On Our Selections: The Small Land Holders and the Rise of a Civic Culture
I’d like to have a Tabletop, a Tabletop of words, and be remembered for what I built, for how I climbed and how I was buried there to be found one day. To be found by picknickers would do. ‘When I Returned, Never having Left,’ David Rowbotham
Australian colonial history is often written as a struggle to open up the large tracts of land occupied by squatters so that more modestly capitalized and smaller scale agriculturalists could gain access. The dream of a prosperous democratic and liberal society was imagined by many as the spread of small landholders and their family run properties.
The shift from large scale pastoral production to smaller scale agricultural holdings was managed by a series of selection acts which were intended to convert the squatters' leases over to freehold and at the same time open up some of that land to a new generation of free selectors.
A developing middle or merchant class in the emerging townships largely supported the associated shift from large-scale pastoralism to smaller scale agriculture for it inevitably led to closer settlement and a broader base for commercial opportunity.
Arthur Hoey Davis owes his substantial popular reputation to comic representations of the trials and tribulations of the small selector on the Darling Downs [i] . Davis, who wrote under the pseudonym of Steele Rudd, was the son of a blacksmith who selected land at Emu Creek just south of Toowoomba in 1870.
He left school at the age of twelve in 1880 and spent the next five years working on properties in the area. In 1885 his mother used political connections to secure her son a public service place in Brisbane and the young man moved to the big city. In the 1890s Davis began to write his comic stories and they began appearing in the Sydney Bulletin from 1895 [ii] .
With the assistance of A.G. Stephens, a Toowoomba born writer, editor, publisher and critic who has become the most influential man of letters in colonial Australia, he revised a number of stories so that they formed a connected sequence depicting the struggles of a family of rural peasants, the Rudds.
On Our Selection was published in 1899 by the Bulletin book company and Dad, Dave and Steele Rudd were on the way to becoming national sensations. Rudd went on to publish more than twenty works of fiction and six plays including ten books dealing with the gradual if often tragic success of the Rudd family. Dad and Dave Rudd also featured in a number of popular plays, three silent movies, four 'talkies' and a long running radio series that became a national institution.
Davis' life and work is an exemplary instance of tensions and difficulties associated with the classification of regional writing. Memories of his rural youth sustained him in the early years of his successful public service career in Brisbane until his success as a writer and growing connections with the Sydney literati saw him grow enamored of the fashionable bohemianism of Sydney letters. Financial pressures ultimately saw his journey turn full circle, however, and in 1907 he returned to the Downs to unsuccessfully farm a small property. It was an occupation for which the metropolitan man of letters was now ill-suited (Fotheringham 94-117).
Richard Fotheringham, Davis' Biographer, has argued that in his stories Davis exposed the difficulties of selection life and its demeaning effect upon human character and behavior in a way that undercut the grand democratic theories of liberal parliamentarians. The subtle use of wry humour sweetened the grim reality for those who would identify with the Rudd family but it also enabled more sophisticated audiences to see them as figures of fun. There is a great deal in the Rudd formula that would prove illuminating for current day politicians seeking to reconcile the differences between regional and metropolitan electorates. The comic predicament, the indomitable spirit of Davis' bucolic characters, and the gradual almost imperceptible improvement of their material conditions as Dad moves from impoverished selector and rural battler to a seat in Parliament, inevitably endorse the liberal endeavor of the pioneering myth. The wry tone of much of this work, however, opens it up in a variety of ways to audiences with different regional and political affiliations.
According to the historian Maurice French, the city of Toowoomba developed its local imaginary through the imagery of Davis and a British expatriate poet, George Essex Evans (French, Travellers 3).
Evans was born in London in 1863 and immigrated to Australia in 1881, where he worked as a farmer, teacher, editor, journalist, and public servant. The poet spent most of his life within the Darling Downs, mixed extensively with the local people and became very involved in the cultural and political life of the regions' premier city.
Evans is best known for his verse but in his time he was a respected man of letters who used his literary skills in many forms and in aid of different interests. In addition to the poetry he produced articles and short stories, wrote travel books for the Government Tourist and Intelligence Bureau and became one of the founding members of the Austral Association for the advancement of art, science, music and literature, which drew thousands of people to its annual festivals in Toowoomba. Evans edited the agricultural section of The Queenslander, several issues of an illustrated journal, The Antipodean, and still found the time to write some plays for the Brisbane theatre [iii] .
The broad range of Essex Evans' literary production demonstrates his interest and commitment to the civic function of culture. In his verse he celebrated the pioneers, public and political figures, and the natural beauty of the environment in a manner free from the misgivings which make Davis' work so interesting. Evans was a very important public poet who did much to promote the cause of federation in Queensland - a cause which was notably unpopular in Toowoomba. In 1901 he won first prize in the New South Wales Government's Competition for a commonwealth ode with a poem that had been edited by Alfred Deakin prior to the competition. An ardent supporter of the Empire, Essex Evans' Coronation Ode 'The Crown of Empire' was printed on white satin and presented by the then Australian Prime Minister Edmund Barton to King George VII on the occasion of his coronation [iv] . On his death in 1909, Alfred Deakin, one of his many political patrons, eulogized him in Federal Parliament as Australia's national poet [v] .
Evans' is a nineteenth century imperial poet and his penchant for stirring the industrious spirit of the settler society through rhetorically grand invocations of the nation's destiny is a marked feature of his work. In poems such as 'Ode for Commonwealth Day', 'Australia', 'A Federal Song' and 'The Land of Dawning' he imagines Australia as a young virgin of immense resource waiting for the industrious enterprise of the newly arrived British race. Evans, like Hodgson and Arrowsmith before him, used literary culture to justify indigenous dispossession and promote colonial expansion [vi] . His books of poetry include The Repentance of Magdalene Despar and Other Poems (1891), Loraine and Other Verses (1898), The Secret Key and Other Verses (1906), and a memorial edition of the Collected Verse in 1928. As well as the civic celebrations of public men, national pioneers and State occasions, his oeuvre includes lyric celebrations of the natural environment, metaphysical speculations upon standard Victorian themes such as love and duty and life and death, as well as a number of long romantic verse melodramas [vii] .
The British expatriate's most frequently collected poems are 'An Australian Symphony' and 'The Women of the West'. The former speculates on the distinctive melancholic character of Australian literature; while the latter pays a popular tribute to the pioneer women who brought civilization to the frontier:
For them no trumpet sounds the call, no poet plies his arts -
They only hear the beating of their gallant loving hearts.
But they have sung with silent lives the song all songs above -
The holiness of sacrifice, the dignity of love [viii] .
Both poems give a good indication of the character of his small but continuing national reputation. His lyric celebrations of local beauty and civic virtue have led to an ongoing local significance. Both Evans and Rudd continue to serve as prominent local markers of the significant contribution Toowoomba has made to Australian literary culture and the chief vehicle of these ongoing reputations for the last seventy years is the annual pilgrimage in honor of each writer, which continue to be held by the Toowoomba Ladies Literary Society.
[i] Jim Hoy, ‘John Ise and Steele Rudd: The Literary Response to Homesteading in America and Selecting in Australia,’ Antipodes 11.2 (Dec. 1997): 91-94.
[ii] Richard Fotheringham, In Search of Steele Rudd, St Lucia: UQP, 1995.
[iii] Veronica Kelly, ‘George Essex Evans the Playwright,’ Margin 19 (1987): 1-6.
[iv] . Delia Birchley, The Life and Works of George Essex Evans 1863-1909, PhD Thesis, University of Queensland, 1978, pp.156-76. See also Margaret O'Hagan, 'George Essex Evans', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 8, Melbourne, 1976.
[v] . D. J. Murphy, 'William Kidston', in Denis Murphy, Roger Joyce, Margaret Cribb (eds), The Premiers of Queensland, revised edition, St.Lucia, 1990, p.233.
[vi] Chris Tiffin, ‘Metaphor and Emblem: George Essex Evans’s Public Poetry,’ Literary Criterion 26.4 (1991): 61-74.
[vii] Robert Dixon, ‘Literature and Melodrama,’ The Oxford Literary History of Australia, Bruce Bennett and Jennifer Strauss, eds. Melbourne: Oxford UP, 1998, pp 66-88.
[viii] George Essex Evans, ‘The Women of the West,’ The Secret Key and Other Verses, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1906. Reprinted in Christopher Lee, ed. Turning the Century: Writing of the 1890s, St Lucia: UQP, 1999, p.81.