Fremantle Stuff > Early Days: Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society

Early Days: Volume 1, 1927-1931

Adam Lindsay Gordon: his connection with Western Australia

Mr and Mrs T. H. Ilbery

(Read before the Society, November, 1927)

Ilbery, Mr and Mrs T. H. 1928, 'Adam Lindsay Gordon: his connection with Western Australia', Early Days, vol. 1, part 2: 56-60.

Adam Lindsay Gordon, the Byron of Australia and one of the most romantic figures in literature, was born at Fayal, in the Azores, on October 19, 1833. His parents, who were cousins, bore the same surname and he was the product of three great lines of North Country Gordons (the Gay Gordons) founded by Elizabeth, the heiress who married a Seton, and by her cousins, Jack and Tam, represented to-day respectively by the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, the Earl of Aberdeen and by the poet’s own immediate family, the Gordons of Hallhead and Esslemont, Aberdeenshire.

He lived to be the head of this ancient family though his predecessor had terminated the entail, diverting the estates to a niece. Educated at Cheltenham, he emigrated to South Australia in 1853, in consequence of an escapade concerning a horse. Instead of using his introductions and family influence, he enlisted in the South Australian mounted police and began a varied career of adventure and reckless daring. From policeman he became horse breaker, race horse owner, livery stable keeper, member of Parliament, sheep farmer, chief amateur steeplechase rider of Australia and perhaps its best loved poet; for Gordon is more of a household word than Shakespeare in Australia and his bush-man’s philosophies and sayings, redolent as they are of fatalism and wattle blossoms, have become proverbs in Australian homes. He might have enjoyed a most brilliant literary career; for he had graduated in the only school for which the Australian people of his day had a sincere respect—the school of horsecraft. He married Miss Maggie Park, a Glasgow girl, whom he met at Robe when he was horse-breaking for N. E. Stockdale, of Lake Hawdon Station.

Soon after his marriage he inherited a legacy of about £7,000 from his mother, making him for a time a man of leisure. When, therefore, it was necessary for the Squatters’ Party to find a candidate to oppose the Attorney-General (Mr. Randolph Stow) at the election of 1865, because the Government was inaugurating a

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policy to break up the squatters’ runs, eyes were turned to Gordon. He consented to stand and was returned by a majority of three votes for the Victoria district of South Australia. He had as a colleague Mr. John Riddoch, who became his life-long friend.

Finding the political atmosphere uncongenial and realising that he was not a success as a member of Parliament, Gordon resigned in November, 1866, having decided to visit Western Australia, in company with Mr. Lambton Mount, to investigate the possibilities of sheep farming in this State. The poem, “The Old Leaven,” which is autobiographical, was written after going to an opera just prior to his departure. It was published anonymously in the Melbourne “Australasian.”

Gordon and Lambton Mount (also a Mr. John Peaks, who for many years resided near Northam) left Williamstown, Victoria, in the full-rigged sailing ship “Clutha” and brought over 4,000 merino sheep and 800 Leicester sheep. They arrived in Bunbury on December 11, 1866, and landed the sheep on the beach, mostly by swimming them ashore; and the weaker ones were taken in the ship’s boats. The merino sheep were in very poor condition, and many were lost. The Leicester were, however, in good condition, and stood the journey well.

The arrival of such a large flock in Bunbury was an event of great interest to the townspeople and especially to the bigger children, many of whom were eager to assist in minding the flock on the sandhills about the town. Gordon was good to these children and rewarded their services. One resident of the sea-port town treasured, until quite recently, a shilling which the poet had given him—the first shilling he ever earned—and also recalls Gordon’s kindness to him when he was knocked down in the drafting yard.

The events which immediately followed the landing and subsequent shepherding of the flock on the more fertile lands about Picton are best described by Miss May Thomson, now of Bridgetown:—

“Gordon and my father were in the same set in England, fond of hunting and sport; their nicknames in the hunting field were: ‘Mucker Gordon’ and ‘Tally Ho Thomson.’ Gordon was called ‘Mucker’ because he rode ‘amok’ at any sort of fence or brook and generally managed to get over. Though he was short-sighted and

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hardly ever had a good mount, he was mostly among the leaders. One day, I think about the end of '66, my father rode in to Bunbury to the monthly board meeting from our home at Brookhampton, and put up at the old Wellington Hotel as usual (the Ted Spencers kept it then). This evening Mrs. Spencer came to my father in some distress and told him that two men called Mount and Gordon were there who seemed quite gentlemen, but were in drovers’ clothes, and a 'flash' commercial traveller was there who objected to sitting down to table with them; and as they kept only two tables in those days she did not like putting them in the kitchen. So father went into the room and of course he and Gordon recognised each other. Father said: ‘Why, it's ‘Mucker!’ and he, ‘Tally Ho!' They were very delighted to meet, as neither expected to see the other inAustralia. My father brought Gordon out to stay with us at Brookhampton and they ran their sheep on our run for about three weeks. Gordon was very fond of hunting and liked going out on the run with my father and the stock boys. He always asked for an outlaw to ride. One of them started bucking in some thick black-boys one day, but he was quite unconcerned—it never moved him."

Negotiations were subsequently entered into for the purchase of a pastoral lease on House’s or Padbury’s brook, near Balingup, and the sheep were moved to this run and shepherded. A number of men were employed by Gordon and great activity followed. They erected from 30 to 40 miles of “dog-fence" fencing and made several large paddocks and kept the sheep in these.

The dingoes were very troublesome and it was necessary to yard the entire flock each night. If any of the sheep were left out they were always missing next morning. This necessitated the engaging of several shepherds, and the chief shepherd was Mr. Albert Blythe, who still resides in Bunbury.

Considerable settlement had by this time taken place in this portion of the colony. Further to the south-east Sir James Lee Steere had selected 100,000 acres on the Blackwood. Messrs R. Scott, J. J. Giblett, J. B. Rowe, G. Giblett, Hester, Allnutt, Mountain, McKenzie, Lefroy and E. Brockman were among those who had already made homes in the Warren, Donnelly and Blackwood districts. To many of these pioneers Gordon became known and was a welcome visitor in their homes. These bushmen found Gordon a man after their own hearts who would stand up to anybody with his fists, or put a horse at anything, who loved the bush, possessed a clean and courageous nature, and was kind, considerate and charitable.

Though moody and subject to a restless sort of discontent, he was genial and brilliant in conversation.

The sheep were finally moved to Mount Leeuwin, on the Donnelly River, where a freehold block was bought and 50,000 acres pastoral lease was taken up. Here they were again unfortunate and met with very heavy losses, due chiefly to lack of experience of local conditions. This part of the country was infested with blind grass (Lobelia). Hoping to destroy some of the thick undergrowth of ferns and brambles, they burned large areas, after which the blind grass made its appearance more green and succulent and tempting to the hungry flocks than ever, causing their already dwindling numbers to decrease still further. The particularly severe and wet winter which followed considerably added to their misfortunes, till only 1,300 sheep could be mustered.

Discouraged and dispirited, Gordon decided to return to the Eastern States. He rode overland to Albany and embarked there. Mr. Blythe was sent by Mount to bring back his two horses which he had great trouble in finding, finally locating one at Kojonup and the other near the head of the Deep River.

The cottage on the Mount Leeuwin property, so often spoken of as “Gordon’s Cottage,” was probably not built till after Gordon left the Colony, though it is possible that part of it was erected for shelter soon after the arrival of the party from Balingup. It stands in a wonderfully beautiful setting, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of stately karris, their columns having the white sheen of silk. Below and beyond, the Donnelly River, swirling through an undergrowth of willow, wattle, prickly mimosa and flame of coral creeper, is spanned by a huge karri tree forming a substantial bridge, known as One Tree Bridge. The present tree replaces one fallen across the river by Gordon’s party and was much used when the graphite mines in the vicinity were being worked. The first piece of graphite was found by one of Gordon’s shepherds, who showed it to Mount.

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In such surroundings one can imagine Gordon's homesick spirit ever longing for “the mists on Cotswold Hills" and it would seem passing strange if in the picturesque environment of the South-West he had not turned his thoughts to rhyming. Though not generally known, prior to leaving Western Australia for good, he requested Mr. Mount to destroy, without reading, a whole portmanteau-full of manuscript, written chiefly on lined blue foolscap.

One poem, alone, seems to have escaped, and that was found by a shepherd in the pocket of an old pair of Gordon's trousers, given him by Mount after Gordon had left Western Australia. It is incomplete, unrevised, and in places the manuscript is indistinct. Commencing:
“All night I’ve heard the marsh frogs croak:
The jay’s rude matins now prevail,”
it describes an incident when mustering scrub cattle, which were plentiful in the district at that time.

From a financial point of view the sheep farming venture was a complete failure; the country was unsuitable, the principals lacked experience and all the capital invested was lost. In a letter to his friend, Mr. John Riddoch, Gordon wrote: “I am awfully sick of the life I have been leading, and the society that I have not been able to escape from. I can assure you that my chief reason for making that rash venture in Western Australia was a desire to escape from all my sporting associates and begin a new life in the bush. Still, I have done no worse than I should have done if I had kept away from here and killed myself with running after lost sheep and nursing doomed ones in West Australia."

Mr. Riddoch has recorded that in his last year he thought of Western Australia again from a desire to escape from the racing lot by whom he was surrounded in Victoria, but Mr. Riddoch persuaded him to accompany him to his home at Yallum Park instead.

Tormented by physical suffering, financially embarrassed, disappointed in his belated efforts to establish a claim to the barony of Esslemont, filled with bitter reflections and dark forebodings, and in accordance with his cherished creed that a man should know when the feast is over, that he should not linger at the festive board after the lights are out, this rider and rhymer ended a stirring and adventurous life by his own hand on June 24, 1870.


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