THE HANDS THAT MAKE OUR WORLD
I’ve had a fascinating time in 1860s New South Wales over the past few months, falling down all kinds of research rabbit holes, rich and deep – and usually full of gold.
I’ve spent hundreds of happy hours trying to reconstruct city and townscapes from 150 years ago, tracing the roads my great, great grandfather Georg Schwebel might have travelled as a young man from Germany in love with a strange new land and a girl who was born here.
The world of young men is a place I return to again and again in my stories probably mostly because I am a mother of sons, but also because I’ve always been drawn to the stories of those who make our human world – the artisans, engineers, tradesmen, miners, those who forge all the convenience we enjoy with the strength of their bodies and the skill of their hands. Those who made the roads. And up until recently they were mostly young men.
Georg was a carpenter and a carter hauling building materials here and there under government tender. He lived in Newtown, in Sydney, and died in 1896 in an accident at work. According to the Sydney Evening News that November, Georg was “placing the winkers on a horse attached to a cart in Trafalgar street, Newtown [now Annandale], when the animal bolted, and threw him on the roadway. One of the wheels of the vehicle passed over his face. The injured man was taken to Prince Alfred Hospital and admitted by Dr Zlotkowski for treatment.” But that was the end of the road for him.
In trying to find out what working life brought a young man 30 years earlier, when my story is set, I’ve found many a moving account but none more so than the stark simplicity of this accident report in the Maitland Mercury of 1862 for the township of Murrurundi:
During the past fifteen months the following accidents occurring in the district have been attended by our Medical Practitioner, Mr. Gordon:
15 broken legs, 1 broken thigh, 11 broken arms, 1 amputation of arm through the bursting of a gun, 5 cases of amputation of fingers through same and blasting, 6 broken collar bones, 8 cases of broken ribs, 3 deaths by drowning, 1 ditto by lightning, 1 case of absorption of animal poison, 3 snake bites, 2 dreadful cases of burning, 1 fracture of skull from falling from a horse, 1 death from being jammed against a tree by a dray, 1 attempt at self-destruction by cutting the throat, 4 cases of kicks from horses, 3 cases of goring from horns of oxen, very bad, 1 bite from a pig, 22 cases of jams and cuts upon the hands and arms, some very bad, from picks and blasting stone.
Not one recorded baby born nor woman lost to the fight for it, but men working away, most of them probably thinking about that girl, somewhere, some of them working only for rations.
In Australia, we often save our praise and our accolades for soldiers and sportsmen, for squatters and schemers and rogues, but these ordinary hardworking men who laid the ground of so much we see today deserve to have their stories told too.
I will always place them in the frame. I will always sing their love songs. They are the men who made me.
Photo: King Street, Newtown, Paul McCarthy (Wikimedia Commons)