Dr George Bennett: One of Australia's Great Early Naturalists

The Canberra Times, By Robert Willson

11 April 1992

Exactly 160 years ago, a handsome young English medical man was tramping the bush around Yass, Canberra and Tumut, recording everything that interested him.

Those who want to picture life on the Monaro in the second decade of British settlement cannot do better than to read the reminiscences of Dr George Bennett.

His "Journal of a Naturalist", entitled Wanderings In New South Wales, was first published in London in 1834 and has been reprinted in facsimile.

With his scientific training Bennett studied the birds and the animals of the bush, from the dingo and the flying squirrel, to the fish of the Murrumbidgee and the kangaroo and the mysterious platypus, and described what he saw with a vivid style.

He recorded the following marvellous definition of a clergyman as given by one of the Aborigines of the southern districts, "He, white feller, belonging to Sunday, get uptop o' waddy, pile long corrobera all about debbil debbil, and wear shirt over trowsel".

Dr Bennett had an ear for a good story such as the tale of the bushranger and the Aboriginal girl. It is one of the tragedies of early Australia that on the bush frontier of settlement the first Europeans encountered by the Aboriginal tribes were often men of the lowest type, embittered, lonely convicts working as shepherds and labourers in the bush.

Bennett heard the story of a bush ranger named Tallboy. It is not clear if this was his nickname or his real name. Tallboy had been a convict servant, had bolted for the bush, and was wanted for many atrocities by the police troopers. He had formed a relationship with a girl of the local Murrumbidgee tribe but we do not know her name. In spite of the fact that he was often cruel to her, this girl hid Tallboy from the police with true native ingenuity and baffled those hunting for him. Nothing shook her loyalty to him.

While Tallboy lay low in a cunning hideout, deep in tie scrub, the girl would hunt and fish to get food for them. She would even visit the stock keeper's huts at different stations and whatever provisions she could scrounge she would take back to Tallboy in his hideout. The police with their trackers watched her carefully and again and again tried to follow her, but she was far too cunning for them and evaded them or led them on a wild goose chase.

On one occasion the bushranger was on the verge of capture and the police were closing in on his hideout. Thinking quickly, the Aboriginal girl boldly stepped out into the open and agreed to take them to Tallboy's place of concealment at a certain place miles away. She set off with the eager forces of law and order just behind. When the girl reached the designated spot there was of course no sign of the fugitive who was, by this time, well away.

Tallboy was eventually captured, according to Bennett, because he had ventured out of his hiding place once when the girl was absent getting food. He was taken to Sydney in chains and put on trial for his life. In spite of his earlier brutality to her the Aboriginal girl heard that he was in prison and wanted to go to him. Of course it was impossible. Tallboy went to the gallows in Sydney and the girl was reclaimed by her tribe and forcibly given to another man.

A local Murrumbidgee settler told Dr Bennett the sequel to this story. The girl very unwillingly became the wife of a member of the local tribe. His word was law. One day he ordered her to follow him when she was too ill to stand up. When she could not move he struck her a terrible blow with his axe. She was later found by the white settler unconscious on the ground. He took her back to the homestead where she was cared for until she died of her wound. She left a three-year-old boy by the convict Tallboy. No one seems to know what happened to the child.

There were many such tales on the Australian frontier. Many true stories have been forgotten or hidden by those who are descended from such relationships.

If the bushranger's real name was Tallboy it is possible that research in the convict records and early news papers may uncover more information about him and even the name of the black girl who served him so loyally.

George Bennett was also deeply interested in recording all that he could about the flora and fauna of the Monaro. For example, he was impressed by the ability of the Australian native dog or dingo to endure pain and agony without showing any signs of its suffering. He wrote that the cunning and endurance of those animals was almost beyond belief had it not been related by those whose testimony could be relied upon.

He talked to a bushman who told him of a dingo that had been so severely beaten that it was supposed that every bone in its body had been broken. The animal was left on the ground for dead. The bushman who had "killed it" walked some distance and accidentally happened to glance back. He was amazed to see "master dingo rise, shake himself, and march into the bush, evading all capture".

George Bennett was one of Australia's great early naturalists. Born in England in 1804, he had an adventurous early career in many parts of the world and trained in medicinc at the Royal College of Surgeons.

While medical officer on the ship Sophie be first reached Sydney which was destined to be his eventual home.

In the New Hebrides Bennett collected the first complete specimen of the pearly nautilus which created a great stir among English scientists. His friend, Richard (later Sir Richard) Owen wrote a scientific study of it which won him election to the Royal Society.

More romantically, Bennett became involved with Elau, a native girl rescued by the crew of the Sophie from a bloody inter-tribal fight on Eromanga Island. He decided to take her home to England but the girl could not stand the English climate and died in 1834.

Bennett decided that he liked what he had seen of Australia and its fascinating forms of wildlife and returned in 1832 in the ship Brothers, commanded by Captain Bobby Towns, who gave his name to Townsville.

Walking about the streets of Sydney he was impressed with its progress. It was spring and the trees and flowers of the Domain fascinated him, especially the trees that shed their bark.

He was impressed that every home seemed to have a parrot in a cage at the front and the screeching and whistling of "Pretty Polly" and "Sweet Polly" made a din in the Sydney streets.'

Bennett loved Alexander Macleay's beautiful gardens at Elizabeth Bay House, still a gem of colonial architectture in Sydney, though the gardens have now been swallowed up.

He visited the small Colonial Museum, little guessing that he himself would become one of its greatest supporters and patrons.

In September 1832 Bennett set out with a companion on horseback on his first ramble into the interior, riding over the Blue Mountains and return ing via the southern districts.

On this trip he managed to secure his first specimens of the platypus, among them a living female which he dug out of its burrow. Scientists were mystified by this marvellous creature and Bennett decided to take the female back to Sydney hoping it would give the answer whether the animal laid eggs.

When he started on horseback on his 200-mile ride home to Sydney the platypus was in a box. He looked after it with great care but one night at Mittagong the platypus got away.

Later on Bennett secured two young ones and kept them in his Sydney rooms as pets. In one of his letters to Sir Richard Owen in London he writes while a young platypus plays about the room.

In November 1832 Bennett started on his second expedition to the southern districts. He travelled south through Mittagong, Goulburn and Yass to Tumut.

He records much about the various snakes of the district. At a farm called Gudarigby, the property of W. H. Dutton on the Murrumbidgee, these reptiles were very common. One had dropped from the roof upon a sleeping man's bed during the night.

Bennett writes that it caused the man to quit and leave the reptile in undisturbed possession for the remainder of the night. In the morning a black snake, a metre long, was found snug among the blankets.

He writes of the habits of the "laughing or feathered jackass" and its ability to kill snakes. The natives at Yass call the bird "gogera" or "gogobera".

In a footnote he mentions the English woman who declared that, of all the wonderful productions of Australia, she thought nothing could equal the "feathered donkey".

In the Tumut district be was fascinated by the "bugong" moths and records what the explorer Hamilton Hume told him of the habits of these moths, forming the principal food of the Aborigines during the summer

months. The Aborigines had gorged them selves on these insects leaving few specimens behind. He saw the deserted bark huts which the natives had temporarily erected when collecting the bogong moths for their feasts.

Bennett's book is almost a day-by-day account of his rambles and, with the aid of atlases and lists of early settlers, it would be possible by research to work out the exact route of his wanderings. He mentions every station visited and the name of the owner or overseer.

For example, on Octobcr 3, 1832, he and his companion reached the farm owned by Mr Reddal, where they stayed the night and enjoyed the excel- lent ale brewed on the farm.

About noon the next day they reached "Gonnong" (Gunning?), a cattle station belonging to Mr Kennedy, of Appin. Their route was through a beautiful open forest of picturesque beauty. Black and white cockatoos, with an infinite variety of the parrot tribe, such as ground parrots, enlivened the scene.

Bennett spells the Yass plains as the "Yas plains" and records the interesting fact that the Aboriginal pronunciation was "Yar plains".

A fascinating article about Bennett in the Medical Journal of Australia of August 31, 1955, records details of his long and distinguished career in Sydney as a medical practitioner and naturalist. Someone described him as the "Nestor of Australian naturalists".

Dr Bennett died 89 years ago in 1893 in Sydney. He had been a dedicated book collector and bibliophile and it is a tragedy that his vast library was rejected by Sydney University and was dispersed at auction.

Today he is little remembered but those who study his book of wanderings on the Monaro will find that he has preserved a vivid picture of this district in the first decades of recorded history.