Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer Chapter XII page 3

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Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer by Sup John Sadleir

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When I arrived at Hamilton in 1859 there were no coaches nor other regular means of communication with Melbourne , or the coastal towns, Port Fairy and Portland . It was due to the enterprise of Cobb & Co., or some other Yankee or Canadian association, that the first coaches were put on the road connecting Hamilton with these places. If I remember aright, the first line of coaches was from Portland through Hamilton, Wickliffe and Ararat, and thence to Geelong and Melbourne . A later route turned east at Wickliffe , reaching Geelong via Streatham, Lismore and Rokewood. Still later when the railway to Ballarat was completed the route from Wickliffe was through Skipton, Lintons, Smythesdale to Ballarat and thence by rail to Melbourne . Portland continued to be the coastal terminus of all these routes, as it was also the last port of call for the steamers plying westward along the coast. Indeed, Portland might be considered as the only port, for in 1859 Warrnambool had not come into any prominence, and Port Fairy, then known as Belfast, was in a state of decay, the grass growing over its empty streets. One driver named Miles drove the stage between Portland and Wickliffe daily, a very remarkable feat, considering that he must have often sat on the box for 12 to 14 hours. It was said that he slept on the stage over the plain from Wickliffe to Dunkeld, and had another forty winks before reaching Hamilton . I have seen Miles half an hour after his arrival at Portland , adorned with gold chain and numerous ornaments, fresh and dainty as if he had stepped out of a bandbox. He was supposed to be wooing the landlady of Mac’s Hotel.

A branch coach ran between Hamilton and Apsley via Cavendish, Balmoral and Harrow . This coach, like that on the longer route described above, made its through journey three times a week. As showing how much more leisurely things progress in a pastoral district than in one where mining, or even agriculture, is the chief pursuit of the people there is to-day, 50 years later, scarcely any difference to be seen in such townships as Cavendish, Balmoral, etc., or along the line of road, except that there are fenced paddocks now where formerly the shepherd travelled at large with his flocks through open country during the day, and collected them into the bush yards near his hut at night. Of course every little township in the very earliest days of its existence had its wayside inn; and unpretentious in appearance as such a house might be, any settler or other traveller with his family might pull up unannounced, at the end of his day’s journey, with the certainty of finding clean and abundant accommodation and provision for man and horse.


There was one short season every year, however, in which travellers who knew the ways of the pastoral districts sought their rest elsewhere. This was called the ‘Lambing down’ season. The term had nothing to do with sheep or lambs, but with their shearers. The practice with the vast majority of these men, in those early days, was to bring the cheques they had earned by many weeks of hard work, and hand them over to the care of the publican, then after having filled up any deficiencies in their ‘swag’ , they settled down for a regular bout of drunkenness until they were told that their cheque was run out. With swag on back, and a bottle of gin to start them on their journey, away they went off into the bush to recover their sobriety as best they could. Such orgies often ended in delirium tremens, insanity and death. Perhaps the most surprising thing of all was that this ‘Lambing down’ was regarded as a reasonable and proper practice on the part of the publican. The law provided expressly against it, but few magistrates would convict. When a publican was charged before the magistrates with allowing some unfortunate shearer to continue his drunken orgies for days or weeks together, the argument was used that ‘If this particular landlord did not accommodate them, some other landlord would, and it came to the same thing in the end.’

It is true enough that the shearer was a willing victim. I have seen a man so impatient to join in the orgies going on at a roadside hotel ten miles away that he would not lose time in getting off his horse, but calling for his cheque to be brought to him, rode at full gallop the whole distance to plunge at once into a long debauch of drunkenness.

One day as I rode across the Mount Sturgeon Plains, I met a man named Simpson, a resident of Hamilton and a brother of Professor Simpson, of chloroform fame. He was urging his horse along at high speed when I stopped him to ask what the trouble was. His reply was, ‘I am riding away from Hell.’ It appeared that in his innocence he had gone out that morning to take charge of an inn at Dunkeld, at the request of the trustees of the landlord, who had recently died. Simpson was a total abstainer and a very simple religious man. The scene that met him as he reached the inn must have been rather startling. It was shearing time, and he found the house in the possession of a band of drunken shearers, all the women of the place having hidden themselves in fear. He refused to let the shearers have any more drink, but they were not to be disappointed of their spree. He tried to turn them out, but they turned him out instead; and when he mounted his horse to ride away, they pursued him supposing that he was carrying off the cheques they had handed over according to custom, before they began their debauch. It was no wonder that the simple-hearted old man should have fled from them in terror.

The men who wasted their money in this way became for the rest of the year what were known as ‘sundowners,’ swagmen who travelled without any settled purpose from station to station, obtaining fresh supplies of food at any station where they might chance to find themselves at sunset. Happily new generations of shearers have sprung up since then, having small holdings of their own, in the improvement of which they spend their earnings at shearing time to better purposes.

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