Rolf Boldrewood, ‘the Homer of the Bush’

by Julia Robinson

‘Rolf Boldrewood … the Homer of the Bush, the most distinctively Australian of all Australian writers of fiction.’

Tom Roberts, 'Bailed up', 1895. Source: Art Gallery of New South Wales

Tom Roberts, ‘Bailed up’, 1895. Source: Art Gallery of New South Wales

So said the Adelaide Advertiser in October 1889, reviewing Rolf Boldrewood’s novel Robbery Under Arms, a hugely popular tale about a boy from the bush who lives on the wrong side of the law. It first appeared as a serial in the Sydney Mail (1882-1883) and was published in full in 1888. It was an immediate success. The story is a rollicking yarn told at a fast pace, following the young Dick Marston’s fortunes from boyhood into a life of crime. From small-time cattle-duffing (‘stealing cattle’) operations, the men of the Marston family are drawn into the high-stakes schemes of Captain Starlight, gentleman con-artist, criminal, and bushranger. It is one of the best-known 19th century Australian novels, and generally acknowledged as Boldrewood’s best work. It has been adapted for the stage, radio, TV, and film, including the 1957 film version starring Peter Finch as Captain Starlight.

Thomas Alexander Browne

Thomas Alexander Browne

‘Rolf Boldrewood’ was the pen-name of Thomas Alexander Browne (1826 -1915). He came to Australia as a child from England and was educated in Sydney and Melbourne. Browne had firsthand knowledge of life on the land, in cities, and in small bush towns; he was by turns a pastoralist, a squatter, a goldfields commissioner, and a police magistrate. His broad experience meant he was personally familiar with the language and occupations of the characters in his novel: bush workers, drovers, squatters, miners, police troopers, cattle-duffers, and criminals. Indeed the language of the novel is one of its most notable features. Told in the first person, the story opens with the narrator lying in chains in prison. He is a convicted bushranger due to be hanged, and he writes the story of his life and misadventures in order to fill the few short weeks left to him:

My name’s Dick Marston, Sydney-side native. I’m twenty-nine years old, six feet in my stocking soles, and thirteen stone weight. Pretty strong and active with it, so they say. I don’t want to blow—not here, any road—but it takes a good man to put me on my back, or stand up to me with the gloves, or the naked mauleys. I can ride anything—anything that ever was lapped in horsehide—swim like a musk-duck, and track like a Myall blackfellow. [my italics]

imgres-2The voice of the narrator is one of the great strengths of the novel; passionate, immediate, and colloquial. It is told ‘in the natural speech of a half-educated man full of colonial phrases and grammatical errors’, as one contemporary reviewer puts it. (South Australian Register, 7 October 1889) Another notes that ‘the tale he tells is related in the language of his class—rough and ready, with here and there a smattering of colonial slang’, adding with disapproval that this ‘would perhaps lead people who are not acquainted with the colonies to form false impressions of what colonial life is at the present time’. (Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, 22 July 1899) However, the novel was written for an Australian audience, who knew for instance what a Sydney-side native, a musk-duck, and a Myall blackfellow were. Those ‘not acquainted with the colonies’ may have needed some help with the idiom; when Robbery Under Arms was later staged as a play in London, ‘the leading dailies took the trouble to prepare a glossary of the colonial slang used in the play’. (Hobart Mercury, 26 September 1903)

The ‘colonial phrases’ and slangy informality of Dick Marston’s language have contributed significantly to our understanding of the history of Australian English. Nearly 100 illustrative quotations from the novel have been used as evidence of Australian words and meanings in the Australian National Dictionary, some dozen of which provide the earliest evidence of these terms in print. Below is a glimpse of Boldrewood’s familiarity with colloquial Australian English, with a selection of quotations from the novel that provide the first evidence, or very early evidence, of Australian words and meanings. It is a glimpse too of what makes Robbery Under Arms such a readable novel—the immediacy of the language in which the story is told.

back of beyond ‘far inland, remote from large towns or closely settled districts’

It was a regular outside bush township, and though the distance oughtn’t to have much to say to people’s honesty, you’ll mostly find that these far-out back-of-beyond places have got men and women to match ’em. Except the squatters and overseers, the other people’s mostly a shady lot.

bot ‘a scheme for illicit gain, a scam’

‘You think you can’t be tracked’, says I, `but you must bear in mind you haven’t got to do with the old-fashioned mounted police as was potterin’ about when this `bot‘ was first hit on. There’s chaps in the police getting now, natives or all the same, as can ride and track every bit as well as the half-caste you’re talking about.’

McFarlane & Erskine,'Gold escort attacked by bushrangers', 1870s. Source: National Library of Australia

McFarlane & Erskine,’Gold escort attacked by bushrangers’, 1870s. Source: National Library of Australia

back-country ‘country lying inland of settled districts’

Dad was dressed up to look like a back-country squatter. Lots of ‘em were quite as rough-looking as he was, though they drive as good horses as any gentleman in the land.

to break ‘(of stock) to stampede’

Father mounted the old mare. The dog stopped behind; he knew he’d have to mind the tail—that is the hindmost cattle—and stop ’em from breaking or running clear away from the others. We threw down the rails. Away the cattle rushed out, all in a long string. You’d ’a thought no mortal man could ’a kept ‘em in that blind hole of a place.

dinkum Obsolete ‘work, exertion’

It took us an hour’s hard dinkum to get near the peak. Sometimes it was awful rocky, as well as scrubby, and the poor devils of cattle got as sore-footed as babies—blood up to the knee, some of ‘em; but we crowded ‘em on; there was no help for it.

to fake  ‘to change (the brand) on a stolen beast’

By and by we comes to the imported bull. He was in a pen by himself, looking first-rate. His brand had been faked, and the hair had grown pretty well. It would have took a sharp hand to know him again.

to fit ‘to fix a crime upon (a person) by securing or contriving enough evidence to ensure a conviction’

Jim and me could see how Starlight had been working the thing to rights while he was swelling it in the town among the big bugs. … ‘When he gets in with men like his old pals he loses his head, I believe’, father says, ‘and fancies he’s what he used to be. He’ll get `fitted‘ quite simple some day if he doesn’t keep a better look-out.’

to give (someone) best ‘to acknowledge defeat by (a person, or circumstance)’

S.T. Gill, 'Hard-pressed, or flight of a bushranger', 1874. Source: State Library of New South Wales

S.T. Gill, ‘Hard-pressed, or flight of a bushranger’, 1874. Source: State Library of New South Wales

The calf baaed and butted at Jim … and nearly upset him; he was only a bit of a toddler. But Jim picked up a loose leg of a milking-stool and the two went at it hammer and tongs. I could hardly stand for laughing, till the calf gave him best and walked.

to scratch ‘to move, to travel’

I runs his horses up into a yard nigh the angle of his outside paddock and collars this little ’oss, and lets old Johnny go in hobbles. My word, this cove can scratch!

to shanty Obsolete ‘to frequent a grog shanty; to drink habitually’

Jim, poor Jim, was inclined to take George’s offer. … But I was put out at his laying it down so about the Dalys and us shantying and gaffing, and I do think now that some folks are born so as they can’t do without a taste of some sort of fun once in a way.

the whole box and dice ‘everything; the whole lot’

The sign was to hold up your hat or cap straight over your head. … As luck would have it Jim looked round to see how we were getting on, and up went my cap. I could see him turn his head and keep watching me when I put on the whole box and dice of the telegraph business. He ‘dropped’, I could see.

wood-and-water joey ‘an unskilled labourer who performs the menial tasks of an establishment’

My word, governor, you was all in great luck as I come home last night, after bein’ away with them cattle to pound. Bobby, he don’t know a p’leeceman from a wood-an’-water joey; he’d never have dropped they was comin’ here unless they’d pasted up a notice on the door.