Sunday, 21 September 2008

Hill End Suite - A poem about an old Australian gold town

These are my great grandfather John Ross and his wife Rebecca Winter-Ross who went to Hill End at least as as early as 1868 - four years before the main gold rush began in the town, and stayed until 1902. It is very likely that he was there with his father in 1858 when he was a child of eight years. Evidence suggests that John was part of the team which reputedly discovered the biggest nugget of gold ever found - the Holtermann Nugget.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,and the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,and the dry stone no sound of water…

T S Eliot The Waste Land

My poem, Hill End Suite was partially inspired by T S Eliot's poem. However, the main catalyst was family history research which brought to life the fact that my mother's family had been gold miners in Hill End, near Bathurst in New South Wales - one of the richest of all mine fields in Australia in the 1870s. It was a wonderful experience finding out about the people of that time, and transporting my knowledge into verse. The result is something of a dream in poetry, with characters past and present intermingling with some from my imagination. The poem was fed when my sister and I spent a week camping in the old town that is now an historic site.

This poem's pretty long but I thought - what the heck! Please let me know what you think ...

I. The Old Gold Town
Spirits ride on the winds in Hill End,
Their fickle steeds wafting, eddy o’er pockmarked hills,
Sweep gullies of their gumleaves
And set ruins of brick and mortar groaning with
Illusions and secrets implanted in the dust.

They brush the faces of eroded rocks
The tortured squiggly trunks of gnarled old trees
The sad streams where fish are no more
And the soil, yellow and unforgiving.

Spectres whisper of battles ‘tween man and beast
Between man and the land
Rock and shovel
Windlass and bucket
Pick and stone
Man and man
Man and wife…

And the elements.

II. Geoffrey Marshall and his Ancestors
In the cool of the evening Geoff Marshall
Great great grandson of John Ross, miner,
Strolled the hill of Reef Street
Past Bleak House to the tip
Of Hawkins Hill
And stood there, quiet.

The zephyr stirred giant white gums,
And strengthening,
Whistled into yawning scars of old mines
With their foul air and memories.
Pausing where his forebears searched for gold in ‘72
Geoff Marshall mused, connecting with the past.

Pick pick clink clink
Metal on rock…
A ghostly chorus of yelling and clamour,
Hollers and shouts and bellows and yelps.
Muscles and hearts straining, hurting,
Incessant toil…
Wearing away bodies and hope.

Rumbling barrows and creaking windlass,
Horses’ whinny and machinery’s roar.
Rubble and ore, mud and dust
And rich quartz gleaming.

Split Rock and Broken Back,
Boogong, Turon and Kissing Point.
Golden Quarter Mile and Nuggety Gully,
Deep Creek, Broad Ridge and Eaglehawk.
Stars of Peace and Hope,
Paxton’s and Rampant Lion.
Hickson, Creighton, Beard, and Cock,
Walpole and Dwyer,
Krohmann, Carroll, Beard and Rapp
Holtermann and Ross.
All names melding in a hullabolloo
Of haunting recollection.

III. Jill O’Trades
Beneath unerring gaze of faces long gone
Staring down from timbers of the old Royal Hall
In Tambaroora Road
Jill O’Trades scrapes uneaten bits of wedding cake
From the floor beneath the seats
And gobs of sick, trodden in by dancing feets
And tosses dead beer bottles into the bin
Along with cardboard plates
And sauce smeared paper tablecloths.

She sweeps and dusts for hours until
The stern Salvation faces of Georgina and Major Sam
Relax in approval.
Then Jill O’Trades pauses to spy her handywork
And make peace with ghosts in the hall.

In trance, she hears sounds
Of ancient meetings of townsfolk,
Of celebrations and wakes
The time-worn rituals of Oddfellows Lodge,
Haranguing politicians of early days
Lamington drives and CWA,
School concerts and brass bands.
The scrape of fiddle and thump and jiggle
Of the lagerphone with its bottletops gone mad with a tune.

Jill turns, locks the door.
Away to her next job
Where she hands out posters and prints and pamphlets
To tourists invading the town.
Gold dishes and shovels,
Destined to retain their shine.
Books and trinkets and souvenirs
And jars filled
With chunks of fools gold.
She smiles and chats, a credit to her uniform
And talks of characters of the town.
“A lovely girl,” they say and: “How helpful.”

At night, for Jill, it’s to the pub
Where, as chef, she mingles with
ghosts again.
But, like the beer, ghosts are watered down
With today’s live phantoms.
In the tarted up beergarden she serves
Soup de poisson, pate maison
Sauteed frogs legs, omelettes,
Topped off with crème parisienne.

Where’s the damper and cocky’s joy?

IV. The Royal Hotel
The Royal Hotel built in ‘72
Iron lace and swinging sign
Period dressers and cedar
And Bernard Holtermann lauding it in the bar.
The Royal – a connecting link ‘tween early town
And remnants there today.
Where people have always gathered,
Held captive by the strangeness of this place.
They swap lies and sustain hopes
With the bandages, braces and props
Of friendship.

Ah, Hill End.
Yellow soil
Dust in the dry. Glue when wet.
It sticks and bogs and penetrates.
In a bluster, it invades your crutch
And assails your senses,
Fills your nose and colours your hair.
Drifts and cloys, pollutes and defiles.
A shroud for our world, and
Life blood of the town.
For this is the dust where golden treasure lies hid,
Nourishing those dreams.

Today yellow dust is on the wing,
And Digger Spade is queazy with battling the odds.
Short wirey man in dirty grey felt hat,
U-bend in his right leg,
Rolls across the road and into the Royal
To share a beer with his cobbers.
‘Any show today Dig?’
‘Na. Bloody heat’d fry a rabbit though.
Termorrow’s another day…’

Digger sets to with his schooner,
Then another tosses off.
Anxious to lay the dust
Before his missus, Ivy,
Settles her ample bum on the stool next door.

Ivy Spade
As plentiful as Digger is spare.
Steely grey eyes and sagging, mean mouth,
She stands ‘neath pub verandah railing
A solid hold in huge slippered feet
As much part of the landscape as the hills.
Grey hair thick with grease,
T shirt reveals one big breast,
And stretches over pads of fat
On hips and buttocks
Which move out of synch with the rest.

Digger clears the froth from his third
And steels himself against his missus
Just as
Black Jack Ellis downs his fourth.

Physog as rutted as the land he tills,
And as wiley as a dingo
It’s said Jack has bags of gold hid
Somewhere in his shack.
He’s a knowin’ old coot
Been ‘round town since birth and knows the mines
Like the cracked nails of his hands.
Henry Lawson’s mate, they say…
The bard’s poem attests to this.
‘Twill serve as Jack’s epitaph later..
Dead at 74.

‘But times have altered since those old days
And the times have changed the men
Ah well! There’s little to blame or praise.
Jack Ellis and I have tramped long ways
On different tracks since then.’ * *

V. How about some Culture?
A balding man spectacled and spare
Sat mid street, easel and palette in position
As shadows cast their eerie shapes.
What is this man in this place
Who would earn his crust by brush
Instead of pick and shovel?
Lightning fast his hand moves
Sketching skinny figures
Of Hill End kids Ted and Roy
As they fashion their game of
Broomstick bat, apple cum ball
And towering house biggest wicket in the world.
Tass’ lens captures
The moment of ball’s release, evening sky, skimped trees and
Barren soil
Creating one of his nation’s icons…

John and Rebecca Ross
were called ‘clannish’.
They dared enjoy poetry and music and
Difficult English novels,
Even calling their cottage Bleak House.
They had respect though, that’s for sure,
And when across the bridle track they imported
The first phonograph in the town
Everyone gathered around to hear
Played over and over
Billy Williams, vaudeville artist, singing:
‘When father papered the parlour
You couldn’t see pa for paint
Dabbin’ it here
Dabbin’ it there
There was paint and paper everywhere
Mother was stuck to the ceiling
And the kids were stuck to the floor
You never saw such a bloomin’ family
So stuck up before.’ * * *

VI. The Big Find
In ’51, not far north of Tambaroora,
A bare month after Hargreaves found gold at Ophir
And long before Holtermann,
Young Aborigines Dan, Jemmy and Tom
Tinkered with a tomahawk
On interesting looking rocks.
They’d seen how white man went mad
With thoughts of the yellow stuff.
They noted deals could be done.
They also
Knew their land.

So when Daniel’s blade bared sparkling crystals
They weren’t too shocked.
The gold meant little in their culture, so
They showed Doc Kerr what they’d found…
But not exactly where.

And sure ‘nough Doc went mad with joy,
And showed the world
What he’d found.
They broke it up to see what was inside…
‘A hundredweight of gold,’ they yelled.
Doc got fame and fortune
And Dan, Jemmy and Tom
Got bullocks, sheep and a dray,
Rode around dressed in style
And gave their mates a share.

The story spread and soon
Where Dan told the Doc he’d found his prize
There grew a village…
Hargreaves by name.
Seekers came from everywhere
Wielding shovels and picks.
They dug and sweated,
Cursed and damned
And found nothing.

Astride their new mounts
Dan, Jemmy and Tom
Lived the good life…
And shared a knowin’ grin.

VII. Shades East and West
Geoff Marshall braves the rutted road to Tambaroora
To visit the shades
Eddying around crumbling tombstones
In the Protestant cemetery.
There, roughly fenced, the parched plots
Lie in soundless recollection of
Hill End residents.

In loving memory of
our dear great grandfather James Ross
died 10th May 1897 age 85 years.

Geoff’s grandpa lived a full life.

Not so Thomas William Anderson:
Accidentally killed in Rawsthorne’s mine
Hawkins Hill 1874.
Age 22 years.

And the children. Wee graves for dead children.
Jack Anderson one year.
Samuel, son of Frances,
Fourteen days.

Shadows from the sentinel gums diffuse now,
Geoff shivers in the sudden chill
As phantoms, will-o’-the-wisps and restless spectres
Flit among the graves
Their gossamer breath a misty mantle,
Cloaking sorrows.

Fragile fleeting apparitions
Stealing time to remember
Join hands with family
Long dead.

Across the road and in the bushland,
Near deep scarred ravine,
Mid pockmarked hills, and
Hard to find,
A tell-tale heap of stone and mortar
Inscribed with eastern hieroglyphs.

Hill End’s Chinese miners… gone now.
Bones returned to their ancient land,
So spirits may finally rest.
Laid down first in alien soil,
But restless and lost despite
Ceremonies of
Fire crackers and gongs,
Wafting sweet smelling incense, prayer,
Rice wine and cakes.

Stone, mortar and hieroglyphs
Concrete remains of a community
Assiduous, clever and patient.
Hints bring dim visions of
Tents in neat lines, joss houses and shacks,
Odours of opium… and fear.
This foreign land took its toll with
Severed pigtails, stabbings and broken hearts.

Hear the clatter and rattle of bleached old bones
Excised from yellow soil and sent
Over the ocean to a mystical land
And repose.

VIII. The Legacy
Hill End.
Tortured battleground of combat
‘Twixt man and man, and
man and nature.
Each taking its toll of the other.

Today government cows
And drunken hand hewn fences
Of yesteryear
Roam the ruins.
But memories lurk at
Every street corner,
In every pile of rubble,
Amid the mine tailings,
And in the hearts of women and men.

An enigma, this town…
In ambush for your soul.


Eliot, T S (1922) ‘The Waste Land’ in Leonard, J (1996) Seven Centuries of Poetry in English 3rd edition South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
* * Unknown poem credited to Henry Lawson, inscribed on the gravestone of Black Jack Ellis (1874-1948) in Tambaroora Cemetery.
* * * Early vaudeville song, heard played on the Ross phonograph by June Saville’s uncle Bill Carroll, when he was a child.

©June Saville 2008. Not to be reproduced without express written permission of the author.


  1. June, I loved the poem. You make the characters come to life. I could picture Jill, Ivy, Digger and all the rest in my mind. They were so vivid. You amaze me with your writings.

  2. It's really good you liked these characters Judy. Hill End is an amazing place - enough to inspire any writer.
    Thanks again for your encouragement. It means a lot to me.

  3. What a lot of work this long poem is. I loved the old photos.

  4. Thanks for appreciating the work in 'Hill End Suite' - you do understand, being an 'old' journo.
    Mind you the poem was really a labour of love. I visited the town and was smitten with its ugly-beauty. Plus of course the fact that the more I looked the more I realised how important it had been to my family. My mother's great-grandfather had been there for more than 60 years.
    The place does get into your bones.

  5. Amazing, that one can be so good with both poetry, & fiction. Rare case like D.H. Lawrence & Hardy, the lenghth of the poem was no deterrent. Look at Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey'. Majestic in lenghth & beauty.
    I love your imagery...

  6. Hi again SMITA
    Thanks for pointing me towards "Tintern Abbey' - a lovely poem. Wordsworth was inspired by place of course. Some sites really carry an impact - and that was the case with me and Hill End.

    Thanks for your comments about my writing.


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Cheers June