“Killed a young rooster for Bennie for he like it”: A diary story

I started reading this 1880s diary with an analytic eye; two hours later my stomach was knotted with anxiety and I knew I had to be careful no tears dripped onto this fragile object.

View looking north along Main Street, Samford. Moreton Bay Regional Council Image pin 2376.

View looking along Main Street, Samford. Moreton Bay Regional Council Image pin2376

Bettie Clark was in her twenties in the 1880s, living at Cedar Creek, Samford, with her husband (“C”) and three small children: Sarah, Sophie and Bennie. Her diary was not a reflective, literary, exercise, but rather a setting of accounts and a documentation of work. A lot of work. “Finished washing.” “Chipping corn.” “Little ploughing.”

The relentlessness of her working day, and her husband’s, becomes clear very quickly. There are cows to be milked, butter to be churned, sewing to be done if it rains. She clears up manure and shifts wood. They fix fences and harvest fruit and veges. There are rents to be paid and rents to be collected – for what, it’s not entirely clear. That’s the pleasure of a diary like this: thrown right into a world, and seeing its detail emerge the more you read.

“Sunday 23 still showery & Sarah Birthday, we had fowl & piece of bacon for dinner & good feed of our first grapes & some passion fruit.”

So while there are special occasions to be celebrated, rituals to be observed, times when they go into town or buy something new or visit a neighbour, a lot of the detail is about the immediate area. The diary becomes a way of tracking both a formal and an informal economy: they often sell or exchange potatoes and bananas and “citron”. She heads off to a nearby property for meat, and somewhere else for flour, salt and soap. They sold a calf, and bought treacle and sugar. More than ten transactions in any one week.

And in between, the work goes on and on; within it, the details of daily life that remind us about difference and place are imbedded. She made butter herself; and the clothes prop man came by, so her husband helped put up those new posts.

“Tuesday 26th I got up milked had bk made butter, washed Bennie, did housework, gathering up bushes, dinner time. C came back & bro more things down . . . some . . .& fruit trees, after dinner C planted them I got manure then we had tea . . . Wednesday 27th . . .Grimes 2 posts for cloths line C put them up, took Mr Hayes 3 oranges & 8 . . . 2/3 & took 4 of the kittens away & we kept one, I washing, evening C came back.”

By this stage, I feel familiar with both her writing style and the rhythm of her day. For some reason, she notes every day that they got up and had breakfast (bk). Diaries like this are both exceptional and particular, and the mainstay of library and archival collections. They have been used by researchers again and again, to illuminate or to illustrate; as literary tales or as biographical material; as representative of class or gender or crisis. So my mind was spinning ahead to think of what this diary tells us: the local history, of Samford; daily economy; the relationship of a barter economy to mutual societies and other institutions (they had to borrow money to pay what they owed the Building Society); transport and the ordering of a covered cart (paid some of it in cash, and agreed to “pay the rest in wood”; the range of women’s work; the way in which she and her husband worked as a team.

The possibilities for a diary like this, in other words, are many.

The wider economy creeps in with the visit to the door of a swaggie:

“. . . a poor man came with his swag & asked C if he could camp in the stable for the night C said yes in the evening . .. came up for Mrs Lang. We sang & had prayer. Then they started for home. The man slept in the kitchen for it was very cold.”

By this point, I also know when the youngest child, the boy, Bennie, got his first teeth through, and imagined her working with him on her hip, on those days when she said he was fretful and grumpy. She complains some day of feeling unwell, and it’s not clear yet whether that’s code for menstruation or pregnancy. C gets a cold, and she goes out to borrow a cup of mustard, and makes a footbath for him of mustard and – oh no, what? The page is fragile and torn – to help cure him.

And then a new pattern starts to emerge.

She’s weaning the baby, Bennie. He’s one year old. In another entry, she had sewed him a bonnet. He’s getting a bit thin. He seems unwell. “Bennie very restless.” Meanwhile, the work goes on. They make 42 lb of marmalade. Bushes are burnt. Visits are made. A neighbour dies and C is given a coat, and a silk handkerchief.

Days go by. Reference to Bennie still being sick, in her matter-of-fact shorthand,  between her listing of accounts.

“Sunday 1 Jan 1888 little Bennie has a sore mouth & I rub it with borax & honey & that cleans it, he is getting a little better he has his eye teeth & one peg tooth through.”

The desperation is beginning to show. Their normal routines are disrupted. They’re trying to tempt the little boy with treats, with special food, with sacrifices:

“Killed a young rooster for Bennie for he like it. C went down to store & got tin cocoa & Bennie like that Tuesday 3rd C taking in wood. Bennie sleeping well today.”

In between, there are powders from the chemist, and a neighbour Mr Bell who is the expert who’s consulted before the doctor is brought in. There’s a noise in the boy’s throat. Cold cloths on his head.

The power and poignancy of this is best expressed by her. The ellipses are for words that are missing.

“Friday 15th C went in for Dr he came out, he said he could not do any more. He had gone too far. Little Bennie grinding his teeth first part of night. I lay beside him to warm his hot hands & give him his medicine. After 10 mins to 2 o’clock, I got up to give him some more, but when he began to swallow he went as if he would choke & we could not get him to get anything down & from then he made little noise & kept on as if wanting us to ease him & we could not do anything only wet his lips with Brandy & water. He did not seem to get any better & C went over for Mr Bell to come & see if we had better go for the Dr but Mr Bell said it was no use & could not do anything, he went back home, & C went over with him & when he came back he lit a fire & got some hot water, & about a few mins to 5 o’clock I gave the little son some warm brandy & water & he seem to swallow it. & that was his last. The little bird had flown, so peaceful & quite, to the Lord who loved the little Lamb, my poor little Bennie. We shall meet . . . by & by round that Throne in Heaven where there will be . . . parting or pain to come, then C went over to Mrs Qs to ask her to come over to help wash him, C went down to store to get some . . . then went up to Mr Pickering about the grave, but he could do nothing till C had seen Mr Robinson, but he could not . . . little body at Grovely. Because we were not subscribers . . . C had to go to town to see about coffin & grave & . . . had to take him to Toowong Cemetery. The Undertaker came a little after 1 o’clock. C & I, Sarah & Sophie went. We . . . there, & we see his dear little body buried & the man gave us . . . of his Grave, then we came home, we had . . . tea.”

What, then, to do with a diary like this? There are many ways in which it takes us into Australian history, the history of Queensland, the story of women’s lives, the history of work, and the story of health, medicine, death and grief. Pat Jalland’s work on the cultural history of death in Australia, would be useful here (Pat Jalland, Australian Ways of Death); and increasingly, there are histories of grief and mourning; and histories of illness and of medicine, and how they change (in Australia, Alison Bashford is one of the leaders of this kind of work; internationally, the Wellcome institute). It’s a pointer on the road to being out of work and homeless; to the history of religion and being a “subscriber” to a particular church, or not. And, of course, histories of diaries and their role are being revisited again and again, from Katie Holmes’ work on women’s diaries in Australia (Spaces in her Day); to Peter Cochrane’s recent work on the unpublished WWL diaries of soldiers held in the Mitchell Library.

But I’m not going to do this history – I’m just planning to point to the possibilities. I want to know if you’ve already done it, or where it fits. I’m even suggesting you go and find this diary, and see what happened next.

M1176: Bettie Clark Diary, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Australia.

Kate Evans – Historian in Residence, State Library of Queensland