same year Canberra was named. Obituary’s are a great source of early Australian History, a window to the past, preserving the living of a life so it will not be lost forever – a glimpse into a life lived in the Queanbeyan District, Before Canberra.
Pitt Street Stream
In c1823 Mrs West was born in Ireland. When she was a tiny child she came to Australia from Ireland in the 1820s to live with her father who was in a detachment of the Royal Marines on Norfolk Island.
Mrs West had often spoken of the old barracks on Norfolk Island – before she moved to Sydney to live in the barracks near the graveyard, in the vicinity of the present Sydney Town Hall.
When Mrs West was just a child she had to walk to school and cross the small stream, which used to have its watercourse where Pitt Street now exists. Mrs West was still a child when she married in c1839 – she was just 16 years of age.
We can presume she married Mr West and this was her first and only marriage because Mr West is mentioned as “her husband” who had “taken up Coolamon Station, near Kiandra” and the child bride, Mrs West, “travelled nearly 300 miles by bullock team to share her life with the land, the animals, and her husband” in the “new country”.
The article aptly named “A Female Pioneer – what a woman did“, reminds us of those “so-called good old times”. A time when the women “ground their wheat in a hand mill; had to strike a light with flint and steel; and ate bread (damper) baked in ashes; and built their house of slabs and shingles”.
Mrs West experienced the “terrible dreariness” of a woman’s life alone in the bush when the men would be away with stock and teams or helping a neighbour muster sheep. Sometimes Mrs West might not see another woman’s face for six months.
Devils and Aborigines bones
Imagination played tricks on her mind when the men were away and she was left alone – once she was wakened by unearthly howling, the noise surrounding the house so strange that she thought she was besieged by devils, but it was the unearthly howl of a pack of dingoes who had surrounded her house.
Another time when the men were away hundreds of Aborigines came to the station. “Mrs West was in such deadly fear that she could feel the pain in her finger tips” but it was only the friendly Monaro Aboriginals going to the Bogong mountains for their annual Bogon Moth feasts and initiation ceremonies.
Mrs West also remembered a tribal fight between the Gippsland Aboriginals and the Monaro Aboriginals. She said the Monaro Aboriginals were beaten and the Gippsland mob took away many Monaro Aboriginal women and the bones of the fallen Monaro men “whitened the cliffs” for many years thereafter.
History lists lots of “Great” events that were not really great at all, rather they were so disasterous that it was believed they would be a one off event – like the Great War (WWI), the great flood (Queanbeyan flood 1925), etc – Mrs West remembered what was “known as the great storm, when herds of cattle perished in the snowdrifts, some of which were 20 feet deep”; when the snow melted she recounted seeing a “bullock hanging by its neck up in the fork of a tree”; it had walked on top of the snow drift and when the snow gave way and it fell, it was suspended in the tree..
When nearly 60 years of age, and the “rivers were too high for her buggy, Mrs West rode bareback to Goulburn to buy the stations supplies from Davies, Alexander and Co. Then she made the “return journey on horseback – a distance in all of nearly 250 miles … nothing daunted this pioneer”.
On yet another occasion Mrs West was lost in a snow storm after leaving Cooma – she “stood under a tree all night, holding the horse’s bridle, “How my arm did ache,” she used to say, when retelling the tale. When daylight broke she mounted the horse, gave it its head, and it took her home.
Footnotes / Resource
1. John Gale, “A Female Pioneer – what a woman did,” The Queanbeyan Age, August 19, 1913.
2. Connee-Colleen, © “Queanbeyan Outlook (75): Mrs West,” The Queanbeyan Age, February 2, 2007, p. 22.
3. I have assumed that the author of the article, “A Female Pioneer – what a woman did”, was written by jouralist, John Gale, who founded his newspaper, The Queanbeyan Age, in 1860, in Queanbeyan and is the same person who is recognized as the Father of Canberra. Gale arrived in the Queanbeyan District in 1855 and traveled widely. He saw himself as a historian and often recorded many articles of the early days for his paper. In 1913 Gale was 83 years of age (only seven years younger than Mrs West) and was the journalist who wrote the report on the naming of Canberra for The Queanbeyan Age. Gale was in his 99th year when he died in 1929 – still active and acting as the Coroner for Canberra and the Queanbeyan District.
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