The Blythe Homestead


Tom Blythe was a normal boy. He was six years old when he, his little sister, Jane, and his parents, John and Martha, moved to Australia. Tom was born in Richmond, England, but life there had been very hard for his parents. Tom’s father had been sacked from his job as a miller when the mill burnt down to ruins in that terrible storm. The owner of the mill didn’t have the money to rebuild it and John Blythe had been far from having enough money to give it try. His wife had been the only one to bring in some shillings for doing the laundry for some rich folks. Her salary had barely covered the food they needed.

When John and Martha decided to sell the little house they owned to be able to buy four tickets to Australia, Tom didn’t really care. He didn’t know exactly where Australia was but he knew that it was far away from England. Farther away than London even. To Tom it was the beginning of an adventure. He would go on a big ship for the first time of his life and his parents had said the journey would take over three months! He knew that was a very long time, but again Tom didn’t care.

After they had arrived in Australia and settled all their immigration papers, they started to look for a job. The opportunities in Australia were plentiful. With a little bit of money you could claim a pretty piece of land and farm it. Or you could dig for gold and become rich within a month! Or you could work on a farm which they called ‘station’ in Australia and earn money as a farm hand. Even in the cities there was enough work. If Martha wanted to she could open up her own laundry service. However, Martha wanted something different, as did John. They worked some day jobs here and there or helped out on some farms just to make enough to be able to pay the rent for the little apartment they had.

One day John got a letter from a friend up in Darwin. It said there was some farmland available up north and anybody who was a hard worker could set up his own station there. John talked to Martha and the decision was made to move to Darwin. Darwin was in the very north of Australia, in the Northern Territory. The climate there would be very different to what they had been used to so far. The transition from England to Australia itself had been a huge different, but up in Darwin it would be even more different.

They arrived in Darwin during dry season which meant that the temperature was warm, but not too bad. But as the name suggests it’s a dry and dusty season. The Blythes didn’t mind. As long as they could build up their own station with some cattle and some fields to grow some crops all was good. John Blythe went to the department of land and looked at the map. There was a huge area open for settlement and farming. He informed himself about the creeks and river in the areas and looked for other interesting aspects in the claims. After perusing for some time and getting the information about the claims he was interested in, he decided to put his claim down for a property south of Darwin. It looked very promising. It was very big and had good cattle and horse breeding possibilities. What was more interesting though was the little mountain range. John had found out that there was a very good chance to mine tin there. Tin was a sought-after resource and with a little bit of luck and some hard mining work, the Blythes could make a decent fortune.

Said and done, the Blythe family were proud land owners now. Also, they had sent a letter home to England to other family members to let them know they could stay with them if they helped out setting up a full functioning station in the Northern Territory. John, as well as Martha, had brothers and sisters still living in England whom they knew would welcome the opportunity to move to Australia, too. Australia was the Promised Land now and John and Martha could surely need some extra hands. Besides, the Blythe family weren’t four people anymore, Martha had given birth to another boy after they had arrived at Sydney. Martha was very busy with raising three children now; Tom was eight now, Jane was four, and little Matthew was 1.5 years old, and number four was on its way.

The children were basically running around on the station the whole day, but they still needed to be watched, fed, washed, and educated. Martha was adamant they learn how to read and write. Living in the bush did not mean being uneducated and ignorant. That is why John made sure they always had last week’s newspaper to read. They lived pretty far away from civilization now. Darwin, the biggest settlement in the north, was about 120 kilometers north of their station. The closest store to buy things was at least a day’s ride away. There were no roads like you would have them in the countryside in England or in the towns. This was the bush; you had to make your own paths were just wide enough to get a carriage through. The distance to the store was the reason why John would only get the old newspapers but he didn’t mind. He got the news even if they were already ‘olds’. What was more important though was that the children got something to read. Books were too expensive and the handful of books they had on their shelf had already been read several times.

Tom was pretty good at reading now. His mother had made sure he would read half an hour every day. Another half hour was spent on arithmetic’s because the children, the parents thought, needed a decent understanding of numbers as well. Tom was happy about this hour because that meant he didn’t have to help on the station. Martha had planned the hour, sometimes a bit longer, carefully during the day. She would usually do it during the hottest time of the day where it was hard to do any physical work anyway. Sitting down with the children would be perfect then and it would use up too many candles or oil if you did it in the dark. It got dark quite early up in the north. At 7p.m. the sun was gone and the stars were out. Not much you can do in the dark except sit around the fire and enjoy your dinner, tell some stories or sing some old songs. This was Tom’s favourite time because the day’s chores had been done and it was time to relax before the children had to go to bed. An early sunset also meant an early sunrise so they would be up around 5.30 a.m. again.

As John had planned he bought the piece of land with the mine on it. Next to establishing the station he wanted to mine the tin on his property. He had worked as a miner himself a bit, just not in tin mining. So he had talked to a few miners up here and got the theoretical knowledge he needed. Now it was putting it into practice. Mining tin is a difficult job just as any other type of mining.

The mine was farther away from the station and going to the mine and back took valuable hours away from a day. After a while John made the decision to build a small homestead at the mine where Tom, his little sister, and their aunt Mary could stay while they worked the mine. The house on the homestead was a simple hut made of corrugated tin sheets. It had only two rooms, one for storage and one for the beds and the kitchen. The beds were put on slightly higher legs so no snake would crawl into the bed. The hut itself wasn’t very high; aunt Mary had to stoop slightly to go through the door. For Tom it was no problem of course. He was still a small boy. On the outside John had also built a small covered porch so they could sit outside protected from the sun. So for most of the time Tom, Jane, and Mary were alone and the three of them would get the tin out of the mine and also cultivate some crops in the front garden.

Once a week, usually at the weekends, John would come over and bring supply for the week. There were times, however, when the three would have to get along without the weekly visit. During the wet season, which usually started in November and lasted until March, there could be so much rain that the rivers and creeks swelled up immensely. Many areas were flooded which was good for the soil but bad for keeping in touch with others and travelling. Tom’s father then tried to visit them every other week if he could and the three homesteaders sometimes had to ration the food. The biggest problem, though, wasn’t the water. The biggest problem was the crocodiles. In northern Australia that meant saltwater crocs, or estuarine crocodiles as Tom quickly learned, were huge and dangerous. There were no crocs in England but seeing the big reptiles for the first time, he knew they were not to be trusted.

That was until one day he went down to the creek and found a baby croc that had apparently lost its mother. Tom knew that mother crocodiles were particularly aggressive so he looked long and hard for a sign of a big croc. There was none. The animal lover he was, he took the baby croc to the homestead and fed it with leftovers or birds he captured. The baby croc which Tom named Bob followed Tom everywhere. When Tom needed to go somewhere he tied Bob onto the back of the horse and they rode along. When Tom went down to the creek Bob would follow him and then take a bath or a swim. But if there was a big croc near, Bob would quickly leave the water and hide behind Tom. Bob was afraid his bigger family members would eat him. Tom wasn’t sure if that was the right conclusion. He was pretty sure the big crocs would eat him first than his reptile friend. But since Tom didn’t want either of them eaten, he made sure both were safe. Bob was basically Tom’s pet; an unusual one, but a pet. There came the time however, when Bob would simply become too big to be kept and during the next wet season, Tom took Bob to a nice river and set him free. Bob apparently agreed and swam away without turning back.

Every morning Tom would get up with the sunrise. He washed himself quickly with some fresh water from the creek or the waterhole they had born and then took care of the cow. He fed her and gave her water, too. Mary was the one who milked her every day so they had fresh milk every morning. When there was enough milk she would also churn butter which they then thankfully spread on the fresh bread they made every other day. Jane’s job in the morning was to let the chickens out so they could roam freely about. In the evening she had to make sure they were all back in the coop behind the homestead so they wouldn’t get eaten by any wild animals. This was also the time Jane collected the eggs so they had eggs to fry or to use for the dough of the bread.

Working in the tin mine was hard work. The mine was only 20 meters behind the homestead which was very convenient. After Tom had taken care of his morning chores and had some breakfast, he walked over to the entry of the mine. The entry itself was only a wooden barrel. It was propped in a slanting angle into the hill and then a chute that was equally tight led farther down into the hill. Tom had to use this entryway to get to his worksite. He climbed into this barrel feet first and slid all the down until he reached firm ground under his feet again. In Tom’s case that wasn’t too far down. Since he was the only one going down the chute and picking at the rocks, he didn’t need too much space. Slowly he would enlarge his working area so he got more space around himself and became more comfortable. He could easily swing the pick now and shovel the rocks into the bucket. A rope was tied to the bucket and Jane had to pull the full bucket up the hole and empty it onto a wheelbarrow. Mary then rolled the wheelbarrow to the next working station, the grinder, where the rocks needed to be ground to much smaller pieces. Sometimes they had a fourth hand on the homestead who would do that job, but when it is only the three of them, one of them had to do the grinding as well. They usually took turns because handling the grinder was hard work, too. Nothing about mining was easy actually.

This morning Tom had slid down the barrel chute again. He turned his gas light up a notch and continued to pick the wall he had stopped at the day before. Today Tom was up very early; earlier than usual because he wanted to pick a good size of rocks before Jane came down. The plan for today was to get a decent size of a mound so Jane could fill the bucket while he would pull the bucket up. He had taken a second bucket down into the hole so Jane could fill that bucket while he was emptying the other one. When all the rocks had been hauled up and taken to the crusher and grinder, Jane would exit the mine and the two of them would work the machines together. Mary was going to see the rest of the family at the station because she needed some new sewing material. Whenever Mary didn’t have to do work for the homestead she would sit down and sew clothes for the family members or the houses. The children needed pants and shirts, so did the adults; the women needed skirts and aprons and sometimes there was need for a new tablecloth or curtain. There was never an idle moment on the homestead.

Tom had already picked a good size of rocks when the bucket jiggled. That was the signal that Jane was there. He put the pick down and climbed up the hole. As always he blinked and squeezed his eyes shut when he exited the hole. The light difference was huge. Jane had brought him some water and he thankfully drank some ladles full. He wiped the sweat off his forehead and smiled. “I’ve left you a good pile down there,” he said. “Well, thank you, brother. You are so kind,” Jane replied and smiled back. “When do you reckon Mary will be back today?” she asked. “If all goes well, by later afternoon. Just in time for dinner,” Tom answered. “Good. I’ll make sure I’ll have dinner ready then. I’m sure Mary’ll be hungry when she gets back,” Jane said. Tom nodded. “Ready to go down and fill the buckets?” he asked her. “Yes, sir,” Jane replied and with a swoosh she went down the slope. “Tom!” she shouted. “What?” “I forgot the shovel.” “Step back! I’ll let it slide down.” If her head wasn’t fixed to her neck, he thought and grinned.

The two worked hard and in an accustomed rhythm. Even though they had only worked the mine for a bit longer than half a year now, every move went smoothly and they knew what the other one was doing. They had become a good team. When Aunt Mary was working along with them, the team just grew by a person and worked just as smoothly. This morning, Tom had produced such a pile of rocks that it took them almost two hours to clear it out of the mine. Every now and then Jane came up to get some fresh air and to drink some water. That was usually the time when Tom pushed the wheelbarrow to the crusher and grinder and returned to the mine entrance. He needed to drink even more water because the day was very hot and the sun was burning down on him. Sometimes he wasn’t sure which work was harder; the one down in the mine or the one outside in the sun.

When Jane appeared at the hole again and declared that the pile had gone, the two of them took a break. It was only just past ten in the morning, but they deserved a break. Tom got some fresh water while Jane got the fresh milk of the morning. She also cut some slices of bread and spread some pawpaw jam on them. They sat down on the covered porch and ate. “Do you ever think back of England,” she asked Tom. “Not in a long time. I know I did when we were in Sydney, but that was more because I was thinking what my friends would be doing right then. We were enjoying a beautiful summer and I knew they would be having a dreary cold winter in Richmond. Why do you ask? Do you?” he asked her. “Not really. It is difficult for me to remember England really. It seems to me we have lived here all our lives, you know,” she replied. “Yes, I know what you mean. Besides, you were even younger than me, when we left England,” Tom said. “ “That is true,” Jane said. “But I’m happy here, even when it’s so hot and dry. You don’t have to worry about being cold here or freezing at all. Also I love the birds here. They are so colourful and I love the sounds they make.” “Mmh, me too,” Tom nodded. “I never want to return to England. This really has become my home. I might move somewhere else in Australia though. Maybe Perth. I heard it’s nice there,” Jane said. “Or Adelaide,” Tom said. “Remember Dick Howard? He said Adelaide is fab. Or Melbourne.” “Yeah, maybe. I guess it all depends,” Jane replied. “On what?” Tom asked. “Well. On my future husband, of course,” Jane laughed. “Oh, you’re already thinking about getting married, are you? Who is the lucky bloke then?” Tom teased her. “Tom! Nobody. But someday I want to get married and my own family. I want a nice guy just like dad,” she said. “Alright then. Just let me know so I can check the bloke out before. Want to make sure you pick the right one,” Tom looked at her and grinned.

“Hey, how about we hurry up grinding the rocks and go for a cooling swim in the creek afterwards?” Tom suggested. “Excellent idea,” Jane answered. “As long as we do our job no one can say anything against having some fun too. Especially in this heat.” The two siblings finished their break and got back to work. If they worked diligently, they could be finished by three in the afternoon which would give them plenty of time to cool off in the creek. For the next hours Tom and Jane loaded the rocks into the grinder and reeled the lever so the grinder slowly ground the big rocks into smaller pieces. Once that was done the whole process was repeated until there was a heap of very fine tin ore almost dust left. It was a tedious job and most of the time both children did the reeling of the lever. In between the grinding Tom poured water into the grinder so it ran more smoothly. Still, at the end of the day they both felt their day’s work in every muscle of their body. It was a bit later than they had hoped but there was still enough time to jump into the creek.

Tom cleaned up the work place and then went to the hut. They didn’t worry about changing their clothes because taking a bath in the creek would wash out the dirt and sweat of the day’s work at the same time as they cooled off. After they had sat down to get a good splash of water they took off their clothes and washed them. Tom was giving his pants and shirt a good kneading and carefully clashed it against a bigger flat rock so the dirt would get out of the fabrics. Jane did the same but. She had also worn a pair of pants because it was the most practical when you worked in the mine. Dresses just got too much in the way. It was different when she was working in the field; then a dress was fine. If Jane didn’t have that beautiful long blond hair you almost wouldn’t have been able to distinguish the two from behind. Except for the type of underwear each of wearing.

They cooled off for about half an hour before Jane made her way to the hut again. “I’m going to prepare dinner. Aunty Mary should be back soon and I’m sure she’d like a good cup of tea and some food.” “Yes, that’s a good idea. I’ll look after the animals and water the crops then,” Tom replied. So the two parted their ways and occupied themselves with their chores. It was just starting to dusk when Aunt Mary showed up on the sandy path heading towards the hut. She had the packhorse behind her loaded with boxes and sacks. “You are just in time for dinner, Mary,” Jane shouted and Tom ran up to her to help her unload and put the horse into the paddock. Jane had just finished preparing food and helped Mary carry the boxes and sacks into the hut.

“How was the journey?” Tom asked. “Any problems?” “None at all this time,” Mary answered. “It was good I didn’t leave too late this morning. That way I was even able to go past the store and pick up this week’s newspaper and even some little extra for you hard-working kids,” Mary smiled. “What did you get us?” Jane asked excitedly. “Is it some sweets?” “No, definitely not sweets. I know it’s nice to have some every now and then. But I think sweets are too short lived. No, I got you something even better,” Mary said and winked. She took out a square little package, something wrapped in an old page of a newspaper. She gave it to Jane and she unfolded it. “A book!” she exclaimed. “Yes, but not just any book,” Mary explained. “This one was written by a woman and I think even you will like it, Tom, although it’s not a mystery novel. Or maybe it is,” she said and looked mysteriously at Tom.

“What is it about?” he asked. “It’s called ‘Broad Arrow’ and was written by Caroline Leakey. It’s about a female convict and her experiences in Australia,” Jane said. “I didn’t know there were female convicts sent here,” Tom said. “Of course there were,” Mary said. “Many so. It’s just that it was usually men who wrote about that time and their experiences and I thought it might be an excellent idea to read something from a woman’s perspective.” “I can’t wait to read it!” Jane exclaimed and started reading the first page. “Hold your horses, young lady,” Mary said. “Let’s have dinner first. And after it we can sit down and you can read it out to all of us. How about it?” Mary suggested. Jane agreed and they sat down to have dinner and talked about the day and any news Mary brought from home.

After dinner and cleaning up the place the three sat down on the porch and Jane started to read:

Chapter 1: The Festival

‘Oh! Let the merry bells ring round.’

A joyful clangour is rising from the tower of St. Judas as the cold grey of the venerable cathedral warms itself in the afternoon sun. Our city is very gay. Bustle and excitement jostle one another in the streets. The shops display their rainbow assortments of finery with more than ordinary taste. Carriages throng the thoroughfare, and from the carriages fashion and beauty gaze placidly on the crown making its way towards the Queen’s high-road. Placards announce a ball is to be a nonpareil…

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