Unmasking “Rob the Ranter”

Rob the ranter

By Louise Gale

In Ross Edmonds’ post of 14 May 2019 on “Rob the Ranter” (1), he discusses the anonymous “Rob’s” contribution to the cultural life of Newcastle in 1861. Leo Butler’s article in the Newcastle Morning Herald in 1954 (2) similarly pays tribute to “Rob” for being amongst the small band of commentators “to which modern historians … are deeply indebted.” Rob certainly deserves to be brought out into the light and identified by his real name.

Rob wrote six articles for the Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (3,4,5,6,7,8), with the somewhat cumbersome title of Reminiscences of a Three Months’ Sojourn in Newcastle and Maitland, but particularly in the former. His three-month stay in Newcastle began about 10 June 1861 and ended in September 1861, culminating in his arrival back home about 24 October 1861. His articles appeared in the Chronicle in the latter half of the following year, 1862. Despite being ill from “bronchial disease of the lungs, and an aneurism of one of the arteries” and having come to Newcastle for treatment from Dr Bowker (3), at the time of his departure in September he “was greatly improved in health and appearance and at least two stone heavier than when I came down” (6) and at the time of his writing in 1862 he announced that he had been “in the enjoyment of better health and spirits than has fallen to my lot for the last two years” (8).

An examination of Rob’s articles yields a number of clues to investigate. The most significant points are:

  • He arrived in NSW in October 1838 aboard the Coromandel when he was about 2 years of age (3).
  • He had voyaged from the “Land o’ Cakes” (3), a literary term for Scotland borrowed from Robert Burns.
  • On arrival his family travelled “two hundred and odd miles into the far interior, inhabited at that time almost exclusively by the wild, untutored aboriginals, and scarcely less uncivilised white convict population” (3).
  • Newcastle was the first city or seaport town he had seen in the 23 years since his arrival in NSW (3).
  • He attributed his love of reading in part to his mother, now deceased (3).
  • He refers to the sights he “beheld amidst the pastoral wilds of the Castlereagh” (4) and on leaving Newcastle he was wished a safe arrival “home to the rural shades of D———, on the Castlereagh River” (6).
  • When he enters the Post Office on Lake Macquarie Road and looks through the list of unclaimed letters, he cast his eye “down the column of S’s” (6).
  • After departing Newcastle by train to Maitland, he then took a mail coach from Lochinvar to Muswellbrook, then the mail to Cassilis, passing through Wybong and Merriwa, which would eventually place him 60 miles from home. The journey was not without incident, but eventually he made it to Cassilis and a borrowed horse got him as far as Coolah (6, 8).

A search of passenger records at www.ancestry.com.au (9) for all persons named Robert, born 1836 +/- 2 years, who arrived on the Coromandel in 1838 yielded five results. Four were eliminated for a variety of reasons, such as the parents named in the records went on to have further children in Sydney (rather than in the “interior”) over a considerable period of time (10) and nationality was English rather than Scottish.

The fifth record was that of Robert Stevenson, born 8 August 1835 in Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland, to John Stevenson and Marion Cuthbertson (11). Robert, aged 3 was their only child. A search of baptisms on the website for NSW Registry of Birth, Deaths and Marriages (12) showed that John and Marion had further children following their arrival and examination of the microfilmed images of the baptism registers (13) showed that the family’s residence at the time of the baptisms was Biamble (current day Neilrex, between Binnaway and Mendooran), and later at Yarragrin, both “two hundred and odd miles” from Sydney.

Robert married Martha Brooke in 1863 and they went on to have 13 children born between 1864 and 1885, their last two children being twin sons (12).

The first available Electoral Roll (14) for the area is for the period 1869-1870, which shows Robert living at “Yarragreen Creek” (Yarragrin) in the Coonabarabran district, and his father  and brother Alexander living at “Dunny Kimine Creek” (Dinnykymine Creek, a tributary of the Castlereagh River); the “rural shades of D———” referred to above.

There are a number of birth and death records missing for this family, and one could speculate that their remote location might have accounted for the neglect of some of the formalities such as death registration. Robert refers to his mother already being deceased at the time of his writing, but there is no record of her death. People connected to this family who have posted family trees on Ancestry.com.au state that Marion Stevenson died about 1861 at Dinnykymine, consistent with Robert’s comment that his mother was deceased by 1862 (3). Nor is there a death registration for Robert himself. In these family trees, a very specific death date is given for him of 16th February 1887 at Old Mollyan, his burial site being on a property named “Timberoo”. His widow Martha remarried in 1889 and died in 1922 at age 79 (12) and is buried at Coonabarabran Cemetery (15).

Now that we know Rob the Ranter’s real name, it seems he was “hiding in plain sight” all this time. Before the Chronicle published his Reminiscences from September 1862, they had already published poems he submitted under his real name at the end of 1861 and earlier in 1862 (16,17,19,20). The first (16) was written soon after his arrival back home (“Lines on a Pipe Purchased at Langley’s Store, Newcastle”). His published address is Dinnykymine, Castlereagh River. The second (17) was “The Return: Written on my arrival from Newcastle, October 24, 1861”, a sorrowful and heartfelt piece which suggests a loved one from home had married another, an event which accounts for his dark period described in the last of his Reminiscences (8). This outpouring of grief prompted a reply in verse from M.E.H. (18), a poetess who was also published in the Chronicle, a person who held a great fascination for  Robert, and who became the subject of one of his Reminiscences (6). She implored him not to give in to despair. His third poem (19) was a reply to M.E.H., where he thanks her for her kindness and counsel.

The Newcastle air must have agreed with Robert as he lived another 26 years after leaving Newcastle, dying at the age of 52. Despite his descriptions of the wild and rough countryside and companionship of his home place, Robert continued to make a contribution to cultural life. Biographical notes provided by family members on www.ancestry.com.au refer to him being a poet and violinist and to his efforts to teach the Aboriginal Thomas Governor, father of Jimmy Governor. That Robert continued to be well-known for his poetry is evidenced by the inscription at his father’s gravesite (15).

27 NOVEMBER 1834


  1. https://hunterlivinghistories.com/2019/05/14/rob-the-ranter-literary-life-in-early-newcastle/
  2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article134905073 (1954, April 10). Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW: 1876 – 1954), p. 5.
  3. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111163743 (1862, September 10). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 2
  4. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111164485 (1862, September 17). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 2.
  5. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111163616 (1862, September 24). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 2.
  6. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111164916 (1862, October 1). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 2
  7. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111169515 (1862, October 8). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 3
  8. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111163707 (1862, October 15). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 2
  9. com. New South Wales, Australia, Assisted Immigrant Passenger Lists, 1828-1896 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc., 2007.
  10. com. Australia, Birth Index, 1788-1922 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.
  11. com. Scotland, Select Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.
  12. https://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/Pages/family-history-research/family-history-search.aspx
  13. Registers of Baptisms, Burials and Marriages, 1787-1856, (microfilm), Archives Authority of New South Wales
  14. New South Wales electoral rolls, (1869-1900 and 1903-2000), [microfilm, microfiche]: Salt Lake City: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1975-1978.
  15. http://austcemindex.com/inscription?id=8772613#images
  16. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111168331 (1861, December 4). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 4.
  17. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111163858 (1862, March 5). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 2.
  18. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111169216 (1862, March 8). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 3.
  19. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111169143 (1862, April 2). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 4.
  20. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111163763 (1862, September 10). The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866), p. 4.


Post curated by William Chen Greentree (WIL Communications student)



3 thoughts on “Unmasking “Rob the Ranter”

  1. Hi , all of Roberts writings are collected in a book called The Stevenson’s of the Warrumbungles. This was produced for a reunion of the descendants of John and Marion Stevenson, Roberts parents. There is a limited reprint about to be done if you would be interested in a copy .
    Neil Stevenson

    i can be contacted at frankly@alpha.net.au

  2. Neil stevenson, where can I get a copy, my grandmother was Alma Stevenson, I have been wanting to know my family history.

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