Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 20, 2018

Margaret Seymour, in Australia’s First Century 1788-1888, (Facsimiles from Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia), edited by E.E. Morris Part 1 #BookReview

I was making my way through a Kindle edition of A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings 1852-53 by Ellen Clacy for Bill’s ‘ AWW Gen 1 week’ at The Australian Legend, which focuses on the first generation of Australia’s Women Writers … when it occurred to me that I might have a print version of it in a book that I’ve had for a very long time indeed.  It’s called Australia’s First Century 1788-1888, and it consists of facsimiles of pages about Australia that were originally published in a four-volume series called Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia, published in 1889.

Well, no, Clacy doesn’t get a mention.  But when I scoured the Table of Contents looking for women writers, I found that there was only one contributor who was identifiably female, and that was Margaret Seymour, who contributed ‘An Englishwoman’s First Experience of the Bush’, and ‘Queensland – Past and Present’,  – which is notable for acknowledging the dispossession of the Aborigines and notes one of the first acts of indigenous resistance, recording that there was fighting at Bribie Island at a place ‘now called Skirmish Point‘.  I can’t find anything about her online, I don’t even know the dates of her birth and death or where she came from in England.  I know nothing about why she came to Australia, or whether she stayed here, though she talks about having the keys of office at the cattle station when she arrives there.  She may have been a housekeeper there, because it will be her especial department to look after the cheeses; so will the poultry but she is an educated woman and whoever gives her the guided tour of the station talks about how they should soon be getting ready for dinner.  Perhaps he is her husband? A brother? It is frustrating not to know.  But, based on the two pieces in this book. I like her very much.

I like her frank assessment of the costs of the colonisation. Commenting on the expansion outward from Botany Bay she writes:

A great human tide was rising – rising to beat on unknown shores; it had not receded, because as yet only a few waves had crept beyond the usual tide mark.  The great waters were banking up behind, and the end would be a change so vast and so important in the world’s history that every detail of the pioneers’ early experience would become of deep interest. The hardships they endured; the pluck and energy they showed, are jewels in a national crown of glory; the mistakes they made, the outrages they committed, blots on that nation’s escutcheon.  (‘Queensland – Past and Present’ p.633)

I am impressed by Margaret Seymour.  While she is proud of the enterprise and energy of the Queensland settlers, she is not just alert to the dispossession caused by settlement, she also writes frankly about the racist treatment of the Chinese on the goldfields, calling them wonderfully industrious and frugal and citing these qualities as the reason for the white population’s disdain.  She says that

…they are the best gardeners, and pretty well the whole of the market-gardening of the colony is done by them.  As cooks they command as high wages as the white man, and therefore, from their numbers and their usefulness, they become the white man’s most powerful competitors… (p.638)

(Seymour is also complimentary about the Chinese cook she has, when she writes about her new home in ‘An Englishwoman’s First Experience of the Bush’, praising his spick-and-span appearance and the cleanliness of the kitchen though she does have doubts about him stoning the raisins for their Sunday pudding with his teeth!  But it is quite clear from her anecdotes about her meals and accommodation en route that the English settlers she encountered have even more dubious habits of hygiene so she is not being racist.)

In this piece about Queensland she is also enthusiastic about indigenous fruits, naming the Davidsonia plum, the Herbert River cherry, the kumquat and native limes, i.e. the finger lime (a plant only recently available for planting in domestic gardens.  The Spouse has been experimenting with them in cocktails, a pleasure perhaps denied to Margaret…) Seymour writes vividly about the progress of the settlements across the landscape but concludes in a nostalgic paragraph:

We have now made a hasty survey of a colony which would contain England more than thirteen times over.  We have seen the great invading wave of white faces creep slowly up  and sweep over the land, changing it in every direction.  The old things are fast passing away, the black faces have become fewer and are dying out, the strange kangaroo is beaten back into the interior, and the gorgeous birds have hidden themselves in the thickest scrub. It is not all gain to see the peace and silence of nature chased away by the rush of the settler and the noisy activity of the steam engine. (p.642)

She also has a sense of humour.  In ‘An Englishwoman’s First Experience of the Bush’, written by the time she feels confident about describing herself not as a ‘new chum’ but as ‘an old hand’, she starts with the train journey to Queensland.  The only woman in the carriage, she is seated opposite a butcher who stumbled on some gold, is now a millionaire, and was one of the distinguished colonials fêted in England at the Exhibition. 

‘What do you say the name of the new station is?’ he asked.

‘Alpha.’

‘Alpha,’ he repeated, ‘and the next place is Beta, and there is a place over there called Omega.  Aint it strange, now, that the people about here can’t find any decent names for their places, but must needs call them by these blackfellow’s names!’ (‘An Englishwoman’s First Experience of the Bush’, p.490)

And lest you think she is being patronising, she tells you that it is all fair game for a ‘new chum’ to laugh if a bushman makes a mistake, for there is no denying they are unmerciful in their taunts at a new chum. She goes on to tell her readers that

The Australian bushman is strong, capable, and ingenious, inured to hardship, and incapable of fretting over trifles; but he is often ill-tempered and morose, always sure that the colonial way is best, and that there is nothing to be learned from anyone, least of all from a new chum. (p.490)

She also gives vivid examples of what ‘roughing it’ really means.

‘I should very much like a basin and some water to wash in, I am so dirty from yesterday’s long day in the train.’

My request is met by a very grave face, and the answer, ‘We are at the top of the range and water is very scarce here, but I will see what I can do.’

It was difficult not to look dismayed when my companion returned with a little tin mugful of water.

‘I wanted the water to wash with, not to drink, ‘ I said mildly.

‘I know that, and here is the soap.  Now you must take your first Bush lesson, and learn how bushmen wash when they have no basin and water is scarce.  Hold out your hands, so.  Now I shall put one thimbleful of water into them, and then you must soap them.  Now a rinse.  Now a nice lot for your face.  Once more, and the pannikin is empty.  There, you have not had a very bad wash, have you?  and you are a fully-baptised bushwoman.’ (p.494)

One of the deficiencies of this otherwise excellent book is that apart from there being no biographical information about any of the contributors, there is also mostly no acknowledgement of the artists who supplied the wonderful drawings of homesteads and shacks; birds, animals and plants; carriages or carts dealing with the rough terrain; and bush characters such as swagmen.  But it’s only a small quibble.  I think that the English readers of the original publication must have been fascinated by it all, but most especially by the vivid images of writers like Margaret Seymour.

Part 2 of my review of this book will be about Mary Gaunt.

Author: Margaret Seymour
Title: (selections from) Australia’s First Century 1788-1888, Facsimiled from pages devoted to Australia appearing in Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia MDCCCLXXXIX (1889)
Editor: E.E. Morris
Publisher: Child & Henry, in association with Fine Arts Press, 1980
ISBN: 0867770643
Source: Personal library.  Probably only available second-hand.

 


Responses

  1. Thanks for the mention.She sounds very lively, as you say it’s a shame there’s no bio. I guess the article dates from the 1860s. I can’t write and look stuff up at the same time on this primitive phone, but I think Alpha is near Banana, out from Rockhampton.

    • I’m not sure, she talks about the gold rush in Qld so I guess that might date it a bit. I’d be surprised if some scholar somewhere isn’t beavering away on this book, but I’m a bit defeated by not finding any trace of her online.

  2. I know of Mary Gaunt but don’t recollect hearing of Margaret Seymour. Thanks for sharing her. (She’s not in Debra Adelaide’s book either.)

    BTW Love the idea of finger limes in cocktails.

    • Yes, Margaret Seymour is a ‘find’!
      I’m just finishing off my thoughts about Gaunt, but dinner’s getting close so I may not finish tonight.
      (It won’t be a finger lime cocktail this evening, but we always have a cocktail to start off our Saturday night dinners, which are always something special, often a new recipe that The Spouse wants to try. The cucumbers in the garden are ripe, so maybe it will be a Bertie’s Garden!)

      • I remember you talking about your Saturday night dinners on Facebook, and have been wondering about whether they still happen.

        • Indeed they do. The culinary highlight of our week:)

  3. […] discovery of the 19th century writer Margaret Seymour in Australia’s First Century 1788-1888 which I’ve blogged for Bill’s ‘AWW Gen 1 week’ at The Australian Legend, (a week to focus on the […]

  4. […] housekeeper?) on Alpha Station out Barcaldine way in far outback Queensland in (maybe) the 1860s (here). And she has uncovered Mary Gaunt’s journalism, of which I was previously unaware […]

  5. […] Margaret Seymour in Australia’s First Century, ANZLitLovers […]


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