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U3A Writing: The Duke Of Essex

...Ma was famous for her rolls and indeed the sign on the verandah roof read “World Famous Bakery; get your hands on Mrs O’Grady’s buns”...

Jim Graham tells an entertainingly unlikely tale.

One of Australia’s iconic paintings is “The Cricketers” by Sir Russell Drysdale; it was painted in 1948 and whilst one cannot tinker with history one can look behind it and reveal the true story.

Although we have been led to believe it was painted in Hill End I would like to present the case for an alternative view. The location is White Cliffs, a mining town somewhere west of the sunset in the burgeoning opal fields of western NSW about the turn of last century.

Careful scrutiny of the background reveals a large mullock heap which was the end result of the endeavours of several hundred hopeful prospectors; the small building in the distance was the Police station; a few spindly gum trees provided scant shelter for the ramshackled building which was, in fact, Ma O’Grady’s bakery. Ma was a larger than life character of Irish descent, built for comfort rather than speed. Her booming voice and considerable bulk could spread terror amongst even the most hardened miners if they incurred her displeasure; indeed locals fondly remember the time she weighed into a brawl outside the pub: picking up the two ringleaders, one in each hand she held them at arm’s length before banging their heads together and dropping them into a horse trough.

Ma was famous for her rolls and indeed the sign on the verandah roof read “World Famous Bakery; get your hands on Mrs O’Grady’s buns”.

As we know man cannot live by bread alone and another of her delicacies was meat pies. Her husband, Silent Joe, so called because he never uttered a word when she was around spent most of his time roaming the surrounding station properties in a large sulky accompanied by his kelpie dog, Ned, named after the late Edward Kelly. Joe was a fan of Banjo Patterson and basing his own life on the jolly swagman provided all the meat for the pies by stuffing many a jolly jumbuck into the back of the sulky.

Ma and Joe had three daughters, Matilda, Maude and Charlotte who worked in the pub across the road; Matilda as barmaid, Maude as waitress whilst Charlotte was the cook, providing another outlet for Joe’s ill-gotten mutton. All three made a few bob on the side by providing comfort and solace to the miners and any other lonely souls who passed along the track and paused to slake their thirst or satisfy their carnal needs.

The two storey pub which rejoiced in pseudo grandeur by being named the “The Duke of Essex” was really not much more than a doss house. The bar occupied about half the ground floor and the lone figure leaning against the verandah post is recovering his equilibrium outside its door; next to that was the dining room where Maude plonked dishes of mutton, prepared without much care or interest by Charlotte in front of the long suffering diners.

There was no need for a menu as Charlotte’s cooking never varied; the staple dish was mutton which had been purloined by Joe; chops for breakfast, cold mutton for lunch and boiled mutton swimming in congealed white sauce for dinner. When Joe had been unsuccessful in his sheep duffing there was an endless supply of underground mutton readily available in the mullock heaps.

The rest of the downstairs section was occupied by a barber’s shop where Henry Lawson’s gilded youths sat along the wall , you will probably recall them “ their eyes were dull, their heads were flat, they had no brains at all”. Upstairs there were a series of small bedrooms occupied by a motley collection of the detritus of humanity who eked out a living “nobbling” on the diggings or working the underground shafts.

Apart from drinking in the bar of the Duke the other occupation was gambling, mostly in the form of two up ; considerable amounts of money changed hands under the guidance of ringmaster, Harry the Hat, so named as he had never been seen without his headgear; even when he took his monthly bath, whether he needed it or not.

The local police sergeant, Paddy Burke, turned a blind eye to the swy game as Harry the Hat always made a handsome donation to the Police Benevolent Fund and at Christmas put on a keg in the pub on the sergeant’s day off when he could don his civvies and join the throng in the bar of the Essex.

An unfortunate miscalculation quite early in life resulted in Charlotte producing a son, named Algernon; the alleged father was a member of a touring English cricket team and as the child grew into young manhood he showed considerable promise as a fast bowler – his high, bouncy and fluid action added credence to rumours concerning his paternity, although Charlotte, known behind her back as Charlotte the Harlot, refused to confirm the story merely saying “ If you back into a circular saw you can never be sure which tooth hit you”. She was very proud of her offspring and if you look carefully at the right hand window above the batsman in Drysdale’s masterpiece she can be seen peering out from behind the half opened curtain watching her pride and joy practice his bowling.

Sergeant Burke had a son about the same age; he had been christened Jeremiah but was known far and wide as “Backa”Burke. He showed promise with the bat and the two young men spent hours honing their skills under the eagle eye of a retired state cricketer who had an inflated view of his own prowess and, largely due to a fondness for a cool libation on a hot day, had fallen upon hard times and spent most of his time either leaning on the bar of the Duke of Essex or allowing its verandah post to hold him up as he encouraged Algy and Backa in their pursuit of glory.

All the above confirms the view that appearances are not always what they seem to be and that one should never jump to conclusions without considering all the evidence.

I rest my case and invite you to draw your own conclusion.

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