An upside down farm

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My experience of an Australian farm came about by chance as is the case with many of the significant events in our lives. In the mid sixties I went to work in Canberra for a period and the father of the landlady had a farm about seventy miles from there. Both she and her husband went to visit her family at weekends and they invited me along.

Their property, as farms are known out there, was 70 miles North West of Canberra and about 270 miles from Sydney. It consisted of 600 acres and was known as Braeside – an obvious Scottish connection – originally consisting of 2000 acres it has been divided between three sons. Located five miles from the town of Boorowa and part of an area known as the Southern Table Lands it could be described as a mixed enterprise farm carrying about 1000 sheep, 30 – 40 cattle, a number of dairy cows plus a mixture of all types of fowl and a small acreage of wheat and barley.

The whole enterprise was run by the owner Gordon Southwell and his wife Flo. A more decent hard working God fearing couple one could not expect to find. Our first meeting was the beginning of a genuine and long lasting friendship which endured long after I left Canberra and I returned to visit them many times in the following years.

They were both Methodists and the manner in which they kept their faith was a revelation. Sunday was for Church and on that day there was no TV or newspapers. They never sat down to a meal without saying grace before and after. On one occasion they asked me to say my version and it was by the grace of God that I managed to remember it. They were tolerant people and respected those of other faiths, but expected them to live up to what they believed in. There was a large Catholic population in the Boorowa area, all of Irish decent, mostly from Clare and Tipperary – the Durack family from the Galway/Clare border settled in the Goulbum area and these were Australia’s most famous pioneering pastoral family. Their exploits are immortalised in Mary Durack’s book – “Kings in Green Castles”.

The original Braeside of 2000 acres was settled by Gordon’s grandfather. At that time it was covered in bush: i.e. large gum trees. The method of clearing was by ring barking – cutting the bark all round at the base and at a later stage pulling them down with a team which consisted of 24 bullocks. The drivers were known as Bullockys and were noted everywhere for their use of “bad” language. Picture for a moment two dozen cattle heaving and straining as they tried to topple a huge gum tree and probably wishing that they were somewhere else. Small wonder the man in charge sometimes lost his cool.

Gordon once told me that he was a shearer in his youth. He drove a horse and sulky 500 miles west to Bourke and sheared at the various stations on the way back. His staple diet on the road was tea and damper – bread baked on a roadside fire and eaten straight away. Flo started her working life as a station cook, starting at 6.00 a.m. and finishing at 12.00 p.m. These stations consisted sometimes of tens of thousands of acres which was originally Crown land but was taken over by squatters. Whoever was there first marked out his ground, put in his stock and built his homestead. (These people referred to them- selves as graziers and to refer to them as farmers was the ultimate insult.)

In the course of time those people became the elite of the Australian pastoral scene and acted accordingly. I remember Flo once telling me how they dressed formally for dinner every evening and she had to have their clothes laid out to their satisfaction. The same applied to their tennis wear.

At that time there was no question of running to the shop for a loaf of bread and a pound of butter. The market could be miles away. That lady certainly could cook. She made loaves, butter, jams, all sorts of preserves, custards and ice-cream from ingredients produced on the farm. Gordon used to say that she could turn a ten year weather into a spring lamb.

When the occasion demanded she could get on a horse and shoot rabbits and foxes with a rifle. Rounding the cattle to her was child’s play. She could handle a stock horse as good as any man.

Australian stock horses are trained to work more or less on their own. When a bullock breaks away the horse takes off after him and when he gets past he “Props” (he stops dead on all fours). An inexperienced rider simply keeps going out over the horse’s head.

A favourite night time activity in that area was fox and rabbit shooting. Gordon would set up a spotlight on his farm trucks and the shooters got up on the back. Flo had a special whistle which mimicked the cry of a hare which in turn lured the fox close enough to the truck. One of the things I remember about those nights is the intense cold, especially along the creek beds.

The Goulbum Boorowa area is noted for the production of fine wool but the relatively high level of the table lands and the cold wet weather make it unsuitable for Merino sheep. The predominant breed in the area is the Conidale which bears some resemblance to the Merino.

A day’s work started on that farm at 5.30 a.m. in the morning. The cows, mostly Jersey, were milked. Some of the milk was separated and both the cream and milk were sold in the local town. The various types of fowl were slaughtered, made oven ready and also sold.

Tilling the soil and grain was another chore and one which was very much at the mercy of the weather. A lack of rain meant that the seed didn’t germinate and the crop had to be sown again. At harvest the floods could come and sweep everything away.

Farmers took all that in their stride and accepted it as the every-day risk of their calling.

With the coming of spring, which would be about October time, the countryside would turn green and the grass would start to grow.

By Christmas, every place would be burnt brown and the paddocks bare, but the unusual thing is that the stock would continue to thrive.

I once remarked on this to Gordon and he said that they got sustenance from the seed, which of course never rotted due to the dry climate. I remember being there at a grain harvest time. The combine, better known as the header, didn’t have a blade the fingers simply pulled the heads and left the straw growing. But the remarkable thing about the machine was that while it was tractor drawn, it was originally pulled by eight horses. Most of the old horse—drawn machinery was still lying around the farm – some of it over 100 years old. In that dry climate rust was not a problem.

I hope that in this article I have given an insight into how people on the other side of the world live. As for the Southwells, they sold their property in the early seventies and retired to Sydney.

I could share many experiences with them and in the harvest of their lives, their memories could be jogged by the lines of the famous outback poem composed by Banjo Patterson called “Clancy of the Overflow”.

“And he sees the vision,
Splendid of the sunlight,
Plain extended,
And at night the wondrous Glory
Of the everlasting Stars”.

Paul Thompson

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About this record

Written by Paul Thompson

Published here 08 Feb 2021 and originally published November 1995

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