Remembering the Past Australia

A Day on a Selection

by Henry Lawson
While the Billy Boils (1896)
First Series

Unidentified Scene, 1908, Gertrude Cornelia Fenton

Unidentified Scene, 1908, Gertrude Cornelia Fenton (1867-1922)

The scene is a small New South Wales western selection, the holder whereof is native-English. His wife is native-Irish. Time, Sunday, about 8 a.m. A used-up looking woman comes from the slab-and-bark house, turns her face towards the hillside, and shrieks:


No response, and presently she draws a long breath and screams again:


A faint echo comes from far up the siding where Tommy’s presence is vaguely indicated by half a dozen cows moving slowly — very slowly — down towards the cow-yard.

The woman retires. Ten minutes later she comes out again and screams:


“Y-e-e-a-a-s-s!” very passionately and shrilly.

“Ain’t you goin’ to bring those cows down to-day?”

“Y-e-e-a-a-s-s-s! — carn’t yer see I’m comin’?”

A boy is seen to run wildly along the siding and hurl a missile at a feeding cow; the cow runs forward a short distance through the trees, and then stops to graze again while the boy stirs up another milker.

An hour goes by.

The rising Australian generation is represented by a thin, lanky youth of about fifteen. He is milking. The cow-yard is next the house, and is mostly ankle-deep in slush. The boy drives a dusty, discouraged-looking cow into the bail, and pins her head there; then he gets tackle on to her right hind leg, hauls it back, and makes it fast to the fence. There are eleven cows, but not one of them can be milked out of the bail — chiefly because their teats are sore. The selector does not know what makes the teats sore, but he has an unquestioning faith in a certain ointment, recommended to him by a man who knows less about cows than he does himself, which he causes to be applied at irregular intervals — leaving the mode of application to the discretion of his son. Meanwhile the teats remain sore.

Having made the cow fast, the youngster cautiously takes hold of the least sore teat, yanks it suddenly, and dodges the cow’s hock. When he gets enough milk to dip his dirty hands in, he moistens the teats, and things go on more smoothly. Now and then he relieves the monotony of his occupation by squirting at the eye of a calf which is dozing in the adjacent pen. Other times he milks into his mouth. Every time the cow kicks, a burr or a grass-seed or a bit of something else falls into the milk, and the boy drowns these things with a well-directed stream — on the principle that what’s out of sight is out of mind.

Sometimes the boy sticks his head into the cow’s side, hangs on by a teat, and dozes, while the bucket, mechanically gripped between his knees, sinks lower and lower till it rests on the ground. Likely as not he’ll doze on until his mother’s shrill voice startles him with an inquiry as to whether he intends to get that milking done to-day; other times he is roused by the plunging of the cow, or knocked over by a calf which has broken through a defective panel in the pen. In the latter case the youth gets tackle on to the calf, detaches its head from the teat with the heel of his boot, and makes it fast somewhere. Sometimes the cow breaks or loosens the leg-rope and gets her leg into the bucket and then the youth clings desperately to the pail and hopes she’ll get her hoof out again without spilling the milk. Sometimes she does, more often she doesn’t — it depends on the strength of the boy and the pail and on the strategy of the former. Anyway, the boy will lam the cow down with a jagged yard shovel, let her out, and bail up another.

When he considers that he has finished milking he lets the cows out with their calves and carries the milk down to the dairy, where he has a heated argument with his mother, who — judging from the quantity of milk — has reason to believe that he has slummed some of the milkers. This he indignantly denies, telling her she knows very well the cows are going dry.

The dairy is built of rotten box bark — though there is plenty of good stringy-bark within easy distance — and the structure looks as if it wants to lie down and is only prevented by three crooked props on the leaning side; more props will soon be needed in the rear for the dairy shows signs of going in that direction. The milk is set in dishes made of kerosene-tins, cut in halves, which are placed on bark shelves fitted round against the walls. The shelves are not level and the dishes are brought to a comparatively horizontal position by means of chips and bits of bark, inserted under the lower side. The milk is covered by soiled sheets of old newspapers supported on sticks laid across the dishes. This protection is necessary, because the box bark in the roof has crumbled away and left fringed holes — also because the fowls roost up there. Sometimes the paper sags, and the cream may have to be scraped off an article on dairy farming.

The selector’s wife removes the newspapers, and reveals a thick, yellow layer of rich cream, plentifully peppered with dust that has drifted in somehow. She runs a forefinger round the edges of the cream to detach it from the tin, wipes her finger in her mouth, and skims. If the milk and cream are very thick she rolls the cream over like a pancake with her fingers, and lifts it out in sections. The thick milk is poured into a slop-bucket, for the pigs and calves, the dishes are “cleaned”— by the aid of a dipper full of warm water and a rag — and the wife proceeds to set the morning’s milk. Tom holds up the doubtful-looking rag that serves as a strainer while his mother pours in the milk. Sometimes the boy’s hands get tired and he lets some of the milk run over, and gets into trouble; but it doesn’t matter much, for the straining-cloth has several sizable holes in the middle.

The door of the dairy faces the dusty road and is off its hinges and has to be propped up. The prop is missing this morning, and Tommy is accused of having been seen chasing old Poley with it at an earlier hour. He never seed the damn prop, never chased no cow with it, and wants to know what’s the use of always accusing him. He further complains that he’s always blamed for everything. The pole is not forthcoming, and so an old dray is backed against the door to keep it in position. There is more trouble about a cow that is lost, and hasn’t been milked for two days. The boy takes the cows up to the paddock sliprails and lets the top rail down: the lower rail fits rather tightly and some exertion is required to free it, so he makes the animals jump that one. Then he “poddies”-hand-feeds — the calves which have been weaned too early. He carries the skim-milk to the yard in a bucket made out of an oil-drum — sometimes a kerosene-tin — seizes a calf by the nape of the neck with his left hand, inserts the dirty forefinger of his right into its mouth, and shoves its head down into the milk. The calf sucks, thinking it has a teat, and pretty soon it butts violently — as calves do to remind their mothers to let down the milk — and the boy’s wrist gets barked against the jagged edge of the bucket. He welts that calf in the jaw, kicks it in the stomach, tries to smother it with its nose in the milk, and finally dismisses it with the assistance of the calf rope and a shovel, and gets another. His hand feels sticky and the cleaned finger makes it look as if he wore a filthy, greasy glove with the forefinger torn off.

The selector himself is standing against a fence talking to a neighbour. His arms rest on the top rail of the fence, his chin rests on his hands, his pipe rests between his fingers, and his eyes rest on a white cow that is chewing her cud on the opposite side of the fence. The neighbour’s arms rest on the top rail also, his chin rests on his hands, his pipe rests between his fingers, and his eyes rest on the cow. They are talking about that cow. They have been talking about her for three hours. She is chewing her cud. Her nose is well up and forward, and her eyes are shut. She lets her lower jaw fall a little, moves it to one side, lifts it again, and brings it back into position with a springing kind of jerk that has almost a visible recoil. Then her jaws stay perfectly still for a moment, and you would think she had stopped chewing. But she hasn’t. Now and again a soft, easy, smooth-going swallow passes visibly along her clean, white throat and disappears. She chews again, and by and by she loses consciousness and forgets to chew. She never opens her eyes. She is young and in good condition; she has had enough to eat, the sun is just properly warm for her, and — well, if an animal can be really happy, she ought to be.

Presently the two men drag themselves away from the fence, fill their pipes, and go to have a look at some rows of forked sticks, apparently stuck in the ground for some purpose. The selector calls these sticks fruit-trees, and he calls the place “the orchard.” They fool round these wretched sticks until dinnertime, when the neighbour says he must be getting home. “Stay and have some dinner! Man alive! Stay and have some dinner!” says the selector; and so the friend stays.

It is a broiling hot day in summer, and the dinner consists of hot roast meat, hot baked potatoes, hot cabbage, hot pumpkin, hot peas, and burning-hot plum-pudding. The family drinks on an average four cups of tea each per meal. The wife takes her place at the head of the table with a broom to keep the fowls out, and at short intervals she interrupts the conversation with such exclamations as “Shoo! shoo!” “Tommy, can’t you see that fowl? Drive it out!” The fowls evidently pass a lot of their time in the house. They mark the circle described by the broom, and take care to keep two or three inches beyond it. Every now and then you see a fowl on the dresser amongst the crockery, and there is great concern to get it out before it breaks something. While dinner is in progress two steers get into the wheat through a broken rail which has been spliced with stringy-bark, and a calf or two break into the vineyard. And yet this careless Australian selector, who is too shiftless to put up a decent fence, or build a decent house and who knows little or nothing about farming, would seem by his conversation to have read up all the great social and political questions of the day. Here are some fragments of conversation caught at the dinner-table. Present — the selector, the missus, the neighbour, Corney George — nicknamed “Henry George”— Tommy, Jacky, and the younger children. The spaces represent interruptions by the fowls and children:

Corney George (continuing conversation): “But Henry George says, in ‘Progress and Poverty,’ he says —”

Missus (to the fowls): “Shoo! Shoo!”

Corney: “He says —”

Tom: “Marther, jist speak to this Jack.”

Missus (to Jack): “If you can’t behave yourself, leave the table.”

Corney: “He says in Progress and —”

Missus: “Shoo!”

Neighbour: “I think ‘Lookin’ Backwards’ is more —”

Missus: “Shoo! Shoo! Tom, can’t you see that fowl?”

Selector: “Now I think ‘Caesar’s Column’ is more likely — Just look at —”

Missus: “Shoo! Shoo!”

Selector: “Just look at the French Revolution.”

Corney: “Now, Henry George-”

Tom: “Marther! I seen a old-man kangaroo up on —”

Missus: “Shut up! Eat your dinner an’ hold your tongue. Carn’t you see someone’s speakin’?”

Selector: “Just look at the French —”

Missus (to the fowls): “Shoo! Shoo!” (turning suddenly and unexpectedly on Jacky): “Take your fingers out of the sugar! — Blast yer! that I should say such a thing.”

Neighbour: “But ‘Lookin’ Backwards”’

Missus: “There you go, Tom! Didn’t I say you’d spill that tea? Go away from the table!”

Selector: “I think ‘Caesar’s Column’ is the only natural —”

Missus: “Shoo! Shoo!” She loses patience, gets up and fetches a young rooster with the flat of the broom, sending him flying into the yard; he falls with his head towards the door and starts in again. Later on the conversation is about Deeming.

Selector: “There’s no doubt the man’s mad —”

Missus: “Deeming! That Windsor wretch! Why, if I was in the law I’d have him boiled alive! Don’t tell me he didn’t know what he was doing! Why, I’d have him —”

Corney: “But, missus, you —”

Missus (to the fowls): “Shoo! Shoo!”

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