Joseph Furphy’s Life and Works

Bogged bullocky team

Noted speaker on studies and writings of Joseph Furphy, Pat Crudden commenced his talk at the Annual General Meeting of the Shepparton Interfaith Network with an overview of Joseph Furphy's Life and Works.

Joseph Furphy's Life and Works

His family always called him Joe. His father's name was Samuel Furphy. His mother's name was Judith Hare. They married in Ireland when Samuel was 24 and Judith 21 and left for Australia three months later. Both were from strict Protestant farming families. They arrived in Melbourne as assisted migrants in 1841.

Sam and Judith got work with a Scotsman named Ryrie at Yering in the Yarra Valley. Their eldest son John was born on the way out and Joseph born at Yering in 1843. They were the first of eleven children, eight of whom survived childhood. John, the eldest, moved his blacksmith shop from Kyneton to Shepparton in 1873 and developed the Furphy Foundry.

There was no school at Yering when the children reached school age so their mother was their first teacher and a very good teacher she was, despite having only the Bible and Shakespeare as text books. By the age of seven Joseph could quote passages from both books. Later Judith and Samuel moved to Kangaroo Ground where they helped to found a school and then to Kyneton where primary education was available.

Then in 1868 the family moved to Lake Cooper where the father and the boys, including Joseph, selected land. All became successful farmers, except Joe, who eventually moved with his wife Leonie and their children to Hay in the Riverina.

The Bog

The Bog by Reginald W. Sharpless, in the collection of the State Library of Victoria | Photographer: (Reginald W. Sharpless)

By the age of 43 Joe was destitute after his bullocks died in a drought and unable to support his wife Leonie and three surviving children. His wife wrote to his mother Judith to describe their situation and Judith asked her son John, whose foundry was flourishing, to help out. He gave Joe a job in 1883 and a house in Welsford Street which meant Joe was able to work reasonable hours, spend time with his family and still have time for reading, writing and talking with friends.

Joe Furphy had shown some precocious talent as a writer in his youth but his first writing was not published until a few years after he came to Shepparton. He built what he called a sanctum at the back of his house in Welsford Street. Even though it was small it enabled him to read and write quietly and he could sleep there if he wished. He always handed his wages to Leonie who gave him enough for his tobacco and writing materials. He had married Leonie Germain, a French girl, three weeks after meeting her when she was only sixteen. Her mother ran a country inn after being attracted to Australia from New York by the gold rushes. Joe took ove the running of the inn after their marriage. He had six children with Leonie and stayed married to her for over forty years even though communication between them had broken down by the time they left Hay in 1883. Yet his bond to Leonie and the three children who survived childhood children was so strong that he went willingly to Western Australia at the age of 60 to be with them and help them build their lives there.

On the surface Joe was a modest, shy, quiet man but in his own mind and in the company of close friends he was a radical thinker. A shearer recalled meeting Joe around 1882 in the Riverina after he had been working his bullock teams out of Hay for about six years. They lit a fire, boiled the billy and spent most of the night arguing about books and reading and social theory. The shearer, a well read man himself, was amazed at the extent and depth of Furphy's learning. Although he really liked Joe he summed him up by saying, "He was of us but not really one of us."

That was a very perceptive comment to come from one meeting. A Shepparton man named Lee Archer recalled Joe telling how he would stop his bullock team from time to time and say, "Joe Furphy surely you are fit for something better than this." Yet those years in the Riverina gave him both the source material and the mind set that enabled him to write his essentially Australian classic Such is Life.

His four closest male friends in those years in Shepparton were all blacksmiths and all self-educated, radical thinkers. The most important of them was William Cathels, whose intelligence and interests matched his own. His two friends at the foundry, Alick Rodgers and Jim Gourlay, encouraged his growing interest in socialism and introduced him to The Bulletin, a publication which over time influenced his life very significantly.

His association with these four friends and his reading at the Mechanics Institute brought about an evolution of political and religious thinking that led him away from the family conservatism towards socialism. Nonetheless two elements of Christian faith remained important to him. He believed firmly that the life of every human being had a divine purpose which he often called the right order of things. He believed Jesus was divine.

His female friends were more diverse than his men friends. Kate Baker, a teacher, admired him from the evening she first met him at his mother's house at Wanalta, encouraged him to write and worked indefatigably to promote and publish his writing after his death. Miles Franklin, the author of My Brilliant Career, thought him rather odd but was a loyal friend and eventually wrote his biography. Mollie Winter was a nurse who later said Joe was the best person, man or woman, she ever knew.

Joe began writing the diary of Tom Collins around about 1892 with a steel nibbed pen that had a cork handle. By 1897 he had a finished draft of 1125 pages, still using the same pen. He wrote to The Bulletin for advice with an accompanying letter which said, "I have just finished writing a full-sized novel: title, Such is Life; scene, Riverina and Northern Vic; temper, democratic; bias, offensively Australian." A.G.Stephens from the Bulletin advised that the book had the makings of a classic; but it would have to be typed and shortened. Joe bought a Franklin typewriter, spent a week learning to use it and two years revising his manuscript into 654 pages of type-script. Such is Life eventually appeared in 1903 as 297 closely set pages of print. It quickly received over twenty positive reviews. One sentence from the Shepparton News review reads, "The quiet, self-effacing, short-spoken man is very little known in his own town, beyond his own immediate circle, but even a hasty glance through the closely-printed volume .... shows that we have in our midst a distinctly Australian philosopher, who, while he has been fashioning the implements for our fields, has also been carefully moulding in his own brain gems of thought for committal to the diary which now sees the light of day in the volume Such is Life."

I would like to end by saying something about Tom Collins, the pen name that Joe used forSuch is Life and other writings. Andrew Furphy has traced the name Tom Collins back to a non-existent person associated with an infamous hoax in New York in 1874. The name of this non-existent person was subsequently used both in America and Australia for sending people up and circulating rumours. My view is that Furphy in preparing seven days from the diary of Tom Collins for publication was actually sending himself up, particularly that part of his essentially modest persona devoted to airing his erudition. As John Barnes points out so well, the persona of the non-existent Tom Collins took over from Joe Furphy as he sat there in the sanctum writing down 1125 pages of extracts from a non-existent diary. Nonetheless the essential Furphy emerges from the tongue-in-cheek heroics of Tom Collins as a person constantly evaluating himself and life in Australia as he learnt about it in the Riverina.

In Welsford Street, in what was once the front garden of his cottage, there is now a statue of Joe boiling his billy by a camp-fire. A plinth behind the statue reads, "The novel Such is Life uniquely expresses his love of learning, life of hard work, egalitarianism and the humour and narratives of an almost forgotten Australia. It has always been loved by the wise." There is now a definitive collection of writings by and about Joe Furphy on permanent display in the Shepparton library. The Mechanics Institute where he did most of his reading has dedicated the original reading room, now the Board room, to his memory and has titled its public meeting room The Tom Collins Gallery.
Pat Crudden, Feb 6, 2013

Statue of Joe Furphy in Welsford Street, Shepparton


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