by Bill Holloway

A review of the ‘work’ constructed from the letters of Rachel Henning, an emigrant from England to New South Wales in the 1850s.

Rachel Henning (1826-1914) came out to Australia, in the wake of her brother Biddulph and sisters Annie and Amy, for the first time in 1854. Torn between England and Australia, she eventually settled in Australia, writing regularly to her sisters, particularly Etta who remained in England, all the while.

Her letters were offered to the Bulletin by her family almost forty years after her death. Edited by Bulletin editor David Adams into a continuous narrative and illustrated by the Bulletin‘s most famous artist, Norman Lindsay, ‘The Letters’ when published in 1954, was an immediate and ongoing success.

The publication history of The Letters is not as interesting as the letters themselves, but it is worth recounting. They were first serialized in the Bulletin between Aug 1951 and Jan 1952, with maps, a family tree, and Lindsay’s drawings, before being brought out as a quarto-sized book (to save resetting) in 1954 with a Preface by Adams.

In 1963 the rights were sold to Penguin who published The Letters under their Sirius imprint. At this stage, an Introduction by Norman Lindsay was added, but unfortunately, the maps were discarded. Then in 1988, Dale Spender, who in the 1980s was almost single-handedly responsible for the recovery of nineteenth century Australian women’s writing, much of which had been out of print for 100 years, included The Letters in her Penguin Australian Women’s Library series, and her Introduction replaced Lindsay’s.

I say in the summary above ‘a work constructed from the letters’. In 2012 an essay by Anne Allingham reveals how savagely Henning’s original letters were cut by Adams to create a continuous, readable, and some say novel-like narrative. Spender for one, sets Henning squarely in the literary tradition of Margaret Cavendish’s Sociable Letters (1664) and Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778) writing: “like her British sister, Fanny Burney, Rachel Henning deserves praise and prominence in Australia for her own literary achievement”. She adds: “the edition here has been admirably edited by David Adams”.

Adams in fact began with 179 letters and cut them down to 90; understandably topped and tailed each one to remove all but the most minimal family salutations; but then went on to delete all references to “women’s problems”; all Henning’s most scathing comments about her fellows and interestingly, the bulk of her complaints about ‘colonials’. He treated the original letters, even then almost a century old and now held by the Mitchell, as journalist’s copy, scoring through passages with a blue pencil and inventing linking phrases and paragraphs. None of this was ever acknowledged, and if Spender knew, she doesn’t say.

Henning’s story is a relatively simple one, and her great charm lies in descriptions of country and of nineteenth century country life. Henning was of the independent and educated middle class. Her father, a clergyman, died when she was about 12, and her mother seven years later, both of TB, leaving her in charge of her siblings, all younger. Her grandfather had been wealthy so they each had an income, and some capital which seems to have gone mainly to Biddulph.

Biddulph and Annie, went out first, in 1853, to Sydney, followed soon after by Rachel and Amy. Etta stayed in England and married a Mr Boyce. Biddulph seems quite restless, buying and selling properties west and south of Sydney. Annie goes with him as his housekeeper, and Rachel too, quite often. Amy marries and goes to live in Bathurst. Rachel’s descriptions of difficult early trips through the Blue Mountains are very reminiscent of those described 20 years earlier in Annabella Boswell’s Journal. As the Hennings have friends and relatives in Sydney they are often backwards and forwards between them.

Rachel homesick, returned to England in 1856, but by 1861, she was on her way back to Australia. Biddulph by this time had taken up a property, “Exmoor”, 40 miles square (over 1 million acres or 400,000 hectares) about 80 miles (130 km) inland of Port Denison (now Bowen) in north Queensland, on the Bowen and Broken Rivers.

There Biddulph constructed a homestead and shearing shed and began running sheep, Annie keeping house and Rachel keeping the books. This was an idyllic 3 years for Rachel, often out riding or walking, maintaining a large garden and with her own honour guard of pet lambs. Despite the distance to adjacent properties, there were always people passing through, plus the men living on the station – two or three managers, kitchen staff, shepherds, shearers.

In 1866 Rachel and Annie return to Sydney, where they marry two of the station mangers. Rachel and her husband, Deighton Taylor buy 150 acres near Wollongong; sell up after a few years; move to Myall River (Bulahdelah), and then nearby to a property outside Stroud. By 1872 they are back in the Wollongong region, where they stay for 10 years,

During this time Biddulph has prospered, returned to Sydney and married. The letters come to an end with Rachel in her late 50s and feeling old. Adams provides an epilogue in which we see Rachel, Annie and Biddulph, their spouses having died and children grown, living out their final years together in a handsome house in Hunters Hill.

Rachel, on the surface, lived a quite Austen-esque life. She is always busy, but by the same token there is always someone doing something for her. But, to her credit, she enjoyed the adventurous side of Australian bush life, was often out and about, riding, in a buggy fording flooded streams, happily camping out while making the long trek from Rockhampton to “Exmoor” (400 miles/640 km) for instance, making do with short supplies and uncertain access, not just to the south, but to the nearest town.

Finally, there is one matter which no modern review can overlook, and that is Henning’s attitude towards and relationship with the Indigenous peoples on whose land she was living. Some examples –

The blacks are not allowed to dine with the white aristocracy [workers]. They “takes their meals in the wash-‘ouse”, or, in other words, on a bench oustide the kitchen door.

 [Biddulph] takes with him Alick, one of the blackboys – they are always called “boys”, though the said Alick must be thirty-five at least.

We had the wild blacks down on the run last week. They … robbed the shepherd’s hut at the Two Mile, carrying off everything he possessed… Biddulph and the two station blacks gave chase and tracked the tribe to their camp among the hills… They burnt the camp, and brought away all their weapons … but Biddulph would not allow the boys to shoot them as they were very anxious to do.

Allingham notes that in 1861, when she was still in Bathurst, Rachel wrote in support of the reprisals following the killing of the Wills family on Cullin-la-Ringo station in Qld, which led to the massacre of over 100 Aborigines. “I should like to put the men who write comfortably from their snug dens in Sydney on a frontier station in the middle of native tribes …“.

Allingham believes that once she was up there, Henning “became party to the pastoralist’s pact to maintain silence on frontier conflict, the hope being that silence would imply that it simply did not exist.” Queenslanders have also always been silent about their other dark secret, slavery. Rachel’s letters include an account of ‘runaway’ Aboriginal workers, calling in for food while making their way back to their own Country.

The next morning when they were peacefully eating their breakfasts up rode Mr Uhr, the officer of the native police in this district … There was not a chance for the blacks, as the mounted troopers had surrounded them on all sides …

Biddulph retained two of the ‘run-aways’ to work on his property and the remainder were taken away to work with the native Police in Port Denison.

Last month I reviewed Louisa Atkinson’s Gertrude The Emigrant which is set in the country near Sydney where she grew up in the 1840s. The Letters of Rachel Henning are are an even closer, and eminently readable, look at the day-to-day lives of a family ‘who were there’, both in and around Sydney and on the frontier in north Queensland.


David Adams ed.
The Letters of Rachel Henning
serialized in the Bulletin 1951,1952
first pub. Bulletin Books, Sydney,1954
292 pp

Bryony Cosgrove, ‘The Creation of Rachel Henning: Personal Correspondence to Publishing Phenomenon’, Australian Literary Studies, 1 Oct 2012
Anne Allingham, ‘Challenging the Editing of the Rachel Henning Letters.’ Australian Literary Studies, 1 May 1994

see also:
Queensland Government, History of Bowen Indigenous Community (here)
The Australian Legend, Australian Women Writers Gen 1 (here)
Annabella Boswell, Annabella Boswells Journal, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1965 (here)

Bill Holloway, the author of this review, blogs at The Australian Legend. He is an old white guy the subject of whose (very) mature age M.Litt thesis was ‘The Independent Woman in Australian Literature’.