Driving the Back Roads
Inspired by Tom Poland’s great stories about his travels on the back roads I decided to drive some country roads in search of a little piece of history. I didn’t want to go too far from the small inland cities and towns because I needed a little comfort at the end of the day. Camping out and cooking on an open fire no longer interested me, especially when alone.
Unable to find someone to share the experience I left home early on Sunday morning to navigate the freeways and toll roads out of the city. After three hours of high speed driving amongst the trucks I needed a rest stop so followed the signs, “trucks to the right” and “cars to the left,” to a secluded hilltop area and parked next to a large water tank. The sky was a clear blue, the trees were waving majestically in the slight breeze, the birds were squawking and field mice were running to hide from the early morning intruder. I took a deep breath of the fresh, clean air and walked along a concrete path towards the little building with signs “Ladies” to the left and “Men” to the right. It was a piece of country life, complete with a rain water tank and “outhouse.”
Beware of Snakes.
There was a rustling noise in the long grass beside the path and as I turned towards the sound a truck driver emerged from behind a tree zipping up his jeans. Surprised to see me he called out: “A driver saw a six foot brown snake go in there this morning.” I turned and walked back to the car past the water tank with its sign: “Water not suitable for drinking.” It didn’t say what it was suitable for, maybe for thirsty brown snakes.
Safely in the car I used my phone to “Google” brown snakes. One website said they were: “fast moving, aggressive and known for their bad temper… their venom was the second most toxic of any land snake in the world (based on tests on mice); they thrive in populated areas, particularly on farms and areas with mice.” Another website said: “A large adult brown snake is a formidable creature. They may exceed 6 feet in length and on hot days can move at surprising speed… (They) are particularly prevalent in open grassland, pastures and woodland.” A third website said: “If confronted by a brown snake make sure it and you have a large open space to escape.” There was only one narrow doorway to the men’s room so a large tree seemed to be the safest option.
After another hour of highway driving I turned off into a single lane road where I knew I could take another rest stop at an old Irish pub I had visited twenty years before. Aptly named “The Shanty” the one hundred year old pub had been built 10 miles from town because the law then prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sunday within a 10 mile radius of the nearest town. The Irish had a solution to that problem and built The Shanty Tavern and Bistro 10 miles from town where it became a popular destination on Sundays. When the liquor licensing laws changed, to allow Sunday trading, the pub and a nearby gas station/store closed to become targets for passing vandals.
I sadly looked at the derelict building from the car before turning down an unsealed narrow side road and followed the signs to an abandoned railroad station. The train line had been built just after World War I to provide the farmers with regular transport for their produce and closed more than 30 years ago when large trucks replaced the freight trains. The area around the old station was overgrown with long grass and the railroad tracks were hardly visible. Local enthusiasts had preserved the old station and turned it into a museum but left the other iron clad buildings to rust away. I left the car to explore the station and the old train line. The museum and rest room were not open on Sunday so I returned to the car and continued my journey on the back road. It was a slow but interesting drive past the large farms, a vineyard, an old air base and a large industrial area just outside of the town, suggesting the town was doing just fine.
As I approached the town a small road sign pointing towards the “Monumental Cemetery” caught my attention. I turned onto the narrow road and followed it to an old cemetery located on the side of a hill. An old sign beside the entry said the cemetery was established on the site, after the early settlers first established a general store, pub and postal service, to replace a smaller cemetery by the river. The Monumental Cemetery, “first operated in 1857, had winding paths and gardens” and a walk around the cemetery was “a popular Sunday afternoon activity. Gravestones were beautiful ornaments to be admired, transforming the practical cemetery into an outdoor sculpture gallery. The simple flowers and icons on the graves are symbols with special meanings…. and tell a story about the life and death of a loved one. Shamrocks (Ireland), thistles (Scotland) and roses (England) are very popular and symbolize family ancestry. Lilies meant purity, and are often found on the graves of young girls. A life cut short was symbolized by broken columns or flowers with a broken stem. Christian faith was symbolized by grapevines, lambs and angels.”
The sign also said: the use of symbols on graves ceased after World War I when “the loss of so many young men…meant that the old practices of loss and mourning could not be carried out. The community became weary of death, and adopted simpler funeral practices and grave markers. The ornaments, symbols and verses were part of a world which had become unrecognizable after the war.” I was the only visitor when I parked beside the Catholic section to explore the rows of graves.
There were no gardens or flowers, the grass was dead and the previously “beautiful ornaments” had been damaged by time, weather, neglect, escaping stories and the deliberate action of uncaring vandals. The cemetery looked abandoned and forgotten as I walked past the broken headstones and once beautiful sculptures, carefully avoiding the sunken graves and stopping only to read the names, ages and few words about the life of the deceased.
As I was leaving the Catholic section I noticed a very different structure sitting apart from the other graves. It was a small concrete hut with a tiled roof and iron gates that were partly open. There were no shamrocks. A sign above the doorway read:
The Family Grave of
Mullagh County Clare, Ireland
I searched on my phone for a Daniel McNamara from Mullagh, a tiny village in County Clare near the Atlantic Coast of Ireland. The proud family had a small website which told me “Daniel was born in 1838”. He was 7 years old when the Great Famine devastated Ireland. One million people in Ireland died during the famine of 1845-1852 and about one million emigrated from Ireland to settle in England, Scotland, Wales, North America and Australia. By 1851 almost 25% of Liverpool’s population was Irish born, including my great-great-grandparents. I needed to know more about Daniel from County Clare and why he was buried here.
The website told me Daniel was 19 years old when he arrived in Australia as an immigrant on board the sailing ship “Ebba Brahe” on December 8, 1857 after a 108 day journey with 350 other passengers from Liverpool. It was during the gold rush. Less than two years later, at the age of 21, Daniel married for the first time and a daughter of the marriage was born in 1860. Daniel became a dairy farmer, married again when he was 35 years old, to a 19 year old girl, and fathered 16 children before dying in 1905 to be buried in the Monumental Cemetery, a long way from County Clare. He left a large family, some of whom were buried in the family grave in this remote place.
I continued my walk among the broken monuments and collapsed graves, sure there would be more stories to be discovered. I saw a large white marble headstone in the Anglican section, highlighted by the overhead sun, and maneuvered my way through the rows of graves to read the inscription.
In Loving remembrance of Henry Angel who departed this life 7 December 1881, aged 91 years. Also Mary Angel who died 29 September 1890, aged 78 years. Also Robert Angel son of the above who died 19 May 1870 aged 29 years.
Below the names there was an inscription:
Far from this world of toil and strife
They’re present with the Lord
The labours of a well spent life
End in a sweet reward.
The last two lines had been changed from a hymn that talked about a “mortal life” and a “large reward”. I was curious about why the family changed the wording and knew there was a story behind it.
Henry Angel had arrived in the colony as a convict in 1818 after being convicted of “highway robbery” in the Wiltshire Assizes on July 19, 1817. The term “highway robbery” reminded me of my youth and the many movies I saw with Robin Hood and his merry men holding up stage coaches in an English forest, robbing the rich to give to the poor. To be standing beside the grave of a highway robber in a remote cemetery with an inscription that referred to a “sweet reward” made the whole drive along the back road worthwhile.
The life of Henry Angel, who had a colorful life starting as a convicted thief in England and ending as a respected wealthy farmer on a large property in Australia, was the kind of story that made movies. Except Henry was just over five feet tall, which didn’t meet my image of Robin Hood. He could not read or write and as a youth worked in market gardens and dairy farms in the Hale area of Hampshire, England. In 1816, Henry and another young man worked for a farmer in Hale digging potatoes and bagging them for sale at the Salisbury market. When the farmer returned from selling the potatoes he met the young laborers at a local pub where, after several drinks, he apparently refused to pay them their wages. According to the court records, the young men followed the farmer along the highway and robbed him of “six pounds and nine shillings”. Henry Angel and his accomplice were convicted of highway robbery. Henry was sentenced to life in prison, converted to “transportation to New South Wales or nearby islands.”
In the penal colony Henry first worked in road gangs, then as a labourer on farms and a convict labourer on two inland expeditions. It was recorded that Henry was a hard-working laborer and had great ability in managing horses and cattle. In 1840 he received his Conditional Pardon and became a free man. Sometime during the 1830s he acquired or was granted 50 acres of farming land and in 1834 married twenty year old Mary Brooker, the daughter of two convicts. Mary had been married twice before to convicts and both of her husbands had died. She had two children from those marriages and had 9 children with Henry Angel.
There were many other stories about Henry before he became a successful cattle and sheep farmer, at one time owning a farm of 32,000 acres. He moved several times throughout the state, acquiring land and increasing his wealth as a property owner and farmer. It was a long way from his youth as a farm laborer digging potatoes in England, and he was buried a long way from home in the Monumental Cemetery.
I continued my walk through the cemetery looking for more stories but the long drive and hot sun forced me to seek the air conditioned comfort of an Irish bar to plan the next day. There were more back roads to explore and stories to find.
- Images: all of the photographs in this story were taken by the author, Ken Peacock.