‘Rob the Ranter’-Literary Life in Early Newcastle

By Ross Edmonds.

The early decades of White colonisation in and around Newcastle were dominated by the struggle for survival. In these circumstances any form of culture was thin on the ground, nevertheless the desire of at least a few people for more than purely material gain had made itself felt as early as 1835. That year saw the establishment of the first Mechanics Institute. The Reverend C.P.N. Wilton, an Anglican clergyman, was described as “the life and soul of the institution, who delivered lectures on the geology of the Hunter and historical sketches of colonial subjects.” (1) A small library was set up alongside a room where lectures were delivered in a wooden building in King Street. Money was raised by public subscription which, in 1841, allowed a move to larger premises and the name was changed to The School of Arts. Things appear to have gone well until 1851 when news of rich gold discoveries reached Newcastle.

At the time most workers were earning no more than subsistence wages and many decided to try their luck on the goldfields. The School of Arts subsequently closed in 1852 and was not revived for nine years. By then there was a growing middle class in Newcastle. Their ideology was reflected in the stated aims of the revamped institution, namely; “The mental and moral improvement and rational recreation of its members by the opening of a library and reading room, by lectures and readings as well as the formation of classes.” (2)

That same year a young man who was to leave to posterity many columns of newsprint in the pages of the Newcastle Chronicle arrived in Newcastle. He was already showing the symptoms of what was then an incurable disease, tuberculous, and came to seek treatment from the renowned Dr. Bowker. Meanwhile he still had to earn a living and this he did by churning out his impressions of Newcastle for the local newspaper where he was paid by the paragraph. He had done this work in other localities and acquired the nickname, Rob the Ranter, a pseudonym he used for his articles. We know very little about him, not even his real name, as he left very few clues as to his identity in his articles.

What we do know is that as a child he arrived in Sydney by ship from Britain with his parents in 1838. The family then “went 200 miles into the interior, inhabited at that time almost exclusively by the wild untutored Aborigines, and the scarcely less uncivilised white convict population.” (3)

When he arrived in Newcastle it was, he said, the first city or seaport town I have seen in 23 years. In that time much had changed. “There was a telegraph office and a railway station in Newcastle and as this was the first time I had seen either of these wonders of modern invention, they excited my curiosity and I was never tired of watching them…”
Other aspects of the emerging city, however, did not create such a favourable impression.

“Considering its age and its importance as a coal producing district, it was often a surprise to me to notice the miserable appearance of the streets and the primitive, unpretending style of most of the buildings. Occasionally an edifice with some few claims to architectural beauty is to be met with but its effect in general is spoiled by the contiguity of a collection of hovels, styled ‘little shops’ that would disgrace any shepherd’s hut, and not a few of those ‘merry made’ hastily erected bush tenements which I beheld in the pastoral wilds of the Castlereagh. The greater part of the thoroughfare along the streets are in an excretetable condition and being wholly unpaved, and in a state of nature, Hunter Street excepted.

On these streets the traveller, as well as contending with numerous gullies, holes and ruts is sometimes presented with large pyramidal heaps of beautiful white sand into which you sink, ankle deep at every step with the most delightful ease….” (4)
As a newcomer to the city in 1861, Rob the Ranter would have been unlikely to know that at this time the NSW Government was busy spending lots of money on well made streets and public buildings in Sydney, and largely ignoring the rest of the colony. Newcastle did not even have a municipal (or borough as it was then called) council until 1859 and even then most residents were so poor they could pay little in rates.

Rob the Ranter was, by contrast, much more impressed by the people he encountered in Newcastle. He said; the greater part of the male population appears to be comely, vigorous and hardworking. And I must pay the female portion the compliment of saying I never recollected having seen so many really handsome women in any other town which I visited.” He was also excited, he says, to find in the columns of the Newcastle Chronicle “that the city was not without its local literary celebrities, both in the upper walks of prose and among the flowers of poetry.” There were three individuals who were prominent but they only signed their work with initials and so it is now difficult, or impossible, to identify them. One, he says, “was a female and as I had never seen a poetess I longed to make her acquaintance.” Another, a male, he considered “was the very ideal of a poet, having a head graced with thickly clustered curls of raven hair…., Like many men of genius, he knelt rather often at the shrine of Bacchus. Whenever the drink emptied his pockets the poetry could always replenish them. (5)

Rob the Ranter eventually found out that the poetess assisted her mother to run a small shop and post office in Lake Macquarie Road (now known as Darby Street). He decided he must meet her but on his first visit only the mother appeared. Undaunted, he called again and this time he met her. Possibly for the first, and last, time in his life the Ranter was lost for words. When she asked what he wanted, he could only “stab his finger at the shelf where the lollies were kept and ask for half a pound of lozenges”. Well, at least it gave him something to write about in his newspaper column.

After describing in detail his trip down a coal mine, and various other adventures, some of the readers of the Newcastle Chronicle were getting restless. One of them even wrote to the editor and implied that he expected news in his newspaper, not the seemingly endless rantings from Rob that he had been getting on a weekly basis. So, after about three months, it was time to say farewell. It is probable that he knew by now that his tuberculous was incurable and that he might never see Newcastle again. In his final article he said how much he had enjoyed his stay and that he would always be glad to hear of Newcastle’s welfare and progress. His farewell took the form of a poem, inevitably a very long one, and one of the first to be written about this city. I will quote only five of the verses. If you want more, use Trove by searching ‘Rob the Ranter’ for 1862.

Far removed, my footsteps roam no more
The mazy windings of Newcastle’s shore;
Tho’ now, no more, I rise at early dawn
To tread the Flagstaff’s undulating lawn

………………..(Nor see)
The Iron Horse rejoicing in his might,
Speed o’er the rails, with wild resilience flight;
Nor gaze upon that mystic length of wire,
Along which speed the messengers of fire.*
………………………….
Nor mark beneath the gathered shades of night,
The beacon flame that gleams on Nobby’s height,
To guide the midnight wanderers o’er the deep,
To where the Hunter’s peaceful waters sleep.
……………………
Yet though these pleasures, all are left behind,
Naught shall erase their memory from my mind,
Their recollection oft will cheer my soul,
When griefs assail, or troubles round me roll.
…………………………….
And thus our hearts are soothed in every scene,
With memories of joys that once have been,
Or cheered with thoughts, as onwards still we roam,
Of happy days, and pleasures yet to come. (6)

* Here he refers to the newly installed telegraph system.

References
1. Newcastle and District Historical Society Journal. Vol 8. p47. 1954.
2. ibid. p48.
3. Quoted by Leo Butler in an article on Rob the Ranter. NMH. 10/4/1954
4. Newcastle Chronicle 17/9/1862 p.3. In 1861, when he was in Newcastle, there were only two passenger rail lines in NSW. One ran from Redfern to Parramatta , the other from Honeysuckle(near Civic) to East Maitland.
5. Newcastle Chronicle 24/9/1862 p3.
6. For the full poem, see Newcastle Chronicle 15/10/1862 p.3

Research and written by Ross Edmonds. Presented at the Hunter Living Histories meeting on Monday 6 May, 2019.

 

Articles by Rob the Ranter.

 

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