1908 - Webster, John. Reminiscences of an Old Settler in Australia and New Zealand [Selected chapter - CHAPTER I.

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  1908 - Webster, John. Reminiscences of an Old Settler in Australia and New Zealand [Selected chapter - CHAPTER I.
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"Why don't you write your reminiscences?" has been often asked me. Perhaps it is because I am an old man, having lived in five reigns, for George the Third was alive when I was born on 30th June, 1818, in a seaport town of Scotland (Montrose), full of quaint old people, old manners and superstitions. The dawn of what may be called perception came when I was a baby about a year old, when at night a candle moving about left certain shadows which I thought was a living entity. I remember well when I was two years old, at a christening of my younger brother, George, I was seated on a small stool, and saw my grandfather walking up and down the room. I observed his dress, which consisted of dress coat of the period, bright blue, with brass buttons, yellow vest, frilled shirt, and knee breeches, with buckles in

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his shoes. He was in form for the christening, which was performed in the house by Dr. Patterson, who had a very loud voice, and I was afraid of him when he patted me on the head.

Years passed and I went to school, and how glorious school life was as I got accustomed to it and old enough to play 'kick baa,' as we termed it! There was no picking up the ball and running away with it like the modern game, but honest kicking, and the best team won of course. That was but one game. We had many others. The Grammar School was opposite the Academy, where we learned writing and arithmetic under Mr. Kay, Latin under Mr. Calvert, and above was the Rector, who lectured on astronomy and the sciences.

There were two teachers of writing and arithmetic in separate schools in the Academy, and in winter they had great fighting with snowballs, with varied success. Our opponents' school was Mr. Beattie's, and our school was taught by Mr. Hay. We built snow houses also, and sat in them, feeling no cold, for our young blood throbbed through our veins in delightful pulsations. When old enough to use skates, that was another grand exercise. Near the Montrose hospital was a large fresh-water swamp, frozen over in winter. There on a moonlight night did we stay until near ten o'clock, at which hour we were supposed to be in bed. We had to go through the churchyard before reaching the town, and all were very superstitious at that

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time, for the servant maids of the period tried, and succeeded, on every occasion in instilling into our minds that there were witches and warlocks who were lying in wait everywhere to do mortal boys, girls, and men injury of one sort or another, and we believed in them, for who did not in these old days? Was there not John o' Arnha, who met a witch going home one night, and on seeing John mounted a broom stick and flew away? And had not John a fight with a water kelpie aided by witches? The water kelpie came out of the North Esk river, and was described as a huge monster with horns and the tail of a crocodile. In passing through the churchyard to get home we boys shouted loud (in fear), and made as much noise as possible till we passed the auld kirk and got to the Town Hall and out into the main street of the town. Where we lived and I was born was nearly opposite the Town Hall.

I like to write about my school days. In summer we had a fortnight's vacation, and I was permitted to go to the country with my elder brother, who, by-the-bye, never joined us in sports like other boys, but was always serious and liked to be alone. However, I enjoyed the country visits. They were friends of the family, and it was always harvest time when we went there. There was no machinery then for cutting the wheat and oat crops, but the Irishmen came over in droves to cut the harvest with reaping hooks. I was very friendly with them, and when

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they found a partridge nest with eggs in it they always gave them to me, and sometimes they found a squeaking young hare, which was protected, and they had to let it go. The Irish lived on potatoes and brose, and sometimes got a "whang" of cheese. Brose was simply oatmeal in a wooden cap (so called), and boiling water poured on it. Rarely, and as a treat, the water in which meat had been boiled was given them to make the brose. They had also milk occasionally, and sturdy fellows they seemed on that simple fare. These Irish wore blue frieze coats, like swallow-tail coats, and knee breeches. Some had stockings and shoes, others had simply a wisp of straw on their legs, but a merry lot they were, and I liked them.

On the hills were found what were called blaeberries. I presume the proper name was bilberries, and they were very plentiful. Parties from Forfar would come and fill tin cans with the berries, and take them home. As for me, I not only ate them, but daubed my trousers with the juice to show my envious schoolfellows where I had been.

A fortnight in the country soon passed away, and school days again were experienced. When I returned from the west I pretended to talk as broad Doric as possible, to show I had been "awa wast," and my "breeks" had the blaeberry stamp to show my schoolfellows.

Now we scholars of the Academy always got a holiday when the whalers, of which there were

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three, viz., the "London," "Swan," and "Spencer," arrived, but we had to get the Provost's consent. We had the Provost's son in our school, and he headed a deputation always. Of course we got a day off to see the whalers arrive in the harbour. They always arrived together. On the mast-head they had garlands of ribbons along with a joint of fresh meat, which they had taken with them and brought back still fresh, for they soon got into intense cold, and returned before the ice closed them in, which was not infrequent, and then in that case there was weeping and wailing in the household of the imprisoned seamen who were ice-bound for the season. The families were cared for by the owners of the ships. It was seldom they were ice-bound, but came to time usually full ships of blubber, with jaws of whales and whalebone. Of course we Academy boys were privileged, and boarded the ships when they came to the quay, and saw the hatches taken off and the blubber exposed, and got hard brown biscuits from the sailors, which we ate with voracity, for we could eat anything as schoolboys of that period.

The whale ship period was not the only time we got holidays from the Provost. The election of a member of Parliament was a rare occasion, and we did enjoy the contest, for the school boys, of course, took sides, and our mothers gave us ribbon favours to wear according as they selected candidates.

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Ladies always selected the best looking candidate, and my mother selected Ross, of Rossie Castle, my father's favourite also. Those were the days of what you may call bribery and corruption. Our favourite colour was red, white, and blue, which we wore on our jackets. The other candidate had but a few followers in Montrose, and the dark blues had not a show with the red, white, and blue. The time was just before the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832.

Both candidates had bands, and both used the common practice of bribery. Ross was at home. His opponent was a landed proprietor. His estate was called "Auldbar," near Brechin, in Forfarshire. They both were in favour of Reform, and the only words I recollect of the speeches were "the Bill and nothing but the Bill," but we boys did not understand what it meant, only we were nearly all for Ross of Rossie, where we were permitted to look for birds' eggs and see the Castle of Rossie.

Before election day Ross rode in his chariot through the town. He had a bag full of silver and copper coin which he now and then threw in handfuls on the streets, and now and again he would let fly bank notes as he drove along. Then I presume Auldbar did the same at Brechin. Both candidates had also casks of ale on the streets before public-houses, and a man with tap supplied all thirsty voters. We Academy boys were not allowed to pick up any coin or drink any of the beer offered.

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On the platform on election day we had great fun, as the different bands fought with each other, and destroyed all their respective instruments. And when Auldbar came off the hustings he was carried on the shoulders of his friends to the Star Hotel, but before he reached it he was spat upon, and covered with all kinds of filth, as was the custom of the period. Of course Ross of Rossie was elected, for Montrose had the majority of electors. Joseph Hume was a Montrose man, and afterwards was a man of mark, and a member of Parliament, as well as a friend of Prince Albert's.

Great storms often occurred in Montrose, and I, with a few other boys, always tried to get a holiday on account of the weather. We were sometimes successful, and then we would hie down to the entrance of the harbour, especially when we heard of any vessel being off the harbour waiting for a chance to enter. There is a bar called the Annet at the entrance, and in shore is a lighthouse, where the lifeboats are kept. In place of being at school, as our parents thought, and if we got a holiday, in place of going home, a few of us would hie to the lighthouse and see the lifeboats floated, and in drenching rain. Sometimes the small craft, mostly from the West Indies with fruit, would safely cross the bar. At other times they would get in the breakers. Then was the time the lifeboats did their duty, and the bugs or schooners were left amongst the breakers, and

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their cargo scattered along the beach. Of oranges we boys had a stomach full, but on getting home, all soaking wet, we got a thrashing.

The Reform Bill was passed by both Lords and Commons in 1832, and there was a great demonstration in Montrose. Of course we schoolboys did not know anything about the rights or wrongs of the Bill, but we all marched in procession, wearing medals (struck for the occasion), with the Masons also wearing their regalia, my father amongst them; and there were public dinners and great rejoicing worthy of the occasion.

About this time there were rumours of body-snatching, and watchmen were put in graveyards when fresh interments took place. A doctor (quite a young man), of the name of White was caught in a country burial-ground called Hill Head, and with a recently-buried corpse in his possession. He was lodged in gaol, and was tried at the Town Hall for the offence. As he was brought from the gaol, or tolbooth as it was then called, a lot of people assembled near the Town Hall to see him pass. When he appeared near the Hall a number of fish-wives had gathered to see him, and carried stones in their garments to throw at him. Now women, as a rule, are bad shots, and as the young doctor was brought along between two gaolers in red coats and gold-laced hats of the period, the stones thrown by the women knocked off the hat

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of William Bennett, the principal gaoler. Several stones of course reached the unfortunate doctor, but the representatives of law and order fared as badly.

A budding poet of the period, after much labour, delivered himself of the following ditty on the occasion in broad Scotch:--

Doctor White, o' the Hill Heed,
Got his breed by hoorkin the deed.

In English, of course, it would read in ordinary words:--

Doctor White, of the Hill Head,
Got his bread by digging the dead.

Shortly afterwards there came to the knowledge of the Edinburgh authorities the sensational murders of Burke and Hare, assisted by their accomplice, the woman McDougall. Burke was hanged. Hare turned King's evidence, and was set free, and I never heard what his after fate was or that of the woman. Dr. Knox, who purchased the bodies, must have known how they were killed. The disappearance of a well-known character in the streets of Edinburgh, viz., Daft Jamie (as he was called), led to the detection of Burke and Hare.

Many of my schoolfellows, as they grew up, went to sea, and several went into the Navy. I was jealous of these latter, who were all older than myself. They would appear as midshipmen in their uniform and cutlass, to the envy

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of the younger boys. One or two entered the Army, and I remember one of the eldest, the son of a public official named Burness, who went to India, and was some years afterwards killed at Khaiber Pass with many others.

Montrose was a quaint old town, and had many quaint ways. At the New Year there were lots of people who went from house to house, and asked for what they called their "Hogmanay." They trolled forth the following ditty:--

Up stocks doon stules,
Dinna think that we are fules;
We are bairns come to play,
Get up an' gies oor Hogmanay.
The day 'ill come when you'l be deid,
Ye'll winna care for meal or breid,
Rise up guid wife and binna sweir,
And deal yer breid as lang's ye're here.

The servant maids were in the habit at New Year time of going into cabbage gardens at midnight and pulling up the stalks of cabbage from which the heads had been taken off for food. This stalk would represent their future husband. If it was bent it would be a bad sign, if straight good. Some of the servants would put the cabbage stalk behind the door, and the first man that entered was supposed to be her future husband. I think it was New Year's time also when the bakers sent rye cakes as they called to their customers. The rye cakes represented grotesque human figures, and the

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employes of the bakers had the privilege also of presenting servant girls with the like cakes.

At another time (my memory here does not serve me), every house was supposed to have a pot of what they called birstled field peas in the house, and at another time eggs were boiled hard and coloured various colours, and we boys went to the links and threw them up in the air. They came down unbroken for some time, and the boy whose colour lasted longest had the disposal of the broken eggs; and then again at a certain period of the year no boy attending the Academy but must have some part of his dress quite new. I often wonder whether all (if any) of these quaint old customs obtain at the present time.

Once a quarter the Provost and Bailies attended the services in the "Auld Kirk". It was a very large building, with two galleries, one above the other. My father and mother had a pew opposite the preacher, and the Provost's pew (reserved for him and the Bailies) was just behind us in the first gallery. When they left the Town Hall for church they were escorted by half-a-dozen halberdiers with bright polished axes on long handles. When the first prayer of the minister was said he went on with "God protect the Provost and Bailies. Make them a terror to evil-doers, and a praise and protection to all who do well."

At sacrament time the whole church was lighted (for the ceremony lasted till late) by dip

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candles, which gave a gloomy light appropriate to the services, and when psalms were sung the dominie read from his desk two lines at a time; for the lights were very dim.

Sedan chairs were then in vogue for conveying ladies to parties, where they played whist, and sometimes quarrelled over the game. They would have their hair dressed high for the occasion, and when they got into the sedan chair they covered their hair with a silk cosy, like that used for teapots.

In Montrose, like other old towns, there were half-demented individuals; amongst others was Jemmie Stevens, who had the organ of order highly developed. If obstructions of the gutters after rain occurred he would tramp the pavement and remove them, or if a shutter was loose he paid attention to it. On Sundays Jemmie would ascend the old Pictish tower (on which the steeple was built and church attached) and watch for the minister's approach from a loop-hole. He then would order the tolling of the bell to cease.

Another celebrity was Willie Cooly, who wore garments of the previous century, and was somehow attached to Sheriff's officers.

In some part of the town, and usually in the country, oil cruisies (so called) were general, with wicks got from the hearts of rushes. When in the country I often saw old women stripping the rushes for that purpose. Every kitchen in the country had a box full of oatmeal, and when

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a vagrant passed he was always given, in his bag, a handful of meal. They were a privileged sort of people then, like Edie Ochiltree, in Walter Scott's novel of the Antiquary.

When I visited Montrose, after many years, the changes made one quite sad. While much remained the same, everything was changed, and what they called improved and altogether different. The old Grammar School was not there, and a museum occupied the site. The Academy was still there, and I asked some of the school boys if they played certain games, but they knew them not by the name I gave them, and their speech was different. In old times broad Doric was spoken. I presume it was all right and progressive, but it made me sad all the same.

As a boy I was present at the laying of the foundation stone of the chain bridge. The Academy boys were all there, and Cocky Norval officiated. The bridge was erected in my time. They had commenced to take down the old steeple as well as the old tower, which had a gloomy dungeon at the base, occupied by rats, but occasionally it had human occupants who transgressed the law.

When I was about twelve years of age my elder brother, William, went to Glasgow, where my mother's folks resided. He entered the office of John Croom, my uncle, who was a muslin manufacturer, and fond of music, as I afterwards learned when I followed two years

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later. He was a member of the Society, and played some instrument. My father at this time had made some stupid ventures in the West Indies, and lost a lot of money. I also was sent to Glasgow. There was only the sea trip available then, and I got awfully sick on board before arriving at the entrance of the Monkland Canal, on the east coast, which leads to Glasgow on the west. It was rather a tedious trip in the canal before we reached Glasgow. We arrived near Tennant's chemical works. When I saw a lady and gentleman walking towards our small vessel I surmised they were my friends come to meet me, and sure enough they were. It was Mr. and Mrs. Brown. The former was a partner in the chemical works of Charles Tennant, afterwards Sir Charles Tennant, of the Glen, who got a baronetcy from Gladstone. They asked the captain if I was on board. I had been timid on seeing them and went below. Mrs. Brown said, "Boy, why are you not looking round you?"

After getting ashore and all enquiries being answered, Mr. Brown told the captain he would send for my luggage, and we went to my uncle's residence, Hope Park, not far from the Tennant works. After some time I was told I would be placed in a position connected with the works in supplying the working men with necessaries, such as great wooden shoes, for leather would not last any time, being corroded by chemicals. I did not like the position, and

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my brother got me into an export business connected with the West Indies, and which I liked much better. My Uncle Croom was a great follower of Isaac Walton, and fond of trout fishing. He frequently took me with him, and I became quite an adept with the rod, and landed many spotted beauties. We fished at various times in Highland lochs, and also went to the upper reaches of the Clyde, where the brown trout resorted. I liked these excursions, where we stayed at times in primitive thielings, with old-fashioned surroundings, and quaint manners of the people, like chapters out of Sir Walter Scott's novels.

When in Glasgow I attended the lectures on chemistry, by Hugo Reid, and others in natural philosophy; also drawing, by a German teacher, and I got prizes in the first and latter classes.

The West Indies had always a charm for me, and I got acquainted with those who had been there, and described the life in those beautiful islands. Meanwhile, my father had passed away, and my mother came to live in Glasgow. My elder brother (who had gold medals for chemistry and other classes) and myself lived with her, and I hinted my desire to go to the West Indies, but she would not hear of it, and said if I wanted to go anywhere Australia was far better, although then a penal settlement; the climate was right, and several emigrant ships had already gone there. So it was

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arranged that the first emigrant ship should take me to that far away country. I was on one of my fishing excursions with my uncle, and on returning I was told a ship was lying at the wharf at Greenock, on the Clyde, proceeding with emigrants for Australia. Excited, I went to the agents, and found that only a few cabin berths were offered, and all taken. I was so disappointed, and said, "Is there no other way of my getting a passage?" He said he would see. I paid a visit daily to the office, and met another would-be passenger, a Mr. Monro, whose brother had just died, being a captain in the Black Watch or 42nd Highlanders. The agent said if we liked they would run up bunks for us in the officers' quarters, and we could mess with them at the reduced rate of £30. We both agreed to that, so it was settled. I told Mr. Patterson, my employer, that I was going, and he said he was aware for some time that was my intention. He made me a present before I left, and bidding good-bye to mother, brothers, sisters, and friends, and having sent my luggage on board, I followed, my elder brother going to Port Glasgow with me to see me on board. Mr. Monro was there also, and we inspected our sleeping berths, which were comfortable enough, and were introduced to the second and third mates, the first officer, having a berth in the cabin. My brother bid me a sad farewell, and by this time the emigrants were all coming on board; and there was such a bustle that Mr.

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Monro and I left the ship and went to stay the night with a friend of his. Next morning the ship was to go to the tail of the bank, and we had to go on board. There was a perfect pandemonium. All was in confusion, provisions for the emigrants being served out. Mr. Monro and I had our meals with the officers. There was a black cook on board, who had his hands full, having to cook for two or three hundred passengers.

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