Swan's Life

Nathaniel Walter Swan was born in 1834 in the city of Monaghan, in the Irish county of the same name.note His birthplace, with a history stretching back to the sixth century A.D.,note had, during Swan's boyhood, a population of a little over 4,000. Set in the midst of an agricultural district, Monaghan also supported a brewery and a linen manufacturing industry.note With this latter Swan's family seems to have had some association. Certainly, Nathaniel's father appears in some of the official records of the colony of Victoria as both ‘Gentleman’ and ‘Linen Manufacturer’.note The family was also connected by marriage with the printing and newspaper industries. Indeed, in 1872 William Swan, a relative of Nathaniel (probably his brother) became proprietor of the Northern Standard, founded in 1839 by Arthur Wellington Holmes, and Monaghan's only newspaper.note

Nathaniel's first steps in formal education were taken in Monaghan, at a classical academy conducted by a Presbyterian minister, the Reverend John Bleckley,note the same academy which a generation earlier had been attended by Charles Gavan Duffy. Duffy, according to his autobiography, was at that time the only Catholic boy among the fifty or so sons of ‘the small gentry and professional men of two or three neighbouring counties, and . . . of the principal townspeople’.note 'Mr. Bleckley', Duffy recalled, ‘was a careful and assiduous teacher’.note Swan left no such direct testimonial to his mentor, but he did name his only son Walter Blakely Swan. With no Blakely anywhere to be found among his antecedents, it may be that this was the writer-journalist's oblique tribute to his earliest guide to literary appreciation and composition.

After Dr Bleckley's academy, the course of Swan's education is lost in obscurity. On his death in 1884, an obituarist confidently asserted that he had attended the University of Glasgow.note The University's archives, however, yield no N. W. Swan among its matriculants between 1850 and 1854. Equally, it is impossible to verify an alternative suggestion that Swan was enrolled at Belfast's Royal Academical Institution,note because there is a substantial gap in the Institution's records in the very years when such an enrolment would have been registered.note The next stage in Swan's life that can be established with any confidence is his migration to the colony of Victoria in 1854,note the year he turned twenty. He was, it would appear, among the thousands of Britons who responded in the 1850s to the lure of gold:

On landing on these shores the gold fever burned strongly in his veins, and he at once turned his face and bent his steps towards the diggings . . . . he looked on his University training as useless, and regarded the days spent there as so much time wasted and gone for ever, unlikely ever to pay him interest.note

Whether the young Swan left home and family out of sheer lust for adventure or exasperation with book learning, through financial stringency or as a result of that general impoverishment of the nation which drove so many thousands of the Irish from their native land in the mid-nineteenth century, must remain a matter of conjecture. All that can be said is that he seems never to have shown any desire to return to Ireland, leaving only one public expression of nostalgia for the scenes of his childhood and youth. Responding to a toast at a dinner offered him by his friends and colleagues at Ararat on 20 April 1869, on the occasion of his departure for Stawell, he said in passing, ‘when, years ago, he left his home, the tokens of affection given him by his brothers and sisters were highly valued by him’.note

Ararat had not been his immediate goal upon his arrival in the colony. One source indicates that he had travelled straight to the Buckland rush in north-east Victoria, which had been attracting large numbers of diggers since 1852.note Other sources (including his own journalism) suggest that he tried his luck at a number of other fields, including Ballarat, Sandhurst (now Bendigo) and the Jim Crow rush, near what is now the town of Daylesford, and probably others.note He also appears to have turned his hand to several other occupations — working on a pastoral station, running, for a short time, his own flock, and speculating in fruit and salt-fish in partnership with a compatriot, Joseph Henry Dunne.note

If there was any direction to the drift of Swan's life during his first years in Victoria it was from the north-east of the colony to the south-west. In pursuing such a path, he was, partly at least, following the general flow of the great Victorian gold rushes of the l850s. There may, however, have been a more personal reason that, driving him from the Buckland to Bendigo to Daylesford, brought him by 1861 to Ararat. On 28 December 1858 the Reverend Samuel Kelso, with his wife, child, and servant, landed in Melbourne, and on Sunday, 6 March of the following year was inducted into the Presbyterian pulpit at Portland, on Victoria's western coast.note

Kelso, the son of a farmer, was born in 1828, at Ballybaynote — only a few miles from Monaghan. After an early education at an infant school near his home and at an adjoining National School, he learnt Latin, Greek and Mathematics at small private academies in Stewartstown and Sandhole.note He began his College course in 1845 in a building next to the Belfast Academical Institution. In May 1854 he was licensed to preach in the Presbytery of Tyrone within the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. In 1858 he married Jane Elizabeth Swan, sister of Nathaniel, was chosen by the Board of Mission Directors for work in Victoria, and set sail in the ‘Royal Charter’ for his new life in the colonies .

Gold fever and missionary zeal may seem widely disparate reasons for migrating. Yet the brothers-in-law Nathaniel Swan and Samuel Kelso are probably links in that ‘process of chain migration’note by which one member of an Irish family would follow another to Australia as the firstcomer sent news of his colonial experience back home. Kelso also played a significant role in a more specialised pattern of Irish migration to Victoria in the l850s. In 1843 the Presbyterian Church in Scotland had been rent by schism, with the direct consequence that the flow of Scottish Presbyterian ministers to the Australian colonies dwindled alarmingly, at exactly the moment when the Presbyterian congregrations in those colonies were beginning a period of rapid growth. Their need for trained and licensed Presbyterian ministers was met, especially in Victoria, largely from Northern Ireland, so that by 1859 ‘The Synod of Victoria had as many men of Irish Presbyterian extraction as those from Scotland’.note

It was not to a united Presbyterian community that Kelso was introduced when he landed in Port Melbourne in late 1858. The colonial church was experiencing the same kind of fragmentation as the parent body in Scotland, being split into three contending groups. Kelso was to play his part in the unification of Victoria's Presbyterians (which was accomplished in 1859), and remained a prominent member of their clergy until his death in 1902.note In 1859, however, newly established in Portland with his wife and family, he may well have acted as a lodestone to his brother-in-law, still aimlessly and unsuccessfully wandering from one rush to the next, from one occupation to another. While some of the settings of Luke Mivers' Harvest point to Swan's acquaintance with Portland, it is not known when he first saw the seaside town. If he was drawn to the south-west of his adopted colony by the arrival of his brother-in-law, it was at the inland town of Ararat that he came to rest. On 23 December 1861note he was appointed editor of the Ararat Advertiser.

By the early 1860s the first hectic rushes had passed Ararat by, and the town was acquiring the trappings and institutions of permanent settlement: a Mechanics' Institute had been established in September 1859, a fire brigade in February 1860.note Most significantly for Swan, the first issue of the Ararat Advertiser had appeared on 1 August 1857. In the heyday of the rushes of the 1850s, newspapers sprang up, grew, and died like mushrooms as editors, printers and journalists moved themselves and their presses from one centre to the next. One among the itinerant printers was Jabez Banfield, born in Chatham, Kent, on 16 August 1820. Banfield had migrated to Victoria with a friend and fellow printer, James Gearing, in 1852. Failing in their search for gold, the two men went to work at their old trade, on the Melbourne Argus. In 1855 Gearing travelled to Maryborough with a printing press to produce an advertising sheet. He was soon joined by Banfield, who in September 1856 took charge of the Dunnolly Advertiser. Moving on again, Banfield produced the first issue of the Mount Ararat Advertiser on 1 August of the following year in a tent set up between the police tents and the Bank of New South Wales. By March 1861 he was in a position to buy, for one thousand pounds, the paper, its presses, type, and other machinery from the estate of the recently deceased owner. At the end of the same year he offered the editorship of his paper to Nathaniel Swan.note

Swan would have brought to the position memories (perhaps even experience) of both printing and the production of a regional newspaper. Whatever the extent of his initial acquaintance with newspaper editing, he seems to have made a success of the task. He stayed at the Ararat Advertiser for over seven years, leaving only to go to a better position. During his time with the Advertiser, his life as well as his career blossomed. Taking his cue from his employer, he absorbed himself in the activities of his community. Jabez Banfield had a highly developed sense of civic pride and responsibility, and used his proprietorship of the Advertiser to advance the town's physical amenities and cultural welfare in every way he could. Through his paper, for instance, he gave useful support to local institutions such as the hospital; in 1862 he became president of the Mechanics' Institute, which he had helped to found in 1859; in 1873 he became a lay preacher, preaching regularly thereafter in the Anglican church.note

Swan sought to emulate Banfield's altruism. Like Banfield, he constantly strove to translate what seems to have been genuine religious piety into acts of practical goodwill. In 1867, thus, he was elected to the Ararat School Committeenote (State School 800 had been established in the town two years earlier). In 1865, too, and seemingly at Swan's urging, the Advertiser had begun its sponsorship of the annual Ararat Easter Festival,note the profits of the carnival being donated to the local asylum (another institution supported by the paper since 1863).note The Advertiser's issue for 4 April l866 provides a long and detailed account of that year's fair, a curious attempt to reproduce quasi-mediaeval English customs in nineteenth century colonial Australia. Among the varied and day-long activities are chronicled the activities of four young men, ‘Messrs Murray, Campbell, Grano, and Swan’, who plainly devoted themselves heart and soul to their task of raising funds for charity.note

Under the guise of ‘the three beggars’, Swan and two friendsnote were frequent performers for charitable causes in both the town and outlying districts. Semi-theatrical as the efforts of the ‘three beggars’ must have been, it is not surprising that Swan was an enthusiastic participant in the more formal entertainments of the local amateur dramatic society, usually providing the low-comedy relief. Perhaps acting helped him to overcome an innate shyness, for one obituary recorded that he suffered throughout his life from a stammer:

It is a singular fact that both Mr. Swan and the late Mr. J. W. Gutierrez, both Stawell pressmen, were afflicted with the infirmity of stammering in ordinary conversation; yet in amateur theatricals, in which both excelled, not a trace of that distressing drawback could be discovered.note

If shyness were indeed a pervasive feature of Swan's constitution, it must have been largely alleviated by the most important event in his personal life during his Ararat years. On 24 November 1863 he married Mary Ellen O'Brien at Ararat, in the Roman Catholic church.note Born in 1845, Swan's bride was some years his junior.note

The O'Briens came from the south of Ireland, both Mary Ellen and her elder sister Bridget having been born in County Tipperary. The family migrated to Victoria some time in the middle 1850s and a decade later were well established in Ararat, the father, Daniel, being the owner and landlord of the Freemasons Hotel.note The marriage between Protestant Nathaniel Swan and Catholic Mary Ellen O'Brien was a happy one, producing five children, a son and four daughters, all of whom were brought up in the Roman Catholic faith. Swan himself was buried in the O'Brien family plot in the Catholic section of the Ararat Cemetery; his funeral service, however, was conducted by his brother-in-law Samuel Kelso, according to the Presbyterian rite.note

At the same time as Swan was discovering personal happiness in marriage, he was also developing his skills as a writer. One contemporary source suggests that the idea of writing fiction was put into his head by a chance meeting with Henry Kingsley as the future author of The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn travelled down from the country on his way back to England. The anonymous editor of Swan's A Couple of Cups Ago (see below, p. xliii) records the encounter:

They journeyed together, and to these few days, to those spent in Melbourne, and to Kingsley's subsequent sailing, is attached another of Swan's reminiscences . . . So it was about this time, influenced doubtless by the meeting and subsequent conversations with Kingsley, as well as by his own innate teachings that such life and such scenes did not suit him, that he turned his attention to the pen.note

If it ever did occur, this episode would have taken place in 1858, as Kingsley took the coach from ‘Langi Willi’, the station where he had been staying, to Melbourne.note Where exactly Swan was in 1858, and what he was doing, is not known.

In any case, Swan's acquaintance with the world of colonial letters extended well beyond a putative encounter with Henry Kingsley. During the 1860s, for instance, Marcus Clarke worked at ‘Swinton’ and ‘Ledcourt’, pastoral properties near Glenorchy in the Ararat district. He is said, also, to have worked as a reporter on the Ararat Advertiser and to have visited his uncle, Judge Clarke, in whose home he wrote some of His Natural Life. The proximity of the two writers resulted in a genuine and lasting friendship,note attested by the inscribed copy of Up the Country Clarke sent Swan on its publication in 1871.note The real warmth of affection between the two men is most tellingly witnessed by a letter that Swan wrote to J. J. Shillinglaw in 1881, on the occasion of Clarke's death:

My dear Shillinglaw,

I would have written to you before this about the death of Marcus but what was the use? From the time I learned it until now he has occupied all my thoughts. I can not tell you how keen my regret is. I do feel some feeling akin to desolation. I am only beginning to find out how much I loved him "liked" is not the word. His brilliance & [promise are gone from us] & with the exception of yourself who is there to talk to when a fellow goes to Melbourne.

My reporter was away for his holidays when I learned the news else nothing could have kept me from being at the funeral. I am scarcely sufficiently known to Mrs Clarke to write to her but you will tell her from me how sincere is my grief. Nothing has occurred in my life during the last 15 years that I so anguish sorrow over. I knew/know how you will feel it. We have one comfort:— In the great majority will be Marcus. For I believe in a life hereafter. I was so glad to see you were one of the pall bearers. He had [h]is faults. I never could see them. I preferred to admire him.note

Swan's words not only convey genuine grief at the loss of an old friend, but also demonstrate his absorption in the life of a provincial newspaper editor. Through friends like Marcus Clarke and Shillinglaw, and through at least occasional attendance at the Yorick Clubnote he must have had wide acquaintance with the literary life of Melbourne, and, as his letter clearly implies, a visit to the capital cannot have been too rare an occurrence. Yet he never felt the pull of metropolitan culture strongly enough to desert the Western Districts. The role of provincial editor evidently fitted him like a glove; he discovered the closeness of the fit in the years between 1861 and 1869 when he first worked for Jabez Banfield and his Ararat Advertiser.

As well as a deeply ingrained sense of civic pride and a genuine religious piety, Banfield also had a markedly histrionic side to his personality. As early as 1860 ‘he was reported as having been the speaker at a dinner, of giving a Dickens reading at the Mechanics' Institute and of acting in scenes from Shakespeare's Hamlet’.note As Swan's stories clearly show, the novelist shared his employer's love for both Shakespeare and Dickens, the latter in particular being a powerful influence on his own fiction. The admiration of both men for England's greatest living novelist must have been reinforced by the presence on the Advertiser staff, for a brief time, of Henry Jerrold, brother of Douglas Jerrold, the English dramatist, humorist, and contributor to the London Punch. Henry (probably with some exaggeration) claimed friendship with Dickens; he certainly instilled a fervent admiration for him among his press colleagues in Ararat.note

With his childhood background of printer's ink and journalism, his serious approach to public life, and his temperamental compatibility with his employer, by the middle 1860s Swan was thoroughly established as the successful editor of a regional newspaper. He had arrived at that stage in his career when he could begin to pass on his skills, experience, and wisdom to a younger generation. Among the trainee journalists of Ararat who benefited from Swan's tutelage were Jabez Banfield's sons, Harry and Edward. Harry, the elder, went on to assume increasing responsibility for the running of the Advertiser.note Ted, an introspective youth, severely injured his right eye in a bicycle accident, and partly as the result of this misfortune, in his early twenties became increasingly withdrawn in personality. By 1882 he was ready to turn his back on Ararat and family, to journey northwards to Townsville, Dunk Island, and fame as the author of such works as Confessions of a Beachcomber (1908) and My Tropic Isle (1911). There is no evidence that Swan's early wanderings ever took him out of Victoria. Nevertheless, a significant strand of the plot of Luke Mivers' Harvest, together with episodes from other tales, is set in Far North Queensland. It is tempting to speculate that Swan's interest in the regional colour of North Queensland may have influenced ‘the Beachcomber’ to go in search of more direct experience of its pleasures.

By the end of his first decade in Ararat, Swan was established as a leading citizen, respected newsman, husband, father of a young family, and the owner (it seems possible) of some financial interest in the town's leading industry — deep-shaft gold mining.note It was with real regret, then, that early in 1869 his wide circle of acquaintance learned of his imminent move to nearby Stawell, whose prosperity was now beginning to surpass that of a declining Ararat. The reasons for Swan's decision must have included those which commonly weigh heavily in such situations: larger financial rewards, brighter prospects for the future, greater security for one's dependents.

In Swan's case, to these considerations was almost certainly added the chance of closer contact with his Irish relatives than at any time since he had left Monaghan fifteen years earlier. Since taking up his duties in Portland, Samuel Kelso had been making his mark in the Presbyterian Church in Victoria. Indefatigable in his pastoral duties, he soon established a reputation for eloquence in preaching and for support of robust church music. In November of 1863 he was elected Moderator of Victoria.note So well regarded a figure could hardly be expected to remain in Portland throughout his career. Late in 1868 Kelso accepted a call from the Presbyterian congregation at Stawell, taking up his new position in January 1869.

Swan must have been warmed by the prospect of a reunion with his sister and brother-in-law. Yet hopeful anticipation was mixed with regret in the speech he made at the farewell dinner organised for him at the Court House Hotel, Ararat, on Tuesday evening, 20 April 1869. After many toasts and songs, Swan's speech in reply ‘was greeted with immense cheering’. He spoke of his great affection for Ararat and its citizens, vowed that he would value the presentation watch and chain ‘as his dearest treasure’ and concluded by declaring that ‘On leaving for another sphere of usefulness, he need scarcely say that all knew he would endeavour to do his very best for Pleasant Creek’.note

Pleasant Creek, the settlement which would develop into Stawell, had a history very similar to that of Ararat. The earliest European expansion into Victoria's western plains had taken the form of large pastoral holdings as sheep owners spread their flocks out over newly opened land. By 1850 the Wimmera District, though still only sparsely populated by white settlers, included some large, rich, and well stocked runs. Among the wealthiest and most influential of the Wimmera pastoralists were the Wilson brothers, whose origins were in Ulster — not far from Swan's native city of Monaghan.note The youngest of them, Samuel, arrived in the colony in 1852 at the age of twenty. In time his career, along with that of his brother Alexander, would intersect with Swan's.

In the middle 1850s the pastoral development of the region surrounding Stawell and Ararat was interrupted by the discovery of gold. Many rushes followed in both districts through the latter years of the decade.note At one stage there were reported to be 20,000 men on the Pleasant Creek diggings, but by 1869, when Swan moved to Stawell, that number had dwindled to a handful, and the area had become largely dependent on deep-shaft mining for its survival.

As so often happened on the Victorian goldfields, in the wake of the rushes came a local press. Stawell's first newspaper, the Pleasant Creek Times, enjoyed a brief existence in 1858 under the editorship of a printer called Stott. The Times was followed by the Pleasant Creek Chronicle. In direct opposition to the Chronicle, the Pleasant Creek News was established on 21 July 1868, under the proprietorship of Maynard Ord, previously the Pleasant Creek correspondent for Banfield's Ararat Advertiser. It was as Ord's editor that Swan moved to Stawell in the following year.note Taking up residence in Main Street, he soon found ways of assimilating himself into the Stawell community, just as he had in Ararat. Before long, thus, the News carried a story under the heading, ‘The Amateurs’, which gave a critique of an entertainment offered by ‘our newly-organized amateur corps’. ‘Gallery Boy’ was able to report a full house and takings of some forty pounds. Among the roles in the farce which supported the main offering, ‘The Tittims of Mr Swan was one of the best bits of low comedy I have seen for many years’.note Another important way in which Swan was able to contribute to the communal life of his new home was in the organisation of the Pleasant Creek Annual Fair, first held on 27 and 28 December 1869. A prime mover in this event (as he had been at Ararat), Swan was also the first secretary of the Fair Society.

As if coincident with Swan's arrival, 1869 saw the formal separation of the borough of Stawell from the shire — the division was gazetted on November 10.note Apart from one five-year period (1872-77) when he returned to Ararat, for the rest of his life Swan devoted himself wholeheartedly to the advancement and well-being of the community his newspaper served. During 1869, for instance, the Wimmera District Pastoral and Agricultural Society was formed, with Samuel Wilson as its first president and Nathaniel Swan its first secretary.note By this time Wilson was an immensely wealthy and influential figure in the colony of Victoria. L. J. Blake records that ‘Governor Sir George Bowen, in recommending him for a baronetcy in 1874, estimated Wilson's average annual income as almost £100,000, stated that he owned 600,000 sheep, possibly more than anyone else in the world, and described his position and style of living as similar to an "opulent country gentleman" in England’.note

In allying himself with so affluent an individual as well as with the Pastoral and Agricultural Society, Swan was quite plainly declaring his own social and political conservatism, a personal commitment he was prepared on several occasions to defend in the local press. On 19 August 1871 he wrote as a private citizen to the Pleasant Creek News about what he averred was the misreporting by the Chronicle of a speech he had made in connection with the disappointing range of entries for the Agricultural Society's Annual Show. Putting this phenomenon down to animosity between squatters and small selectors, Swan commented:

Class differences do exist, and will, I am inclined to think, exist for all time; but, granting that there is a direct antagonism between the squatter and the farmer, an assumption which I do not think is correct, honorable opponents could surely meet in friendly rivalry at a truce such as the show proclaims. The soldiers of opposing armies have shaken hands, and made merry together in the pauses of warfare before now; why not the class strugglers representing the two industries?note

Swan's somewhat naive hope that the two groups might be persuaded to come together for the common good cannot hide his own alignment with the pastoralists, an alignment clearly expressed in the dedication of his Tales of Australian Life (for which, see below) to the wife of Alexander Wilson, Samuel's older brother: ‘In Memory of The Sunny Days Spent at VECTIS [one of Alexander's properties] by THE AUTHOR’.note Whether Swan's dedication reveals real intimacy with the land-owning classes so much as a desire for it remains open to question. Yet there can be no mistaking the general temper of Swan's social and cultural values. He endorsed the idea of an established ruling class not for its wealth and power but for its capacity to rule the populace with enlightened altruism. His dislike of the nouveaux riches is unmistakeable in the surviving (but undated) fragment of a letter he wrote to Henry Kendall. His contempt for the type is distilled into a single emphasised word in his description of an unidentified acquaintance: ‘I was out driving with him in his bloated carriage & pair’.note