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Book review: Pity The Swagman -The Australian Odyssey of a Victorian Diarist by Bethan Phillips

07 Apr 2024 6 minute read
Pity The Swagman: The Australian Odyssey of a Victorian Diarist by Bethan Phillips is published by Y Lolfa

Ant Evans

‘A waste of precious time and good candles’. This was the view expressed by Jenkin and Elinor Jenkins regarding their son Joseph keeping a diary, which he kept throughout his life, in Wales and Australia, having commenced in January 1839.

It’s just as well he paid no attention to his parents on this occasion, or else there would have been nothing for the late William Evans, a retired heart specialist and the diarist’s grandson, to edit and have published.

Likewise, “Pity The Swagman: The Australian Odyssey of a Victorian Diarist” by the late Bethan Phillips (having been republished by Y Lolfa this year), would not exist.

What we have here is quite the weighty volume, which surprised me at first, though I’m not sure why.

Having examined Joseph’s life through his diaries and providing additional historical context for the reader as she went (such as, among many other matters the Rebecca Riots, limited suffrage and the lack of a secret ballot in Wales, to the mistreatment of Chinese workers and indigenous Australians as well as the exploits of the Kelly Gang in Australia) Phillips succeeded in covering a lot of ground in great detail here, with equal weight given to Joseph’s life both in Ceredigion and Victoria.

Drinking

A successful farmer, respected poet, friend of landlords and politicians in Wales, who took a great interest in education and transport (as his involvement with opening a school locally and helping to ensure the railway came to his corner of the world demonstrates) life for Joseph became increasingly undone between Joseph’s increasing socialising and drinking.

Indeed, the author notes that “Joseph was now a confirmed alcoholic” by 1866.

Inevitably, this led to things becoming difficult at Trecefel, the family farm, not helped by his refusing to keep two maids on for another year, which made more work for his wife, Betty.

In addition, tragedy struck the family with the death of his eldest son Jenkin from Tuberculosis.

Joseph eventually leaves his home and family under a cloud in December 1868, leaving, we later learn from a letter his son Lewis sends him, debts of over £600.

The reader then accompanies him, guided by the author, to Australia and following a quarter century of living in the Colony (now State) of Victoria, we then accompany Joseph on his way back to Trecefel.

This is once more under a cloud, between the break ins he suffered at his home in the town of Maldon and the over £200 others owe him which is never repaid.

Ironic that Joseph left debts behind at Trecefel, only to then leave Australia having failed to recover money owed to him.

Self-pity

No punches are pulled by Phillips here. The biographer frequently comments on Joseph’s self-pity, the fact that he blames everything from his date of birth, to fate, to Betty, for any troubles he has, but never seems willing to take any personal responsibility.

As demonstrated by the diary entry and response to it below, the author also takes aim at Joseph’s hypocrisy:

24 June 1887

Gold! Gold! Gold! – is on every tongue while the fine surface of the soil is shamefully neglected. Each man, myself excepted, appears to have come here to seek his fortune.

To which Phillips responds:

“This entry smacks of crass hypocrisy: Joseph not only dug for gold on many occasions, but also bought shares in claims. During his moral spasms, however, he conveniently forgot such things.”

Despite no punches being pulled where necessary, Joseph was also given credit when it was due. He was certainly a man of contrasts. The author tells us for instance, how Joseph, aside from the very occasional drink, abstained from alcohol altogether during his time in Australia.

He also was given to “taking up the cause of those less fortunate than himself.” Examples mentioned include a letter he had published in “The Australian” newspaper dated the 18th of November 1869 in defence of Swagmen.

Indeed, it is from that letter that this volume takes its title. The reader also learns of how Joseph’s principles were at odds with his colleagues.

When a Chinese worker he once worked alongside experienced abuse, Joseph was “prepared to court unpopularity in defending the rights of an abused fellow worker”.

In 1887, Joseph agreed to help an indigenous man named Equinhup “nicknamed ‘Tom Clarke’ by the whites” to claim compensation from The Railway Commission, as they’d taken land from his tribe.

After Joseph composed a letter for Equinhup to present to the Commission, they agreed to pay him “£1 in silver as compensation, but with a promise of more.” As Phillips notes “Whether or not this promise was kept is not known.”

Poetry

Accompanying this balanced, almost impossible to put down biography, are a collection of photographs from Wales and Australia, which aid the reader in visualising locations and events mentioned.

In addition, the appendices include the original Welsh drafts of Joseph’s poetry (the author noting in the acknowledgements the decision was made to include translations into English in the main body of the text “in the interest of facilitating the flow of reading”) a copy of Joseph’s will and information about the vessels he sailed on to reach Australia and to return home.

Having gone to Australia on impulse in 2016 myself (and even then, only for a month, to visit friends & relatives) to get away from the frustration of not having any luck finding work in Wales (only to then be offered a role as a butler three weeks into my stay by a very good friend, which I couldn’t accept, though I was very grateful for the offer) Joseph’s diary & more recently this biography, proved to be a very interesting read indeed. I can wholeheartedly recommend it.

In fact, I spoke to Alan (who’d offered me the butler role in Australia) just prior to receiving my copy of “Pity the Swagman”.

We had a very interesting chat, with Alan telling me me about how he’d retraced Joseph’s steps in Victoria, calling at the various locations he’d been to during his life there, visiting the plaque to commemorate Joseph in Maldon, and visiting his grave on a return visit to Wales.

He also mentioned how he tried to find written records of the Eisteddfodau Joseph competed in during his time in Australia, but sadly, he was informed they were apparently lost in a fire some years ago.

Having arrived in Australia in 1969, a hundred years after Joseph, Alan also remarked “He was paid better than me!” (for doing the same agricultural work, adjusted for inflation I suppose.) I wonder what Joseph would have made of agricultural workers still being short changed, a century after his own arrival in Australia?

I have mentioned to my dear friend before now that he ought to put pen to paper himself.

Pity The Swagman: The Australian Odyssey of a Victorian Diarist by Bethan Phillips is published by Y Lolfa and is available from all good bookshops.


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