Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 27, 2017

Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet (2017), by Jennifer Gall

Looking for Rose PatersonNLA Publishing produce gorgeous books, and this one is no exception.  Looking for Rose Paterson is a beautiful, lavishly illustrated exploration of the life of the mother of our best-loved bush poet, Andrew Barton (Banjo) Paterson, famous for Waltzing Matilda, but also for rollicking ballads like The Man from Snowy River; Clancy of the Overflow; The Geebung Polo Club and The Man from Ironbark.

Although Gall had little more to go on than the one-sided correspondence of Rose Paterson to her sister Nora, she has amplified this lively and illuminating correspondence by making use of the resources of the National Library to depict representative lifestyles of the period, especially the lives of women.

So while the book shows the influence of a rural childhood on Banjo and his eventual writing career, it’s also very revealing about the responsibilities and hardships of a particular class of 19th century women.  Rose Isabella Paterson née Barton came from a privileged background, and did not expect that her marriage to Andrew Bogle Paterson in 1863 would be as difficult as it turned out to be.

The family and the social class into which she was born are important to understanding Rose Paterson.  Her father, Robert Johnston Barton, was an ex-commander of an Indiaman (a sailing ship operated by the European East India companies) equipped for battle.  Like other seafaring men of rank who found themselves displaced by changes in the structure of the East India Company and the navy, Barton became a founder of a pioneering pastoral family.  Such pioneers aimed to establish an Australian landed gentry and strove to bring the graces, artistic pursuits and social structures of civilisation to rough and remote environments.  (p.2)

After acknowledging that the ambitions of this elite infringed on prior ownership of the land by Aboriginal people and that this contested occupation often led to brutal subjugation, Chapter One goes on to explain that there was often a marked discrepancy between the elevated social position of many of the squatters […] and their modest material possessions.  For Rose Paterson, her husband’s dismal failure in the pastoral industry meant living in an isolated shabby house without much money, managing a household often in her husband’s absence, and having a punishing workload, usually without any domestic help.  On top of this there were the dangers of childbirth far from medical help, and the fear of bushrangers who were operating in the area.

Writing his recollections of his early life in the bush, Banjo Paterson, as an old man, remembered his parents working so hard in their daily routine on the station that he amused himself for hours in the men’s hut or out on his horse: ‘My father was away from home a lot, looking after our Queensland place, and my mother was busy from daylight till dark with household work.’ Although Banjo rarely wrote explicitly about his parents, he does recount one striking incident concerning Rose’s preparations for self-defence when all the men were away from home and a ‘particularly villainous character’ turned up at dusk asking for a place to sleep and some tucker.  In Banjo’s opinion, such strangers in those days were just as likely to be on the run from police as being legitimate itinerant workers, and Rose was justified in her precautions”

I remember my mother loading a gun (a muzzle loader) in the sitting room … Putting the hammer down, she let it slip and the gun went off with a frightful bang bringing down a shower of whitewash from the calico ceiling and scaring the life out of a family of possums who lived up in the beams … I suppose the stranger must have heard the shot down in the travellers’ hut for he was very civil when he came along in the morning to draw his meat, tea and sugar. (p.3)

Rose’s distinctive voice provides each chapter title

  • ‘This Poor Old Prison on a Habitation’: Home Life at Illalong Station
  • ‘All Utilities and No Luxuries’: Farming, Isolation and Money
  • ‘Smuggle a Bottle of Chloroform’: Childbirth and Health
  • ‘His Fate is Still Wavering’ : Barty (Banjo Paterson)
  • ‘Judicious Neglect and Occasional Scrubbing’: Childcare, Child Rearing and Education
  • ‘No Better Dower Than a Good Education’: Women’s Education and Rights
  • ‘We Shall Have a Fine Houseful’: Social Life

and these themes are fascinating to read.  Rose comes across as a witty correspondent sharing intimacies with a much-loved sister, but they are also revealing about the lives of women – and their discontents.  The chapter about childbirth is notable not just for the way it illuminates how dangerous it was, but also because it shows Rose’s dread of yet another pregnancy.  She had seven children altogether, over a 17-year period of time, her last child born when she was 37.  (There’s also a grisly C19th diagram showing the use of forceps in childbirth!)  The chapter about her determination to see that her girls had an education that would give them a better life than hers is poignant, especially when Gall’s commentary shows that the boys in the family were – perhaps inevitably in that period – privileged in comparison.   Connections enabled a scholarship for Banjo to attend Sydney Grammar and forge a career as a lawyer before turning to writing.  That didn’t happen for the girls, and my heart went out to Jessie (1868-1908), an apparently feisty young women whose behaviour aroused Rose’s strong disapproval, as expressed in this letter to Nora on 13 February 1885 when Jessie was seventeen.

You say truly that methodical and orderly qualities are wanting, but how many girls are there who go out as governesses who would be preferable to her (at a merely nominal salary) & how could she be taught order and method better than by being under the control of a good housewife (which I am not – & moreover she denys my right to control her.  Who will consent to teach her for six months without salary & then give her just enough to buy clothes for another 6?

If you could find such a home for her I think it would be the best thing that could be done for her. (p.150)

Jessie never married, well or otherwise, and whatever she made of her life seems to have vanished without a trace.

Janine at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip has written a comprehensive review with a professional historian’s eye, so I shan’t try to replicate that.  What I will say is that apart from the value of this book as history in general, I think that Looking for Rose Paterson would be a useful secondary source for anyone writing historical fiction set in Australia in this period.

The book includes references, suggested further reading, a list of illustrations, and an index.

Author: Jennifer Gall
Title: Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet
Publisher: NLA (National Library of Australia) Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9780642278920
Review copy courtesy of NLA Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Bush Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet, from the NLA shop and other good bookshops.


  1. What an interesting post and I complain if we run out of milk.🐧🐧🐧


    • Actually, in periods of severe drought, they couldn’t always get enough milk for babies, and since milk fever (mastitis) couldn’t be treated with antibiotics then, it was a really serious problem. From Rose’s letters, it seems she was more worried about weaning her baby at 4 weeks than she was about her own health – and women died of milk fever in those days…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. We read so many men’s accounts of these times, it’s fascinating to read a woman’s account. Even Miles Franklin who was in the same area doesn’t say a lot about her mother’s and grandmother’s experiences compared with the detail in Rose’s letters.


    • I used to be a regular letter-writer when my parents were alive & interstate, writing once a week, and I was always conscious that I didn’t usually have anything exciting to tell them, just as my father who took pride in replying to every letter he ever received, always prefaced his with ‘not much news here’ and then proceeded to fill two or three pages.
      So my experience is probably like Rose’s: the letters were not for sharing news but for keeping in touch about everyday things, planting out the vegie patch, trying a new recipe, watching a TV show and reading books. Repetitive though these activities are, they are the stuff of everyday life and I think it’s a shame that people don’t do this much any more. I don’t know what historians of the future are going to use!


      • Mum and her mum (back on the farm) wrote every week, and her sisters as they moved away would join in. When I went up to Melb to uni mum would only send my allowance if I had written to her.


  3. This book has just landed on my bedside table. Looking forward to it even more now, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you will find it very useful. And it’s gorgeous:)


  4. Wonderful chapter titles! (They are an art in themselves.) NLA Publishing have been releasing some great titles. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention.


    • Yes, I liked these chapter titles too, that’s why I quoted them all:) Sometimes, I can tell, titles are an afterthought, and other times they are just perfect as these ones are:)


  5. […] Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet, by Jennifer Gall […]


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