Phoebe Elizabeth FARRAR
Also known as: née Wright, Bush Mother
Born: 19 December 1862
Died: 19 August 1960Special Achievements:
2003 - Recipient of the 'Tribute to Northern Territory Women' from Northern Territory Office of Women's Policy.Additional Information:
Pioneer on cattle stations in Top End Northern Territory.
Known as "Bush Mother."
Contributed significantly to cattle industry.
"... and, oh what a pity that Phoebe Farrar is no longer at Ban Ban Springs.
We knew her as the Bush Mother. She was ninety-two years old when she died in 1960. I had hoped a pair of spurs might have been hung on her headstone so that she could have a good ride through the Unknown. In life, she didn't feel dressed without spurs jingling at her heels. Rough riding breeches, a shirt, and a big felt hat were as important in her life as nylons and lipstick are to most other women.
She was the most courageous woman I have known --- a flint-hard piece of whipcord who threw steers and broke young colts as a normal part of her existence.
This ride through the Unknown --- it wasn't her first, The Outback became a reality for her in 1882, at fourteen, when she accompanied new settlers on a droving trip of six hundred and fifty miles from Normanton to the Limmen River, in the south-western corner of the Gulf of Carpentaria.
They were four months on the road, riding by day, living in their swags through country which had seen only one or two other white men. She married Robert Farrar, son of one of the settlers who brought her to the wilderness. Later they established Nutwood Downs station and finally Ban Ban Springs.
On the trip to Ban Ban Springs she drove the family's entire herd of three hundred cattle with only a half-caste stockman and a dog to help her. She often lived in stockcamps, with only natives to help, for weeks at a time. Her husband was ill, so Phoebe Farrar did all the station mustering, branding, and droving.
When she was sixty, and still as spry and agile as ever, she was knocked down in a stockyard by a bullock she was attempting to brand. Her pelvis was broken, and doctors told her she would never ride again.
"We'll see about that," she said determinedly. Back at the station she saddled a horse and attempted to mount. She couldn't. The accident had made it impossible for her to bring her foot up to the stirrup iron. But that didn't stop Phoebe Farrar, the Bush Mother. She led the horse to a stump and with that to help her climbed on to its back. For another fifteen years --- until she was seventy-five --- she used stumps, trees, stockyard fences, and anything else she could find to assist her mounting and dismounting.
She stopped riding at seventy-five not because she was too frail, but because of failing eyesight! She shot wild buffaloes from horseback, defleshed the heavy hides, and folded, salted and stacked them for market. Mrs Henry Farrar, her daughter-in-law, told me: "She could fold a buffalo hide like other people fold a piece of paper."
She lived in the bush all her life, and yet her name is seldom mentioned when people talk about the Territory's early pioneers. To me, however, she is one of the greatest of them all."
Lockwood, Douglass. (1964). Up the Track. Adelaide: Rigby Limited, p. 186.
In 1901, Phoebe gave birth to a son. In 1902, she and Robert Farrar made a 700-mile (1127 km) round trip to Palmerston (Darwin) to have their child baptized. On the way they called at the Elsey; Jeannie Gunn described their visit in We of the Never-Never.
Gunn, Mrs. Aeneas [Jeannie Gunn]. (1908). We of the Never-Never. London: Hutchinson.
"Whatever's this coming in from the East?" I heard the Maluka call in consternation, and in equal consternation his traveller-guest called back: "Looks like a whole village settlement.” Then Cheon burst into the room in a frenzy of excitement: "Big mob traveller, missus. Two-fellow- misus, sit down," he began; but the Maluka was at his heels.
“Here’s two women and a mob of youngsters," he gasped. I’m afraid you'll have to get up, little 'un, and lend a hand with them."
Afraid! By the time the village settlement had "turned out" and found its way to. the house, I was out in the open air welcoming its members with a heartiness that must have surprisedthem. Little did they guess that they were angels unaware. Homely enough angels, though, they· proved, as angels unaware should prove: one man and two women from “Queensland way," who had been "inside" for fifteen years, and with them two fine young lads and a wee, toddling baby --- all three·children born in the bush and leaving it for the first time.
Never before had Cheon had such a company to provide for; but as we moved towards the house in a body --- ourselves, the village settlement, and the Maluka’s traveller-guests, with a stockman traveler and the Dandy looking on from the quarters, his hospitable soul rejoiced at the sight; and by the time seats had been found for all comers, he appeared laden with tea and biscuits, and within half an hour had conjured up a plentiful dinner for all comers.
Fortunately the chairs were all "up" to the weight of the ladies, and the remainder of the company easily accommodated itself to circumstances, in the shape of sawn stumps, rough stools, and sundry boxes; and although the company was large and the dining-table small, and although, at times, we feared the table was about to fulfil its oft-repeated threat and fall over, yet the dinner was there to be enjoyed, and, being bush-folk, and hungry, our guests enjoyed it, passing over all incongruities with simple merriment --- a light-hearted, bubbling merriment, in no way comparable to that "laughter of fools," that crackling of thorns under a pot, provoked by the incongruities of the world's freak dinners. The one is the heritage of the simple-hearted, and the other --- all the world has to give in exchange for this birthright.
The elder lads, one fourteen and one ten years of age, found Cheon by far the most entertaining incongruity at the dinner, and when dinner was over --- after we had settled down on the various chairs and stumps that had been carried out to the veranda again --- they shadowed him wherever he went.
They were strangely self-possessed children; but knowing little more of the world than the black children their playmates, Cheon, in his turn, found them. vastly amusing, and instructing them in the ways of the world --- from his point of view --- found them also eager pupils. But their education came to a standstill after they had mastered the mysteries of the Dandy's gramophone, and Cheon was no longer entertaining.
An afternoon brass-band selections, comic songs, and variety items blared out with ceaseless reiteration; and as the men-folk smoked and talked cattle, and the wee baby --- a bonnie fair child --- toddled about, smiling and contented, the women-folk spoke of their life “out-back,” and listening, I knew that neither I nor the telegraph lady had even guessed what roughness means.
For fifteen years things had been improving, and now everyone was to have a well-earned holiday. The children were to be christened and then shown the delights of a large town! Darwin of necessity (Palmerston, by the way, on the map, but Darwin to Territorians). Darwin with its one train, its telegraph offices, two or three stores, banks and public buildings, its Residency, its Chinatown, its lovers’ walk, its two or three empty, wide, grass-grown streets bordered with deep-verandaed, iron-built bungalow-houses, with their gardens planted in painted tins --- a development of the white-ant pest --- and lastly, its great sea, where ships wander without tracks or made ways! Hardly a typical town, but the best in the Territory.
The women, naturally, were looking forward to doing a bit of shopping, and as we slipped into fashions the traveller-guests became interested. “Haven’t seen so many women together for years,” one of them said. “Reminds me of when I was a nipper,” and the other traveller “reckoned” he had struck it lucky for once. “Three on ‘em at once,” he chuckled with indescribable relish. “They reckon it never rains but it pours.” And so it would seem with three women guests within three weeks at a homestead where women had been almost unknown for years.
But these women guests only stayed one night, the children all impatience to get on to the telegraph line, to those wires that talked, and to the railway, where the iron monster ran.
Early in the morning they left us, and as they rode away the fair toddling baby was sitting on its mother's pommel knee, smiling out on the world from the deep recesses of a sunbonnet. Already it had ridden a couple of hundred miles, with its baby hands playing with the reins, and before it reached home again another five hundred would be added to the two hundred. Seven hundred miles on horseback in a few weeks, at one year old, compares favourably with one of the Fizzer's trips. But it is thus the bush develops her Fizzers.
Hill, Ernestine. (1947). Flying Doctor Calling. Sydney: Angus and Robertson. pp. 83-85
Mrs Farrar --- still living --- became the mother of four children in the nineties on Limmen Bight River, on the rim of Arnhem Land. (p. 25)
At Ord River Station, over the Western Australian border, an urgent telegram from Katherine was delivered to the doctor. Mrs Farrar of Ban Ban Springs --- one of the great pioneer women of the Territory, at the age of seventy-one, then still working with her husband in the stockyard --- had been gored by a scrub bull. Ban Ban Springs, near Brock's Creek on the Darwin railway, from Ord River, is a flight of about five hundred miles. Though it was late in the evening, Dr Fenton left Ord River immediately, hoping to land at Wave Hill in the brilliant tropic moonlight, and so reach the wounded woman next day. His only passenger was Dr W. G. Woolnough, then geological adviser to the Commonwealth Government, who had been on a tour of inspection along the Ord. As radios running to Western Australian time are an hour and a half later in session than those within the Territory border, a telegram asking Wave Hill to light flares was not delivered till morning.
Flying the jagged and mysterious ranges by faulty maps of unsurveyed country, Dr Fenton lost his bearings and made a comfortable landing in a dry swamp of the upper Victoria River, where he and Dr Woolnough had a cheerful camp for the night. At daybreak Dr Fenton went up alone to spy out the land. Having sighted Pigeonholes, an outstation of Victoria River Downs, he returned and dropped a note to Dr Woolnough. The note fell wide. Dr Fenton came closer to earth to drop another. Dr Woolnough was overawed to see a nose-dive into the ground. Ten terrible seconds, and Dr Fenton emerged smiling. In no time, four planes were out looking for them, with all the white and black stockmen of fifty thousand square miles, thanks to the pedal-wireless. In two days they were found, safe and sound, at Pigeonholes. They flew straight to Ban Ban Springs for Mrs Farrar, and carried her in to hospital at Darwin, where she soon recovered.
Hill, Ernestine. (1951). The Territory. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
How shall we tell of those women, few and far apart, who leave an immortal name in the Territory?
Evacuated from Ban Ban Springs to Adelaide in 1942 was Mrs Bob Barrar, after fifty-two years in the north. In 1890, as a girl of nineteen --- Phoebe Wright of Sydney --- she travelled by ship with “Old Bob” Farrar and his family to Normanton in the Gulf, and drove a buggy and pair five hundred miles south through Camooweal to where John Costello’s cattle were waiting near Avon Downs, on a big pool of Rankine River called Joanning-ho. They were bound far north across Limmen River, beyond the Four Archers, to open up Albinjula, Valley of Springs, and then on to Lake Costello, on Wilton River that flows through Arnhem Land --- six hundred and thirty miles still to go, and most of it through “bad blacks’ country” where every year white men were speared.
Old Bob Farrar, Jimmie Mayne and Jack McCoy were the drovers. Young Bob, then a lad of sixteen, in charge of the wagon loaded with corrugated iron to build the house and their flour and food supplies for two years. Phoebe drove the buggy all the way with Mrs Farrar and the children, and she cooked for the drovers. On long dry stages to muddy lagoons, then down from the Tablelands over the Gulf ranges, swimming steep creeks and rushing rivers, in five months they came to Valley of Springs, built a good homestead and went on a hundred and forty miles to Lake Costello, where they built another. Out there they stayed nearly five years till the blacks killed most of the cattle, then back they came to where Mrs Costello was lone pioneer woman at Valley of Springs.
A thousand miles from Darwin by bush track and from Borroloola a hundred miles deep in spectacular ranges, with rivers impassable for half the year, they were “on the outside of everything” --- no travellers ever passed, nobody knew they were there. It was a perilous place for a homestead, right under the cliffs, where the myalls could look down on all their doings. When the men were out with the cattle, many a night of alarms the women spent firing into the trees.
In three years, when most of the cattle a speared and the horses dead of walkabout disease, the Costellos abandoned the place to form Lake Nash on the Georgina, but the Farrars took it over, and ran the few cattle with donkeys for another three years. Phoebe Wright had married Young Bob --- her five children were born far out in the Limmen River bush. They lived on a few goats and a good garden --- no drovers ever came through to Valley of Springs.
Tom Pearce, “Mine Host” at the Katherine, remembers Young Bob’s first appearance in civilization. He came to sell seventy skeleton cattle he had driven for seven hundred miles. They were unsaleable --- wild and stringy from running from the blacks, but Farrar was in need. He told Tom the trouble --- the man who keeps the pub and store is father confessor to the wild and wide.
“You can have the whole mob for £40,” he said to Tom, “or even for £25, and I’ll take it out in stores. I owe the white store in Darwin £40, an’ they won’t send down any flour an’ tea by the Borroloola boat, to see us through the wet. We waited three months for the boat, an’ then there was nothing on her for me. I got to get back with the flour for the wife and kids.”
“I’ll take them for £2 a head,” said Tom. “That’s the price of fat cattle. Don’t worry. I’ll fatten them up and get my money back.”
So Bob cantered away with laden packs to beat the rains for seven hundred miles with tucker for the wet, a twelve-pound tin of boiled sweets for Christmas to children who had never seen sweets, and Tom’s old gramophone with a dozen worn records for the novelty of music in their lonely little lives, the only “white-fella music” that ever was heard out in corroboree-land where the Limmen River flows.
A few more small mobs to Katherine, with Tom to fatten them up, and Bob Farrar took up new country, and formed Nutwood Downs, only three hundred miles from the Telegraph Line. He made it a fine station of quiet fat cattle, with blacks to help him muster instead of kill. The price of cattle went up. He sold two hundred bullocks for £1000 --- when he looked at the cheque he could not believe his eyes. Straight back he went for “the missus and the kids” to give them “a spell in Darwin.”
So Phoebe came driving the buggy with her children, a tall, shy woman in homemade dress and hat, passing the Elsey just in time for immortality. She lives as the Bush Mother in We of the Never Never, by Mrs Aeneas Gunn. If Mrs Gunn found her so reserved as to be almost grim, it was because in twelve years she had known no other white woman but old Mrs Farrar. In Darwin, with all five children, she went to her first dance.
Bob was so modest and unworldly that he wanted to accept an offer for Nutwood Downs of “£700 cash down,” but Tom Pearce headed him off. A few years later he sold the station for £14,000. They retired “for good” to a fine little farm near Maryborough, Queensland. There Mrs Farrar caught so many colds and fretted so badly for the hard old times up north that the doctor advised Bob to sell up and go, to save her life. Bob sacrificed the lot and back they came. With sixty years behind them, they took up Ban Ban Springs, near the first old Territory station of Glencoe, running cattle and buffaloes, still pioneering when all five children were married and gone.
To the age of seventy-two years Mrs Farrar, thin, wiry and tough, in men’s rig and spurs, helped her husband in the stock-camp and out on the buffalo trail, where she would skin, dress and pack the hides, “everything bar shoot.” Hers were the best-dressed hides in the north, and “she’s a better man than he is in the scrub,” said her friends. When she was seventy-one, as I have told in Flying Doctor Calling, she was knocked down by a bull in the stockyard.
“A couple of the bulls were fizzing,” she said. “Bob got a rope on one, and I ran to shut the gate on the other, but the bull and the gate both fell on me.” After months in Darwin Hospital with a broken thigh, and months on crutches, she was back in the saddle, “riding around” with Young Bob, who was Old Bob then. Ban Ban Springs, from the air, was a model little station, though there were only the two old people there. Nutwood Downs is a very prosperous company run. At Valley of Springs there was never a white woman since Mrs Farrar’s time --- in fact, not even a white man. Knitting by lamplight in her homely little room, with Grandma, in ringlets, and Grandfather Farrar, an Indian Army major in military stock, gazing tranquilly down from the wall as they gazed in the lonelier places, Mrs Farrar could see no virtue in the retrospect of her life.
“Oh, well, there’s plenty to remember,” she would say as she smoothed the knitting on her knee, “but it was just the ordinary life out bush.”
There was “plenty to remember” till the end. With the same quiet philosophy, at the outbreak of the Japanese war, she joined the sorry southward journey of Australian refugees, leaving the little home at Ban Ban Springs “for good.”
James, Barbara. (1989). No Man’s Land: Women of the Northern Territory. Sydney: Collins Publishers Australia. pp. 226-228
The Costellos were responsible for bringing another family of pioneer station women into the Territory. In the early 1880s Jack and Mary Ann Farrar went to the remote Limmen River area to manage the Valley of the Springs station for John Costello. Jack, who had earlier travelled with the ill-fated Burke and Wills exploration as far as Cooper Creek, had been a faithful stockman for Costello for many years, and Costello had named Farrar's Creek after him. With Jack and Mary Ann was their son Bob, and a teenage girl from Albury, Phoebe Wright.
They left Sydney by steamer for Thursday Island and then went on to Normanton where Jack bought a buggy, harness and horses and set out for the Rankine River where they picked up 1200 head of mixed cattle and two wagons loaded with supplies necessary to build a house. On the long, hot and dusty journey into the Territory, Jack drove one buggy and Phoebe the other, with Mary Ann Farrar as her passenger. Phoebe also did the cooking for the camp, a job she continued when they reached their destination. They remained there for five years, during which Mary Ann gave birth to two more sons.
Hostility from the Aborigines, who speared much of their stock, eventually forced the family to shift their home and cattle to the Hodgson River area, where they began Nutwood Downs Station.
Bob and Phoebe married and began raising their own family, with Mary Ann helping her daughter-in-law with the births. Mary Ann and Phoebe were often left in charge of the station on their own while the men went out mustering cattle, although Phoebe also often participated in this side of station life as well. In 1902, after they had sold 200 bullocks for 1000 pounds, the family decided to have a holiday in Darwin. They headed on horseback for the 'big smoke', with Phoebe's youngster riding on the saddle in front of her. On their way they stopped at Elsey Station, where Phoebe, tall and shy in her homemade dress and hat, and Mary Ann met Jeannie Gunn, the first white woman apart from each other, they had seen in almost twelve years. After this chance meeting Jeannie immortalised Phoebe as the 'Bush Mother' in her classic We of the Never Never.
In late 1917, after spending nearly forty years grazing cattle and running properties in the Territory, Mary and Jack decided to retire to a property near Maryborough. But as writer Billy Linklater later observed 'fate is always against the pioneer ending their days peaceful'. There they both died within a year, Mary after a tragic accident when a petrol lamp exploded, setting fire to her dress, and Jack a year later of pneumonia. On learning of Mary's death the Northern Territory Times wrote that she was 'one of the oldest residents of the Territory and ranked absolutely first among the women who nobly pioneered the Northern Territory bush'.
Bob and Phoebe continued to run the family properties, and Phoebe continued to draw admiration, such as this 1924 tribute by the Northern Territory Times, describing her as:
one of that admirable type of women who take a real and practical part in the Territory's development --- one of the real trackblazers who with extraordinary courage and endurance shoulder a man's task in station operation and in following the mustering camps and attending to the ordinary requirements of her menfolk. In spite of work she does Mrs Farrar looks young and comely and our hope is that the Territory may long be blessed with such ladies.
Phoebe was regarded as the best rider on any property the family owned, and as her husband was often ill in later years, it was Phoebe who did most of the work, mustering, living for weeks at a time in stock camps with only Aboriginal companions and doing all her own branding. Her daughter once recalled the time Phoebe drove a mob of 300 cattle 400 miles (640 km) to the family's new station at Ban Ban Springs. She was accompanied by one stockman and a dog. The two of them shared all the night watches. In the mid-1930s Phoebe suffered a broken hip wnen she was crushed by a bull during a branding operation and was told by the doctor who operated on her in Darwin that she would never walk again. A year later she walked into his office nearly as good as new, claiming she had overcome the odds through ‘sheer hard work and plenty of guts'.
The Farrars remained in the Territory for the rest of their lives, except for a short period when they tried to retire to Queensland. They became so homesick for the Territory that they moved back and ran Glencoe station, still pioneering after their children had married and were living their own lives elsewhere. A horse remained Phoebe's only means of transport for the greater part of her life. When her husband bought an old Model-T Ford, she used to pull back on imaginary reins and call 'whoa' when she wanted to stop. At seventy-five she was still riding horses despite her encounter with a bull fifteen years earlier. For a woman of such activity and spirit, her last few years were sadly restricted. In 1955 she entered the Darwin hospital, where she spent the last five years of her life, as the Territory at that time had no accommodation for pensioners. When Phoebe died in August 1 1960 at the age of ninety-two, the Northern Territory News was more than justified in saying that her death marked 'the passing of one of the few really Grand Old Ladies of the Territory'. In 1988 her daughter, Phyllis Uren, successfully nominated Phoebe for inclusion in the bicentennial book Unsung Heroes and Heroines, which honoured 200 such Australians out of thousands of nominations.
Baldwin, Suzy (editor). (1988). Unsung Heroes & Heroines of Australia. Elwood, Victoria, Australia: Greenhouse Publications Pty Ltd. pp. 97-99
'No one could keep Phoebe down'
Written by: Phyllis Uren
Nominated by: Phyllis Uren
'A young girl Phoebe Wright, my Grandmother, born at Fish River in 1868 fourteen years old in 1882, accompanied the Farrar family by boat to Norrnanton. They then changed to wagons, Phoebe driving one of them 1000 kilometres to the Limmen River corner of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Many months on the road --- flies mosquitoes, swamps, heat, were some of the discomforts, also worrying about attacks by Aborigines. Phoebe had to help with cooking, washing, as well as drive the wagon. At the station she was to go mustering cattle, roping, throwing cattle, branding. and castrating. She was as good as any man.
'Phoebe married Robert the eldest son of John and MaryAnn Farrar. They had five children and her mother-in-law was her only help. She then moved to Hodgson Downs, where she was known as the "Bush Mother". Phoebe never turned anyone away that came for help --- all were welcomed. Phoebe and MaryAnn were often left alone at the homestead with the children. Many nights they would have their rifles poked through the wooden slats of the walls firing at the Aborigines who were attacking them. The children when older took up arms as well.
'Phoebe had to run the station when Robert was away getting supplies. Phoebe did all her own housework, as well as muster cattle, cook during the night, baking bread and corn beef. Some beef was salted, thrown on the roofs to dry, packed in saddle bags, then they would cut a thin slice off with their knives and eat. Meals were dry bread, beef and rice. Phoebe had her own quart pot; light a fire, put water in pot, put in the fire, when the water boils throw in tea leaves, sugar, drink when cool enough, cut off thin slice of corn beef, hunk of bread. That was a meal, one hour, and they were on the road again. It certainly was a hard life.
'Phoebe with her children and MaryAnn met Mrs Aeneas Gunn on their way to Darwin --- Phoebe was Mrs Bob --- it was their first visit to Darwin or anywhere else. Mrs Gunn was the first white woman, apart from MaryAnn, that Phoebe had seen since 1882.
'In 1925 Robert and Phoebe bought land at Brocks Creek. Phoebe and Half Caste Fred and a dog drove the cattle from Hodgson Downs to Brocks Creek. She had inspected the land for a homestead, picked a small rise with a spring at the bottom and called it Ban Ban Springs Station.
'Around 1935 when she was sixty-seven Phoebe and husband Robert and Half Caste Fred, went down to the cattle yard to do the drafting of the cattle. Some had to be branded, one had to be put into another yard to be killed for beef for the homestead. Fred had the fire going, and the branding irons were in the fire heating.
'Everything had been going well, they had nearly sorted out the cattle, when two bulls got fighting, Robert and Fred started to hit them with sticks, trying to separate them, they eventually succeeded, one charged for the gate which Phoebe was holding open, she tried to close the gate, but the bull crashed through felling the gate onto Phoebe, then the bull fell onto her too.
'Robert and Fred came running, the bull had got to its feet, groggy and bleeding. After removing the gate, and examining Phoebe, they found she could not move her leg and was in need of medical attention.
'They made a rough stretcher to carry her up to the homestead. Robert quickly got onto the Medical Air Service by two way radio, who said they would do everything they could to send a plane. Dr Fenton took the message, he was on another call but would attend the Farrar's call as soon as possible. They waited two days before the plane arrived, Dr Fenton on arriving explaining that he had crashed the first plane, and had to wait for a replacement.
'On arriving at the Darwin Hospital Phoebe was operated on immediately. She had a broken hip. The Doctor told Phoebe she would never walk again. She said, "We'll see." A year later Phoebe and Robert came down to Darwin, stayed at their son, Henry's home. Phoebe walked into the surgery at the clinic, saw the Doctor and said to him, "Here's the cripple." The Doctor was amazed. He said, "You are a marvel, how did you do it?" She replied, "By sheer hard work and plenty of guts."
'Phoebe continued to ride her horse Irish. She had to have a box on the ground, to help her mount the horse, otherwise she was as good as new.
'Phoebe died aged ninety-two in Darwin Hospital. My Mum said Phoebe could fold a buffalo hide like other people could fold a pice of paper.'