A RIDE FROM BATHURST TO SYDNEY
Notes on a Rare Broadside
© John Low
On the 4th September 1860 Phillip Skillicorn, a butcher from the central west of NSW, rode his horse from Bathurst, over the Blue Mountains, to Sydney in twenty hours. The ride, organised in response to a wager with a local innkeeper, aroused considerable popular interest.
In mid-nineteenth century Australia, bush folk took great pride in the tough, fast horses they were breeding and many an argument developed over just how far, and how fast, a horse could race.
Sometimes matches of stamina were conducted under official race club conditions, like the 10-mile race organised for the third day of the annual Wagga Wagga race meeting in November 1868. However, such races generally took a heavy toll on the horses involved and the racing clubs tended to stick to more humane, shorter distances.
Individuals, however, often showed no such scruples. Seven years before Skillicorn, a man named Mossman raced his horse for a wager from Sydney to Maitland (140 miles) in 20 hours, his horse dying soon after completing the journey. Those involved in Skillicorn's ride did not escape censure. The Sydney Morning Herald was severely critical of the whole affair and expressed the hope that such an event would not be repeated.
THE BROADSIDE AND THE POET
Around the turn of the century a poem titled Ride From Bathurst to Sydney, in Twenty Hours, 1857, By an Eye-Witness appeared on a small broadside (15.5 x 21.5cms), along with two other poems, The First Free Selection of Land in New South Wales (also attributed to “Eye Witness”) and First Waggon Over The Mountains, 1856 (by James Harvey). Though attributed to an “eye witness”, the poem contains numerous errors of fact and chronology (including even the year the ride took place) and was clearly written well after the event.
It is generally agreed that “Eye Witness” is James Harvey, the author of one of the other poems on the broadside. Both the folklorist John Meredith, who discussed the broadside in Australian Tradition (No.17 September 1968), and the journalist and historian William Freame, who published The Ride From Bathurst To Sydney in The Nepean Times, 2 December 1916, attribute authorship to him. Not much is known about James Harvey other than that he claimed to have been the first to drive a wagon over the Blue Mountains, a claim supported by James T. Ryan in his Reminiscences of Australia, first published in 1894 and quoted on the broadside.
In literary terms the verse hardly rates above the level of doggerel. However, as John Meredith points out in his Australian Tradition article, despite Harvey's lack of talent as a ballad writer, some of his enthusiasm for the event and his excitement as an eye witness is captured, giving the piece a dramatic quality that lifts it beyond the forgettable. Apart from any literary importance, the poem is certainly of value historically for the description it gives of travelling the Western Road between Bathurst and Sydney in the mid-nineteenth century.