One crisp Autumn morning in 1840 my great, great grandmother Martha Helyar, her husband Elias and their six children, boarded the sailing ship ‘Ferguson’; destination Australia. Just over a month later she and one of her year old twins were buried at sea. We don’t really know what happened. There was talk of women and children being mistreated, of an alcoholic doctor, of unexpected storms. What we do know is that four months after leaving Plymouth, only Elias and his remaining five children disembarked on the marshy strip of land known as Port Phillip.
Somehow Elias battled on. In Somerset he had been the foreman of a kid glove factory, but in this new country he could only find labouring work. Within six months the remaining twin died, choking on a piece of meat. The eldest child, George, my great grandfather, 13 years old at the time, found work with a butcher and eventually kept a small store in Ballarat selling supplies to the gold miners.
It’s the bare bones of a family story, an Australian story, and it’s not unusual, even today. In one way or another we are all boat people. Families like mine were called settlers but their dream of a better life came at the unsettling cost of being far from all that spelt ‘home’. It was that endurance and their solid Methodist faith that supported and led them in three generations from the soft green and winding lanes of country England to the golden brown spaces of the Victorian Mallee.
Great grandfather George married 15 year old Charlotte and they went on to have 15 children, 11 of whom lived into advanced old age. Child number 6 was my grandfather, Charles. It was he who bought land in the Victorian Mallee, who lived in a house on that land that was called Tarella. He died when my mother was still a child, but I loved his wife Florence, my grandmother.
Five generations on I am grateful that Martha and Elias listened to their dream for a better life and followed it to Australia. My personal Australian story may be dotted with suburbia but it’s the Mallee of my holidaying childhood that gives me a deep sense of belonging. I only have to close my eyes to see the stretched out horizon of distant paddocks, barely broken by slight rises and olivey scrub, the whole of it wrapped around in the brilliant blue of a summer sky.
That landscape mirrors something inside me that needs and relishes space and silence. Somehow it pushes aside all the everydayness that clutters my thinking. It settles in the spot deep within where I imagine God’s dream for me sits, coiled and waiting for recognition, for acceptance. I like to think, too, that it’s something I share with our First Australians. It’s the gift of this great South Land.
What’s your Australian story?