Heirlooms of a different kind

I come from a long line of people living on the edge of poverty, from factory workers in the “dark Satanic mills” of Paisley, to displaced agricultural labourers trying to scrape by in the big city, to Highlanders cleared from their fertile traditional holding to tiny barren plots, to convicts arriving in a foreign land with nothing but the rotting, filthy clothes on their backs.

There aren’t many heirlooms in my family.  Nobody had the money to spend on expensive items and any goods that were acquired were then divided amongst the large numbers of will beneficiaries in the large families which were common in days gone by.

Here are a couple of non-material things which were handed down the generations.

A love of growing things and the green thumb to go with it

Pictures below show my mother’s courtyard when she moved into her new home just over six months ago and what the courtyard looks like now.  She always has fresh flowers in her house and usually has some greens for dinner and some tomatoes ripening on the kitchen bench.

2015 - 1 (2) 20141203_081313 (1)

One of my aunts was known for her garden and when I think of her I think of dahlias and oranges – the best oranges I’ve ever eaten.  Through two winter pregnancies, her oranges supplied me and my babies with Vitamin C. The bounty of another aunt’s garden kept us supplied with rosella jam.

But my mother and her sisters didn’t come from a long line of farmers. They came from a short line of farmers who learned to grow things as a matter of necessity.


My recipe file includes many recipes from aunts and cousins and even great-aunts (Aunty Ivy’s Stingy Pudding).  I wouldn’t actually recommend the Stingy Pudding.  It’s a recipe for hard times when there’s not much in the pantry but you still have a lot of mouths to feed.

2015 - 6

My grandmother, Ettie, made a pudding (or delegated the task to a daughter) every day and her sister Ivy probably did the same for her family. In Ettie’s case it was ususally a milk pudding of some sort.  They were dairy farmers in the time when her children were young so there was plenty of milk available.

When Ettie was older (probably in her seventies), she started to make a lemon meringue pie.  It was really  a cross between a cheesecake and a lemon meringue.  It was very popular amongst the family and Ettie readily shared the recipe with her daughters but every time they made up the recipe, what was produced was definitely a cheesecake.

Ettie on her 80th birthday

Ettie on her 80th birthday

It remained a mystery for some time how it was that Ettie was the only one who could make this dish the right way until one of her daughters watched her making it and realised that Ettie was not using the amount of cream cheese which was written in the recipe. Ettie was unwittingly using a smaller packet than the recipe called for which was why her version was less cheesecakey and more lemony (enhanced of course by her beautiful homegrown bush lemons). Here’s the recipe:

Crumb crust:

1/2 lb plain sweet biscuits

4 oz butter

Melt butter, stir into crushed biscuits and press into an 8″ tin, lining the base and bringing the crumb mixture halfway up the side of the tin.


2 oz cream cheese (not 4 oz!)

1 tin condensed milk

2 eggs, separated

Rind and juice of 1 lemon

1/2 cup castor sugar

Beat cheese in electric mixer, beat in condensed milk, lemon rind and juice and egg yolks. Pour into prepared crumb crust.

Whip egg whites. Gradually beat in half the sugar. Beat until stiff. Fold remainder of sugar and spread evenly over filling.

Bake in hot oven for 10 minutes to brown.

Encounter with a bushranger

“What’s that gun up there for?” asked the pleasant stranger who had knocked at Tilly Merchant’s door, asking for water.  He looked up at the rifle which hung on the wall above his head.

Tilly Merchant (or more liekly her daughter of the same name)

Tilly Merchant (or more likely her daughter of the same name)

While many of us would find it a bit odd for a stranger to knock at the door and ask for a glass of water, it wasn’t so unusual in outback Australia in the 1860s.  People rode long distances and often needed a rest along the way and food and water for themselves and their horse.

Tilly glanced over his head at the firearm.

“Oh, that’s in case Thunderbolt comes”, she replied.

“Well,” said the man, “I’m Thunderbolt.  What are you going to do since I’m standing between you and the gun?”

Tilly must have been terrified but the gentleman bushranger assured her that he meant her no harm and soon went on his way.

Or so the family story goes.

Not his best look - a photo taken of Frederick Ward (Captain Thunderbolt) after his death in 1870.

Not his best look – a photo taken of Frederick Ward (Captain Thunderbolt) after his death in 1870.

Frederick Ward (1835-1870), aka Captain Thunderbolt, was a bushranger who roamed New South Wales in the 1860s.  He had originally been sentenced to prison for horse stealing, later escaped the Cockatoo Island prison and remained at large in the New England area for several years.  The authorities were searching for him but he seemed to gain the sympathy of many of the people he came across.  He was known as the “gentleman bushranger” because he was rarely violent in his encounters with people he was robbing.  There are reports that he would sometimes attend race meetings and the like but was not “dobbed in” to the police because the ordinary folk protected him.

If the story of Tilly is accurate, however, there was still some fear of him in the community.

Is the story of Tilly accurate?

The timing and the location are right.  Matilda Elisabeth Merchant (nee Neale) arrived in Australia with her husband in 1855 in pursuit of gold and she lived most of her life in the New England area.  Her husband James died in 1865 and she remarried in 1869 to William Collins.

But, what makes me just a little bit sceptical is the number of articles and stories about how people encountered Thunderbolt.  Stories from others just seem a bit too similar to Tilly’s story to be coincidence.

For example, from an article originally published in the Armidale Telegraph:

It was a peculiarity of Thunderbolt’s that he could never rob any one with whom he first entered into conversation; his nature would not permit him; hence his custom was to ride up to a person he intended to rob, and without another word simply demand his money. He pretended never to have known what fear was, and instanced this by telling a story of some gentleman in New England who had made a boast that he would shoot him the first time he met him. A short time after Thunderbolt met the boaster, and saw that he was armed. Boldly riding up to him, the bushranger asked his name, and he told him. He intimated that he knew who he was, adding, “I am Thunderbolt.” The gentleman, he said trembled, and fumbled for his revolver, observing which he cried out “Up with your arms, or I’ll blow your brains out. You were to shoot me; now is my time.” He then took from him his gold watch and a revolver, the gentleman expecting, as a matter of course, to be shot. Thunderbolt, however, assured him of his safety, and rode many miles along with him on his way.

And this one about Aunt Laura (partial transcript below):


Thunderbolt 3



My Aunt Laura was not unduly alarmed at the sight of the handsome stranger who flourished his cabbage-tree hat and asked politely “May I have a glass of water?” Aunt Laura fetched him a glass.  As he drank he remarked casually “You are alone I presume” “Yes” she answered guilelessly. The gallant stranger than blew a whistle, and two very rough “men” appeared from nowhere.

No doubt many people encountered Thunderbolt but I’m not convinced that Tilly was one of them.