In 2005, the Toowoomba Literary Society asked me to give an address to their November meeting. Here it is. I called it “Giving Voice to the Darling Downs letters of Anna Kate Fowler Hume 1866-1871.”
Drayton, 18th February 1870
My dearest Alice,Very many thanks for your nice long letter of November 19, which I received January 29. I quite appreciate a good long gossip about little things, minor details, or everyday occurrences, which are sure to be overlooked in a more hurried letter, or when there are a crowd of “facs”, travels, etc. to narrate. I often think my letters must be very monotonous. The same writer and the same circumstances month after month and year after year, with no one to stir me up to make me more lively and entertaining. If it were not for Ethel, I often think I should be very dull at times—when I am alone—as I see so few people and in fact there are so few congenial people within reach.
I began this project some months ago. For many years I have been working on my family tree, and when I was approached to deliver today’s address, I knew I wanted to do something that related to family. At that time, I thought it might be possible to give voice to long-gone members of my own family, who on my mother’s side, settled on the Darling Downs in the middle of the 19th century.
Sadly though, the history of my family is known to us only in snatches. As far as I know, no one in the Gentle or McGoldrick families liked a good long gossip on paper the way my subject Katie Hume did. Perhaps it was because they had lost touch with family back home, or lived close enough to one another not to need letters. Perhaps they weren’t writers by choice. As a result, my giving voice today is not to be to my ancestors, but to a young woman who lived here at the same time; it is through the Darling Downs letters of Anna Kate “Katie” Hume, that I have been able to get some idea of what life must have been like for them. I do want however to share, if briefly, my family with you. Looking around here today reminds me that one of my maternal great-grandfathers John O’Driscoll drove coaches for Cobb and Co. As a young girl, my grandmother would ride with him.
One of my maternal great-great grandfathers was Peter Gentle, a mail carrier on the Downs in the earliest days of the settlement. Peter sounds a bit of a larrikin, and he was not averse apparently, to a bit of straight talking. In 1857 he was fined 5 pounds for calling someone a “pig-jobber.” He also, perhaps for a straight talker back then, ran unsuccessfully in 1860, in the first election of 9 aldermen for the township of Toowoomba. His grandson Peter was my mother’s father, and it was this Peter Gentle who married my mother’s mother, Mary O’Driscoll the country girl born just across the border in Tenterfield who rode the coaches with her Cobb and Co driver father.
These ancestors, who included my great-grandmother Catherine Elizabeth McGoldrick, after whom I am named, and her husband, my great-grandfather William Gentle and their only child, my grandfather Peter are only known to me through formally posed photographs which sat on my mother’s dressing table. As a child, I used to look at these photos scanning their faces for family likeness or for signs of myself. I never knew my grandfather Peter who died aged 36 in 1915. I know he loved amateur theatricals, and was apparently a good actor, appearing in lots of the amateur plays here in Toowoomba, so perhaps it was from him that my own passion for the theatre came. There are other tantalisingly brief snippets of the family in reports of subscriptions to a fund to build a Catholic church in Toowoomba, to a hospitality tent run by Catherine Elizabeth, a well-known hotelier at the 1891 New Year’s Day Celebrations. There are other references to William, who ran foul of the law by providing after-hours drinks to a couple of members of the police force in 1888. There’s clearly another story behind that one, and how I would have loved to tease it out. That’s the thing with these family tales … getting to the story behind the stories. Fleshing out the details, getting a sense of the world in which our ancestors lived. What did it look like, smell like, feel like? How did they feel, sound, act?
A family researcher is drawn by these snatches of stories heard in childhood, or favourites that, true or false, become part of family legend. In many ways, it’s about rebuilding a long lost world. Whilst researching and adding bits and pieces to my family tree, and looking for the hook for my own project, I began to find details of others in the settlement, people who maybe knew members of my family, even rubbed shoulders with them. The world my family inhabited was described then by others who saw the value of committing their thoughts, and the details of their daily lives to paper, and who had the great good fortune, at least as far as their descendents are concerned, to have their words preserved.
I had hoped that my family would provide me with stories told in their own words, but alas, no correspondence remains, only snatches of stories which are too fragmentary to provide more than a collage of half-lit scenes, and indistinctly heard voices, unsuitable for my purposes. Perhaps there are a couple of short stories in these bits and pieces; that’s for another day.
My research led me to Anna Kate Fowler, Katie as she preferred, born in London in 1838 into a well-to do middle class family, and who, aged 26, crossed the world to marry and live in colonial Queensland with her surveyor husband Walter Hume, an archetypical English adventurer and son of a poet. And she wrote – how she wrote! There were regular, detailed and delightful letters back home to her large family in England, and a diary in which she recorded the hours, the seasons and years of her life. Her family back home in turn kept these records of colonial life in Queensland. In reading the letters of Katie Hume, I discovered a long-lost world and a voice. I use Katie’s own words today to give voice to her once again, and my own to reflect upon what I hear. It is most definitely a work in progress, and I hope in time to develop Katie’s words into a program for a young actress where only Katie’s words are used.
Giving voice to the words of one who has long gone is to liberate those words from the page, and in doing so, to embody a character; it’s what actors do. Of course, many literary texts, even poems, are written in languages or speech registers which don’t need or, indeed accommodate the sound of the voice with all its complexity of tone, and nuance of expression. Reading aloud for an audience is a fine art which is sadly dying out. Of course, this hasn’t always been true, and many classical works cry out for a voice. I’m intrigued by reports of the full-blooded readings in the 19th century, for example, those given by the prolific Charles Dickens, who caused fainting fits in his audiences, and of literate workers on stations sharing the latest Bulletin magazine’s bush poetry and short stories round the camp fire. Those days when entertainment didn’t come pre-packaged or in electronic form are gone for good, and more’s the pity say I. We’ve lost something along the way.
Whilst novels, short stories, and yes, and even much poetry may not serve as ideal material for the voice, diaries and letters are different. If you discount business correspondence which has a voice all its own, letters by their very nature addressed as they are to an intimate acquaintance are direct, and the voice intensely personal. Feelings are close to the surface, and often, in reading a letter out loud, the voice trapped between the lines and in the words can be released.
And what kind of voice have I found in Katie? Enthusiasm and an adventurous spirit; intelligence and kindness. These come through loud and clearly in her many letters home. There is also resourcefulness, energy, and a delightful sense of humour, as well as a faith which is almost embarrassing in its naiveté—but that is of course from a more cynical 21st century point of view. Above all what comes through is her love for her family and her beloved husband Walter. Along the way there are the homely details of life and hints at the wider world outside to give us a snapshot of life in Toowoomba in the 1860s and 70s, and occasional hints at the doings of the often-predatory members of the wrangling Queensland colonial government. The hidden voice in much of her writing, is one that echoes loneliness, anxiety and yearning for home. It is this forlorn tone that I heard in the letter to Alice—the one about missing a good gossip. But Katie was not a complainer; even had she known the word “whinge” I can’t help feeling she would never have indulged in such a useless past-time. Before she left home, she had promised her husband in a letter to him that she would hush up her sorrows and “pour them only into your ear, for I shall always tell you everything” (BH 99).
Walter and Katie clearly adored and admired each other, and their marriage was a long and a happy one. She is his “angel” – he her darling Count Fosco, and they write to others quite openly of their affection.
As I read her letters I wonder what lies behind the by-turn prosaic and purple passages she uses; what followed on or preceded incidents she describes. She had written to Walter in 1866 from England that she was “a bad hand at expressing my feelings, nevertheless they lie deep and are not so easily brought to the surface as some peoples! They call me ‘the reserved Ka’.” (BH 99) What had her day been like when she mentions the spring rains and the garden in November. She is sometimes tired and needs to rest “undressed on the sofa and reading “Vanity Fair” in the afternoons. She describes the fogs on the range, the black mud of Drayton that sucked down her buggy wheels, the noise of the frogs, the heat of December which made gardening difficult, and January, difficult January when most of the garden has failed because of the drought. There are the ever-present flies and the troublesome mosquitoes. She suppresses what must have been screams of frustration at trying to tune her beloved piano, which in the summer heat, refused to stay in tune. As one would expect of a well-bred English woman, the weather features much in her correspondence. She dreaded the thought of having to relocate to what she calls the foul climate below the range at Ipswich—an enervating and energy-sapping climate that bothered her because she believed it to be unhealthy.
Walter, was a busy government surveyor and away for weeks at a time during the breaking up of the large holdings on the downs. Despite visits to friends and live-in help, her loneliness too is apparent between the lines. More often than not, it is subsumed in the everyday business which attended building a home. But all the time she wrote … . As I read her letters, which minutely detailed the daily lives of fairly privileged settlers on the Downs, I think I began to find her voice.
The tone always echoes a zest for life and a great sense of humour. There is playfulness in the use of nicknames, pet family words, and their mispronunciations of favourite sayings: permiscuous, metrolopus, p’ecious, Toomba (Katie loves emphasising her toddler Ethel’s pronunciation of a difficult place name with underlining, and the frequently used exclamation mark underscores the surprise, irony, and frustration in her words.
In his book, “A Victorian Engagement” Bertram Hume gives us a glimpse into the home life of middle class life in England in the second quarter of the 19th century. Bertram chronicles the diaries of his grandfather Walter who had visited the Fowlers at their country home called Totteridge House near High Wycombe in 1860. It is here that we first learn of the 5—Katie and her four sisters, as well as of her very well to do middle class parents—her father was an architect. Walter too had an eye for detail, and it’s hardly surprising that he took up photography later in life; his details of the rooms at Totteridge down to the subject matter of paintings on the walls, colours, shapes and the placement of furniture and articles is as good as you will get. Prosaic perhaps, but it’s delightful detail.
Hints at the colonial chronicler, the lady “explorer” and the excellent writer appear from 1866 in regular and comprehensive letters back home during the 90 day, non-stop voyage to Australia. Katie was bethrothed long-distance through a letter sent by Walter to her parents. Walter had last seen her four years previously and, being the prudent man that he reveals in his own diary entries, took care to set himself up before asking for Miss Hume’s hand in marriage. Katie’s delight at the engagement is fully expressed in early letters. She not only respected Walter, but genuinely liked him. The prospect of a blessed marriage thrilled her. Leaving her family was a wrench, but very quickly the thrill of the colonial adventure takes over, and Katie the Victorian lady explorer comes to the fore in the detail-crammed letters written on board the Alfred Hawley as she sails for a new life in the colonies.
Fortunately, Katie had good sea legs, unlike her cabin-mate Miss Crawshaw, who later married Archdeacon Glennie on a return trip to Queensland. The tempest-tossed (June-September 1866) voyage was via the south Atlantic, round the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean, then through Bass Strait and up the east coast to Brisbane. Her writing is so good that you can almost smell the ocean in some of her descriptions.
Katie was clearly fascinated, as were many during the high Victorian age with collecting things, and with the exotic world of nature. On the voyage, she describes this 19th century passion for investigating scientific specimens. As she writes of the felling of gulls and molly-hooks, sharks and dolphins and the stalking of the albatross, I did wonder whether any of the crew and passengers were familiar with the dreadful consequences of Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner.’ The culling and cutting up is as much out of curiosity and souvenirs as for food, and is rather too gruesome and callous for a contemporary sensibility. Odd really, when we think of the Victorians as having an altogether far more genteel sensibility than our own.
Katie was thrilled by what she calls the magnificence of the sea, despite the storms and the very real discomfort she describes in her letters home. It all sounds quite horrible, but it’s clear she’s an adventurer with a sense of humour, and no faint-hearted Victorian lady despite the niceties of some of her prose:
“July 21st 1866
Saturday morning, off the coast of S America,
When I came out of my cabin this morning, the Capt bid me welcome into the Southern Ocean. About an hour previously we had crossed “The Great Line” which divides South from North (to quote the words of the poet) and I am now in the same hemisphere as Walter. We have a glorious breeze, are going 8 or 9 knots. The pitching is tremendous and makes Miss C’s head very bad, but I glory in it. It is beautiful to see the ship bounding over the waves and sometimes dashing them over her bows. I often think of “Merrily, goes the bark etc.” The worst of it is that as she lays over to the starboard side it is not safe for us to have our windows open and our tiny dens get very stuffy. Miss C. opened hers this morning and got what the steward calls a “touch” of water in her berth so we must do without fresh air as we cannot get one element without the other. The sun sets at 6 now, we have tea by lamplight, which seems funny for summer. The evenings are long but we spend them on deck. It is then we take a little walk which always results in much laughter. Nothing is more disturbing to one’s gravity (specific and otherwise) than this pitch and toss motion. You sometimes feel so light, as if you were rising in the air and then for a few steps your feet seem like lead and glued to the deck. You think you are walking beautifully straight when a sudden lurch sends you off at a tangent with a crab-like motion.
“It is astonishing how I sleep through noise … Last night there was a sudden squall at 4am. Miss C says the noise was tremendous, two sails were split, the Capt. Went on deck and there was great confusion and shouting. I heard nothing of it but had a most comfortable night.( July 23rd off St Roque)
“When fine I always stay on deck till 10 or 11pm where I, of course, consider it my duty to draw out the officer of the watch. <BH 127-128>
After a particularly nasty squall in which they had attempted making Welsh rarebits in the cabin:
“I laughed till my sides aches to see the other two rolling about the floor, for there was a tremendous sea running. … It was a most insane idea of the Captain’s to attempt such a thing on such a night, but I must say we enjoyed it immensely.” (BH 149)
Finally at anchor off Moreton Is:
“I wish I could give you an idea of the beauty of the scene. We sat on deck in the light of the glorious full moon which, however, did not eclipse the soft light of Venus in the West or Jupiter in the Zenith just over the main mast. It made the sails look like sheets of silver. It was so pleasant and novel to hear the waves beating against the shore which seemed to us so close at hand. … The intense calm and beauty of the evening seemed to harmonise with our feelings of thankfulness at being brought so happily and peaceably to the haven where we would be after the storms and tossings of three oceans.” (BH 165)
On her arrival in Brisbane, she was met by Walter and taken to stay with his mother Mrs Stewart at Kangaroo Point. There they married. The early colonial letters are full of descriptive passages: people, places, trees and flowers, food and above all, description of how different things are. This is where Katie’s writing becomes most fascinating. She had a fine eye for details of personality and behaviour and set these down with a clear-eyed, intelligent and often brutal honesty. What emerges between the lines is the migrant’s aching nostalgia for home.
Katie had begun during the long voyage, to describe her fellow passengers, and continued to do so in Queensland. Here she presents her friends, acquaintances and family members with foibles and frailties intact. Katie was never backward with her opinions, especially of those who behaved badly or who did not have the right stuff. She was kind and generous to her friends and acquaintances who had it, but acerbic to the rest. She had a particular set against useless young men sent out by the families to make good. One of these was the hapless 19 year-old Arthur Buttemer.
Arthur had been sent to the colony to work under Walter’s supervision, and hopefully, to learn a trade. Sadly, Arthur never made the grade and was packed off back to England after two years, a colonial misfit and failure. She notes, he had “No aptitude for work, but with an aptitude for getting into low company” (NB175Arthur was accident prone, had an eye for the ladies, and Katie dismisses him with, “I do not think his mental faculties are enormous, and he is wanting in application—his traits—are characteristic of nine tenths of the young men who come out here (NB 105). “A regular ‘I am’ and a continuing disappointment at his lack of manliness.”
In short, Arthur was beaten before he had begun; he could not stand comparison with Walter, and was the very antithesis of Katie’s darling, a man’s man and clever at anything he turned his hand to.
“If Walter is at home, he is sure to be hard at work all day. One day he put up a bell—a most unheard of luxury in this country. They always use hand bells. Another day he made a sofa, fixed, in the Verandah. It is so pleasant to sit out there! What next his busy hands will find to do I cannot tell. He always leaves the house the better for his visit in more ways than one. In the evening the “British Workman” is transformed into “Count Fosco” and we spend an hour or two at the piano.” (NB 36)
A year into her colonial sojourn, she further notes that nice young men are not plentiful. Indeed, a good deal of “refuse” is sent out, and “the place is overburdened with young men who can do nothing in particular” (NB 165She noted Walter’s brother Washington as being a thorough gentleman, and one or two other young men are approved of, but by and large she thinks very little of many of those with whom she comes in contact.
Colonial ladies and women—and it is important to note the difference—all flit through the pages of her letters and are often dismissed with a curt “not pretty.” She writes wonderfully about her first introduction to a colonial crowd at the Boxing Day races in Toowoomba in 1867. Here Katie notes the difference between “women” –not real “ladies” –the ones who are seated on horses, but who dashed around recklessly between races. In fact, spectators were on horseback or in buggies, as there was no grandstand. She wonders why more people aren’t hurt or killed as “everybody is constantly riding, and all sorts of horses too.”
She noted that the Taylors are simply “quite vulgar people.” He is called the “King of Toowoomba” although Walter calls him “Pumpkin Taylor.” I get the distinct impression from reading his diaries and letters that Walter was a shocking snob. Katie goes on to observe that Mrs Taylor “murders the Queen’s English in an alarming manner,” but she does note both are “kind-hearted and have many good qualities.” Another couple, the Mowbrays are “nice primitive people,” kindhearted, though Scotch …. We can only guess at what she hints at here. (NB 145) She certainly had an ear for the speech of fellow colonials. Mrs Wildashe, was a wealthy squatter’s wife at Canning Downs station outside Warwick. She would later become a close acquaintance amongst the Hume “set.” Katie notes however, that whilst Mrs W. lacked for no luxury, she was no lady if her speech were to be taken as a criterion for finesse. Taste, niceness and good manners were always important to Katie.
It is clear that she felt most at home with the squatting “class” who had taken up runs at various stations on the Downs: as a frequent guest of the Wildashe family, whose homestead was a most pleasant house to visit, and at Eton Vale owned by the Ramsays, where “people dress almost more than we do at home for dinner.” In October of 1867 she writes nostalgically to her sister Alice from Canning Downs:
“The house is furnished with great taste and has every comfort. The large garden is like an old fashioned English one with broad gravel walks, winding between hedges of roses and honeysuckle, in full bloom, or bordered by masses of pink and shaded by tall laurels, hawthorn, and other English shrubs, which are much prized in this country. There are no grand beds of flowers but all is kept in exquisite order. The vegetables and fruit trees grow in great profusion. This garden has the advantage of age over most other Stations, it was probably laid out nearly 20 years ago, for it must have been one of the first Stations taken up on the Downs.
“The front verandah, where we sit in the evening, is shaded by honeysuckle, and the yellow passion with its showers of golden blossoms, and the back verandahs are curtained with the lovely light green of the Wistaria.” (NB 84-85)
The shade from the heat, the softness of the light and the presence of a transplanted English landscape clearly soothed her soul.
In her first year on the Downs, Katie got out and about as much as she could. Horse-riding, bush picnics with Walter, walks in the moonlight and the big adventure of camping out are all chronicled with the detail of a photographer and the touch of a poet. In the winter of 1867 she accompanied Walter and his team of surveyors on a camping trip to Oakey Creek. She clearly revels in the adventure of camping out. No fainting violet here:
My dear sisters five,
I am trying camping out for a few days by way of a change and can assure you I find it very agreeable. I am at the present moment in charge of the camp (11am). … I am in the howling wilderness all by myself, with the exception of the puppy “Fosco.” …
“I had the luxury of a fire to dress by this morning for it was quite cold at 6.30 and such a dense mist. It seemed so strange to wake up in the night as I did several times and to see the bright moonlight shining through and to feel only the canvass between you and the outer air. The Curlews kept repeating their pretty but mournful cry, which was pleasantly relieved by the tinkling of more or less distant horse-bells.
“In the morning I was awoke by the loud but melodious warble of the magpies, and the sharp, clear note of the Bell-bird which repeats the same note three or four times and then drops a fifth. This is poetically speaking. …
“We rode out from Drayton yesterday about 17 miles. It is a pretty ride, first along the spring creek valley and then across Gowrie passing near the head station which I had not seen before. … We reached the camp about 2 o’clock. I was rather tired and stiff with my long ride and have not quite recovered yet. We did ample justice to the meal which was soon prepared for us. I say meal for it had no distinctive character. I find none of the Bush meals have. They might all be called “Dinner” or “Tea”; at each, one has hot or cold beef, or steak, tea (without milk), damper (like rather close bread), butter, jam, pickles etc. Of course only one plate each; tea made in a “billy” … .
Yesterday afternoon I went out surveying with the party as I found out they were not going more than a mile and a half. … I amused myself with plaiting grasses and rushes, gathered by the creek, and making a wreath of wattle blossoms for my hat. This is so pretty. The leaf is like very fine mimosa and the flower like tiny yellow tufts. It is too early yet for what few wildflowers grow here. I could only find the little lilac daisy, which is just like your Michelmas daisy …
“10.30 am August 16th. I have just come in from a little walk down the Creek. It is already getting hot. I gathered a little bush daisy to enclose, and a small yellow clover, something like wood-sorrel. The other bud is an everlasting. I will send some tiny flowers and ferns from time to time, so that you may make a Queensland mat or d’oyley. (NB 75)
“The church in Toowoomba is a wretched little building, small—old and of wood. It is not half filled. There is a harmonium played with most elegant shakes and turns, even in the chants by a German and the singing is led by a woman with a very shrill voice, who adores the old psalm tunes … with wonderful trills and runs. The prayer book Psalms are those patronised here—it is only in Brisbane they have arrived at “Ancient and Modern.” I have not yet been to Drayton Church—it is still smaller I believe and more barn-like. We intend going over to Drayton tomorrow and staying till Monday, as there will be Holy Communion there. The Desk, which also serves as Pulpit, is generally a small erection covered with cloth within the rails. They preach in the surplice, as there is always an offertory and they conclude with the Prayer for Ch Militant.”
The social and spiritual centre for so many of the early settlers and certainly for the Humes, was the Church, and more often than not it disappointed. She notes an “absence of religion” where people are “utterly worldly” and where a “sordid, money-getting spirit dominates” life. The fledgling Anglican church on the Downs is chronicled in some detail by Katie, and its services and the character of its pastors came in for much criticism (NB 23)
Katie and her family were music lovers; she was a competent pianist and accompanist at the Drayton church. References to music and the lack of apparent care for classical music in this “benighted country” appear frequently.
“Feb 14 1867
Last night Walter, Jenny and I drank tea at the Armstrong’s. Mr Clayton, our Parson was there. … The Armstrong’s have just got a new piano … Jenny played and we sang some trios. … Miss Stacey plays with a good deal of execution bit they are none of them really musical. They were pleased with our singing as it is rather a novelty. Our long-legged pastor does not know one note from another. Walter confessed, on our return home, that he had derived great satisfaction all the evening from comparing his Wife with the colonial ladies and congratulating himself upon her immeasurable superiority. I cannot say I was favourably impressed with the specimens I was introduced to. They seemed so flighty and superficial. There are very few people here I can care about.
Having no buggy in the early days precluded evening social visits for the Humes: Iam not at all sorry. It saves both trouble and expense.”
The swipe at the tone-deaf, long-legged pastor is typical of Katie’s opinion of the colonial church. She was in many ways, a dreadful snob, but not as overt about it as is Walter. Fresh off the boat from home, she is like so many migrants who would follow As far as the colonial church was concerned, it simply did not stack up with “home”; its poor sermons, dreadful choice of music and the lack of a good instrument to lead the congregation are made clear. On the new pastor who arrives to take over the Drayton Parish, Katie is clearly dismissive. Mr Neville is active and earnest but rather “low church. He is tolerated in the colony and all must make the best of him. However it is her description of Mrs Neville which is deadly:
“I must describe to you” (she writes in January 1868 to her sister Sophie) “Mrs Neville’s toilette … a light silk faded-looking skirt, with low-black, velvet body and dirty tucker, bare neck and arms (covered with mosquito bites) blue and silver ribbon tied round a head of short rough hair! Anything more organ-girlish you can hardly imagine.” (NB 98)
Katie was capable of dipping her pen in acid with the best of them. She closes the letter as “your isolated sister.” She was clearly feeling the distance from home.
Unlike most colonial settlers, Walter Hume was fortunate in having his mother living in Brisbane, as well as his brother Washington, and sisters Jenny, Elizabeth and Marion who were also in the colony. Katie however, apart from a brief and sad visit to Sydney in 1867 by her sister Elsie was dependent upon the Hume family for the kind of familial support she was so used to—to the Humes and to other young settlers who would become life-long friends. Whilst Walter’s younger sisters Jenny and Elizabeth (Dubs) and his brother Washington were close to Katie, it was his eldest sister Marion who was, according to Walter, the only bar to their happiness.
Marion Gregory is one of those characters who is so interesting by virtue of the many oblique references made to her. She gets very frequent mentions in Katie’s letters. Marion was apparently universally disliked in the colony, with airs and graces beyond her station—at least according to Katie. Marion had married Frank Gregory who was 20 years her senior, and bore him six children, two of whom reached maturity. Marion’s frequent pregnancies and difficulties with raising them are noted by Katie, who was not enthusiastic about having to visit her sister in law at their home Clifford House, which she nicknames “the Club.” “Her society never gives me any pleasure” (NB 174What is clear between the lines is that Marion was unhappy in her marriage, and perhaps her natural disposition was not assisted by a difficult union. Katie notes her as “cross,” and notes that perhaps the most charitable supposition is to consider Marion “mad” on certain points, noting that a doctor had advised Marion’s mother to have her confined to an asylum at one time. “No one in their senses could be so utterly devoid of natural affection and as she shows herself to be.” (87)
In a letter from September 1869, Katie writes home describing a grand picnic given at the Toowoomba Racecourse given by Mrs Taylor, wife to the Minister for Lands (“Pumpkin Taylor”–Walter’s boss and nemesis. All T’ba society was there, and Marion gets a mention, but as she looked “excessively cross, I did not talk to her much” (158). Walter however, in a later letter to Katie’s sisters tells with undisguised glee of Marion’s being pelted with sweets and bread rolls at the grand picnic which he notes was attended by the “common not to say vulgar people of Toowoomba” (NB 16) Don’t you wish you could have seen this? Katie this time had been discreetly silent on the matter. Perhaps in the interests of fairness, Marion Gregory should also be given voice.
Katie the Mother
When it comes to Katie the young mother, I find a voice I can most easily understand and share. Katie’s descriptions of her children and especially of her first-born Ethel are simple, direct and filled with the delight, anxiety and detail that all young mothers can relate to. She transcribes the baby talk of the toddler for her family back home, filling in the details of her baby’s world, her clothing, games and funny ways. In these passages she becomes as close as any of the young mothers you hear sharing the same anecdotes in the supermarket line today. It is this immediacy, that makes the 140 something years between us disappear.
“Oct 2 1868
My little pet is just six months old. She is tall for her age, tho’ not fat, but her face is round with such pink cheeks. She is excessively good-tempered. She goes into fits of laughter on the slightest provocation. She will lie in her cot and shriek with delight if she can only get hold of her toes.”
and a year or so later,
“Ethel is never tired of playing with her brick letters. She knows most of them. Her favourite game is making a long “puff-puff” to go to “gowlie” in and see Emmy King.”
Other letters home talk of playtime with Ethel, the clothes she makes for her, her childhood illnesses the “sandy blight” so common to most children here, and all the delights in taming a colonial toddler. She has photographs taken to send home and makes sure Ethel is dressed in a short-coat, so the family can see how she is thriving. Katie is clearly blissfully happy with her little girl, and despite a Victorian modesty of expression, compares her little one most favourably with her playmates. In January 1870 she writes home fondly that Ethel is never tired of looking at books, knows all the pictures and has picked up lots of letters “tho’ I did not teach her them.” Ethel along with Walter is the love of her life.
When I’ve spoken to people who are familiar with Katie and her letters, it is her stoicism that they remember most. In her twelve child-bearing years, Katie had 5 reported pregnancies, with three only surviving to maturity. When Ethel was a year old, Katie and Walter’s next born, a boy—Walter Logan—died quickly when only two weeks old. To us, the kind of infant mortality that was the norm in the middle of the 19th century is shocking and tragic.
Her letters express anguish at the loss of babies, especially those who appeared to thrive, but then died quickly despite all medical attention—itself totally inadequate and frightening in its invasiveness.
“Drayton, April 16 1869
My own dearest Mother
It is with a heavy heart I take up my pen today for I have sad news to write, instead of the joyful tidings with which I filled a sheet 2 days ago. It has pleased God to take my sweet little Baby boy to himself after lending him to me for the short space of eighteen days! He was born at 10 pm March 27 (Easter Eve) and died about 10pm April 14th, two days ago. The blow fell on me so suddenly, as I did not feel seriously uneasy about the darling until a few hours before he died. It seems as if he had been snatched out of my arms! Oh it is such a sad disappointment for he was such a fine little fellow, so much fatter and stronger looking than Ethel was until he got the Thrush at 10 days old, but I try to bear my trial with patience, knowing it is my Heavenly Father’s will, and he knows what is best for us all. I have indeed very much to be thankful for. … Walter had gone to Camp the day before but I sent for him and by riding day and night they took him the news at daybreak when he started home at once, and got here before 11am. It was a great shock to him to find his little one gone for I was not alarmed about him when he left the day before. We went together to look at all that was left of our darling when laid out in his cradle and strewn with flowers! He looked like a little angel, such a peaceful expression, so different to when I last saw him in pain! He was buried this morning at 11 o’clock at the cemetery between Drayton and Toowoomba. Frank and Marion attended with Walter, and the grave is close to that of their 2 babies. Of course my little treasure cannot be missed by others as he is by his Mother. To me there is a dreadful blank. That little, unconscious babe was the centre round which everything seemed to revolve.
… your loving sorrowing child Anna Kate Hume”
With no mother beside her, I can’t help but feel the act of pouring out her feelings in this long letter may have gone some way to giving some relief to Katie. The young mother had once hoped in an early letter for a quiverful of children and 17 little mouths to feed.
Little Ethel continued to thrive, and at Easter in 1870, to their great happiness, another daughter, baby Katie arrived:
“My new little treasure is considered to favour its Pa and may, in the future, carry off the palm for good looks, but this is anticipating.” …
Her anxiety is palpable …
“I have had a great trial to go through with this little darling! When 10 days old, she had an attack of congestion of the brain, brought on by slight jaundice and her life was in danger for a day or two, for at that tender age, the vital spark is so easily quenched. I was dreadfully anxious, but it pleased god to spare her to me and now she seems quite strong and healthy, and is gaining flesh every day. (184-85)
“Ethel is excessively fond of “little shister Katie” and takes great interest in all her proceedings. When she cries, she asks what does little shister say? And when I walk up and down with baby in my arms, she does the same with her dolly or one improvised out of a towel for instance, and promises to give it “Bopperly” if it is “dood.” As a baby, she was smaller and thinner than little Katie, but she has lately developed into a big, fat bouncing girl, full of life and spirits. Even her mother does not call her pretty (she is too much like her maternal relative), but she has a thoro’ly healthy aspect and a sweet innocent (sometimes comical) expression, which is very engaging.
“Sept 25th 1870
My dearest Mother
I must again take up my pen with a heavy heart to tell you of our sad bereavement. It has pleased God to take to Himself this darling Baby also! Just as she seemed to be developing day by day, and apparently getting stronger and prettier and more engaging, she has been almost suddenly snatched away from us! The blow is still so recent, I can hardly yet realise the fact. I fell quite stunned with its suddenness.”
Despite the shock, the letter accepts the burden as God’s will, but the heartbreak is palpable. Time after time, and beginning with the loss of her papa, Katie’s words home express the stoic orthodoxy of the true believer, a faith that suffering in this vale of tears will be forgotten in the next life, when there will be eternal happiness in the reunion with loved ones. She notes that it is her duty to bear these crosses; as a privileged member of the prosperous class, she must accept the trials when they come.
Whilst two more children: Bertram and Albert were born to Katie and Walter, and both survived into adulthood, there is, despite the reserved tone and understatement, a profound sadness in a letter to her mother:
We have had a nice railing with little gate put round the graves of our little darlings in the Cemetery, and have just planted some verbenas and the little white lily called “Star of Bethlehem.” I still miss my sweet little Katie dreadfully.” (NB 203)
The little graves are still there today at Drayton.
Katie’s letters end abruptly in 1871, but as Nancy Bonnin, Katie’s editor notes, the writing kept on. She attended to her diary entries for the rest of the 1870s and 1880s, entering the details of family comings and goings with the same forensic eye and sense of humour as is found in the letters. After a longed-for visit back home, the family moved to Brisbane in 1885 with Walter’s promotion to Under Secretary for Lands, but on his retirement in 1901, they returned to England to live. Katie died in 1909 aged 71 on board a ship at sea, something she always found magnificent.
Before she left Toowoomba, she wrote a farewell poem for the Darling Downs Pen and Pencil Club which she had helped to found. It’s fitting to end with Katie’s own words where, despite its lack of literary merit, the humour shines through the lines:
Toowoomba August 24th 1885 “Farewell”
Farewell Toowoomba! fair town of the swamp,
Tho’ Fate calls me hence from thy dusty highways,
When, elsewhere, surrounded with pageant and pomp
I’ll remember thee kindly, with past happy days.
Whether buried in mud, in exceptional years
When a season of moisture rejoices the Downs,
Or smothered in dust, as more often appears—
Thou bearest the palm over all other Towns!
I will bear thee no grudge for the soil to my clothes,
Nor with bitterness ‘shake off thy dust from my feet’,
For many who leave thee, as everyone knows,
Return with delight to thy friendly retreat.
I’ll remember thy Tennis lawns, crowded and gay,
Those information ‘reunions’ so pleasant and free,
Where many a match has been made, I daresay,
And flirtations indulged in—between you and me!
Thy Archery parties, tho’ things of the past
Were select and amusing—and some happy dames
So skilfully handled the bow and the dart
That it led, in the sequel, to changing of names.
But tho’ Tennis may languish and archery fail,
And Music’s attractions seem set on one side,
Yet thy pleasures of intellect still should prevail
And thy Club so artistic should long be thy pride.