Coming across — A study in the steerage
We were delayed for an hour or so inside Sydney Heads, taking passengers from the Oroya, which had just arrived from England and anchored off Watson’s Bay. An Adelaide boat went alongside the ocean liner, while we dropped anchor at a respectable distance. This puzzled some of us until one of the passengers stopped an ancient mariner and inquired. The sailor jerked his thumb upwards, and left. The passengers stared aloft till some of them got the lockjaw in the back of their necks, and then another sailor suggested that we had yards to our masts, while the Adelaide boat had not.
It seemed a pity that the new chums for New Zealand didn’t have a chance to see Sydney after coming so far and getting so near. It struck them that way too. They saw Melbourne, which seemed another injustice to the old city. However, nothing matters much nowadays, and they might see Sydney in happier times.
They looked like new chums, especially the ‘furst clarsters,’ and there were two or three Scotsmen among them who looked like Scots, and talked like it too; also an Irishman. Great Britain and Ireland do not seem to be learning anything fresh about Australia. We had a yarn with one of these new arrivals, and got talking about the banks. It turned out that he was a Radical. He spat over the side and said:—
‘It’s a something shame the way things is carried on! Now, look here, a banker can rob hundreds of wimmin and children an’ widders and orfuns, and nothin’ is done to him, but if a poor man only embezzles a shilling he gets transported to the colonies fir life.’ The italics are ours, but the words were his.
We explained to this new chum that transportation was done away with long ago, as far as Australia was concerned, that no more convicts were sent out here — only men who ought to be; and he seemed surprised. He did not call us a liar, but he looked as if he thought that we were prevaricating. We were glad that he didn’t say so, for he was a bigger man. New chums are generally more robust than Australians.
When we got through the Heads someone pointed to the wrong part of the cliff and said:
‘That’s where the Dunbar was wrecked.’
Shortly afterwards another man pointed to another wrong part of the cliffs and observed incidentally:
‘That’s where the Dunbar was wrecked.’
Pretty soon a third man came along and pointed to a third wrong part of the cliff, and remarked casually:
‘That’s where the Dunbar was wrecked.’
We moved aft and met the fourth mate, who jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the cliffs in general, and muttered condescendingly:
‘That’s where the Dunbar was wrecked.’
It was not long before a woman turned round and asked:
‘Was that the place where the Dunbar was wrecked, please?’
We said ‘Yes,’ and she said ‘Lor,’ and beckoned to a friend.
We went for’ard and met an old sailor, who glared at us, jerked his thumb at the coast and growled:
‘That’s where the Dunbar went down.’
Then we went below; but we felt a slight relief when he said ‘went down’ instead of ‘was wrecked.’
It is doubtful whether a passenger boat ever cleared Sydney Heads since the wild night of that famous wreck without someone pointing to the wrong part of the cliffs, and remarking:
‘That’s where the Dunbar was wrecked.’
The Dunbar fiend is inseparable from Australian coasting steamers.
We travelled second-class in the interests of journalism. You get more points for copy in the steerage. It was a sacrifice; but we hope to profit by it some day.
There were about fifty male passengers, including half-a-dozen New Zealand shearers, two of whom came on board drunk — their remarks for the first night mainly consisted of ‘gory.’ ‘Gory’ is part of the Australian language now — a big part.
The others were chiefly tradesmen, labourers, clerks and hard-up bagmen, driven out of Australia by the hard times there, and glad, no doubt, to get away. There was a jeweller on board, of course, and his name was Moses or Cohen. If it wasn’t it should have been — or Isaacs. His christian name was probably Benjamin. We called him Jacobs. He passed away most of his time on board in swopping watch lies with the other passengers and good-naturedly spoiling their Waterburys.
One commercial traveller shipped with a flower in his button-hole. His girl gave it to him on the wharf and told him to keep it till it faded, and then press it. She was a barmaid. She thought he was ‘going saloon,’ but he came forward as soon as the wharf was out of sight. He gave the flower to the stewardess, and told us about these things one moonlight night during the voyage.
There was another — a well-known Sydney man — whose friends thought that he was going saloon, and turned up in good force to see him off. He spent his last shilling ‘shouting,’ and kept up his end of the pathetic little farce out of consideration for the feelings of certain proud female relations, and not because he was ‘proud’ — at least not that way. He stood on a conspicuous part of the saloon deck and waved his white handkerchief until Miller’s Point came between. Then he came forward where he belonged. But he was proud — bitterly so. He had a flower too, but he did not give it to the stewardess. He had it pressed, we think (for we knew him), and perhaps he wears it now over the place where his heart used to be.
When Australia was fading from view we shed a tear, which was all we had to shed; at least, we tried to shed a tear, and could not. It is best to be exact when you are writing from experience.
Just as Australia was fading from view, someone looked through a glass, and said in a sad, tired kind of voice that he could just see the place where the Dunbar was wrecked.
Several passengers were leaning about and saying ‘Europe! E-u-rope!’ in agonised tones. None of them were going to Europe, and the new chums said nothing about it. This reminds us that some people say ‘Asia! Asia! Ak-kak-Asia!’ when somebody spills the pepper. There was a pepper-box without a stopper on the table in our cabin. The fact soon attracted attention.
The new chum came along and asked us whether the Maoris were very bad round Sydney. He’d heard that they were. We told him that we had never had any trouble with them to speak of, and gave him another show.
‘Did you ever hear of the wreck of the Dunbar?’ we asked.
He said that he never ‘heerd tell’ of it, but he had ‘heerd’ of the wreck of the Victoria.
We gave him best.
The first evening passed off quietly, except for the vinously-excited shearers. They had sworn eternal friendship with a convivial dude from the saloon, and he made a fine specimen fool of himself for an hour or so. He never showed his nose for’ard again.
Now and then a passenger would solemnly seek the steward and have a beer. The steward drew it out of a small keg which lay on its side on a shelf with a wooden tap sticking out of the end of it — out of the end of the keg, we mean. The beer tasted like warm but weak vinegar, and cost sixpence per small glass. The bagman told the steward that he could not compliment him on the quality of his liquor, but the steward said nothing. He did not even seem interested — only bored. He had heard the same remark often before, no doubt. He was a fat, solemn steward — not formal, but very reticent — irresponsive. He looked like a man who had conducted a religious Conservative paper once and failed, and had then gone into the wholesale produce line, and failed again, and finally got his present billet through the influence of his creditors and two clergymen. He might have been a sociable fellow, a man about town, even a gay young dog, and a radical writer before he was driven to accept the editorship of the aforesaid periodical. He probably came of a ‘good English family.’ He was now, very likely, either a rigid Presbyterian or an extreme freethinker. He thought a lot, anyway, and looked as if he knew a lot too — too much for words, in fact.
We took a turn on deck before turning in, and heard two men arguing about the way in which the Dunbar was wrecked.
The commercial travellers, the jeweller, and one or two new chums who were well provided with clothing undressed deliberately and retired ostentatiously in pyjamas, but there were others — men of better days — who turned in either very early or very late, when the cabin was quiet, and slipped hurriedly and furtively out of their clothes and between the blankets, as if they were ashamed of the poverty of their underwear.
It is well that the Lord can see deep down into the hearts of men, for He has to judge them; it is well that the majority of mankind cannot, because, if they could, the world would altogether be too sorrowful to live in; and we do not think the angels can either, else they would not be happy — if they could and were they would not be angels any longer — they would be devils. Study it out on a slate.
We turned in feeling comfortably dismal, and almost wishing that we had gone down with the Dunbar.
The intoxicated shearers and the dude kept their concert up till a late hour that night — or, rather, a very early hour next morning; and at about midnight they were reinforced by the commercial traveller and Moses, the jeweller, who had been visiting acquaintances aft. This push was encouraged by voices from various bunks, and enthusiastically barracked for by a sandy-complexioned, red-headed comedian with twinkling grey eyes, who occupied the berth immediately above our own.
They stood with their backs to the bunks, and their feet braced against the deck, or lurched round, and took friendly pulls from whisky flasks, and chyacked each other, and laughed, and blowed, and lied like — like Australian bushmen; and occasionally they broke out into snatches of song — and as often broke down. Few Englishmen know more than the first verse, or two lines, of even their most popular song, and, when elevated enough to think they can sing, they repeat the first verse over and over again, with the wrong words, and with a sort of ‘Ta-ra-ra-rum-ti-tooral. Ta-ra-ra-ra-rum-ti, ta-ra-ra-rum-tum-ti-rum-rum-tum-ti-dee-e-e,’ by way of variation.
Presently — suddenly it seemed to our drowsy senses — two of the shearers and the bagman commenced arguing with drunken gravity and precision about politics, even while a third bushman was approaching the climax of an out-back yarn of many adjectives, of which he himself was the hero. The scraps of conversation that we caught were somewhat as follow. We leave out most of the adjectives.
First Voice: ‘Now look here. The women will vote for men, not principles. That’s why I’m against women voting. Now, just mark my —’
Third Voice (trying to finish yarn): ‘Hold on. Just wait till I tell yer. Well, this bloomin’ bloke, he says —’
Second Voice (evidently in reply to first): ‘Principles you mean, not men. You’re getting a bit mixed, old man.’ (Smothered chuckle from comedian over our head).
Third Voice (seeming to drift round in search of sympathy): ‘You will?’ sez I. ‘Yes, I will,’ he sez. ‘Oh, you will, will yer?’ I sez; and with that I —’
Second Voice (apparently wondering from both subjects): ‘Blanker has always stuck up for the workin’ man, an’ he’ll get in, you’ll see. Why, he’s a bloomin’ workin’ man himself. Me and Blanker —’
Disgusted voice from a bunk: ‘Oh, that’s damn rot! We’ve had enough of lumpers in Parliament! Horny hands are all right enough, but we don’t want any more blanky horny heads!’
Third Voice (threateningly): ‘Who’s talkin’ about ’orny heads? That pitch is meant for us, ain’t it? Do you mean to say that I’ve got a ’orny head?’
Here two men commenced snarling at each other, and there was some talk of punching the causes of the dispute re horny heads; but the bagman interfered, a fresh flask was passed round, and some more eternal friendship sworn to.
We dozed off again, and the next time we were aware of anything the commercial and Moses had disappeared, the rest were lying or sitting in their bunks, and the third shearer was telling a yarn about an alleged fight he had at a shed up country; and perhaps he was telling it for the benefit of the dissatisfied individual who made the injudicious remark concerning horny heads.
‘So I said to the boss-over-the-board, ‘You’re a nice sort of a thing,’ I sez. ‘Who are you talkin’ to?’ he says.
‘You, bless yer,’ I says. ‘Now, look here,’ he says, ‘you get your cheque and clear!’ ‘All right,’ I says, ‘you can take that!’ and I hauled off and landed him a beauty under the butt of the listener. Then the boss came along with two blacklegs, but the boys made a ring, and I laid out the blanks in just five minutes. Then I sez to the boss, ‘That’s the sort of cove I am,’ I sez, ’an’ now, if you——’
But just here there came a deep, growling voice — seemingly from out of the depths of the forehold — anyway, there came a voice, and it said:—
‘For the Lord’s sake give her a rest!’
The, steward turned off the electricity, but there were two lanterns dimly burning in our part of the steerage. It was a narrow compartment running across the width of the boat, and had evidently been partitioned off from the top floor of the hold to meet the emigration from Australia to New Zealand. There were three tiers of bunks, two deep, on the far side, three rows of single bunks on the other, and two at each end of the cabin, the top ones just under the portholes.
The shearers had turned in ‘all standing;’ two of them were lying feet to feet in a couple of outside lower berths. One lay on his stomach with his face turned outwards, his arm thrown over the side of the bunk, and his knuckles resting on the deck; the other rested on the broad of his back with his arm also hanging over the side and his knuckles resting on the floor. And so they slept the sleep of the drunk.
A fair, girl-faced young Swiss emigrant occupied one of the top berths, with his curly, flaxen head resting close alongside one of the lanterns that were dimly burning, and an Anglo-foreign dictionary in his hand. His mate, or brother, who resembled him in everything except that he had dark hair, lay asleep alongside; and in the next berth a long consumptive-looking new-chum sat in his pyjamas, with his legs hanging over the edge, and his hands grasping the sideboard, to which, on his right hand, a sort of tin-can arrangement was hooked. He was staring intently at nothing, and seemed to be thinking very hard.
We dozed off again, and woke suddenly to find our eyes wide open, and the young Swiss still studying, and the Jackaroo still sitting in the same position, but with a kind of waiting expression on his face — a sort of expectant light in his eyes. Suddenly he lurched for the can, and after awhile he lay back looking like a corpse.
We slept again, and finally awoke to daylight and the clatter of plates. All the bunks were vacated except two, which contained corpses, apparently.
Wet decks, and a round, stiff, morning breeze, blowing strongly across the deck, abeam, and gustily through the open portholes. There was a dull grey sky, and the sea at first sight seemed to be of a dark blue or green, but on closer inspection it took a dirty slate colour, with splashes as of indigo in the hollows. There was one of those near, yet far-away horizons.
About two-thirds of the men were on deck, but the women had not shown up yet — nor did they show up until towards the end of the trip.
Some of the men were smoking in a sheltered corner, some walking up and down, two or three trying to play quoits, one looking at the poultry, one standing abaft the purser’s cabin with hands in the pockets of his long ragged overcoat, watching the engines, and two more — carpenters — were discussing a big cedar log, about five feet in diameter, which was lashed on deck alongside the hatch.
While we were waiting for the Oroya some of the ship’s officers came and had a consultation over this log and called up part of the crew, who got some more ropes and a chain on to it. It struck us at the time that that log would make a sensation if it fetched loose in rough weather. But there wasn’t any rough weather.
The fore-cabin was kept clean; the assistant steward was good-humoured and obliging; his chief was civil enough to freeze the Never-Never country; but the bill of fare was monotonous.
During the afternoon a first-salooner made himself obnoxious by swelling round for’ard. He was a big bull-necked ‘Britisher’ (that word covers it) with a bloated face, prominent gooseberry eyes, fore ’n’ aft cap, and long tan shoes. He seemed as if he’d come to see a ‘Zoo,’ and was dissatisfied with it — had a fine contempt for it, in fact, because it did not come up to other zoological gardens that he had seen in London, and on the aw-continong and in the-aw-er-aw — the States, dontcherknow. The fellows reckoned that he ought to be ‘took down a peg’ (dontcherknow) and the sandy-complexioned comedian said he’d do it. So he stepped softly up to the swell, tapped him lightly on the shoulder, and pointed aft — holding his arm out like a pump handle and his fore-finger rigid.
The Britisher’s face was a study; it was blank at first and then it went all colours, and wore, in succession, every possible expression except a pleasant one. He seemed bursting with indignation, but he did not speak — could not, perhaps; and, as soon as he could detach his feet from the spot to which they had been nailed in the first place by astonishment, he stalked aft. He did not come to see the zoo any more.
The fellows in the fore-cabin that evening were growling about the bad quality of the ‘grub’ supplied.
The Sydney man said that the roast beef looked and tasted like something scraped off the inside of a hide; and that the potatoes had apparently been plucked before they were ripe, for they were mostly green inside. He evidently meant the last remark for a joke.
Then the shearer’s volcano showed signs of activity. He shifted round, spat impatiently, and said,
‘You chaps don’t know what yer taking about. You want something to grumble about. You should have been out with me last year on the Paroo in Noo South Wales. The meat we got there was so bad that it uster travel!’
‘Yes! travel! take the track! go on the wallaby! The cockies over there used to hang the meat up to the branches of the trees, and just shake it whenever they wanted to feed the fowls. And the water was so bad that half-a-pound of tea in the billy wouldn’t made no impression on the colour — nor the taste. The further west we went the worse our meat got, till at last we had to carry a dog-chain to chain it up at night. Then it got worse and broke the chain, and then we had to train the blessed dogs to shepherd it and bring it back. But we fell in with another chap with a bad old dog — a downright knowing, thieving, old hard-case of a dog; and this dog led our dogs astray — demoralized them — corrupted their morals — and so one morning they came home with the blooming meat inside of them, instead of outside — and we had to go hungry for breakfast.’
‘You’d better turn in, gentlemen. I’m going to turn off the electric light,’ said the steward.
The yarn reminded the Sydney man of a dog he had and he started some dog lies.
‘This dog of mine,’ he said, ‘knowed the way into the best public-houses. If I came to a strange town and wanted a good drink I’d only have to say: “Jack, I’m dry,” and he’d lead me all right. He always knew the side entrances and private doors after hours, and I —’
But the yarn did not go very well — it fell flat in fact. Then the commercial traveller was taken bad with an anecdote.
‘That’s nothing,’ he said, ‘I had a black bag once that knew the way into publichouses.’
‘Yes. A black bag. A long black bag like that one I’ve got there in my bunk. I was staying at a boarding-house in Sydney, and one of us used to go out every night for a couple of bottles of beer and we carried the bottles in the bag; and when we got opposite the pub the front end of the bag would begin to swing round towards the door. It was wonderful. It was just as if there was a lump of steel in the end of the bag and a magnet in the bar. We tried it with ever so many people but it always acted the same. We couldn’t use that bag for any other purpose, for if we carried it along the street it would make our wrists ache trying to go into pubs. It twisted my wrist one time and it ain’t got right since — I always feel the pain in dull weather. Well, one night we got yarning and didn’t notice how the time was going, and forgot to go for the beer till it was nearly too late. We looked for the bag and couldn’t find it — we generally kept it under a side-table, but it wasn’t there, and before we were done looking, eleven o’clock went. We sat down round the fire, feeling pretty thirsty, and were just thinking about turning in when we heard a thump on the table behind us. We looked round, and there was that bag with two full bottles of English ale in it.’
‘Then I remembered that I’d left a bob in the bottom of the bag, and —’
The steward turned off the electric light.
There were some hundreds of cases of oranges stacked on deck, and made fast with matting and cordage to the bulwarks. That night was very dark, and next morning there was a row. The captain said he’d ‘give any man three months that he caught at those oranges.’
‘Wot are yer givin’ us?’ said a shearer. ‘We don’t know anything about yer bloomin’ oranges. . . . I seen one of the saloon passengers moochin’ round for’ard last night. You’d better search the saloon for your blasted oranges, an’ don’t come round tacklin’ the wrong men.’
It was not necessary to search our quarters, for the ‘off-side’ steward was sweeping orange peel out of the steerage for three days thereafter.
And that night, just as we were about to fall asleep, a round, good-humoured face loomed over the edge of the shelf above and a small, twinkling, grey eye winked at us. Then a hand came over, gave a jerk, and something fell on our nose. It was an orange. We sent a ‘thank you’ up through the boards and commenced hurriedly and furtively to stow away the orange. But the comedian had an axe to grind — most people have — wanted to drop his peel alongside our berth; and it made us uneasy because we did not want such circumstantial evidence lying round us if the captain chanced to come down to inquire. The next man to us had a barny with the man above him about the same thing. Then the peel was scattered round pretty fairly, or thrown into an empty bunk, and no man dared growl lest he should come to be regarded as a blackleg — a would-be informer.
The men opposite the door kept a lookout; and two Australian jokers sat in the top end berth, with their legs hanging over and swinging contentedly, and the porthole open ready for a swift and easy disposal of circumstantial evidence on the first alarm. They were eating a pineapple which they had sliced and extracted in sections from a crate up on deck. They looked so chummy and so school-boyishly happy and contented that they reminded us of the days long ago, when we were so high.
The chaps had a talk about those oranges on deck next day.
The commercial traveller said we had a right to the oranges because the company didn’t give us enough to eat. He said that we were already suffering from insufficient proper nourishment, and he’d tell the doctor so if the doctor came on board at Auckland. Anyway, it was no sin to rob a company.
‘But then,’ said our comedian, ‘those oranges, perhaps, were sent over by a poor, struggling orange grower, with a wife and family to keep, and he’ll have to bear the loss, and a few bob might make a lot of difference to him. It ain’t right to rob a poor man.’
This made us feel doubtful and mean, and one or two got uncomfortable and shifted round uneasily. But presently the traveller came to the rescue. He said that no doubt the oranges belonged to a middle-man, and the middle-man was the curse of the country. We felt better.
Towards the end of the trip the women began to turn up. There were five grass widows, and every female of them had a baby. The Australian marries young and poor; and, when he can live no longer in his native land, he sells the furniture, buys a steerage ticket to New Zealand or Western Australia, and leaves his wife with her relations or friends until he earns enough money to send for her. Four of our women were girl-wives, and mostly pretty. One little handful of a thing had a fine baby boy, nearly as big as herself, and she looked so fragile and pale, and pretty and lonely, and had such an appealing light in her big shadowed brown eyes, and such a pathetic droop at the corners of her sweet little mouth, that you longed to take her in your manly arms — baby and all — and comfort her.
The last afternoon on high seas was spent in looking through glasses for the Pinnacles, off North Cape. And, as we neared the land, the commercial traveller remarked that he wouldn’t mind if there was a wreck now — provided we all got saved. ‘We’d have all our names in the papers,’ he said. ‘Gallant conduct of the passengers and crew. Heroic rescue by Mr. So-and-so — climbing the cliffs with a girl under his arm, and all that sort of thing.’
The chaps smiled a doleful smile, and turned away again to look at the Promised Land. They had had no anxiety to speak of for the last two or three days; but now they were again face to face with the cursed question, “How to make a living.” They were wondering whether or no they would get work in New Zealand, and feeling more doubtful about it than when they embarked.
Pity we couldn’t go to sea and sail away for ever, and never see land any more — or, at least, not till better and brighter days — if they ever come.
Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1896, pages 245-262
barny = (also spelt barney) argument, fight
blow = boast
boss-over-the-board = the boss of a shearing shed (the “board” is the area in the shearing shed where the shearing takes place)
chyack = (also spelt “chiack”) to taunt or tease in jest, to engage in good-natured banter (may also refer to jeering or taunting in an ill-natured manner)
cockie = a farmer (the term was used to refer to poor bush farmers, from having land so poor that they were jokingly said to only be able to farm cockies, i.e. cockatoos, a type of bird; however, it was later used to refer to farmers in general)
cove = man, chap, fellow
Never-Never = remote and isolated sparsely-inhabited desert country in Australia
on the wallaby = on the wallaby track; tramping the country roads as a swagman; in “The Swagman” (published in The Old Bush Songs, 1905), Banjo Paterson explains the term as “A nomad following the track of the wallaby, i.e., loafing aimlessly”
out-back = remote rural areas; sparsely-inhabited back country; often given as one word and capitalized, “Outback”
pathetic = something which evokes feelings of sadness or sorrow (may also refer to something which is considered inadequate, inferior, or beneath contempt)
push = a gang, commonly refers to a street gang; may also be used to refer to a group
saloon = saloon class on a ship was first class (for first class passengers, as distinct from second class and third class); although, on ships without any first class designation, saloon class could refer to second class (distinct from third class); saloon class cabins were generally bigger, less crowded (saloon class cabins could be shared cabins, but with fewer people sharing), and/or better positioned on a ship (e.g. away from the noise of a ship’s propellers); the designations, facilities, and conditions of passenger accommodation varied in relation to different ships and different time periods
shout = to buy drinks for others
swelling = acting the swell (“a swell” is someone who is fashionably dressed or socially prominent)
swop = (an alternative spelling of “swap”) to exchange
Vernacular spelling in the original text:
dontcherknow (don’t you know)
furst clarsters (first classes)
Noo South Wales (New South Wales)
uster (used to)
[Editor: Changed a double quotation mark to a single quotation mark in the third instance of “That’s where the”, in line with similar usage in the same story.]