- Interconnecting relationships between major families in the small world of colonial Australia are commonplace to historians researching nineteenth-century material. But literary links? Who would expect a family connection between Australia's great balladist, 'Banjo' Paterson, and Rosa Praed, the first Australian-born novelist to achieve a significant international reputation?
The link was Nora Murray-Prior, one of the 'hidden' pioneer women of our colonial era, who nurtured her network of relatives through letters. In strikingly direct and fluent prose, interspersed with acerbic comments on the issues of the day, Nora kept the branches of her family, whether on far-flung stations or in city suburbs, informed of the doings of others.
Born on 3 December 1846 at Boree Nyrang, a station of some 30 000 hectares between the settlements of Orange, Molong, Wellington and Dubbo in the central west of New South Wales, Nora Clarina Barton was a member of the distinguished Barton and Darvall families. Her uncle, lawyer Sir John Darvall, was a Member of Parliament and a Minister in several New South Wales governments; her brother, Robert Darvall Barton, wrote Reminiscences of an Australian Pioneer.
In 1863, one of Nora's older sisters, Rose Isabella Barton, married Scottish-born Andrew Bogle Paterson. Their first child, Andrew Barton Paterson, later famous as 'Banjo' Paterson from the pseudonym 'The Banjo' he adopted for his early contributions to the Bulletin, was born at Nyrambla, a relative's station near Orange, in 1864. When Andrew Barton Paterson (always known to his family as Bartie or Barty) was a young child, they moved to Illalong, a 4000-hectare property near Binalong, north-west of Yass, where his father was manager. After some early schooling, Bartie Paterson became a pupil at Sydney Grammar School. He boarded with his grandmother, Emily Mary Barton, who, after the death of her husband in 1863, had sold Boree Nyrang and moved to 'Rockend' at Gladesville. Emily Barton was herself a prolific poet and accomplished correspondent. A collection of her poems, Straws on the Stream, was published in 1907, and a new edition with the same title but containing a different selection of poems was published in 1910. Some of her early letters and a diary are included in Strugglers and Settlers: Darvall Family Letters 1839-1849 edited by a descendant, Jeremy Long.
Not long before Bartie Paterson arrived in Sydney to stay with his grandmother, his aunt, Nora Barton, returned from a trip to England. For a short time she trained as a nurse at the Sydney Infirmary under Lucy Osburn, recently arrived in Sydney to introduce the Nightingale system of nursing training. In 1872, Nora, at the age of 26, married widower, station-owner and politician, Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior, then 53. Murray-Prior was Postmaster-General in several Queensland governments, and a member of the Legislative Council until his death in 1892. By her marriage, Nora acquired eight stepchildren, some nearly as old as she was. They included Rosa, then 21, who only two months previously had married English-born Campbell Praed. For the next three years Rosa and Campbell lived on an isolated cattle station covering nearly the whole of Curtis Island, off the Queensland coast between Gladstone and Rockhampton.
From her marriage until the death of her husband, Nora Murray-Prior's home was at Maroon, a station on the upper Logan River, close to the Queensland-New South Wales border ranges. From Maroon her mail stretched far and wide. Her correspondents included her sister Rose Paterson at Illalong and stepdaughter Rosa Praed, first at Curtis Island and, from 1876, in England. Both depended on Nora for support and long-distance companionship. They shared confidences about childbirth and their abhorrence of further pregnancies, problems in educating their children, their latest reading, as well as family news.
Nora told Rosa Praed that her sister Rose was the family member with whom she had most sympathy but 'she takes the world "hardly" & has rather morbid views on life'. Her husband is a great good fellow, of whom I have always been very fond ... When they were first married they were well off, but he & his brother went into stations on the Barcoo just before the bad times in 67 & 68. Of course the drought of that year & then the depression in trade smashed them up. One died soon after & this one took the management of the station which had been his own, from the man who had bought it from the bank. They have never been poor in the sense that we call poor out here, & are now tolerably well off ... as they have had some money left them ... but she has had much toil & trouble & looks thin & old.
Whenever she was left long without a letter, Rose Paterson complained from Illalong: I am in a state of semi-starvation for want of news. We might as well be on a desert island as here for all we know of the doings of the rest of the world or even of our own family-now that Mama has so many of us in different places to write to ... [our brothers] never have half an hour to spare for us poor exiles existing (not living) in monotonous torpidity in this poor old ruin of a habitation.
As Bartie Paterson grew up, Rose kept Nora informed of his progress at school, his accidents-particularly injuries to an arm which was broken several times-and a 'very bad attack' of typhoid that kept him 'pale & thin' but 'fortunately' with 'no deafness or mental weakness as result of the fever'. By the time he was 16, Rose Paterson reported family discussions on whether he should be articled to a lawyer or try for a university scholarship. Nora relayed this news to Rosa Praed.
From 1880 when Rosa's first novel, An Australian Heroine, was published in England to great acclaim, Nora kept her sister informed of Rosa's publishing successes. Rose Paterson was amazed. She wondered how Rosa Praed had 'managed to get so good an education in the colonies'. Nora could explain that Rosa, to a great extent, had educated herself through omnivorous reading. Education was always on Rose Paterson's mind. Although Bartie was sent to school in Sydney, his five sisters were taught by Rose and a succession of governesses, some of them unsatisfactory.
When Rosa Praed became ill in England and it was thought she would have to return to Australia to recuperate, her father Thomas Murray-Prior proposed travelling to England to bring her back, a return trip that would take close to a year. It surprised Rose Paterson that he could contemplate such a trip without his wife: leaving you on the station all the time of his absence-I wouldn't stand that if I were you-surely Mrs Praed's husband is man enough to bring or send her out if her health requires it-or if it is a pleasure trip in prospect why not distribute the children & go too.
She did not think Rosa Praed was 'to be pitied since she has the talent & power to make a income ... for herself independently of her [husband]'. After Murray-Prior sailed for England, Rose returned to the same subject telling her sister: It was very self-sacrificing of you to urge your husband to go home & to take the double duties upon your own shoulders for so long for the sake of your step-daughter. I hope she will appreciate the sacrifice.
As Rosa Praed's fame gathered momentum, Rose and Nora were caught up in the excitement of having such a famous relative. Rose Paterson thought Policy and Passion, Rosa Praed's novel portraying social and political life in colonial Queensland, 'a very original, powerful & remarkable book'. When Rosa Praed turned to theosophy, both for spiritual guidance and as a source of material for novels, Rose urged Nora to tell her of 'Mrs Praed's latest experiences with the Theosophists'.
Rosa Praed's reputation as a novelist was past its peak by 1895 when 'Banjo' Paterson became famous as the author of the immensely popular The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses. In that same year, he wrote the words of Waltzing Matilda at Dagworth Station, north-west of Winton in far west Queensland. Rose Paterson did not live to see her son achieve these heights, although he was a highly-regarded Bulletin poet before her death in 1893 at the age of just 49.
The paths of 'Banjo' Paterson and Rosa Praed, these two writers in such different genres, crossed again soon after the start of World War I. 'Banjo' Paterson had been a war correspondent during the Boer War and, when war was declared in 1914, he rushed to report this new conflict. Nora, who had been on a leisurely tour of Europe at the start of the war, became trapped in England and, with her eyesight failing, had passed the family letter writing to her daughter, Ruth Murray-Prior. Ruth told her half-sister Rosa Praed: Of course the fever attacked [Bartie] again this time but the Commonwealth would only allow one correspondent to go with the First Contingent & he was not that one ... he is now trying by influence & other means exerted on the powers that be to get to the Front ... & is so keen that I suppose he will get where he wants to before very long. But for war correspondents, it is a very long way to the front.
Letters written by Nora Murray-Prior and members of her extended family are in the Manuscript Collection in the National Library. More of her letters are on microfilm in the Newspaper and Microfilm Room.