I acknowledge the Traditional Owners on whose land I walk, I work and I live. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and future.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Women, past and present

Recently I saw advertised in the Herbert River Express that local woman Kerry Russo, who is the Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning with James Cook University's College of Business, Law and Governance, gave a talk at a public event. If I recall correctly, part of her talk was about local women having to, or choosing to, pursue careers outside of the local community. Unbeknown to the wider community there are a surprising number of local women who, at this present moment, commute to other cities or towns or out to mining sites in order to hold down a job. They do this for a range of reasons. To pursue their hard earned careers and/or to support their families are two primary reasons. Meanwhile they are still, daughters, wives and mothers and still endeavour to be part of and active in their local community. It is a juggling act. It requires determination, persistence, commitment and grit. I am in awe of my fellow women as I am sure their families are.

As I have researched and read our local history over the years I have often felt in awe of the women of the past that I have encountered. Many of the facilities we take for granted today, schools, churches, hospitals and hotels for example, would not have been built if it had not been for their efforts and generosity. Their lives with errant drunkard husbands, with the absence of the finer things of life, far from home and family, living daily with the dangers of childbirth and disease and the menace of a strange environment and animals, their lives tells a tale of unimaginable hardship and sheer  bravery.

Take Maria Ferrero, who, fired by determination to have her children educated in a Catholic school by religious Sisters, rode tirelessly on horseback from door to door in the lower Halifax area seeking donations for a convent building fund. As a result of her and her community’s determination the Halifax Convent School, with boarding facilities for boys, opened on July 3 1927.  In a time of poor roads, unbridged rivers and creeks and most farming families still using horse drawn vehicles school attendance could be spasmodic. The boarding school offered a chance of reliable school attendance. 
Angelina Borello (nee Ruffinengo) came to Australia as a single woman at the age of 21. She already had brothers in the Herbert River district who were cutting cane.  A respected midwife, she conducted a maternity hospital at Lannercost from 1927 until 1937, and is said to have delivered thousands of babies. She offered an accessible, safer and more comfortable alternative than home birth. While she was very talented there were deliveries when complications arose. Imagine her anxiety as she awaited the arrival of Dr. Morrissey and his expert help. But to reach her was no easy matter, especially in the wet season. Just past Erba’s store in Trebonne there was a persistent boggy patch in the road. Whenever he was called by Mrs Borello, her sons, Joe and Ernie, would have to go down to the store to lift his car through the bog. The reverse would have to happen for his journey back to Ingham! Further to the comfort and help she gave to mothers and their babies she was generous in other ways. We learn from Parish records that it was only through her generous donation of land in 1933 that the Church of Our Lady of Pompeii could be built at Lannercost. Like the country schools, bush churches were vital to the life of farming people in the days when going into Ingham town could be a rare event. The country schools and churches were easier to reach and around them developed a sense of community. The school could be a dance hall of a weekend and fund raising for church or school gave families reason to gather at each other’s homes for euchre or florin evenings.

The bravery of women, single, alone or widowed with children who arrived in the Herbert River district in the 1870s when the district was being opened up to European settlement is mind boggling. By the time the Mackenzie family established the Gairloch mill and plantation in 1872 it consisted of father William Mackenzie, a retired Presbyterian Minister, and five siblings and the partner of one of those children. Isabella Mackenzie was unmarried when she arrived in the district. Then Sligo, later Ingham, was no more than a camping ground and potential husbands while more numerous than eligible woman were still thin on the ground. Her sights settled on one William Stewart who had been engaged by the family to manage Gairloch. Apparently she married him “much to the astonishment of every one, and it did not result in a happy life for her.” An episode that happened to him is worth digressing for, for it gives you an idea of what sort of man she had to contend with. He was ‘fishing’ in the river one day, not with a fishing line, but with dynamite. He held the charge too long and it blew his right hand clean off.  Two days passed before a doctor could be got from Townsville to attend to the wound. Luckily the stump didn’t go gangrenous, but healed and from then on he wore a hook attached to it. We don’t know much of Isabella Stewart’s life with the foolhardy William, apart from that one quoted record of community dismay and his illfated fishing expedition, but we do know that when she arrived in the Herbert River district she was accompanied by another Isabella, the plucky widow Isabella Campbell with children in the folds of her skirt and a head full of hearty Scottish recipes. She may have had a better eye for good husband material for she quickly settled on George Wickham. He had a property called Cowden which he had selected in 1872. The landing for river vessels on his property was known as Wickham’s Landing. There he and his new wife, Isabella opened a hotel in 1875 called the Planter’s Retreat. Situated conveniently half way between Gairloch and the Camping Reserve it became an alternative venue to the family home for weddings. It was renowned for its pure liquor and good Scottish cooking.

Death was a constant companion to everyday pioneering life. Childbirth was a risky business that Mrs Borello helped to make less risky in the early twentieth century. But maternity and infant mortality in the first days of European settlement were tragically high. When Mrs Skinner’s baby took sick with diphtheria she and her husband set off with the baby from Halifax in a desperate effort to seek medical help in Ingham. Unfortunately as they stopped to rest the tired horse under the shade of mango trees the baby died in his mother’s arms. With death so common, there was little help or sympathy for the grief of those who lost a loved one. Laudanum and sleep were the stock panacea for the first days of grief. The depth of Mrs. Skinner’s grief can only be imagined but her son recalled that it took a long, long time for her to find some peace and recalled that poignant evening when she went for a walk to the gate and looking up at the starry sky she found peace as last and was able to move on from the loss of her baby.
Douglass, William A. From Italy to Ingham: Italians in North Queensland. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1995.
Recipes of  Yesteryear. Halifax: Herbert River Museum Gallery Inc. 1992.
Skinner, F. Memories of Early Halifax. January, 1979. 
Vidonja Balanzategui, Bianka. Portrait of a Parish: A History of Saint Patrick's Church and Parish Ingham 1864-1996. Ingham: St Patrick's Parish, 1998.
Vidonja Balanzategui, Bianka. Herbert River Story. Ingham: Hinchinbrook Shire Council, 2011.
Planters' Retreat Hotel, 1876. Source: Hinchinbrook Shire Library Photograph Collection.

Gairloch Plantation House, 187? Source: Hinchinbrook Shire Library Photograph Collection

Tennis Party at Gairloch Plantation House, 1875. Source: Hinchinbrook Shire Library Photograph Collection

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