THE AUSTRALIAN CHILD
His school and his games — “Bobbies and bushrangers” — Riding to school.
Australia is the child among civilized nations, and her life throughout is a good deal like that of a child in some regards — more gay and free, less weighed down with conventions and thoughts of rules than the life of an older community. So Australia is a very happy place for children. There is not so much of the “clean pinny” in life — and what wholesome child ever really enjoyed the clean pinny and the tidied hair part of life?
But don’t run away with the idea that the Australians, either adults or children, are a dirty people. That would be just the opposite to the truth. Australians are passionately fond of the bath. In the poorest home there is always a bath-room, which is used daily by every member of the family. On the sea-coast swimming is the great sport, though it is dangerous to swim in the harbours because of sharks, and protected baths are provided where you may swim in safety; still children have to be carefully watched to prevent them from going in for a swim in unsafe places. The love of the water is greater than the fear of the sharks. The little Australian is not dirty, but he has a child’s love of being untidy, and he can generally gratify it in his country, where conditions are so free and easy.
I am sorry to say that the Australian child is rather inclined to be a little too “free and easy” in his manners. The climate makes him grow up more quickly than in Great Britain. He is more precocious both mentally and physically. At a very early age, he (or she) is entrusted with some share of responsibility. That is quite natural in a new country where pioneering work is being done. You will see children of ten and twelve and fourteen years of age taking quite a part in life, entrusted with some little tasks, and carrying them through in grown-up fashion. The effect of all this is that in their relations with their parents Australian children are not so obedient and respectful as they might be. This does not work for any great harm while the child is young. Up to fifteen or sixteen the son or daughter is perhaps more helpful and more companionable because of the somewhat relaxed discipline. Certainly the child has learned more how to use its own judgment. After that age, however, the fact of a loose parental discipline may come to be an evil. But there is, after all, no need to croak about the Australian child, who grows up to be a good average sort of woman or man as a general rule.
It is very difficult indeed for a child in Australia to avoid school. Education is compulsory, the Government providing an elaborate system to see that every child gets at least the rudiments of education; even in the far back-blocks, where settlement is much scattered, it is necessary and possible to go to school. The State will carry the children to school on its railways free. If there is no railway it will send a ’bus round to collect children in scattered localities. Failing that, in the case of families which are quite isolated, and which are poor, the State will try to persuade the parents to keep a governess or tutor, and will help to pay the cost of this. The effect of all this effort is that in Australia almost every child can read and write.
Going to school in the Bush parts of Australia is sometimes great fun. Often the children will have the use of one of the horses, and on this two, or three, or even four children will mount and ride off. When the family number more than four, the case calls for a buggy of some sort; and a child of ten or twelve will be quite safely entrusted with the harnessing of the horse and driving it to school.
In the school itself, a great effort is made to have the lessons as interesting as possible. Nature-study is taught, and the children learn to observe the facts about the life in the Bush. There is a very charming writer about Australian children, Ethel Turner, who in one of her stories gives a picture of a little Bush school in one of the most dreary places in Australia — a little township out on the hot plains. I quote a little of it to show the sort of spirit which animates the school-teachers of Australia:
“A new teacher had been appointed to the half-time school, which was all the Government could manage for so unimportant and dreary a place. His name was Eagar, and his friends said that he suited the sound of it. Alert of eye, energetic in movement, it may be safely said that in his own person was stored up more motive power than was owned conjointly by the two hundred odd souls who comprised the population of Ninety Mile.
“There was room in Ninety Mile for an eager person. In fact, a dozen such would have sufficed long since to have carried it clean off its feet, and to have deposited it in some more likely position. But everyone touched in any way with the fire of life had long since departed from the place, and gone to set their homesteads and stackyards, their shops or other businesses elsewhere. So there were only a few limpets, who clung tenaciously to their spot, assured that all other spots on the globe were already occupied; and a few absolutely resigned persons. There is no clog on the wheel of progress that may be so absolutely depended upon to fulfil its purpose as resignation.
“It was to this manner of a village that Eagar came. In a month he had established a cricket club; in two months a football club. The establishment of neither was attended with any great difficulty. In three months he had turned his own box of books into a free circulating library, and many of his leisure hours went in trying to induce the boys to borrow from him, and in seeing to it that, having borrowed, they actually read the books chosen.
“But his success with this was doubtful. The boys regarded ‘Westward Ho!’ as a home-lesson, while the ‘Three Musketeers’ set fire to none of them. Even ‘Treasure Island’ left most of them cold; though Eagar, reading it aloud, had tried to persuade himself that little Rattray had breathed a trifle quicker as the blind man’s stick came tap tapping along the road. The sea was nothing but a name to the whole number of scholars (eighteen of them, boys and girls all told). Not one of them had pierced past the township that lay ninety miles away to the right of them; indeed, half the number had never journeyed beyond Moonee, where the coach finished its journey.
“Eagar got up collections — moths, butterflies, birds’ eggs; he tried to describe museums, picture-galleries, and such, to his pupils. At that time he had no greater wish on earth than to have just enough money to take the whole school to Sydney for a week, and see what a suddenly widened horizon would do for them all. Had his salary come at that time in one solid cheque for the whole year, there is no knowing to what heights of recklessness he would have mounted, but the monthly driblets keep the temptation far off.
“One morning he had a brilliant notion. In another week or two the yearly ‘sweep’ fever for far-distant races would attack the place, and the poorest would find enough to take a part at least in a ticket.
“He seized a piece of paper, and instituted what he called ‘Eagar’s Consultation.’ He explained that he was out to collect sixty shillings. Sixty shillings, he explained, would pay the fare-coach and train — to Sydney of one schoolboy, give him money in his pocket to see all the sights, and bring him back the richer for life for the experience, and leaven for the whole loaf of them.
“‘Which schoolboy?’ said Ninety Mile doubtfully, expecting to be met with ‘top boy.’ And never having been ‘top boy’ itself at any time of its life, it had but a distrustful admiration for the same.
“‘We must draw lots,’ said Eagar.
“Upon which Ninety Mile, being attracted by the sporting element in the affair, slowly subscribed its shilling a-piece, and the happy lot fell to Rattray.
“He was a sober, freckled little fellow of ten, who walked five miles into Ninety Mile every morning, and five miles back again at night all the six months of the year during which Government held the cup of learning there for small drinkers to sip.”
I need not quote further about young Rattray’s trip to Sydney and to the great ocean which Bush children, seeing for the first time, often think is just a big dam built up by some great squatter to hold water for his sheep. That extract shows the Bush school at its very hardest in the hot back-country. Of course, not one twentieth of the population lives in such places. I must give you a little of a description of a day in a Bush school in Gippsland, by E. S. Emerson, to correct any impression that all Australia, or even much of it, is like Ninety Mile:
“A rough red stave in a God-writ song was the narrow, water-worn Bush track, and the birds knew the song and gloried in it, and the trees gave forth an accompaniment under the unseen hands of the wind until all the hillside was a living melody. Child voices joined in, and presently from a bend in the track, ‘three ha’pence for tuppence, three ha’pence for tuppence,’ came a lumbering old horse, urged into an unwonted canter. Three kiddies bestrode the ancient, and as they swung along they sang snatches of Kipling’s ‘Recessional,’ to an old hymn-tune that lingers in the memory of us all. As they drew near to me the foremost urchin suddenly reined up. The result was disastrous, for the ancient ‘propped,’ and the other two were emptied out on the track. From the dust they called their brother many names that are not to be found in school books; but he, laughing, had slid down and was cutting a twig from a neighbouring tree. ‘A case-moth! A case-moth!’ he cried. The fallen ones scrambled to their feet. ‘What sort, Teddy? What sort?’ they asked eagerly.
“But Teddy had caught sight of me.
“‘Well, what will you do with that?’ I asked.
“‘Take it to school, sir; teacher tells us all about them at school.’ The answer was spoken naturally and without any trace of shyness.
“‘Did you learn that hymn you were singing at school, too?’
“‘’Tain’t a hymn, sir. It’s the “Recessional”!’ This, proudly, from the youngest.
“But they had learned it at school, and when I had given them a leg-up and stood watching them urge the ancient down the hillside, I made up my mind that I would visit the school where the teacher told the scholars all about case-moths and taught them to sing the ‘Recessional’; and a morning or two later I did.
Australian children riding to school.
“The school stands on the skirt of a thinly-clad Gippsland township, and is attended by from forty to fifty children. Fronting it is a garden — a sloping half-acre set out into beds, many of which are reserved for native flowering plants and trees. School is not ‘in’ yet, and a few early comers are at work on the beds, which are dry and dusty from a long, hot spell. Little tots of six and seven years stroll up and watch the workers, or romp about on grass plots in close proximity. Presently the master’s voice is heard. ‘Fall in!’ There is a gathering up of bags, a hasty shuffling of feet, the usual hurry-scurry of laggards, and in a few moments two motionless lines stand at attention. ‘Good-morning, girls! Good-morning, boys!’ says the master. A chorused ‘Good-morning, Mr. Morgan!’ returns his salutation, and then the work of the day begins.
“But do the scholars look upon it as work? Something over thirty years ago Herbert Spencer wrote: ‘She was at school, where her memory was crammed with words and names and dates, and her reflective faculties scarcely in the slightest degree exercised.’ In those days, as many old State-school boys well remember, to learn was, indeed, to work, and when fitting occasion offered, we ‘wagged it’ conscientiously, even though we did have to ‘touch our toes’ for it when we returned. But under our modern educational system the teacher can make the school work practically a labour of love.
“The morning being bright, the children are put through some simple exercises and encouraged to take a few ‘deep breathings.’ Then the lines are formed again. ‘Left turn! Quick march!’ and the scholars file into the schoolhouse.”
But we need not follow the school in its day’s work, except to say that the ideal always is to make the work alive and interesting. Naturally, Australian children get to like school.
In the cities the schools are very good. All the State schools are absolutely free, and even books are provided. A smart child can win bursaries, and go from the primary school to the high school, and then on to the University, and win to a profession without his education costing his parents anything at all. When I was a boy the State of Tasmania used to send every year two Tasmanian scholars to Oxford University, giving them enough to pay for a course there. That has since been stopped, but many Australians come to British Universities now — mostly to Oxford and Edinburgh — with money provided by their parents. There are, however, excellent Universities in the chief cities of Australia, and there is no actual need to leave the Commonwealth to complete one’s education.
In the Bush, and indeed almost everywhere — for there is no city life which has not a touch of the Bush life — Australian children grow to be very hardy and very stoical. They can endure great hardship and great pain. I remember hearing of a boy in the Maitland (N.S.W.) district whose horse stumbled in a rabbit-hole and fell with him. The boy’s thigh was broken and the horse was prostrate on top of him, and did not seem to wish to move. The boy stretched out his hand and got a stick, with which he beat the horse until it rose, keeping the while a hold of the reins. Then, with his broken thigh, that boy mounted the horse (which was not much hurt), rode home, and read a book whilst waiting for the doctor to come and set his limb. Another boy I knew in Australia was bitten by a snake on the finger; with his blunt pocket-knife he cut the finger off and walked home. He suffered no ill effects from the snake-poison.
Endurance of hardship and pain is taught by the life of the Australian Bush. It is no place for the cowardly or for the tender. You must learn to face and to subdue Nature.
The games of the Australian child are just the British games, changed a little to meet local conditions. A very favourite game is that of “Bushrangers and Bobbies” (“bobbies” meaning policemen). In this the boys imitate as nearly as they can the old hunting down of the bushrangers by the mounted police.
The bushranger made a good deal of exciting history in Australia. Generally he was a scoundrel of the lowest type, an escaped murderer who took to the Bush to escape hanging, and lived by robbery and violence. But a few — a very few — were rather of the type of the English Robin Hood or the Scotch Rob Roy, living a lawless life, but not being needlessly cruel. It is those few who have given basis to the tradition of the Australian bushranger as a noble and chivalrous fellow who only robbed the rich (who, people argue, could well afford to be robbed), and who atoned for that by all sorts of kindness to the poor. Many books have been written on this tradition, glorifying the bushranger. But the plain fact is that most of the bushrangers were infamous wretches for whom hanging was a quite inadequate punishment.
The bushranger, as a rule, was an escaped convict or a criminal fleeing from justice. Sometimes he acted singly, sometimes he had a gang of followers. A cave in some out-of-the-way spot, good horses and guns, were his necessary equipment. The site of the cave was important. It needed to be near a coaching-road, so that the bushranger’s headquarters should be near to his place of business, which was to stick-up mail-coaches and rob them of gold, valuables, weapons, and ammunition. It also needed to be in a position commanding a good view, and with more than one point of entrance. Two bushrangers’ caves I remember well, one near to Armidale, on the great northern high-road. It was at the top of a lofty hill, commanding a wide view of the country. There was no outward sign of a cave even to the close observer. A great granite hill seemed to be crowned with just loose boulders. But in between those boulders was a winding passage which gave entrance to a big cave with a little fresh-water stream. A man and his horse could take shelter there.
Another famous bushranger’s cave was near Medlow, on the Blue Mountains (N.S.W.), in a position to command the Great Western Road, along which the gold from Lambing Flat and Sofala had to go to Sydney. This was quite a perfect cave for its purpose. Climbing down a mountain gully, you came to its end, apparently, in a stream of water gushing from out a wall of rock. But behind that rock was a narrow passage leading to a cave which opened out into a little valley with another stream, and some good grass-land. To this valley the only means of access was the secret passage through the cave, which allowed a man and his horse to pass through. A gang of bushrangers kept this eyrie for many years undiscovered.
The latest big gang of bushrangers were the Kelly brothers, who infested Victoria. Ned Kelly was famous because he wore a suit of armour sufficiently strong to resist the rifle bullet of that day. The Kellys were finally driven to cover in a little country hotel in Victoria. They held the place against a siege by the police until the police set fire to it. Some of the gang perished in the flames. Others, including Ned Kelly himself, broke out and were shot or captured. He was hanged in Melbourne gaol.
But this is getting far away from the Australian children’s games. It is a curious fact that when the Australian children assemble to play “Bushrangers and Bobbies,” everybody wants to be a bushranger, and the guardian of the law is looked upon as quite an inferior character. Lots decide, however, the cast. The bushrangers sally forth and stick up an imaginary coach, or rob an imaginary country bank. The “bobbies” go in pursuit, and there is a desperate mock battle, which allows of much yelling and running about, and generally causes great joy.
“Camping out” is another characteristic amusement of the Australian child. In his school holidays, parties go out, sometimes for weeks at a time, sailing around the reaches of the sea inlets, or, inland, following the course of some river, and hunting kangaroos and other game as they go. Generally adults accompany these parties, but when an Australian boy has reached the age of fifteen or sixteen he is credited with being able to look after himself, and is trusted to sail a boat and to carry a firearm. I can remember once on the way down to National Park (N.S.W.) for the Field Artillery camp, at one of the suburban stations there broke into the carriage reserved for officers, with a cheerful impudence that defied censure, a little band of boys. They had not a shoe among them, nor had anyone a whole suit of clothes. But they carried proudly fishing tackle and some rags of canvas which would help, with boughs, to build a rough shelter hut. The remainder of the train being full, they invaded the officers’ carriage and made themselves comfortable. They were out for a few days’ “camp” in the National Park. For about ten shillings they would hire a rowing-boat for three days. Railway fares would be sixpence or ninepence per head. A good deal of their food they would catch with fishing lines; bread, jam, a little bacon, and, of course, the “billy” and its tea were brought with them. This was the great yearly festival, planned probably for many weeks beforehand, calling for much thought for its accomplishment, showing the sturdy spirit which is characteristic of the young Australian.
All the usual British games are played in Australia: tops, hoops, marbles among the younger children; cricket, football, lawn-tennis among their elders. The climate is especially suited for cricket, as it is warm and bright and sunny for so long a term of the year. On a holiday in the parks around the Australian cities may be seen many hundreds of cricket matches. All the schools have their teams. Most of the shops and factories keep up teams among the employees. These teams play in competitions with all the earnestness of big cricket. As the players grow better they join the electorate clubs. In every big parliamentary division there is an electorate club, made up of residents in that electorate. The club may put into the field as many as four teams in a day — its senior team and three junior teams. So there is an enormous amount of play — real serious match play — every Saturday afternoon and public holiday. Australia thus trains some of the finest cricketers of the world. For some years now (1911) the Australian Eleven has held the championship of the world.
The Australian child of the poorer classes usually leaves school at fourteen. The children of the richer may stay at school and the University until nineteen or twenty. Usually they launch out into life by then. Australia is a young country, and its conditions call for young work.
That finishes this “Peep at Australia.” I have tried to give the young readers some little indication of what features of Australian life will most interest them. The picture is of a land which appeals very strongly to the adventurous type of the Anglo-Celtic race. I have never yet met a British man or boy who was of the right manly type who did not love Australian life after a little experience. The great distances, the cheery hospitality, the sunny climate, the sense of social freedom, the generous return which Nature gives to the man who offers her honest service — all these appeal and make up the sum of that strong attraction Australia has to her own children and to colonists from the Motherland.