Australian poem: 2008 series #7 — Melinda Kendall

12 Feb

Who? To cite the Bertram Stevens life of Henry Kendall:

Of Basil Kendall’s early career little is known. While in South America he saw service under Lord Cochrane, the famous tenth Earl of Dundonald, who, after five brilliant years in the Chilean service, was, between 1823 and 1825, fighting on behalf of Brazil. Basil returned to Australia, but disappears from view until 1840. One day in that year he met a Miss Melinda McNally, and next day they were married. Soon afterwards they settled on the Ulladulla grant, farming land at Kirmington, two miles from the little town of Milton. There, in a primitive cottage Basil had built, twin sons— Basil Edward and Henry—were born on the 18th April, 1841. Five years later the family moved to the Clarence River district and settled near the Orara. Basil Kendall had practically lost one lung before his marriage, and failing health made it exceedingly difficult for him to support his family, to which by this time three daughters had been added. On the Orara he grew steadily weaker, and died somewhere about 1851…

…After his death the family was scattered, and the two boys were sent to a relative on the South Coast. The scenery of this district made a profound impression upon Henry, and is often referred to in his early poems. In 1855 his uncle Joseph took him as cabin boy in his brig, the ‘Plumstead’, for a two years’ cruise in the Pacific, during which they touched at many of the Islands and voyaged as far north as Yokohama. The beauty of the scenes he visited lived in the boy’s memory, but the rigours of ship life were so severe that in after years he looked back on the voyage with horror.

Henry Kendall returned to Sydney in March, 1857, and at once obtained employment in the city and set about making a home for his mother and sisters. Mrs. Kendall, granddaughter of Leonard McNally, a Dublin notable of his day, was a clever, handsome woman with a strong constitution and a volatile temperament. Henry was always devoted to her, and considered that from her he inherited whatever talent he possessed. She helped in his education, and encouraged him to write verse…

If my mother or Aunt Beth were still alive I would be on the phone right now, after the email I just had from Lynne, a research assistant to Peter Knox from the University of Wollongong. You see, my mother’s father was principal of Milton Public School from 1925 to 1928, and Aunt Beth taught there in 1938. They knew of the Kendalls, of course.

The historic private township of Milton was established in 1860 and had become the commercial centre for the entire district by 1875. The Milton School building was constructed in 1877 and opening in 1878, with 155 students. Prior to this, children attended Croobyar School and other private schools on the outlaying farms surrounding the Milton Township. The first appointed Principal was Henry Skillman, his sister Fanny in the role of assistant teacher and local girl Mary Booth as pupil teacher…

In 1908 an exciting event not only for the School but the entire district was a visit by the State Governor, Sir Harry Rawson. This was the first time a motorcar came to Milton. In December 1913, the school children of Milton celebrated ‘Kendall Day’ in which they built a stone cairn in honour of Henry Kendall. Mr William Healey, Principal of Milton Public School (1895 – 1913) was a lover of Henry Kendall’s poetry. He suggested the stone cairn be erected in honour of the poet’s birthplace at Kirmington Milton, as part of the student’s studies…

Melinda Kendall, Henry’s mother, was born in October 1815 at Windsor, NSW, and died in Sydney in 1893. Peter Knox has been publishing her work in a blog, MELINDA KENDALL, which Lynne brought to my attention.

Lynne especially referred me to the following poem by Melinda Kendall, reminiscent as it is of her son’s “The Last of his Tribe”, the previous Australian poem in this series. I like it today especially, because tomorrow our minds will be on the Apology.




I’d left the camp, and lost my way,

‘Mid tangled vines and ferns;

And puzzled was which way to take

From out the many turns;


When presently I saw some smoke

Through swamp oaks wreathing up,

And close beside me soon I heard

The yelping of a pup.


A forked stick, two sheets of bark,

A low, small fire in front,

And on the ground there sat a black, –

He’d just returned from hunt.


And on the coals a sumptuous meal –

A ‘possum roasting whole –

Among the ashes two corn cobs,

Which he that morning stole.


I told him I had lost my way,

Was weary, and footsore.

He pointed to a log, and then

Was silent as before.


I questioned him – Why all alone?

Where piccaninny, gin?

He sullen looked, and then replied:

“White fellow bin take him.


“And he bin promise gib it me,

Clothes, blanket, and white bread,

Bacca, and rum, and budgery things;

Baal gib it though,” he said.


“And many moons I’ve trabbled bin

With white man long a dray;

But now me going back to tribe;

Baal me now with him stay.


“Almost all gone, blackfellow, now;

Baal plenty kangaroo;

Whitefellow sit down everywhere,

Him take it all land, too.”


He ..d me on, I’d wandered far,

For now ‘twas almost night,

Then pointing to my camp, he turned,

And soon was lost to sight.


I thought ‘tis late now to begin,

At this the eleventh hour,

Yet still a something might be done

By those who have the power,


For those once owners of the soil,

Neglected thus so long;

I would I had the poet’s gift,

I’d plead their cause in song.


(Kiama Independent, March 28, 1884)


Very appropriate, which is why I have highlighted the final stanza!

“Baal” is an Aboriginal term (Eora or Dharug) first mentioned by Collins (1798) meaning “not”, and is also a “term expressing disgust or disapproval.”

I also commend “Fairy Meadow”, a poem that amuses me given the number of ales I downed in one or two of its bars in the 1970s!

Now, instead of the footprints of fairies, I see

The footprints of men, just returned from a spree,

With their pockets all empty, their head reeling round,

While an army of bottles lie strewn on the ground.


Now drinking and squabbling seem as much in vogue

That each neighbour thinks his next neighbour a rogue;

And while such sad doings and feelings remain,

We need never expect to see fairies again.

Thanks, Lynne, for the fascinating reference and for your kind words about this blog.

See Peter Knox on Melinda Kendall (PDF). Grumps on the current state of English Studies should look at that too. It does show, I think, that those dreadful ways of reading, or critical practices, that conservatives categorise as “dumbing down” or “barbarising” (especially during the regular open season on the HSC in the media) may have their use after all.

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Posted by on February 12, 2008 in Australia, Indigenous Australians, OzLit, poets and poetry


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