Echoes of The Old Days at Tumut

23 June 1952 Narrandera Argus and Riverina Advertiser

The Queens of Shanty Town

A man earns a nickname - 'Dodger,' 'Happy,' 'Groggo' and the rest - and there's nothing more to it. He carries it modestly, accepting it as a handle, nothing more. It's different with women. 

My word, it's different! When a woman gets a nickname, it's usually, a humdinger - full-blooded, significant, purposeful. So are the women who get 'em

I'm telling you this because I am camped at the Yarrangobilly Caves, just off the Monaro Highway, in New South Wales, and I have been yarnng with Mr. L. Hoad

This Mr. Hoad is a fresh-complexioned, smiling man, with a gentle sense of humour and the gift of storytelling - (He's also got the reputation of being one of the best trout fishermen in Australia.) 

From him I heard about Brandy Mary and Roaring Mag. They're a couple of lusty, colourful women whose names and nicknames are more than legend. They're history - and geography. 

There's Brandy Mary Flat, at Tumut, and Roaring Mag Hill, near the old last-century copper field, Lob's Hole.

There were a couple of characters for you. 

Mind you, as I heard their stories from Mr. Hoad, neither was what you might call ''high society.

But a flat and a mountain have been named I after them, so they will live on, by their monuments, long after many of the high society who would have sniffed at them are forgotten. 

To be blunt, they had a rather easy value of virtue. Yet they deserve a tribute. In a way, they were pioneers.

They lived when life was primitive, hard and punishing. They survived hardships that would have killed lesser people. 

In the days of Brandy Mary and Roaring Mag, Kiandra, highest and coldest town in Australia, had a population of about 35,000. Now, hardly a score of people live there. But in the days of Kiandra's boom, there was gold in the mountains, and the miners and their followers moved in thousands. 

Brandy Mary and Roaring Mag came with them, and, in traditional style, ran a shanty of sorts.

Kiandra's gold petered out, and many of the miners moved off down to the copper at Lob's Hole.

Brandy Mary and Roaring Mag went along. 

Brandy Mary got her name simply because she liked brandy - liked it to the point of deep, warm, embracing affection. 

Roaring Mag got her startling monicker because of her habit, when returning home after a carouse, of roaring out to the miners to give her a hand up the hill that now bears her name. 

Roaring Mag never married, but Brandy Mary was really a Mrs. Spicer. and, by all accounts, her husband was a really tough fellow. 

Once he fell from his horse and smashed his leg. He crawled eight miles over rough country to get help. 

He was tough enough to be Brandy Mary's husband - perhaps too tough, because she left him eventually; their son was sent to Sydney, where he became a school master. 

It was after this separation that Brandy Mary gained her notoriety. 

She went to Tumut where she set up a hut on the area beside that town that now bears the name of Brandy Mary's Flat. 

Her former partner, Roaring Mag, had left the district for parts unknown - but wherever she went, the probability is that she kept on roaring. 

Brandy Mary lived at Tumut for years, Her love for brandy growing, and the pattern of her life becoming more and more sordid . . . 

And then, on her birthday, something fantastic happened.

One of those utterly unforeseeable things that go to make folklore. 

A teamster brought into Tumut a present for Mary from her schoolmaster son.

Apparently he had no knowledge of his mother's way of life and thought of her as somebody rare and cultured.

Why he hadn't found out the truth can never now be known. 

At any rate, the teamster drew up beside Mary's drab hut. On his waggon Mary's birthday's present was a great, shapeless, cased mass.   

He strove manfully with it with some help from others - got it down, and formally handed it over to blowsy Brandy Mary, uncased, and splendid in all its shining glory.

What Brandy thought when she set her eyes upon it remained her secret.

But it is safe I to say that she was not so hardened by drink that the present did not touch her heart. It was a grand piano! 

The piano wouldn't go through the door of her hut, of course.

They had to take down a side wall. But finally it was in, and there it stayed, silent and unplayed, for two years, covered with glasses and a mounting pile of bottles.

For Brandy Mary it served as a handy table. 

And then her son came to visit her. 

How did they greet each other? What did he think when he first saw her, coarsened by a way of life that must have been alien and repellent to him? 

We don't know -. but we do know that that night he loaded his mother, the grand piano and all her possessions on two drays and drove them off into the darkness . . . 

A happier sort of story is that of Mouth Organ Annie, once a familiar figure on the Monaro Highway as she passed by, perched atop her husband's loaded bullock waggon, while he trudged pensively alongside.   

As Mouth Organ Annie passed she played unendingly on her harmonica.   

She paused rarely, then only to eat or drink. The played the sad and the saccharinonic melodies of her day, and gems from 'Maritana,' and the bawdy, lurid songs of the road.

Then she'd give days to a series of trills and flourishes that would make even the weary bullocks take notice.   

But her husband just trudged along, unmoved.

At camp fires, with the meal time tasks all done, Mouth Organ Annie would play on and on. They used to say along the road that one day the mouth organ would become part of her lip.  

There was a welcome for her everywhere.

Roadside people would gather round her with all sorts of requests for this tune and that, and Mouth Organ Annie would satisfy everybody.

I don't know how many miles her lips wandered over and across the reeds, but it must have been almost as many as the slow bullocks travelled. She never stopped "suckin and blowin". 

The only person who was never moved by all her skill and persistence was he husband. He was, in this regard, a mystery. 

Then, one day at a little mining settlement, it became clear why, for all the years, he could live with an animated mouth organ without blowing his top. Mouth Organ Annie and her mate fell in with a wandering concertina player at a feast old music.

Duets were brilliantly provided. At the end of the session, when most of the audience had either passed out or were no longer music minded (under the influence of the grog), the concertina artists announced gravely that the proceedings would end with the playing of 'God Save the Queen,' and would all who could please stand. 

But, instead of playing 'The Queen,' the musical pair swept off into 'The Wild Colonial Boy.' And only Mouth Organ Annie's husband stood. 

When someone tried to pull him to his seat, he objected that as a patriot he always stood for the playing of the National Anthem. 

Nor could anyone convince him that the Queen had no relation to the Wild Colonial Boy. 

And so the secret of his patience, his toleration, and his acceptance of the ceaseless mouth organ was out. He was tone deaf!

Nearer home, do you remember Killarncy Kate? She was once better known in Melbourne than Flinders Street station. 

More stories were told of her and her origins than I could count, but probably the nearest to truth is the one I had from a man who knew her well in her youth. She had been beautiful, he said (this was in the days when she was just a vanishing character of the city streets).

From a good family, she had been gifted with a remarkable voice; and it had been trained. A brilliant future opened up for her . . . 

But then (as the story came to me) an unhappy love affair changed all that. The gifted and beautiful girl set out on the dreary road that was to end in her becoming Killarney Kate, the street character, the figure of fun. 

The name came from the fact that when she could be induced to sing she would invariably sing 'Killarney'- and there was a time when she sang it with deep artistry. 

Killarney Kate was in reality a remittance woman, but remittances did not last her long ....

Once, out west, I met a woman who was known far and wide as Pockets Mabel. No one seemed to know why. 

If you ever addressed her as simply Mabel, she would correct you. 'Call me Pockets.' 

It was years before I heard the story. In her youth, in Sydney, she had married a character known as Pig-eye Pete, who, an old-timer told me, was in the 'two-pun-ten' game. 

'Two pounds ten?' I asked. 'Yeh,' he said, 'two pun ten. Shoplifting, counter snatching. Called it two pun ten game, they did, because when a known lifter would come into a shop one of the salespeople would yell out 'Two pun ten,' meanin' 'keep yer two eyes pun his ten fingers.' See?" I saw. 

Mabel proved a ready apprentice. When her skill grew - and grow it did - she was getting away with carloads of stuff. So she had enormous pockets made inside her skirt with their opening cunningly set into her waistline.. 

When she was caught, a policeman described her as 'just one big pocket - packed full o' surprises.' ' 

So Pockets Mabel she became, and Pockets Mabel she stayed to the end. The name was at once her pride, and her glory, though she would never tell the story behind it. 

I fancy that the memory of Pig-eye Pete had something to do with that - Pockets Mabel had loved that man. 

The tale went that she'd served two prison terms for him, taking the blame for "goods in possession"' when the blame was really his. 

The story of her life - which was the tale of Pig-eye Pete as well - was hers alone. 

Brandy Mary, Roaring Mag, Mouth Organ Annie, Killarney Kate, Pockets Mabel - a colourful company, all different, yet, in some queer fashion, all the same. Each hugged some secret. 

Queer, fascinating people . . . 

(By Alan Marshall in the Melbourne 'Argus')