Billy Roohan (1802-1874) 1
PICTURE: Rutledge Street looking towards Christ Church. In this copy of a photo taken in 1870, John Gale’s home and business is on the right and Billy Roohan’s timber slab home was opposite. Photographer: Henry Beaufoy Merlin, 1870.2
The Aboriginal people liked Queanbeyan postman Billy Roohan, and when he asked them to mark the trees to Twofold Bay, so he could be the first man to deliver the mail there, they obliged because he was their friend.3
John Gale’s story: 4
“Thrice a week over the ford just below Old Canberra post-office and smithy, passed along conveying His Majesty’s mail, Billy Roohan, who was the first man to convey mail matter from New South Wales into Victoria, via Gippsland.
Billy Roohan is therefore is entitled to a record in the memories of Old Canberra.5
More than once, in essaying the said ford in flood times, did old Billy narrowly escape with his life; and more than once coach, horses and mail were sacrificed in his endeavour to carry out his contract.
But the risks he encountered in his negotiations of the river at Canberra paled into insignificance compared with those he experienced in the Monaro country.
There, in winter time, Billy had, when the snow lay feet deep along his route, to abandon both his saddle and pack-horse; and, humping mailbags on his shoulder, proceed on foot through the worst of his route. But he never failed to fulfil his contract.
Long long road
I well remember an occasion when Billy, on a return trip from Gippsland, drew up at my door as we were at breakfast, and cooee’d for someone to come out.
I answered his cooee, and there, seated on the driver’s seat, was Billy, minus one of his big boots, which, when on, reached to and above his knees.
His horses were fagged and glad of this unexpected spell.
Pointing to the pole and the swingle-trees, he said, “Look there,” where I saw the missing boot, sole up and long leg trailing on the ground, fastened in the complicated wood and iron work.
An explanation followed. “I must have fallen asleep,” said Billy, and tumbled on to the swingle-bars, for I found myself coming down the stringybark hill’ (about four miles out of Queanbeyan), “being dragged along beneath the under-carriage of my coach, with my foot fast, as you now see my boot.
How far I had been dragged thus I don’t know – not far, or I should have been killed. Luckily, the boot was dragged off my foot, and seizing the trailing reins, I pulled up my horses, and regained my seat with little more hurt than a severe shaking. I thought I would leave the boot where it is till I explained the lucky escape that befell me to the first person I saw, which is you.”
In later years coach and horses had to be substituted for saddle and pack-horses.
This veteran public servant literally died in harness, after many years of service in the capacity of mail-contractor. His death was pathetic.
He had never married, and always did for himself. Living in a slab hut across the street from my own residence, and being illiterate, I [John Gale] did most of his official correspondence, and was frequently at his own place to see him on business.
Not long before his end came I found him suffering from dysentery, and administered the well known remedies, with such good effect that he was able to convey his mails as usual.
One evening, on his return from his thrice-a-week service–Goulburn to Queanbeyan, via Gundaroo – I found him so ill that I tried to persuade him to get someone else to go out with his mails, in the morning, and himself to take a rest. But he was adamant.
No, was his reply, “I’m the Queen’s servant, and I’ll do my best to the end.”
And, indeed, he did. In vain was it for me to reason. “Well, if that is your decision,” I said, on bidding him good-night, “I’ll help you all I can. If you feel worse during the night, and can come across the street, tap at my bedroom window at any hour, and I’ll come to your aid.”
I wasn’t disturbed through the night.
Queanbeyan to Gundaroo
The hour for the despatch of next morning’s mail was five o’clock. At about 4 a.m. I went over to him. There was Billy, on his knees at the hearth, lighting his fire to boil his billycan. I saw at a glance that the poor old fellow was not able to do even that.
He was a very lightweight man, so I took him in my arms and laid him on the stretcher underneath the window, got his water to boil, made his pot of tea and toast, and then, saddling his saddle and pack-horse, went to the post-office, explained matters to the postmaster, got the mailbags, signed for them, and hastened back to poor old Billy, hoping against hope that I might persuade him to find a substitute for that day’s trip.
From Gundaroo to Goulburn, on Wednesdays, a hired man did the trip – and this was Wednesday.
Roohan did only the trip, Queanbeyan to Gundaroo, and return.
No, he’d have no substitute, so I lifted him on to the saddle-horse, placed the reins of the pack-horse in his hand, saw him start off.
I never again saw him alive.
Old bush track
He was due at the Queanbeyan post-office that evening at seven o’clock.
His non-arrival caused me some natural uneasiness, and as the hours flew by with no appearance of Billy, I reported to the police, detailing what I had done for him in the morning and his poor state of health.
Gundaroo was communicated with. He had left there with the Queanbeyan mails at the usual hour. What could have become of him?
Old and new search
The entire road from end to end had been scoured by the police of both townships, without a solitary trace of the missing man.
Then it struck someone to follow the old original road along the Back Creek, and which had been traversed years before by the poor old veteran, before the new road was surveyed and formed. Some miles along, and near the late Thos. Coleman’s estate, the police, who were the searchers, made their discovery.
Faithful, four legged friends
There on the roadside were the two horses, and on the ground before them, as if he had fallen from a log on which he had been sitting, the dead body of Billy Roohan, his hands clutching the bridle reins of his two patient steeds.
Yes, as he wished it, he had died in harness, and in the service of his Queen.
He left an estate to the value of some thousands of pounds, but although several claimants came forward, on the score of being his next-of-kin – two sisters of his in Ireland failing to have been traced – none of the claimants could satisfactorily prove a claim; and to this day his estate awaits a legitimate successor.” 5
Billy’s gravestone No: 589 in the Roman Catholic portion of the Queanbeyan Riverside Cemetery commemorates “William Roohan, bachelor who died 8 April 1874 aged 72; Loughrea, Co Galway, Ireland”.6
Footnotes / Resources
1. Gale, John. Canberra: Its History and Legends, (Queanbeyan, 1927); p. 42. Gale’s sub-title to the story is: “Billy Roohan – Pioneer mail-Contractor”.
2. Lea-Scarlett. Errol & Tim Robinson. First Light on the Limestone Plains–Historic photographs of Canberra & Queanbeyan, (Canberra & District Historical Society, 1986), pp. 17, 23-26. (i) Note: PICTURE: Famous photographer Henry Beaufoy Merlin (1830-1873) took some of the best photos of Queanbeyan in his 1870 visit to the town, especially his ‘carte-de-visite views’. Merlin advertised in The Queanbeyan Age on March 17, that the American and Australian Photographic Co., of 73 Little Collins Street, East Melbourne would shortly photograph every house in Queanbeyan; Merlin was in town taking photographs by March 31, 1870. On April 21, he advertised that copies of photos of Queabeyan would be available at the Barrack Street Office of the company; and on November 17, The Queanbeyan Age announced that photographs could be viewed at the office where orders would be taken. All his life Merlin used the wet-plate process, which needed to be developed immediately. For travelling photographers this required a caravan as a portable darkroom to process the plates. Poor ventilation and the use of potassium cyanide to fix the plates weakened Merlin’s lungs. He died of pneumonia in 1873 just three years after his 1870 photographs immortalized Queanbeyan.
3. Lea-Scarlett. Errol, Queanbeyan District and People, (Queanbeyan Municipal Council, 1968), p. 94.
4. Gale. John, Canberra: Its History and Legends, Queanbeyan, 1927. pp. 42-45.
5. (i) Gale, 1927. p. 42. (ii) England’s Queen Victoria’s coronation was in 1838 (she ascended the throne in 1837) and she reigned until her death in 1901. (iii) In 1874, when Billy dies Queen Victoria had been on the throne for 37 years, Billy calls himself the Queen’s servant but John Gale who is writing in 1927, does not revert back to the Queen and writes the masculine “His” Majesty’s mail because a King is on the throne in 1927. (iv) In 1874 Australia consisted of separate Colonies, which had been administered by an English Governor, under English law since settlement on January 26, 1788 (84 years previously). (v) Queen Victoria is Queen of the Australian Colonies until the Colonies federate (join together with Queen Victoria’s assent) on January 1, 1901 and become the Commonwealth of Australia.
6. Connee-Colleen © Queanbeyan Outlook (19), “Billy died in the Queen’s Service”, The Queanbeyan Age, June 14, 2005, p.5. (Outlook also used the same quote from John Gale’s Canberra: Its History and Legends, Queanbeyan, 1927, pp. 42-45).
7. Lea-Scarlet, Errol. Rex Cross & Bert Sheedy, Queanbeyan Pioneer Cemeteries. (Queanbeyan City Council, 1986), III, 433.
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