Ll is for – Life on the Laura Blocks

Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge

“Be damned the rain… be damned my bad back… I have to know!” muttered mum as she tottered up the long steep driveway. It was the winter of 1986 and we’d driven 240 miles from Adelaide, the Capital of South Australia, to the small mid-north town of Laura in search of my Nana’s childhood home on the “Laura Blocks”. Mum last saw “the cottage” 40 years before, had a picture of it in her mind, knew it was being used to store hay but we couldn’t find it. This “Gould Family History Through the Alphabet” post is dedicated to the courage and perseverance of my Murrays, and the other 12 families of the “Laura Blocks”, who pushed on through the frontier, battling to eke a living from an inhospitable land, whilst facing the wrath of the original inhabitants, the Ngadjuri and Nukunu peoples, whose own lifestyle and livelihoods were being destroyed by the new settlers.

The land in the mid north of South Australia was settled by Europeans in the early 1840′s, some 4 years after the first landing at Glenelg in 1836. In 1843 the brothers Bristow Herbert Hughes and Herbert Bristow Hughes open up the county along the Rocky River. The town of Laura was founded on their “Booyoolie Station” land in 1872, as a staging post on the Main North Road from Adelaide, and named after Herbert Hughes’ wife, Laura White, who migrated with her family from Dorset, England, in 1843.

“Until 1894, the area that is now the Laura Blocks, was a property of 52 hectares (130 acres) situated 5 Kms (3miles) north of Laura. The Rocky River and a tributary creek ran through it and there was a three roomed stone house in the centre of the farm. The land was purchased by the Crown (Government) and surveyed into 13 Homestead Blocks with each block having access to the then permanent water supply of the Rocky River. Working Men’s leases were granted on the 1st April 1895 and thirteen ‘pioneer’ families began new chapters in their lives.”  (1)

Laura Block 22 marked with *

My Great Grandfather 18 year old Peter Murray, born in County Cork, Ireland, arrived in South Australia aboard the “Berar” in 1883. Three years later, on 3 Jan 1886, he married Eliza Jane Rowan at St Peters Church, Gladstone. 

Eliza Jane is the 5th child of “my Susan”, Susan (Kelleher) Nicholls from Country Clare, Ireland, and her second husband Timothy Rowen who also migrated from County Clare but not alone. Timothy came with his two brothers and a sister-in-law.  Eliza Jane was born in Armagh, just outside of Clare, South Australia, and moved to Laura with her mother and siblings after a family scandal and court case, in 1875.

The early years of Peter and Eliza Jane’s marriage were spent in Broken Hill, New South Wales, where the discovery of silver offered them a number of opportunities. Peter worked in the mines whilst Eliza Jane ran one of the first boarding establishments, under canvas, to cater for the huge influx of miners. Intitially Eliza Jane and Peter lived in a tent and provided accommodation, for two others, in another small tent. Shift worked enabled these sleeping quarters to be shared and, before long, Eliza Jane purchased a marquee from Flavels in Rundle Street, Adelaide, and expanded into a very successful business. A fire led to the move into a rented weather-board cottage and the business continued to flourish.

These successes were marred by great sadness with the death of their first two children, Peter Murray and Walter Murray, which you can read about here. On 19 Sep 1892, 20 months after the death of Walter my Nana, Mary Elizabeth Murray, was also born at Broken Hill. The high infant mortality rate there, at this time, may have led to their decision to leave “the Hill”. In 1888 there were 358 deaths per 1000 and over a quarter of these were under 1 year old.

The most prevalent causes of death were Typhoid or Enteric Fever (Barrier Fever) followed closely by pneumonia and other lung complaints. (2)

Eliza Jane and Peter returned to Stone Hut, South Australia, a small town north of Laura where their fourth child Daphne Murray was born on 30 Dec 1893. Sadly Daphne lived only 3 days and is buried in the Laura Cemetery, Catholic Section, Grave 0833.

Beatrice May Murray, their fifth child, was born at Stone Hut on 12 Mar 1895 and just a few weeks later, on 1 Apr 1895, Peter took up the lease on Section 22 of the Laura Blocks. 

As the first European occupiers Peter and Eliza Jane built their home using local materials and, in particular, rocks brought up from the Rocky River which ran nearby. Family members described it as a typical, and very small, Irish cottage with a thatched roof which was later found, by the Gill family, when the galvanised iron was removed. It had a window on each side of the door and a chimney, jutting out to one side, with the inside hearth flush with the wall. Initially Eliza Jane cooked on a grate with hobs on either side and a hook from which to hang the boiler. The luxury of a wood stove came much later.

Six more children were born to the family during difficult times:

Andrew Patrick Murray (1879 – 1972)
Walter Henry (Harry) Murray (1901 – 1968)
Hilda Jane Murray (1903 – 1972)
Margaret Helen Murray (1905 – 1973)
Victor Alic Murray (1907 – 1982)
Dorothy Grace Murray (1909 – ? )

My Grandmother (Elizabeth Mary Murray) passed onto her daughter, who passed onto me, her experiences from the age of 8 growing up on the Laura Blocks. She told of the harshness of life on a land which was rocky, barren and infertile. Without the benefits of the fertilizers and soil improvers, which came later, it was an ongoing battle to eke out even a modest living from the barren soil. Eliza Jane, and the children, worked the land whilst Peter worked away for extended periods of time.

Eliza Jane grew onions as a cash crop. The water was bucketed from the creek. She kept geese, ducks and chooks and sold the eggs at the hotel. During the day the geese, ducks and chooks had the run of the farmyard and it was the responsibility of the children to ensure they were locked away, from the foxes, at night.

My grandmother told how eventually her mum saved enough money to buy a cow to provide milk for the children, although she never drank milk or consumed dairy products herself. The story is that, having worked as a dairymaid before marriage, the though of milk repulsed her but she was determined to provide this nourishment for her children so they would have “strong bones”. Each morning, before school, it was the children’s responsibility to take the cow across the swing footbridge to the other side of the river to graze and to return it before nightfall. One night the cow was forgotten and it met with an unfortunate “accident” in the creek, breaking it’s neck. My nana talked about her fear and trepidation, as a small child, in bringing the cow back across that swinging bridge.

Peter’s wages, and the money earned from the block’s produce, was often not sufficient to live on and make the lease payments so Eliza Jane found other ways to earn money. For many years she further supplemented the family income by walking into Laura weekly, with a baby on her hip and a toddler “at the skirts”, to do the washing for the local hotel and to sell her eggs. The legacy she carried, for the remainder of her life, was a displacement of the hips. It was heavy work. In addition to the clothing of the hotelier’s family, Eliza Jane also washed heavy items such as the bed linen, tablecloths and towels used by the hotel patrons. This was done in a galvanised iron tub with a washing board. The “whites” were boiled in a copper and the heavy linen was put through a mangle before being hung to dry. Peter Murray visited the hotel regularly to collect his wife’s pay… he and the Hotelier had “an arrangement”. 

Fettlers, like Peter Murray, laboured on building and repairing the Railroad and coming home to supervise the family’s work on “the pumper”.  Vit Tobin, late of Laura, married a child of the “Laura Blocks” and remembered the Murray family well. It was a delight to spend time with her and hearing her confirm the family stories. She described the gang of Railroad workers, stationed at Stone Hut,  and the women working the blocks to pay the Government Lease with the hope of eventualy owning the land… and yes, the Railroad workers did travel the track on “the pumper” both to supervise work on the block and to collect their pay from the “Pay car” pulled into the Laura station for this purpose. I was told that “the pumper” was also used, by the children, to bring “the father” home when he was “too taken with the drink.”      

They had no electricity, in their little cottage, and Eliza Jane made candles by rendering down fat purchased from the butcher. They also had “slush lamps” which was a lump of fat, with a piece of cotton flux which would melt the fat and provide a little light. They were very smoky and smelly and candles were much preferred.  Family talk included the whitewashing of the cottage, inside and out, every Christmas so that it sparkled. This was the task of the two older boys, Andrew and Harry. It was remembered, with delight, how when Andrew was old enough to go working as a labourer, for a little cash, he would sometimes come home with the luxury of a bought candle for his beloved mother.

Andrew also planted a Mulberry bush, for his mother to hang her washing from, and a fig tree because she so loved fig and almond jam. Hanging washing to dry on hedges was an Irish tradition, for the working class, and a practice continued in rural areas, in Australia, right into the middle of the 20th Century. A strongly held to belief was that the washing must be brought in by nightfall. If, however, it was inadventently left out then it must remain until morning so as not to disturb “the faeries” who may be sheltering there.

Life on the Block was not an easy one for the Murray family. With their father working away, for extended periods of time, the children worked hard alongside their mother to meet the lease payments and ensure their family home could be kept. A closeness was forged, between the children and their mother, with a sense of protectivess growing as they shared the grim reality of a harsh life. The stories and memories have been passed onto following generations as a celebration of the courage and fortitude of these early settlers… our Ancestors.

~~~~~~~~~

My mum displayed these same qualities all her life and were certainly apparent back in 1986 when, despite ill health and bad weather, she determinedly pushed on and finally her belief was confirmed. Yes, she had the correct property!!! The reason she couldn’t find her mum’s childhood home was because time, and the elements, had reduced it to a slab and a few scattered rocks in a barren field.

~~~~~~~~~

PRINTED RESOURCES:
(1) Rhonda Pech, Box 89, Laura, South Australia, 5480. Original research.
(2) Kennedy, Brian, SILVER, SIN, AND SIXPENNY ALE: A Social History of Broken Hill, 1883-1921. Melbourne, University Press, 1978. ISBN 0 522 84141 4.

FURTHER INTERNET RESOURCES:
Northern Areas Council: http://www.nacouncil.sa.gov.au/page.aspx?u=191
Australia for Everyone: http://www.australiaforeveryone.com.au/places_laura.htm
Map: http://www.planbooktravel.com.au/australia/sa/laura
Laura Cemetery and photo, as shown above: http://austcemindex.com/cemetery.php?id=624

Rocky River Historic & Art Society Inc. PO Box 18, Laura, South Australia, 5480

Copyright © 2012. Catherine A Crout-Habel. “Seeking Susan ~ Meeting Marie ~ Finding Family”

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16 thoughts on “Ll is for – Life on the Laura Blocks

  1. Oh Mum, I am so glad you have documented this. I loved reading it, and knowing it is there for me to go back over later, what a lucky duck I am :)

    So well written.
    xxx

    • :-D … so pleased you enjoyed it luvvie. Reckon Nana will be satisfied that this story, of her mum’s childhood, has now been recorded.
      Thanks for always being so encouraging xxx

  2. A fascinating post – my attention was caught straight away by your opening lines, and I enjoyed reading about the settlement of Australia. I do like your writing style and found the final paragraph moving.. By the way Murrays are prolific in my part of the world in the Scottish Borders.

    • Thanks Susan… never would have remembered mum’s words if I hadn’t scribbled them on the back of that photo of her toiling up the hill :-)
      I want my children to know about the European settlement of South Australia (which is very different to the well known one of the Convicts) and to appreciate how their own family history is intertwined. That you also enjoy the stories is SUCH a bonus!!! … :-) I haven’t researched Peter Murray at all. Now you’ve encouraged me to find out if maybe his Ancestors are from the Scottish Borders, and skipped across the Irish Sea? Cheers. PS love your “M is for … ” post. So good! :-)

  3. Pingback: Family History Through the Alphabet - L is for ... | Genealogy & History News

    • Thanks Helen, cos that sure is my intention. My children all have access to a detailed Genealogy Chart, which is fine, but it’s the stories behind the names, dates etc. that’s crucially important, I reckon. Cheers.

    • Indeedie Sheryl. As a city girl, taking a cow anywhere is beyond my wildest imagination. No wonder my Nana, only a child at the time, was terrified, I reckon.

  4. You really are such a wonderful story teller Catherine. Evocative from beginning to end! How very fortunate you are to have maternal ancestors who shared these stories down the generations. Those Clare women were strong and in many ways perfectly suited to their harsh life in rural Australia…I could imagine my Mary O’Brien Kunkel in this story too.

    • Thankyou so much Pauleen. Coming from such an amazing writer as yourself I truly am honoured. Oh yep… the women in my family have always been very good at “chewing the fat” :-D Surviving the Irish “Potato Famine” sure put steel in my Susan’s backbone, I reckon… and she passed on the survival strategies. Never ceases to amaze the similarities in so many sections of our Ancestry & personal experiences Pauleen … ah yes, your Mary O’Brien from County Clare. Believe that the O’Brien’s & O’Ceilleachair’s (Kellehers) are related via “the High King” … but may be just a rumour :-D

  5. I’m way behind in reading my favourite blogs, but I am so glad I couldn’t sleep and decided to catch up a little…You had me intrigued and involved from beginning to end… and inspired a few wry smiles as you told of managing the cow. It brought to mind my mother’s tales of her Clare angel, her mother, bringing the cow home in Dorrigo… I must write that for my family, as you have written this for yours. Kirrily is right, she is indeed a lucky duck to have these wonderful stories as her legacy. Thank you…

    • Oh those Clare women, of ours, were amazingly strong and battled through ihcredible hardships to make a better life for us, eh Chris?… Love that your mum talked of her “Clare angel” :-) … Just beautiful. Looking forward to reading about her “bringing the cow home in Dorrigo” …

  6. Pingback: TROVE TUESDAY: Susan’s first 15 years in South Australia… | Seeking Susan ~ Meeting Marie ~ Finding Family

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