The Letters of Rachel Henning – edited by David Adams

 Rachel Henning was born in England in 1826. She was the eldest of five children & both her parents had died by the time she was 19. In 1854, Rachel left her sheltered middle-class life to go out to Australia to join her brother, Biddulph, & sisters Amy & Annie. This first trip was short-lived. Rachel missed England & hated the hot summer weather & so she returned home.

There’s a difference in tone between Rachel’s letters home on  her first trip & the second trip in 1856. When she left Australia, Rachel realised how much she missed Biddulph & her sisters & knew that if she returned, she would need to have a different frame of mind. Rachel’s second trip to Australia was different. She knew what to expect & her letters reflect her excitement at seeing her siblings again & her willingness to do whatever was needed to make life as comfortable as possible.

The letters in this book are mostly written to Rachel’s sister, Etta & her husband, Mr Boyce, back home in England. They are full of interest & humour & this edition is enhanced by the lovely line drawings by Norman Lindsay. Lindsay was quite a controversial figure in his day & is probably best known for his love of painting nudes & the childrens book he wrote, The Magic Pudding. A fictionalised version of Lindsay was played by Sam Neill in the movie Sirens with Hugh Grant & Elle Macpherson in the 1990s.

Rachel’s brother, Biddulph, was considered to be quite sickly in England but he thrived in Australia. He learned station management & eventually bought his own sheep station in Queensland. Rachel is much more philosophical on her second visit to Australia in 1861. Waiting in Bathurst with her sister Amy’s family to join Biddulph at his new station, Exmoor, on the Bowen River near Port Denison in Queensland, she seems resigned to waiting nearly nine months for Biddulph to come down to fetch her & her sister, Annie. I think she relished the independence of her life with Biddulph compared to the life she would have had, living with relatives in England.

I believe the only way is to live on in the present from day to day, and do what is to be done and enjoy what is to be enjoyed, and there really is plenty of both here.

Rachel enjoyed all the housekeeping & making do of living in the bush. She was a very competent housekeeper & shared the duties with Annie. Although Biddulph had a good property & was making a success of it, they still had to travel quite a way for anything they wanted. Clothes had to last & be patched or mended & of course, had to be fit for purpose.

Bonnets, of course, are no use in the bush. I got a new hat when I first came down here, rather a pretty black straw, and I have had my old one cleaned and trimmed and have a riding-hat besides, so I think I shall do. I have that old brown shawl, you remember, and a thin one I got last summer, so I think I shall do very well, though Annie and Emily bewail over my deficiencies.

Rachel had many adventures. On a journey to Shoalhaven for a visit, her party became lost in the bush

Bella and I kept shouting to know where the other was and invariable answered “all right”, till at last Bella pulled up, and said it was all wrong, that her horse was at fault, and she did not the least we know where we were. This was cheerful, and we began to discuss the probabilities of spending the night in the bush, and the consequent rheumatism that we should catch, when my horse, rejoicing in the name of Skittles, after turning round and round several times, seemed to find the way.
Altogether it was a most pleasant visit, and I was very sorry to leave that beautiful country and return to the dusty streets of Sydney.

Camping in the rain on the way home to Exmoor,

Tom lit a great fire and made some beautiful “johnny cakes” – thin soda cakes which are baked in about ten minutes and are the best bread you ever ate, and with johnny cakes and jam and hot tea, which was brought us in the tent by shiny mackintoshed figures, we continued to do very well. A tin pannikin of hot wine and water was put under the curtain the last thing with the remark from Biddulph that ot was to keep off the rheumatism, and we slept as sound as if we had a dozen roofs over our heads instead of the rain pattering on the canvas.

Sunday afternoon on Exmoor station,

Sunday seems so quiet in the bush. I should like to hear some church bells, but there is no bell near … It is a beautiful afternoon, the warm air blowing in through the open door and window, and whispering among the gum-trees, cloud shadows gliding over the opposite mountain range, great Lion, the bloodhound, lying asleep in the doorway, quite regardless of being walked on or fallen over. Biddulph, arrayed in white trousers, white coat and regatta shirt … is lazily reading in an armchair in the pleasant recess where the books are. … Presently, when we have done writing, and Biddulph wakes up – he is not to say asleep – we shall go for a walk, probably to the site of the new house, and then on to the plains beyond, and up the “Blackwall”, a curious range of cliff that bounds the station on the west for two miles, then we shall come back to dinner.

Rachel was game for anything – helping with the shearing, nurturing her pet lambs who followed her everywhere, encounters with snakes – she embraced the bush life. She gives pen portraits of the workers on the station& their visitors.

When she was in her late thirties, Rachel became engaged to Deighton Taylor, who worked with Biddulph on the station. Rachel’s family were disapproving, not only because she was several years older than Deighton but because of his lack of prospects. However, they married & were very happy. Deighton began working as a supervisor at a timber mill on the Myall River in NSW & Rachel wrote to Etta about her new life & her happiness,

For the rest, I doubt if there is anyone else in the world who would have made me so happy or whom I could have made thoroughly happy. You know I am not the most patient of tempers, and I might possibly have quarrelled  and skirmished with anyone of less unvarying kindness and good temper. As it is, we have never had a word or thought of difference.

Rachel enjoyed setting up her own home, hanging wallpaper on canvas & meeting new neighbours. Eventually the timber mill job came to an end & they thought about buying a sheep farm near Stroud, eventually settling on a farm at American Creek, near Wollongong. They built a house called Springfield in the 1870s & lived there until 1896 when Deighton’s health began to fail. Rachel died in 1914 at the age of 88.

Rachel’s letters give such a lively picture of life in 19th century Australia. She’s a wonderful observer of people & places; her descriptive writing of the bush & the mountains is very evocative. Her love of the country is evident in every letter. She often says she is reluctant to go to Sydney, not just because of the traveling but because she loves the bush so much. She found a freedom & independence in Australia that she could never have experienced in England. Even before she married, she was the head of her brother’s household & knew that she was contributing to his success with her talent for keeping the accounts & her unfailing resourcefulness & good humour when things went wrong. She loved horses & describes riding & walking through the bush nearly every day. She was an intrepid traveller, as she needed to be in those days, when it took weeks to get from outback Queensland to Sydney. Rachel Henning’s letters give an invaluable picture of life in Australia in the mid 19th century. I borrowed my copy from Open Library (which is why there’s a price sticker on the front cover!).

6 thoughts on “The Letters of Rachel Henning – edited by David Adams

  1. This sounds like an interesting book. I love books of letters, especially this chatty kind. I admire the women who went off to live someplace remote and who had to rely on their attitudes to thrive or to just get through. I know many couldn't bear it and I don't think I could either. I wish I could get that 'living in the moment' thing down! Not good at that!

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  2. I love letters too & Rachel certainly did enjoy her independence once she'd decided to make the best of things. I certainly can't see myself living in outback Queensland even now, let along in the 19th century.

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  3. I found this book in a counrty market and picked it up, Rachael Henning being my sister in law. Having read the sleeve notes I discovered that this was written by her Great Great Great Aunt of the same name. This is just a wonderful read, with first hand insights into our colonial past, as well as her changing attitudes to the country she grew to love. I enjoyed it very much.

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  4. How fascinating to have a connection to Rachel! It is a lovely book. I'm always amazed by the early pioneers & how they managed in the outback. I certainly couldn't do it!

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