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50 Treasures: Edward Hayes Talbot's Droving Diary

Our forty-fifth treasure is a rare first-hand account of pioneer life in nineteenth century Queensland. From the Library Archives comes Edward Hayes Talbot's droving diary.

Pam Garfoot and Elizabeth Conway answers the question "why is this significant?"

Not many examples exist of first-hand, contemporary accounts of pioneer life in nineteenth century Queensland. Of droving journeys, there are still fewer accounts. Even fewer remain that record a Queensland droving journey in the words of an ordinary drover. Edward Hayes Talbot’s diary might be the only one to survive.

Talbot was a young family man who had emigrated to the colony from England sixteen years earlier. He lived at Saltwater Creek, just outside the coastal town of St Lawrence, 115 miles north of Rockhampton. Like many early settlers, he turned his hand to a string of occupations: bullocky, grazier, farmer, and drover. It was on one of his droving trips, almost entirely across the colony from east to west in 1878, that Talbot kept the simple diary that is held by James Cook University Library and is now one of the library’s treasures.

A page from Edward Hayes Talbot's droving diary. Photograph by Michael Marzik.
Writers Pam Garfoot and Elizabeth Conway have transcribed the diary and extensively researched the trip made by Talbot and his droving colleagues. An intriguing story emerged as they traced the route that had been taken and discovered the people and places that Talbot had encountered. What they found was such a fascinating glimpse into Queensland’s past that they wrote an account of the amazing trip based on the diary. The book, Capricorn drover, is planned for future publication.

The transcription revealed that the diary covered a period of about four months when Talbot and the droving team were engaged in an epic journey between two pastoral properties owned by the entrepreneurial Central Queensland grazier John Arthur Macartney. It began just outside St Lawrence at Waverley Station, and ended over a thousand miles to the west at the remote Diamantina Lakes Station. The drovers and the cattle followed a route roughly aligned with the Tropic of Capricorn. Talbot wrote of daily events on the trip; of the times when things went well, and of the times when they went badly. 

Drovers in Queensland in the 1870s. Source: QLD State Library, negative number 141200.
The diary is modest but revealing. Its language is simple and the entries are often perfunctory. Later they are written with a pencil when Talbot’s writing ink was depleted. Some pages were written when the paper was wet. Even so, Talbot manages to convey richly the story of his long period in the saddle, with his voice and personality emerging. He possessed a wry and ironic sense of humour, which comes through regularly, sometimes amidst the most trying of circumstances.

In order to appreciate the significance of the diary fully, it is important to consider the context in which the journey took place. The 1870s was still a time of advancing frontiers in Queensland and droving well over a thousand head of cattle across the state at that time was no easy task. A large part of Queensland was still unknown territory: sparsely settled or, indeed, not settled by Europeans at all. There were no reliable water sources for cattle, as bores were not sunk until the 1880s. The relationship between white settlers and Aboriginal people often remained troubled, and in many areas the threat of attack by local tribes was very real. There were also many other dangers and difficulties that could beset a droving team: the possibility of cattle stampedes, the perils of poison vegetation, scarce pastures in many areas, rains and flooding rivers, and desperate homesickness. Dealing with all these trials was everyday life for the drovers who featured in Talbot’s diary.

Waverly homestead. Image from Fox, M. J. (1919 - 1923). The hisory of Queensland: Its people and industries, an historical and comercial review, descriptive and biographical facts, figures and illustrations, an epitome of progress. Adelaide, Australia: States Publishing.
 The fact that Talbot was not writing for an audience other than himself prompts a couple of interesting observations. Firstly, there is veracity in his daily jottings. There can have been little incentive for embroidering the truth, lending a special credibility to the diary. Secondly, Talbot’s simple record shows that he was aware of the extraordinary nature of the journey upon which he was embarking. If he – a man unaccustomed to writing – chose to commence a diary about his trip, surely he knew that this trip was beyond the experience of even well-travelled drovers and pastoralists.

As recently as 2017 the diary’s significance remained largely unacknowledged. However, Capricorn Drover will reveal the diary as a valuable record of Queensland’s history. The diary gives us a window into the world of the colony’s frontier in 1878 and so deserves a serious place in the story of the State.

Edward Hayes Talbot, circa late 1890s. Image courtsey of Kathie Carmody.
Over the course of 2020, JCU Library's Special Collections will be unveiling 50 Treasures from the collections to celebrate 50 years of James Cook University.

Author Biography
Elizabeth Conway has a deep interest in the natural environment, and she studied ecology and biology at the University of Canberra. History is another of Elizabeth's interests, particularly local history. This interest in local history has fuelled her keenness to uncover her family's past. Her first book 'Making them real: finding a Queensland past' was co-authored with her sister, Pam Garfoot, and won the Queensland Family History Society's Book Award for 2014.

Pam Garfoot is a writer, illustrator and artist. She loves most things creative and is passionate about Australian pioneer history. Since finishing her first co-authored book, 'Making them real', she has written several journal articles, travel articles, and book reviews. Some of her short stories and poems have been published and have received various commendations. Pam moved away from Canberra eight years ago and currently lives on the shores of Lake Macquarie, New South Wales

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