Banjo’s Upper Murray and Light Horse Links

 

In Corryong there are descendants of families who lived in the district at the time when Banjo Paterson is said to have visited brothers Walter and Peter Mitchell, who owned Bringenbrong Station.   So etched in local tradition and folklore is Banjo’s famous poem ‘The Man From Snowy River’ that most locals would know at least a few lines or a verse or two. Frederick Herbert who managed Towong Hill from 1916 to 1946 used to thrill my parents Tom and Elyne Mitchell because he could recite ‘The Man From Snowy River’ and other poems as he rode around our family’s cattle.

 

On Thursday 11 October 1962 Walter Mitchell’s son Tom took up the story about the identity of ‘The Man’ in Paterson’s poem in the Corryong Courier (page five) explaining:

 

‘What actually happened was that when Mrs Mitchell (Elyne) and I were with the Australian ski team in 1936, my mother had a small party in Sydney to farewell us and the team.  Among her friends there was Banjo Paterson, and I asked Banjo exactly who was the Man from Snowy River.  Banjo told me that the man was to a large extent imaginary – BUT WOVEN AROUND JACK RILEY.

 

‘My father took Banjo on his first trip over to Kosciusko, and was listening to Jack Riley’s account of his escapades on Kosciusko that caused him to write ‘The Man From Snowy River’.

 

‘I am trying to find a letter at home’ Tom continued, ‘that Banjo wrote me about this trip with my father, and of meeting the man from Snowy River and how he (Banjo) was impressed by the way my father could kill a snake with his stock whip without getting off his horse.’

 

PS Mrs Banjo Paterson once told me that all Banjo got for his poem was the vast sum of thirteen shillings and four pence.’

 

After Elyne died in 2002, people began to ask if I’d found ‘the letter’.  Although I’d found a letter from Banjo in Tom’s archive, it wasn’t the letter explaining the connection between Jack Riley and Banjo’s renowned poem!  So it has been left to me to uncover webs of familial connections stretching back in time and along the old stock droving routes from the Upper Murray to the southern tablelands, beyond towards Sydney and southwards towards Albury. 

 

Tom’s grandmother Charlotte Mitchell nee Stuckey and known as the Pocket Venus on account of her size and beauty was born on 4 June 1828 at Wollondilly, near Goulburn.  While the connections and any possible gossip about matchmaking have faded into history, it is quite possible that the romance between her daughter Emma Isabel (known as ‘Pinkie’) and her cousin Willie Chisholm’s[1] was the catalyst for Paterson’s visit to Bringenbrong.  The Paterson family lives at Binalong over 200km from Wollondilly.

Pinkie’s description of her December 1884 ride with her brothers Peter and Walter Edwards and the Messrs Findlay and Stuckey to Tom Groggin, and up the Leather Barrel to Kosciusko could well have been the inspiration for her brothers’ later expedition with Paterson.  She wrote, ‘I for my part felt great pleasure looking at the tree ferns that grow splendidly up to within a short distance of the Leather Barrel Creek.  There is also a fine view from the top of the wall with the river winding its way to join the Murray.’ She described camping for the first night near ‘a waterfall’.  Later on, at the top of Leather Barrel she mentioned having left their horses and ‘climbed to the top’.  She remembered having ‘left their names painted on a tin.’

 

Her mother Pocket Venus might have remembered the dates of Paterson’s visit to Bringenbrong and something about his journey with her sons to Tom Groggin. How many secrets lie in that fine grave she shares with her husband Thomas which overlooks their old home and the Upper Murray?  I wonder if she knew that the young poet who’d stayed at Bringenbrong would become a writer of such stature that he would inspire subsequent generations of her family and that Corryong would have a Festival named after his famous poem? 

 

In 1891 after Pinkie married Willie Chisholm and they moved to Sydney, she introduced her brother Walter to Tom Mitchell’s mother Winifred Dibbs. Winfred’s sister Dorothy also knew Pinkie and Willie Chisholm and despite Paterson’s rather peppery poem ‘The Ballad of G. R Dibbs’ pointing fun at her uncle Sir George Dibbs’[1] politics, Paterson seemed to be included in the family social circle.  Dorothy gave her copy of his book Happy Dispatches signed by the author to her nephew and godson Tom Mitchell, thus proving that with beyond doubt the two families knew each other. 

 

By 1936 when Winifred was creating her guest list for her party for Tom and his aspiring young writer Elyne and the Australian Ski team at the Queen’s Club, Winifred would also have been aware that Elyne’s father General Sir Harry Chauvel and Banjo Paterson had attended Sydney Grammar at the same time. Elyne would have known that Banjo had been a Light Horseman and that he had served in the 2nd Remount Unit (Queensland and New South Wales) in Moascar - Ismailia in Egypt.  Perhaps it was not lost on Elyne that Paterson had described Chauvel as, ‘such a sticky old frog’[2] in Happy Dispatches.  On the one occasion that Elyne met Paterson she described him looking like ‘a shrivelled old walnut’.  Born in 1864 and aged seventy-two in 1936, he could have been forgiven for looking rather wrinkled!  On 21 July 1939 Banjo wrote to Tom saying ‘I received your letter but I still think I would not be able to do the subject justice.  I never could write anything to order, as I have proved on numerous unfortunate occasions.’  Although Tom threw little out, there is no indication in his archive as to what Tom had asked Paterson to write.

 

In July 1940 when my mother Elyne was working on her first book Australia’s Alps Tom wrote from Headquarters 8th Division in Malaya suggesting, ‘ ‘You could also write about Banjo Paterson.  While he wrote a classic poem in ‘The Man From Snowy River’ he left unsung the Snowy when it really was snowy’, that is in winter!   Tom goes on to suggest Elyne consider mentioning some ‘alpine tragedies as a kind of keynote that there is always danger in the background.’ His remark probably reflected his concern for Elyne’s safety, but ironically in less than a year Singapore had fallen to the Japanese and Tom was incarcerated as a POW in Changi. 

 

Although Paterson was a member of the Kiandra Ski Club, Paterson knew the High Country better as a rider rather than as a skier. Later on as a POW Tom found Paterson’s poetry became central to his memories and connections to the Upper Murray, perhaps giving him the courage to continue through some of the darkest days of his incarceration.

 

In 1914 as an eight year old Tom was captivated by his mother’s story of Will Findlay and others bringing Riley on his last ride from Tom Groggin through some of the roughest mountain country to Corryong.  After Riley died at Surveyor’s Creek his body was lashed to a packsaddle for his remaining journey.  Given the role Paterson had played in Tom’s life, it is no surprise that he should champion Jack Riley’s connection with the Upper Murray and the part Riley played in Paterson’s imagination and inspiration for ‘The Man From Snowy River’.  It was Tom who was behind the restoration of Riley’s grave in the Pioneer cemetery.  In 1982 Tom wrote to me explaining ‘Jack Riley lay for about 37 years in an unmarked grave in the Roman Catholic portion of the Corryong Cemetery until I, a howling unredeemable heretic did something about a headstone’.

 

I’ll never know if some of the early lines from Paterson’s poem The Man From Snowy River, ‘the colt from old Regret had got away, And joined the wild bush horses’ that sowed the seeds of The Silver Brumby story for Elyne. She was a great admirer of Paterson’s poetry, but like Paterson she was secretively enigmatic about her inspiration and its sources.  She would love to have been a successful poet, but perhaps rather like Paterson she couldn’t write ‘to order’!  Elyne’s success lay in her children’s books and her non-fiction about the High Country and her father’s beloved Light Horse.

 

With Paterson’s legacy gaining a stronger hold in her latter years and perhaps emboldened by the wonderful success of the Brumby books, in the 1970s Elyne drew more direct inspiration from Paterson’s ‘Man From Snowy River’ for some of her subsequent children’s books, the Snowy River Brumby series, I believe this series is based on both the Mitchells at Bringenbrong and the Spencer family who lived near Waste Point on the other side of the Great Dividing Range at Jindabyne.  In her acknowledgements for The Colt from Snowy River (1979), Elyne wrote ‘Readers will realize that the idea for this book owes much to Banjo Paterson’s ‘The Man From Snowy River’.  It is interesting that the Banjo, himself, wrote to my husband Tom saying that the idea for his poem was given to him by the stories told around the hut fire by Jack Riley, when Tom’s father, Walter Edward Mitchell, took him on the long day’s ride out to Tom Groggin, and they spent the night camped with Riley.’ 

 

Although Elyne also believed that ‘The Man’ was a ‘composite’ character’[3], she was happy to use a certain degree of poet’s licence in her inspiration.  Elyne argued, ‘The great stockmen of the Jindabyne and Crackenback areas—men from Snowy River—were already creating their legend for Banjo Paterson to immortalize.’  Elyne lists ‘The Spencers, the Pendergasts of Moonbah, the Boltons, the McAllisters, the Barrys, the McGuffickes, George Irvine, Jack Adams, the Westons and McPhies, and others were all men who would gallop down precipitous mountain sides, crashing over loose stones, and through branches and bushes, jumping logs and rocks, ducking beneath boughs, to head a stampeding mob of cattle—or a brumby herd—all men who could ride unerringly through mist or pitch-dark night, and yet tell you that ‘no man’s a bushman in a fog.’[4] As well as Jack Riley, there was ‘Hellfire Jack Clarke from Jindabyne and Lachie Cochrane from Adaminaby as well as a number of other characters who may have been ‘The Man’, or at least part of the inspiration for the poem. The father and son James Spencer are believed to have taken Paterson into the mountains but from the Jindabyne side of the Great Dividing Range. According to Elyne, Banjo gave the Spencer family with whom he stayed at Waste Point an autographed copy of his poem and a photograph.

 

Elyne did her own research into the identity of the Man From Snowy River.  On 9th August 1995, Paterson’s niece Rosetta Spowers, wrote to Elyne saying ‘You are so right about The Man from Snowy River.  It wasn’t Jack Riley.  Uncle Barty told me!’

 

For Elyne the identity of ‘The Man’ wasn’t a central issue. Far more important was the wild beauty, mystery and freedom of the mountains that Paterson’s poem evoked.  Along with novelist Miles Franklin, Banjo Paterson was for Elyne ‘a light showing the way towards a High Country literature, carrying the ethos of the mountain cattlemen and women, their families and bush into the development of mainstream Australian culture and heritage.’ [5] 

 

In 1995 with the combining of the High Country Festival into the Man From Snowy River Bush Festival Elyne grew more and more excited as it combined a tribute to Paterson, High Country inspiration and thrilling equestrian events, dog trials, bush poetry and much more.  Elyne delighted in her role as the Festival’s Patron.

 

Honor Auchinleck

      

References

[1] Dr William Chisholm’s mother was Rebecca Stuckey.

[2] Sir George Dibbs was three times Premier of NSW.

[3] Paterson, A. B., Happy Dispatches (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1934) p.202

[4] Lang, Rebecca,  ‘The High Country Conqueror of the cold from Old Regret’ The Canberra Times, (4 Jul 93)

[5] Mitchell, Elyne, Discoverers of the Snowy Mountains (Melbourne: The Macmillan Company, 1985) p.82.

[6] Auchinleck, Honor, A Child of the Pen (La Trobe University: Unpublished PhD thesis), p.232