Meeting the Pastoralists of my Family

Before I take you back to the commencement of William Lyons’ career in 1890, I wish to impart my own memories of a trip I made many years ago into the heart of the land where that career began.  I am assuming of course, that he was involved in Shearers’ Strike of 1891.  He joined the Mackay Militia in 1890 and the following year 43 soldiers plus 9 officers were sent from Mackay to the centre of unrest.  To date, however, I cannot find any records of military personnel who were involved.

And if anyone who reads this post was with me when my story took place you are welcome to impart your own memories as comments and I apologize if my recollections of 37 years ago are inaccurate in any way. 

oOo

Stepping onto the tarmac at Longreach, I entered a world that was quieter than silence itself, and  into the expansive circling arms of an horizon that reached beyond infinity.  This was my inaugural visit to the Queensland Outback in 1978.  I was a young 19 years old who greeted this new world with wide and hungry eyes.

My eyes were transfixed to the window as my cousin Mary Le Feurve flew our small aircraft above the wide open plains that swept across the outback from Townsville to Longreach.  I had joined the flight along with Mary’s Mother Thera and cousin Johnny O’Brien. As Mary brought the craft bumping and thumping onto the dusty airstrip, we were thrown into a world where I had neither been nor seen before

A tall thin man, perhaps in his sixties was waiting for us on arrival.  His features, after all these years I cannot discern, but his dress, as it did on the morning of our first encounter, still clings vividly to my memory.

“Good morning, I’m Bartley.” he greeted us with a stiff lift of his felt squatters hat, followed by an outstretched hand that appeared from the sleeve of a jacket that was too formal for a simple trip to town. However, we were to learn that it was normal attire for a country squire.

Bartley Deane was my Grandfather’s cousin, a sheep grazier and he was our host for the weekend. As he drove us along the miles of straight dusty road to the station, we crossed a battle-scarred landscape that had been ravaged by nature’s wrath. Rains were scant that year and drought had been declared.  Nature’s refusal to give in to the desperate calls from the men on the land, left the sunburnt plains brown and lifeless; not a blade of grass could be seen for miles.  The paddocks were inhabited by poor skeletal sheep struggling to stay alive; the misery of some ended by the slice of Bartley’s knife right before our eyes.  These were indeed trying times for my relatives, the Deanes.

Despite the hardships that year presented, the grand old homestead of Bimba Station still clung to remnants of a very grand past.  In the evening we watched the sunset from the 20 foot wide verandah that circumnavigated the house, mingling with the spirits of those who inhabited the Deane Family tree. Bartley’s wife Kate told us stories of the glory days, when the house was brimming with faces of family, servants, cooks, stockmen, shearers and roustabouts.  She marvelled at how the verandahs transformed on Saturday nights into a ballroom, full of fun and gaiety.

“Neighbours and town folk alike came for miles,” she told us with pure joy in her voice. “You could see the lights of Bimba from afar.”

My attention clung to her every word as I pictured glamorous ladies sparkling from the jewels that fell from the necklines of satin dresses; their shiny tresses pulled up into French twists and held firmly with diamonte clips. There were mouth opening gasps as beautiful young ladies arrived on the arms of their handsome beaus.  Oh how I wished I could be a bird on the verandah rail to tap my foot to the piano’s jingling beat and await some handsome young farmer to sweep me off my feet….

“Yes,” Kate reminisced with a tear in her eye. “Those were wonderful times.”

In the living room, we sat alongside family heirlooms that graced almost every space. As we listened to Kate’s recollections, I found myself mesmerised as she resurrected a world that was a world away from the one that I knew.  Her constant stream of anecdotes pulled me further and further into that wondrous web of a heritage that wove the rich and colourful tapestry of her family.

I am forever thankful for my memories of that cold winter’s evening spent in the smoky warmth of the huge stone hearth.  Hailing from the farms on the coast, we had not been schooled in the etiquette of our Outback counterparts. Dressed casually in clothes for warmth rather than style, we felt inadequately dressed compared to our hosts.  I couldn’t help admiring Bartley’s brown tweed jacket, shirt and tie.  However, despite the appearance of a rich country Squire, he was neither boastful nor brash.  He possessed a quiet aristocratic reserve, his personality perhaps overshadowed by Kate’s effervescence that lit the floor with a sparkle I had never encountered before.  She was an enthralling storyteller, she possessed a gift that I very much admired.

“Dinner is ready,” Kate announced in the grandest manner, as she wheeled the first of a series of trolleys laden with silver domes from the covered walkway that joined the kitchen to the house.  My eyes were fixated upon the glittering procession which stopped at the end of the long timber table where Bartley, the perfect host, proceeded to carve the roast.  Yes it was a dining experience I will forever cherish in a world that no longer exists.  It was a fascinating evening spent time travelling in the company of rich family traditions; fascinating ancestors plucked from the Deane family tree and the wonderful characters that our hosts proved to be.

Times were tough for pastoralists in the year 1978.  The grand old homestead was listed with the National Trust, although neither they nor the Deane family had the money for improvements, and the enduring drought had reduced the garden to dust.

Wandering through the outhouses of the property that housed the shearers, in the season, I imagined the sheds echoing  with the hustle and bustle of sweaty men and buzzing shears tearing through pens of bleating sheep.  Running my fingers through remnant strands of soft woolly fleece I held some to my face, savouring the soothing scent of lanolin; trying to capture the essence of the world I discovered that weekend.

Despite the drought, there were no signs of the trouble that raged through properties like Bimba back in 1891.  Pastoralists like Bartley Deane, found themselves embroiled in a battle that saw Queensland on the brink of Civil War.  It was the year of the Shearers’ Strikes.  It also coincided with the beginning of the military career of Bartley’s uncle, William Lyons.

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William Joins the Militia

9 years earlier….before the Boer War

Bystanders stood entranced as they watched the Lyons family slowly proceed down Mackay’s dusty street.  1890 was to be the year of change. The family had been looking forward to moving from the isolation of their cattle station near the outback village of Banana.  Mackay, a growing town on the coast, represented a new start.  As William held the reins in his hands,  he glanced sideways at the groups of onlookers by the road’s edge.  Without so much as a wave of his hand or tilt of his hat, he quickly returned his focus on the road ahead, mesmerized by the clip clopping of the horses hooves.  His mother Mary sat beside him, her black gloved hands clasped tightly together, holding his three year old brother Austin firmly on her lap. His two brothers John and Edwin, along with his sisters Lilly and Tottie followed in sulkies forming a procession that marked the beginning of a new life, but it was not the beginning that they had hoped for.

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Lyons/Pearce family photo.  Mary Lyons is seated at front left.  Her two daughters are standing at the back right hand side. I would hazard a guess that the elderly lady seated in black could be Mary’s Mother and the lady to her right would be Mary’s sister.

 

Keeping his horse clip clopping at an even pace, William made sure his sulky kept a safe distance from the vehicle that led the procession directly in front of him.  He desperately tried not to look beyond his horses bobbing head, but black ostrich plumes flickered in his peripheral vision; fluttering their fickle fingers of death, as a cruel reminder that anyone, at any time, can be struck off this living earth forever.  Thoughts of his Father consumed him with a tiredness that fell heavily on his head and shoulders, pushing his weary eyes to fall upon the horse drawn hearse ahead.

He remembered his father worrying about his Mother being alone so much out there in the Dawson Valley.  “Son,” He had said, “I worry about the blacks.  One day, yer Ma might just not be able to fend them off.”

“But, I can shoot a gun!” he had chided, disappointed that his Father lacked confidence in his ability.

Being the eldest child, he always felt it was his responsibility to look after his Mother.  That was how it was in the bush.  Their nearest neighbours were miles away and the only way to seek help was by horseback or bullock dray.  Admittedly, there had been some close calls.

Memories of awaking in the middle of the night by the crack of a rifle, still clung to his being, as if it had happened yesterday.  Padda was away and Ma come rushing into his room in a flustered state.

“Will, are ye awake?” His Mother’s whispering voice was agitated, bordering on panic.

They quietly awoke the younger children and ushered them safely beneath Ma’s bed.  They then felt their way along the darkness of the hallway, into the sitting room, where they leaned against the front wall of the homestead, peering through gaps in the timber slats. The dim grey moonlight came filtering through the gap between the heavy hand knitted curtains and the window, bouncing softly off the cold metal of Ma’s loaded gun.

Startled by a volley of gunfire, they could then hear yelling voices and galloping hooves of horses hitting the hardened dirt outside. All they could do was wait in fear, hoping the moment would pass.  There was a deathly silence followed by heavy boots sounding on the verandah floor and then a rapping on the front door.  William and Mary looked at each other, frozen to the spot, unable to speak.

“Mr Lyons!”a gruff voice yelled from the other side of the door. “tis the Police!”

William and Mary immediately recognized the voice of the local Police Sergeant.

“I’m so glad tis you Sergeant!” blurted Mary as she unbolted the door. “My John is away.”

“You’re lucky my Constable and I were doing our patrols tonight, Mrs Lyons.” He said.  “We spotted a group of aborigines lurking awful close to your homestead.  They were armed with spears and knives.”

“Oh Lord!” Mary made the sign of the cross with her spare hand.

“Was anyone shot?” William asked as he placed his arm around his Mother’s shoulders.

The Policeman nodded his head in reply. “One man. We’ve rounded up the others. We’ll wait until first light and take them into town.”

“You know, Mrs Lyons,” his voice was one of concern as he looked down at the gun in her hand.  “you might not be so lucky next time.  I hope you know how to use that there thing in your hand.”

William knew in his heart that his father had made the right decision to sell the property and resettle in Mackay.  He too had feared a “next time”.  As the procession neared the Mackay Cemetery gates, he already knew what his own future would hold.  Like his Pada, he had made a life-changing decision.  He knew with an unshakable certainty what he wanted to do with his life. He loved the outdoors and riding horses, the things he loved most about their life in the bush.  Living in the bush had also taught him the importance of defending the wellbeing of those who are precious in his life.

Yes, Pada, I’m going to make you proud.’ He spoke aloud as he watched his father’s coffin being transported through the cemetery gates.  ‘I’m going to join the Militia, so I can make a difference in this God forsaken world!’

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William Lyons (Centre)

I’m Going to Fight the Boers!

Receiving William’s war records marked a major milestone in my journey of discovery.  Up until then, I only knew that he had fought in the Boer War and Egypt during World War One.  I knew little, if anything, about either of the two wars.  I knew even less about my Great Grandfathers experiences during his life as a combatant soldier.  As we curiously admired his wartime memorabilia that was housed in those old cupboards, we still gained little appreciation of the stories and perhaps emotions of sadness and despair that clung to those items.   It was by reading those war records, that suddenly brought the reality of those battles to life.

He would never know of the excitement I felt as I read his personal details; that he was born in Banana, Queensland in 1873; that his complexion was dark, his eyes blue and his hair dark brown; that he was a slight 10 stone and he had a well-marked scar on his left shin.  As trivial as these details seem, they are something tangible, something that added a degree of realism to the picture of William the man, and something that fuelled my hunger to learn more.

I was curious why he enlisted at all.  By the time this war broke out, he was a 41 years old husband and father.  However as I read the details of his prior military service, the answer to my question became clear.  He joined the Queensland Militia at age 17, serving 8 years and 11 months; he served in South Africa for 1 year and 3 months; he was with the permanent forces as an instructor for 9 years and 5 months; and he served as an honorary Lieutenant with 27th Light Horse for 15 months.  Effectively, he had served with the military for approximately 20 years.  It was these experiences that earned him the title of “the Military Man”.  He had served with the military for most of his working life.

William Lyons & sisters Tottie and Lily

William Lyons (centre), with his two sisters Tottie and Lily (not sure which is which)

Will was a single 26 years old when he came home in 1899 and announced to his Mother that he was going to South Africa to fight the Boers.  I can imagine Mary Lyons seated in her favourite chair in the upstairs parlour of the family’s hotel in Mackay, listening to her son speak. His words are not pleasing to her ears. They float mid-air, like a bad odour she wishes to escape. She wants to speak, but couldn’t find her voice.  She listens to the tick tocking rhythm of the large mantle clock for what seems like an eternity.

She cannot understand why Will would want to fight for a cause that has no bearing on their life in Australia, her family’s land of opportunity.  She remembers her parents speaking of the hardships in the homeland.  Ireland under British rule was oppressive at best, especially for Catholic folk like themselves.  Her Mother had often told her of the poorly conditions aboard the ship as they sailed in 1851 towards what they hoped would be a better life.  The ship was crammed with other poor wretched families like themselves, all existing on a whiff of their hopes and dreams.  As the days dragged into weeks, shortages of food and disease paid a huge price, the cost being life itself.  Those ships became known as the “Coffin Ships”.  It was a miracle that Mary who was only 12 months old, survived at all, when so many other babes and children perished at sea.

Finally, she pleads, “Son, why do you want to fight a war that is not yours?”

“So, Ma, would yer rather I go and fight with the Boers?” Will quips.

“No, Will, I would rather yer not go at all.”

“I’ll be alright Ma.”  Will smiles at his Mother.

Mary Lyons (Mother of William)

Mary Lyons (nee Pearce)

Mary looks down at her lap, fiddling with the rosary she held in her weathered hands, maps of her hardworking life. Then she twists the worn gold band on her wedding finger, silently wishing her late husband John was here to reassure her that everything would be okay.  She wishes now that William, her eldest boy had continued his career as a miner, rather than continue with the Militia.  She knows that his rewards were minimal, but given the choice of a son of minimal means over one who deliberately places himself in harm’s way, she knew which she would choose.

“Will, being a midwife, I have seen the miracle of life over and over again.  Those first sounds of life when a babe takes its first breath…it is the miracle work of God.  Do ya understand what I’m saying to yer son?

Without letting him answer, she continues, “What I am trying to say is that I dread the day I might be told that one of my own has taken his last breath.”

She looks down at her hands entwined with black rosary beads and when she lifts her head again, her eyes glisten from tears.

“tis not natural son for a child to die before his Mother. Tat’s all.”

“Ma, you needn’t worry about me, I have had years of training.”  Will tries to reassure his Mother. “I’ve been with the Militia for 9 years.”

Mary is aware of her son’s adventuristic spirit; it is a quality that she has always admired, along with his inquiring mind.  As she fiddles with the rosary, she silently prays for the answers, from God or from her husband John. None were forthcoming.

Finally, she lifts the edge of her white apron and wipes her eyes before standing.  She straightens the creases of her apron and long black gathered skirt before taking the few steps across the timber floor to where Will sat across from her.  She bends down, placing one hand on his shoulder, places a kiss on his head and softly says, “I’ll be praying for you son.  I’ll be praying every day for yer safe return.”

 

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Discovering the Military Man

The doors of those old cupboards had remained securely nailed until the house was eventually sold in 1985.  Following the sale, the contents of the house were relocated to my Grandparent’s empty house on the family farm, near Giru, North Queensland. Along with the cupboards, there were various boxes that had been sealed decades before and which would remain so for another decade.  For years, my sisters, my parents and I held court over our miniature museum.  We were guardians over more than a century of memories.  There were memories of family times with four young boys on the sugar cane farm of “Fontenoy”, and there were dark clouded memories of war. At the end of each session of exploration and admiration, we would gently place each item back in its rightful home and reclose the doors.  We always wore a hat of guardianship rather than that of ownership.  The items in those old cupboards belonged to my Great Grandparents, and although they were no longer here in person, the spirit of their memory was indeed an overwhelming presence.

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As we preened the contents of those old timber cupboards we had no idea of the significance of what we were admiring.  I enjoyed countless hours immersing my soul in brittle gilded pages of Egyptian art; albums of vintage postcards from Egypt, Sinai and Suez Canal; brass vases engraved with Egyptian hieroglyphics; and I can still recall the moment I opened a small leather bound pocket book.  It was my Great Grandfather’s war diary written in 1917.  Inside the front cover were the words “Merry Christmas Dadda, from the boys,” scribed by a child’s copybook hand.

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It took a few more years to realize the significance of my find. Each time I explored the contents of those old cupboards, it felt like an archaeological dig; forever mindful of the history we held in our hands; of the fragility of items that were being subjected to the air for the first time in possibly 70 years.  I felt like Howard Carter opening the tomb of Tutankhamun.  My treasure may not have been as grand, but for our family it was indeed just as important.

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One Sunday in August 1995, my cousin Donna and I were exploring the cupboards in our Grandparent’s house when we noticed a smallish cardboard box sitting against the wall.  Sitting cross legged in the dirt and cobwebs that carpeted the floor, I folded back the flaps of the box.  Inside was a parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied with jute string.  Lifting it out of the box, I placed it in my lap and untied the string bow as carefully as my Great Grandmother had tied it decades before.  As the string fell to the floor, the brown paper wrapping struggled to stay apart. Holding it in place, I found myself staring down at a handsome sepia face.

His was a handsome face with alert, piercing eyes and a moustache that brushed his mouth.  He stood tall and proud in the uniform of a soldier, one gloved hand grasping a cane, the other by his side, and an officer’s cap shaded his brow.  His thin elongated neck and his slight swayed stance, I had seen before.  Was it my Grandfather? Or perhaps his brothers?  Maybe it was all? I turned the photo over in anticipation of finding his identity.  The words scribed in ink on the back confirmed what I already knew it read Lt. W.M.J. Lyons.

WMJ portrait

“So, this is what the ole boy looks like!” Donna exclaimed, grabbing the photo from my hands.

“Yes,” I said, excited beyond words. “At last we have found our Great Grandfather, the Military Man.”