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Bonzer Words!: Phoebe Farrar

...Phoebe had many jobs, one of which was to drive a wagon through inhospitable terrain for nearly a thousand kilometres. Any roads were just tracks but most of the way was over unmade bushland. It was a formidable challenge for the most experienced let alone a girl of thirteen....

Paul Wilson introduces us to an astonishingly tough lady.

The two men struggled but lost control of the huge bull. It broke free and charged towards the gate. Phoebe Farrar did her best to block its escape but the bull crashed through the gate pinning Phoebe underneath, the rampaging animal then fell on top. Phoebe was airlifted to Darwin where the doctor told her that she would never walk again. But he was talking to a woman who had defied the odds for seventy years and this would be just one little set back in an extraordinary life.

The daughter of Martha and Henry Wright, Phoebe was born 19 December 1868 at a small spot near Yass, New South Wales, called Fish River. Details of her childhood are unknown but that changed when she reached the age of thirteen and hopped aboard a steamer headed from Sydney up along the east coast of Australia. Her life of adventure had started.

Phoebe was travelling with Jack and Mary Farrar and their son Robert. They were taking supplies, horses and cattle to pastoralist John Costello’s property deep in the Northern Territory. When the steamer arrived at the inland port of Normanton the party firstly went to Rankine River to collect the 1000 head of cattle then continued across land towards Limmen River south of Palmerston (renamed Darwin in 1911).

Phoebe had many jobs, one of which was to drive a wagon through inhospitable terrain for nearly a thousand kilometres. Any roads were just tracks but most of the way was over unmade bushland. It was a formidable challenge for the most experienced let alone a girl of thirteen.

The Farrar’s managed the property and Phoebe was an ever capable worker. One of her first jobs was to help build huts from pandanus leaves and paperbark trees for them to live in. These huts were quite primitive with dirt floors and no amenities.

They were isolated with no near neighbours and there were never any visitors. It was only natural that Phoebe and Robert would develop a relationship and in 1902 they had their first child. The extent of their isolation is evident in the distance they had to go just to have their son baptised. The round trip to Palmerston was 1127 kilometres. They returned to Palmerston in 1904 to get married on 30 August. Phoebe and Robert later had four more children.

Phoebe and her family moved to Hodgson Down’s station. Here she worked alongside Aboriginal employees as a stockwoman. She was a competent rider who broke horses, did cattle trailing and all other types of mustering work such as roping and branding. She was as skilled as any other worker and would not be outdone.

In 1925 Phoebe drove a herd of 300 cattle across country to Brocks Creek were she would start her own cattle station. By now Robert was not a well man and did not accompany her on the 600 kilometre trek. Her only help came from an aborigine stockman and a dog. She selected a site to build their homestead, which she named Ban Ban Springs. Later on her husband and family joined her there. But Phoebe was the one to do the majority of work. She did all of the branding and spent weeks living with Aboriginal workers in the stock camps.

On that fateful day in 1935 when the bull charged Phoebe and broke her hip she had to wait two days for a doctor to fly in. She was taken to Darwin hospital, operated on and delivered the bad news that she would never walk again. One year later she strode into the doctor’s office for a check up. Needless to say he was more than a little surprised.

Back home Phoebe continued to ride and do the things she had always done. At one stage Phoebe decided to retire in Queensland. But for a woman who was used to an active life retirement was not something she was suited to. Within no time at all Phoebe and Robert were back in the Northern Territory running another cattle station.

Phoebe continued working right up until she was admitted to Darwin hospital in her late eighties. Four years later she died on 19 August 1960 at the age of 91. On her death certificate it was recorded that she was a housewife. What a strange way to describe an extraordinary woman who is said to be the inspiration for one of the characters in Jeannie Gunn’s famous novel We of the Never Never.


© Paula Wilson

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Paula writes for Bonzer magazine. Please visit www.bonzer.org.au

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