Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family, is a family memoir. It is a wonderful glimpse into the life of Randolph Stow, one of Western Australia’s most revered writers. It also about the area where my grandmother’s family settled in the nineteenth century, and where my mother grew up.
The tiny hamlet of Greenough, four hundred kilometres north of Perth and thirty south of Geraldton, draws me like a magnet. Every few years I have an urge to return, and each visit enriches my understanding of who I am and where I’ve come from. This is the place my maternal great-parents helped to settle, and where my mother and her siblings grew up. Greenough is my living history.
Childhood for my siblings, cousins and me was peppered with stories about the early days in the area. My mother, grandmother and aunts were accomplished story-tellers who regaled us with their versions of life on the land on the back flats where they lived, separated from the front flats and the Hamlet by a low limestone ridge.
My great-grandfather was a Pensioner Guard – a soldier who fought in the Crimean War and who came to Western Australia in the mid-nineteenth century as a guard on a ship transporting convicts, These men were promised an allotment of land in Greenough. He and hundreds of others took up their parcels of land where they eked out a living for their wives and children.
Some of the stories I heard as a child were of hardship and isolation and desolation – especially stories about devastating floods which washed away houses and fences and cattle. Those were like other floods that over the years had left a rich deposit of alluvial soil, which grew crops without additional fertilisers. As a child, I loved to hear about other people’s possessions being washed along in the currents and about the valiant rescues of people from roofs of their houses.
But my mother also told me about the way my feisty Aunty Ivy, who was about eight years old, fought with the son of the police officer and locked him in a cell in the lock-up. She got into terrible trouble, of course, but she said it was worth it.
There was a story about my aunts Josephine and Ivy, who were sitting up in front of a horse-drawn sulky on their way to the hamlet with my mother and her little brother sitting behind. My uncle Percy, a toddler, fell off the back of the cart. My mother claims the big girls wouldn’t listen to her because they were too busy threading beads as the horse ambled along. When they finally took notice, the little boy was running along trying to catch up to them.
It was 38 degrees Celsius last week when John and I were in Greenough, but my skin was goose-bumpy when we went into the one-classroom school where my mother and her siblings were educated. The room is sanitised now, the floors and desks polished, a tourist attraction. But I could imagine it as it might have been all those years ago. My mother was proud of the role she played as a ‘monitor’ when she was the oldest child in the school, with the job of helping the teacher and the younger children.
My maternal great-grandparents were of strong, Irish Catholic stock, so it is no surprise that they went to Mass on Sundays, celebrated St Patrick’s Day and the children were baptised. St Peter’s Catholic Church is still a ‘working’ church, where Mass is celebrated every Sunday. This is the church where my grandmother, Catherine Buckley, married Samuel Rogers in 1902.
Seven buildings still line the main street of what was once a thriving settlement. They’ve been lovingly restored by the National Trust, Lotterywest and other benefactors and together show a mere fragment of how life might once have been in Greenough.
A handful of other buildings in the district have also been restored. Several are private homes, glimpsed behind trees from the road. The museum was once the home of a prominent pioneer family but the stables, flour mill and store adjacent to the old homestead have collapsed in ruins.
Many of the original stone buildings were demolished and the material crushed by men on the dole during the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s. The crushed stone was used to make roads.
There are historical records as well as descriptions of the day-to-day lives of the more prosperous families who first settled the region. But the people who lived on the back flats were away from public notice, and few records have been found about them.
However, this trip I found a mention in a document in the Geraldton museum of the delicious butter made by ‘the Buckley’s’, my family, and sold in the Greenough market. Last trip I discovered a record of the croup suffered by my Auntie Evelyn recorded in the apothecary’s notes in 1917.
A few years ago I wrote a novel which I set in Greenough and Geraldton. I never completely finished it. Now I’m itching to take it out again and dust it off. Perhaps I have enough energy, insight and knowledge after my latest visit to Greenough to think about reworking it.