Melbourne to Sydney on Hume's route (Lady Franklin)

A vivid slice of colonial history, by Robert Wilson

The Canberra Times

15 June 1988

There is a poignant link between a recent discovery on a frozen Arctic island and the yellowing pages of an old manuscript diary in the National Library. The discovery, which made headlines a few years ago, was that of three bodies of members of the expedition led by Sir John Franklin in search of the north-west passage in 1845.

The diary is that of Sir John's wife, Jane, preserving the account of her overland journey from Melbourne to Sydney in 1839. When we read it we can better appreciate the qualities of character and determination that were later to drive her to spend years trying to solve the mystery of the disappearance of her husband and his expedition in the Arctic. Her diary is a vivid slice of the social history of the colony along what is now the Hume Highway, Australia's busiest road.

Sir John Franklin was one of the great Arctic explorers of the 19th century. After his early naval career, during which he served under his uncle, Matthew Flinders, he made a name for himself as an explorer of the frozen wastes of Canada before being appointed Governor of Van Diemen's Land. He and Lady Franklin arrived therein 1837.

Lady Franklin had already established her own reputation as a traveller in remote and uncomfortable places and, with her husband, she explored every corner of Tasmania, including the wilderness around the river that now bears their name.

She flatly refused to play the meek traditional role as "the Governor's lady" and she supported issues as diverse as the extermination of snakes from the island, the promotion of science and the reform of convict women.

In 1839 she decided to become one of the first women to undertake the overland journey from Melbourne to Sydney. Anyone who travels the Hume Highway will enjoy her vivid picture of the route as it was a century and a half ago.

The party left Melbourne on April 6, 1839. Lady Franklin was accompanied by Sophy Cracroft, a niece of Sir John, who was to be Lady Franklin's devoted and lifelong companion. In the party were Mr Elliott, private secretary to the governor, Captain Moriarty, a retired naval officer, and Dr Edmund Hobson a young medical officer and enthusiastic naturalist.

Eyewitness reports of the progress of the cavalcade were published in the Sydney newspapers. The Sydney Gazette described it as consisting of a dray drawn by four strong horses, a cart and Lady Franklin, attended by "the gentlemen", on horseback. There were two mounted policemen with the party but Lady Franklin wrote in her diary that one would have been quite sufficient.

Lady Franklin must have spent hours every night writing up her voluminous and lively diary as well as letters to her husband. We catch her enthusiasm and curiosity about every experience and every encounter on the way. Only a large moth getting into her tent one night and putting out her wax light was able to interrupt her pen.

There is a vivid description of the process of scarification of the skin of a young black girl. They would gash or slit the skin and then prevent the edges from closing or healing by using an astringent bark to keep the wound open - "granulations form on each side and meeting form a ridge which gets skinned over."

Lady Franklin records with almost photographic realism an Aboriginal grave in a secluded place in the bush. Dr Hobson wanted to examine the contents but did not dare because of fear of bloody revenge on the first Europeans that Aborigines would encounter, as she records had recently happened.

The party crossed the Murray River on April 19, with water up to the bellies of the horses, and she describes two houses standing alone in the bush where Albury now stands.

Five days later they were approaching Kyamba and saw a wheatfield owned by Father J. J. Therry, one of the founding fathers of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia. By April 27 the party was passing Gutarqui (Gundagai?), and a little further on Lady Franklin gives a vivid description of Coolook station.

At Jugiong Creek in the moonlight she was taken to see the foundations of the Catholic Church. Work was about to start and it was all to cost under 100.

By April 30 they were at Bogolong Creek and on May 1 they were escorted into Yass by John Richard Hardy, the Police Magistrate. He and his wife, Clara, gave up their bedroom in the magistrate's residence attached to the Court House and went off to an inn for the night.

Lady Franklin recorded in her diary that she spent a particularly uncomfortable night that night. Mr Hardy had told her that "two cats go to bed with them every night and Mr H. did not know anything that would grieve them so much as the loss of one of them".

Those cats ruined her night. She recorded that the bedroom was crawling with fleas, crowded and untidy, and the door never opened for a moment but in came the cats. When they were shut out at the door they came in at the window.

But the Sydney Gazelle reported that the people of Yass were delighted to have her among them and that she was enjoying perfect health and appeared delighted with her journey thus far.

The next morning the Gazette reported that the party set off to visit the "Limestone caverns at Caven". Lady Franklin was accompanied by Mr Hardy and the Reverend Charles Brigstock, the Church of England parson.

Her description of her meeting with Mr and Mrs Hamilton Hume is delightful and deserves to be quoted.

"I went out with Mr H. [Hardy] to look at the town and as we returned found another carriage driving up at hour appointed for luncheon to door, whether by invitation or not I cannot say, for Mr H. pretended not to know who it was, and then only guessed it must be Mr and Mrs Hume."

Lady Franklin shrewdly suspected that by their so nicely hitting the time, by their not explaining why they came and by the smartness of their dress it was all arranged, perhaps because she had once or twice expressed a desire to meet the famous explorer who had opened the route that she was following.

She described Hume as a tall man, looking about 40 (he was born in 1797 at Parramatta), a simple, unpretending, country man. She commented on his remarkable instincts in travelling and that he always knew how to make his way to any place, even in unfamiliar territory, and was even more skilled than the blacks in following a direction.

The next day Lady Franklin and her party left Yass and continued their expedition to Sydney. She continued the steady flow of her diary and her letters to her husband.

These are filled with fascinating and valuable details of daily life along the Great South Road and they form an unforgettable panorama of social history. It is to be hoped that one day her diaries will be edited and published.

When his term as Governor was finished, Sir John and Lady Franklin returned to Britain. In spite of advancing years, he led another expedition to the Arctic and the whole party perished in 1847.

His widow, in keeping with her character, was indefatigable in sending out expedition after expedition to discover what had happened. In 1859, long after the Admiralty had given up, her fourth charter vessel arrived home with news of the tragic fate of the expedition.

Lady Franklin died in London in 1875, an explorer filled with scientific and cultural curiosity to the last. One wonders what she would say if she were to have been told that the recent discoveries of bodies under the Arctic permafrost show that the expedition was fatally affected by a type of lead poisoning caused by the newly discovered process of canning food for taking on such journeys.