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through the Interior of Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

From the Journals and Letters of William John Wills, edited by his father, William Wills.
London: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street.
(Ferguson 18622)

Chapter 2

  • My two sons leave England for Australia
  • Incidents of the Voyage
  • Extracts from Journal
  • Arrival at Port Phillip
  • Melbourne
  • Employed as Shepherds in the Interior
  • Mode of Life
  • Melbourne in 1853
  • Advice to Immigrants
  • Descriptive Letters from the Bush

During the summer of 1852, I formed the intention of joining the exodus, then pouring out from England to Australia. I had been in treaty with the 'Melbourne Gold Mining Company,' recently started, in which promising speculation, on paper, I held some shares. The late Earl of Devon was chairman. I was to go in the Sarah Sands, in my professional capacity. My two sons, William John, and his younger brother, were to accompany me; but on further investigation of the modus operandi, I gave up all idea of attaching myself to the scheme, sold my shares at a slight discount, and engaged as medical attendant on the passengers, taking my two sons with me, in a fine new ship, the Ballaarat, on her first voyage. This arrangement I considered final. But a few days after William returned home, he came to me when I was sitting alone, engaged in writing, and with that expression in his countenance so peculiarly his own, said; 'My dear father, I have a favour to ask of you.' 'My dear boy,' I replied, 'there is nothing you would venture to ask that I could possibly refuse.' 'Then,' continued he, 'it is this. I see my mother is grieving, although she says nothing, at our all leaving her together. Let Tom and I go alone: I will pledge myself to take care of him.' After a consultation with my wife this new plan was agreed upon. I released myself from my engagement with Messrs. Simpkin and Marshall for the Ballaarat, and secured two berths for the boys in one of Mr W S Lindsay's ships, which at that time were conveying living freights to Melbourne, their Channel port of departure being Dartmouth.

By the advice of Mr Lindsay himself I took steerage passages for them. He shrewdly remarked, 'They will be there as soon and as safely as the cabin-passengers, and their money will be saved.' This sounded so like an axiom in practical economy that my dear boy never attempted to argue the question. Having obtained permission to knock two cabins into one, my sons considerably diminished their expenses, and had quite as agreeable a voyage as if they had paid sixty guineas each; for I have lately learned by experience, in a homeward passage, that you have to put up with companions in the cabin, as objectionable as can be imagined in almost any situation of life.

At Dartmouth, a day or two before the ship started, I found that William had expended some money on a quantity of stuff rolled up like balls of black rope yarn. I exclaimed with astonishment, 'In the name of goodness, are you going to chew or smoke all the way to Australia?' for the commodity was the good old pig-tail tobacco. He said, smiling, 'This is to make friends with the sailors: I intend to learn something about a ship by the time we reach our destination.' I dare say the worthy skipper of the good ship Janet Mitchell, should he be still alive, has some recollection of him. His mode of proceeding, as he told me, was first to secure the good graces of the crew through the persuasive medium of the pig-tail; then, to learn the name and use of every rope, and of every part of the ship's tackle from stem to stern. He soon acquired the art of plicing and reefing, and was amongst the first to go aloft in a storm, and to lend a hand in taking in topsails. When I arrived in Melbourne at a later period, several of his fellow-passengers spoke to me with praise and wonder, referring to his activity, and readiness to leave an unfinished meal, on the slightest indication of danger or difficulty. His journal of this voyage, is now before me, from which I extract a few remarks:

1852. October 1st.--Left Dartmouth--Slightly sick for the first few days--My brother much more so, but got right again--Foretopmast carried away by a squall, just at the crosstrees, bringing down with it the main top-gallant mast - 'We look a precious wreck! ' - Remember the Honourable Michael de Courcy, brother of Lord Kingsale, saying to me on the quay at Dartmouth, the day before we sailed, that the first gale would carry away the fore-top-gallant mast--I believe the Janet Mitchell is quite a new ship, on her first voyage--The remark speaks well for the judgment of a young officer.

19th.--Sailors prigged some spirits in the hold and got very drunk--A passenger so drunk that he became mad, and was put in irons.

20th.--Sailors not yet recovered from their drunkenness--A naval captain, passenger on board, insulted by one of them; struck him with his fist and cut his face open.

22nd.--Fine weather--Getting hot--Latitude north 21, longitude west 36--The Great Bear getting low--Sunsets and risings very fine, particularly the former.

November 1st.--Shark taken, of which I had a large share and rather enjoyed the novelty of the feed.

5th.--Crossed the Line--Sailors shaved and ducked a good many--Tom and I got off very well. (Query--effects of the pig-tail?)

16th.--Stormy weather--Obtained some books on navigation and studied trigonometry.

20th and 21st.--Passed Tristan da Cunha, Inaccessible and Nightingale Islands, about 37 south latitude, 12 longitude west. --Saw a great many whales, mostly sperm, thousands of birds, albatross, Cape pigeon, and many others, the names of which I am ignorant of.

23rd.--A shoal of porpoises passed us. A sailor struck one with a harpoon, but it got off again. They are of a salmon colour, no more like pigs than horses, just the shape of salmon, only much larger. In swimming they turn on their sides.

December 1st.--Smart breeze this morning which soon increased to a gale--Assisted in furling top-gallant sail--sailors only half dressed--After breakfast, had to double reef top-sails and main-sail. I like reefing very much.

2nd.--Waves not so high as I expected. It is amusing to see how the birds ride them.

27th.--Saw an eclipse of the moon last night, which lasted three hours; little more than three quarters were eclipsed--Some of the passengers discontented with the provisions--wonder that some of them ever thought of leaving home.

1853. January 1st.--Saw land this morning--Reached Cape Otway in the afternoon; much the appearance of Berry Head, with a slight haze on it--Coast to the west very like that about Dartmouth--Cliffs, high; could fancy I saw Rock Vale. [Footnote: The residence of a gentleman, near Dartmouth, with whom he had been on a visit a short time before his departure.]

3rd.--Dropped anchor--Captain and Doctor going ashore will post my journal and our letters.

His own was short:

Port Phillip, January 3rd, 1853.
My dear Father,

We have this morning dropped anchor, just off Williamstown. There are a fine set of ships here: amongst them are the Great Britain, Cleopatra, Ballaarat, Aberfoil, and an immense number of others, great and small. The Great Britain leaves early to-morrow, so I cannot finish my letter. We have been ninety-five days on our passage. The Cleopatra has only arrived two days. There are a great many vessels coming in. The day before yesterday we overtook and passed the Jane, and Truth, of London, which left Plymouth a fortnight before we sailed from Dartmouth. I hear already that things are very dear in Melbourne. Our pilot says he gives 200 pounds a year for a small four-roomed cottage, two miles from the town.

To show how well prepared the young adventurer was for life in Australia,--notwithstanding letters of introduction and means of obtaining money if required--after remaining only a few days in Melbourne, and disbursing but a small modicum of the limited supply of cash he had taken with him, anxious to see the interior of the Island Continent, he obtained employment for himself and brother, a lad only fifteen years of age, at a large sheep station two hundred miles up the country. The following letter, dated February 12th, 1853, describes their proceedings to that date:

My dear Father,

We are at Deniliquin. And where in the world is that? you will say. Well; it is about two hundred miles north from Melbourne, on the Edward River, in the New South Wales district, and nearly five hundred miles from Sydney. The station belongs to the Royal Bank Company. We have engaged as shepherds at 30 pounds per annum each, and rations. We are very comfortable, in a hut by ourselves, about four miles from the station. We have between thirteen and fourteen hundred rams, by far the smallest and easiest flock, under our charge. We take the hut-keeping and shepherding in turns. The hut is a very nice one, built of split wood, and roofed with bark. It is close beside a pleasant creek or river, where there are plenty of fish and ducks. I assure you we make ourselves quite snug here. One of us rises almost as soon as it is light, gets some breakfast, and starts off with the sheep; lets them feed about until ten o'clock, then brings them slowly home, where they lie down until four; after that, they go out again until sunset. The other stays within to clean up the hut and prepare the meals. We can kill a sheep when we like. [Footnote: Not the rams. There were a few others kept for the purpose. I stayed a few days with them, when I went out myself, at the end of the year.] The worst part serves for the dogs, of which we have three--a sheep dog, and two kangaroo dogs. [Footnote: They had a horse when I visited them, but not, I conclude, at the time when this letter was written.] The latter are good, and keep off the native curs at night. The sheep dog was the only one the former owner had last year, to watch a flock of five thousand sheep.

But you will want to hear something of Melbourne and how we came here. The first discovery we made after we got into port was, that we had to take ourselves and things ashore at our own expense. There was a good deal of fuss made about it to no purpose. It was four shillings each by steamer to Melbourne, and thirty shillings per ton for goods. It cost us about 2 pounds altogether. At Melbourne we found everything very dear; no lodgings to be had, every place full. At length we were offered lodgings at sixty shillings a week, to be paid in advance, and twenty-five persons sleeping in the same room; but we preferred the Immigrant's Home, a government affair, just fitted up for the accommodation of new-comers, where you pay one shilling a night, and find yourself. You must not stay more than ten days. We got there on Friday and remained until the Saturday week following. We then obtained this situation, and started on the same afternoon. Twenty-three of us came up together. Drays were provided to carry our luggage, but we ourselves had to walk. We were three weeks on the journey, through the bush, sleeping, of course, in the open air.

He then proceeds to describe Melbourne, as it then was:

Melbourne is situated, as you know, on the Yarra Yarra, [Footnote: A native term, which means "always running."], which has not nearly so large a bed as the Dart, although more navigable. It is narrow but very deep, and so far resembles a canal rather than a river. The town, or city, as they call it, is situated low, but laid out on a good scale. The streets are very wide, and I think when filled with houses it will be a fine place; but what spoils the appearance now is, the number of wooden buildings they are throwing up, as they cannot get workmen for others. When we were there, butter was from two shillings and fourpence to three shillings per poun, bread fourpence, milk eightpence per pint, vegetables enormous, butcher's meat and sugar, as at home. Fruit very dear; a shilling would not purchase as much as a penny in England. Beer and porter, one shilling per pint in Melbourne, but from two shillings to two and sixpence here. The town of Melbourne is all on one side of the river, but on the opposite bank is Canvas Town, connected with Melbourne by a good bridge of one arch. Canvas Town takes its name from being entirely composed of tents, except a few wooden erections, such as a public-house, and the Immigrant's Home, where we had lodged. I do not like Melbourne in its present state. You are not safe out after sundown, and in a short time you will not be safe during the day. There were some men taken out of the river drowned, suspected to have been murdered, and several attempts at robbery, while we were there. I sold my box of chemicals, after taking out what I wanted, for 4 pounds, and the soda-water apparatus for 2 pounds 5 shillings. I also sold some books that we could not carry, but got nothing for them. Scientific works do not take. The people who buy everything here are the gold-diggers, and they want story books. A person I know brought out 100 pounds worth of more serious reading, and sold the lot for 16 pounds.

We started from Melbourne on a Saturday, with the drays, eight bullocks to each, laden entirely with the luggage of the party, twenty-three in number. We made only five or six miles that afternoon, and slept under some gum trees. Our clothes were nearly saturated with dew; but as we advanced farther inland, the dews decreased, and in a night or two there was no sign of them. The land for a few miles is dry and sandy, but improves as you proceed. The woods extensive, sometimes without interval for two or three days' march. There was no scarcity of water, except for the first fifteen miles, after leaving Melbourne. We enjoyed the journey much, and shot many birds, which constituted our principal food. Ducks abound in the creeks, [Footnote: Watercourses, running in flood time, but partially dry in dry seasons.] and up this way there are fine white cockatoos, which are good eating, and about the size of a small fowl. There is also a bird very plentiful here which they call a magpie. It is somewhat the colour of our magpie, but larger, and without the long tail; easily shot and eatable, and feeds, I believe, much like our wood-pigeons. [Footnote: It feeds more on insects.] The pigeon here is a beautiful bird, of a delicate bronze colour, tinged with pink about the neck, and the wings marked with green and purple. They are tame, and nicer eating than those at home. Where we are, we have abundance of food; plenty of mutton, and we can get a duck, pigeon, or cockatoo whenever we like, almost without going out of sight of our hut, besides a good supply of fish in the river; Murray cod, which in the Murray are said sometimes to weigh eighty pounds, but in our creeks generally run from two to twelve; also a kind of mussel, and a fish like a lobster, not quite so large, but good eating. [Footnote: Crawfish; the river lobster.]

Everyone who comes out does a very foolish thing in bringing such a quantity of clothes that he never wants. All you require, even in Melbourne, is a blue shirt, a pair of duck trousers, a straw hat or wide-awake, and what they call a jumper here. It is a kind of outside shirt, made of plaid, or anything you please, reaching just below the hips, and fastened round the waist with a belt. It would be a very nice dress for Charley. [Footnote: His youngest brother, at home.] I should wear it myself if I were in England. It ought to be made with a good-sized collar, and open at the breast, like a waistcoat, only to button at the neck, if required. We brought out the wrong sort of straw hat, as they are only fit for summer, but we sold all but two. One I made six shillings of, but the cabbage-tree hat is worth a pound. No one should bring out more than he can carry on his back, except it be to sell. Boots and shoes are at a great price, but they should be thick and strong. Wages are very high for butchers, carpenters, and bakers. A butcher's boy can get 3 pounds a week, with board and lodging. Bullock-drivers get the same. Innkeepers are making fortunes. I know a public-house, not larger than the Two Mile Oak, [Footnote: A small public-house between Totnes and Newton.] that cleared 500 pounds in three months, so it was reported. Sydney, I hear, is as cheap to live in as London. As to the diggings, I cannot say much about them. I have seen many who have made money there, and many who have lost it again. It is generally spent as fast as it is got. I hope we shall send you some specimens of gold dust soon. Please to give my love to my mother and all at home.

From your affectionate and dutiful son,
W J Wills.

His subsequent letters were of the same kind, descriptive of his management in his shepherd's life in the bush. He tells how he converted legs of mutton into excellent hams by pickling and smoking them; and how he also obtained preserves of melons, by sowing seeds which produced abundantly. The flies and ants were their greatest torment, particularly the former. The heat was not great, as there was a constant breeze from one quarter or another. Deniliquin is in between 35 and 36 degrees south latitude. The trees are almost exclusively gum trees, but they differ in appearance and leaves, according to age and locality. This gives the appearance of variety, when, in fact, there is none. The wood is hard and splits easily. The bark is tough and thick, and can be converted into canoes by closing the ends of a piece taken from half the circumference of a tree, and tying a cord round the centre to keep it from spreading. The colour is of a beautiful red. A moisture sometimes exudes from the leaves in such abundance as to convey the idea of an animal having been slain under the branches. It has the smell of carraways and is agreeably sweet. "How it would delight Bessy and Hannah," (his young sisters, then quite children), he says, "to go into the woods, picking up comfits under the trees!"

He then speaks of the blacks in that district; of their habits and ideas; but expresses a low opinion of their intellectual powers, and thinks little can be done with them. In May, he wrote to his mother and myself conjointly, fearing his former communications might not have reached us, and briefly recapitulating their purport. I afterwards heard at Deniliquin that he had successfully performed a surgical operation. A shearer had run the point of his shears into the neck of a sheep, and opened the carotid artery. My son having a small pocket case of instruments, secured the vessel and saved the animal. I remember when it was considered a triumph in practice to effect this on a human subject. The letter I am now alluding to concludes by hoping that we were all as comfortable at home as he and his brother were in the bush. He never tired of expatiating on the beauties of Australia and its climate. His next, in August, gave a more extended account of local peculiarities and features. Deniliquin is at this time (1862) a place of considerale importance, with a thriving population. The island on which my sons shepherded their rams is formed by two branches of the Edward River, which is itself a branch of the Murray.

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