Tuesday, April 17, 2012

O is for Oatlands . . .

I'm at that place in writing my story where real and imagined places and people have begun to merge. Oatlands I imagine as a kind of flat farmland with rolling hills, some 50 miles north of Hobart Town. Here early landowners gained immense grants of land and set out to build a colonial empire, far 'out bush' with a handful of family, assigned convicts, marines to stand guard, and sheep.

St. Peter's Church, Oatlands
Once these stations were established, with their Victorian houses and gardens, and open ranges of fields, the mind-numbing routine of caring for thousands of sheep on hundreds of acres took over, with not much between this intrepid family and the next station but open land and forbidding wilderness in the distance. The children, if they were lucky, were sent to a boarding school, or, in a few cases in the larger stations, a school would be set up with books and proper lessons.

Risk from bushrangers was fairly constant in the early to mid 19th Century in Van Diemen's Land, rough men who had escaped from their masters, called 'absconders' or 'bolters.' These men, starving and hunted, had no qualms about taking down a sheep or holding a family hostage for food or money or horses.

One such bushranger came to Oatlands. Bobby Wainwright I've named him in my story, after a man who exchanged bullets with a contingent of marines, while children and the schoolteacher cowered on the floor.

Newspaper accounts report the event with an air of amazement that anyone -- a sheepherder or small landowner living so far from town would help these wild and dangerous men. But I've come to understand that if just the common history of surviving the ocean voyage to Van Diemen's Land led men to become mates, why wouldn't a convict assigned to such a station, scrabbling his way up from a prison past, have sympathy for someone whose face was marked with a mask of rage and who had bolted from prison?

Read more about Australian bushrangers here.