Frank the Poet – His Death (by Peter Mara 2008)

A Mystery from Convict Times Is Solved
                                                  "Peter," says Jesus, "let Frank in
                                                  For he is thoroughly purged from sin."
                                                                      A Convict's Tour to Hell, 1839

Using only the internet I have found much that had been completely forgotten concerning my great-great grandfather William Charles Wall. The bankruptcy of his inn on the Meroo goldfields in 1856 is one example. Following up on this discovery I was handed a thick bundle of documents, tied up in red tape, containing the names of those who had failed to clear their slate at the "Golden Inn". Mine host was far too trusting and easy going. The name of Frank MacNamara, whom I now know for certain to have been in the Meroo district in 1861, sadly was not on the list. Neither were Hill and Goddard, two of his aliases.

It was during one of my leisurely searches on the internet seeking further evidence of the existence of William and Mary Wall that I stumbled across a one hundred and forty-seven year old report in a country newspaper that solved the mystery of what happened to Francis MacNamara, popularly known throughout the colony in convict days as "Frank the Poet". John Meredith and Rex Whalan had spent ten years tracking MacNamara's life yet were at a loss to account for him after he received his Ticket of Freedom in Tasmania in 1849. Before revealing the contents of what I came across in The Western Post of Friday, August 30,1861, I need to explain a little about Frank's life and verses.

The works of Frank the Poet have come down to us in three ways. John Manifold was one of several folklorists who travelled the bush fifty years ago to record elderly men or women who could recite ballads or sing songs they had learnt in childhood. Many of these were folksongs carried over from England and Ireland. Some were colonial '"treason songs" about bushrangers, sung to old imported tunes, and some were recitations. Many of the colonial verses and songs were attributed to the elusive "Frank, the Poet".

These "passed down" verses nowadays appear in books carefully punctuated and spelt. Because of the vagaries of oral transmission there are differing versions of the one ballad. The lovely lament Moreton Bay by Francis MacNamara which begins:

                                                  One Sunday morning as I went walking
                                                  By Brisbane Waters I chanced to stray,

well describes the suffering of convicts and also provides a fascinating reminder of where convicts were located. It has come down to us only through oral means and has several variants. A second and more certain method of transmission applies to ooe work only. A Dialogue between Two Hibernians in Bo/any Bay was printed in Frank's lifetime and under his own name in 1840 in the official Sydney Gazette. This is a comedy routine in 24 stanzas that exaggerates the supposed partiality of the departed Governor Bourke to his fellow Irish, calls Daniel O'Connell, who brought about Catholic Emancipation, "a double- faced traitor" and advises the mostly Catholic Irish to "cheerfully pay the tithe proctor and parson". Everything means its opposite in these subversive verses. There is no indication of any interference or censorship. At the time of their publication Frank was working in a Government ironed gang at Parramatta.

The third method of transmission is by Frank's own handwriting and only one manuscript exists. This linle handmade booklet is authentically Frank, his Holy Grail, Sacred Relic and Treasure and, to me. its survival is a miracle. You can view the digital images of these precious pages, if you like, by finding the Stale Library of NSW on the Net, clicking on Manuscript and entering Frank the Poet and going down to the fifth item. You might also notice that Frank's last year is given as 1868. The booklet is "made from two foolscap sheets of official paper, watermarked 1838, folded and cut to yield 16 leaves measuring 76mm by 95mm. The 32 pages were covered with copperplate writing, artistically laid out and autographed by Francis MacNamara." Frank's setting out his arching lines, his copperplate, curlicues and his generous use of capital letters, show his delight in the presentation of his works and his skill in design. His skilful penmanship led to a "legend", quite untrue, that he was transported for forgery.

This manuscript was given to the Library in 1958 by a Sydney woman whose uncle, a collector, had lived in the Stroud district. Its full provenance is not known.

In A Convict's Tour to Hell, MacNamara's great satire, and in his own handwriting too, the poet dies and meets Charon who, knowing Frank's fame as a poet, insists on ferrying him across the River Styx, free of the usual "five or sixpence". At "Limbo or the Middle State" Frank's entry is blocked by Pope Pius the 7th:

                                                 "... I've not the least intention
                                                 To admit such a foolish elf
                                                 Who scarce knows how to bless himself"

Frank tries Hell but Satan tells him:

                                                 I think you are going astray
                                                 For convicts never come this way
                                                 But soar to Heaven In droves and legions.

Whilst conversing amiably with Satan outside Hell Frank makes enquiries after Captain Logan, Captain Murray, Dr Wardell and

                                                 Cook who discovered New South Wales
                                                 And he that first invented gaols.

Frank is delighted to learn the details of their torture and of others such as

                                                 hangmen gaolers and flagellators
                                                 Commandants, Constables and Spies
                                                 Informers and Overseers likewise
                                                 In flames of brimstone they were toiling,

There is wild rejoicing in Hell when a coach and four arrives:

                                                 And about six foot of mortal sin
                                                 Without leave or licence trudged in.

Hated and feared by convicts and soldiers alike because of his severity was a former governor who ruled from 1825 to 1831:

                                                 "Of sense: cried Lucifer, "I'm deprived
                                                 Since Governor Darling has arrived,"

Frank eventually leaves the Inferno and finds Heaven where he is warmly greeted by Peter:

                                                 "And although in convict habit dressed
                                                 Here he shall be a welcome guest.
                                                 Isiah go with him to Job
                                                 And put on him a scarlet robe..."

The booklet was compiled when Frank was in a situation he liked. He was assigned to the Australian Agricultural Company, a company of English investors granted five hundred thousand acres in New South Wales and provided with a slave work force of convicts. He worked as a shepherd on their properties on the Peel River and Stroud. Frank was transferred because the A.A. Co. needed more workers to operate coal mines at Newcastle. Frank objected to this in eleven stanzas he ironically subheaded: "Francis MacNamara of Newcastle to J Crosdale Esq. greetmg" Frank the convict is greeting as on an equal footing Crosdale the manager!

                                                 When milestones go to church to pray
                                                 And whales are put in the pound
                                                 MacNamara shall work that day
                                                 For the Company underground.

Perhaps Frank had hopes that a flowery mock pastoral, purporting to be the "unanimously bleating" of the sheep flocks of the A.A. Co., distraught at losing their devoted shepherd to "a coal pit", mIght bring about his reinstatement. A Petition from the A.A. Co. Flocks at Peels River on Behalf of the Irish Bard, if it ever came to the eyes of "the great Esquire Hall", had no effect. Frank defied the "system", refused to work in the mines, and was placed in a government ironed gang.

Frank was getting towards the end of his sentence in 1842 when he foolishly, with other convicts, escaped from two drunken guards with some of the convicts taking the muskets. They were easily captured. He was tried and sent to Port Arthur. His original seven years sentence was to stretch for seventeen years. On 12 July 1849 he was given his Certificate of Freedom in Tasmania and Francis MacNamara disappeared from the record.

One item though – a small card with excellent calligraphy and drawings of a man and a woman made on "the first of March in the year of our Lord 1861" – is unmistakably by Frank. It records the marriage of John Calf and Mary Wilson and the births of three children. Calf family tradition holds it to be the work of "a convict well known in the early days as 'Frank the Poet'". It was made at the Devil's Hole Creek which is part of the Meroo goldfields situated between the Tambaroora goldfields and the town of Mudgee.

Thanks to Annette Piper who has sifted through surviving 1860s newspapers from the Bathurst–Mudgee district (her Net site is Annelte Piper's Newspaper Transcripts and the article is in Others - 5) I came across the following:

                                                 Sudden Death

An inquest was held on Friday morning by W. King, Esq., M.D. Coroner for this District. at the Fountain of Friendship, on the body of Francis McNamara. alias Hill, better known as "Frank the Poet".

Frank had died the previous day, Thursday, 29th August, 1861, at John Phillips' hotel "The Fountain of Friendship" in Market Lane, near the centre of Mudgee town. Frank had been mates since 1853 with Robert Welsh so it's best to quote the report of what Welsh said:

The deceased had resided with him the last five months on the Pipe Clay diggings. They came to Mudgee on Wednesday, deceased left him, and promised to meet him al Mr McQuiggan's (a Hotel in nearby Gladstone Street). He then went to Phllllps' and found him in bed; he had asked for some water; he was half drunk. He advised deceased to get up; he replied "Put your hand in my pocket and take out what is there". Had known him for eight years. He had a complaint which caused him to spit blood. He earned a great deal of money, and spent it very freely; had known him to obtain "hundreds a week" at Tambaroora. The wind used to annoy him very much in the hut in which he resided. He was no better for his visit to Mudgee. The day before they had been drinking together all day on and off.

Welsh's evidence suggests that Frank, born 1811, and aged 50, may have been suffering from tuberculosis and a digestive disorder. The card he had written and illustrated for John Calf earlier in 1861 shows fine detailed penmanship, an absence of hand shake with the design cleverly laid out and the quotation from scripture apt and penned without error. There is no sign of mental or fine motor deterioration. Though Frank may have been into the spirits in town his faculties that year were sharp. Seventeen years of convict servitude and eight years exposure to the elements on the goldfields in the harsh Tambaroora, Meroo and Mudgee districts would harm the healthiest constitution. R.H. W. Reece points out that Frank, during the first eight years of his sentence had "received fourteen floggings (650 lashes) and served three and a half years in road gangs, thirteen days in solitary confinement and three months on the treadmill". Even then he had a further nine years of sentence to go - most to be served in the cruel conditions of Port Arthur. At 50 you would expect him to appear an aged man.

The inquest report shows the mateship that sustained these men on the diggings. Welsh was so distressed by Frank's condition that all he could do was drink. Their new team-mate John McDermid was disgusted to find Welsh not with the dying Frank in his room but in the tap-room and tipsy. The evidence given by this second witness, the sober McDermid, was that he and Welsh had been working together for four weeks on the Pipe Clay Creek diggings outside Mudgee. Frank, Welsh's old mate may have been doing light duties as hutkeeper during this time - "he used to complain of a pain in his shoulder. During the time he was with them his appetite was good. He had no effects, excepting some papers. He never cared for clothes" was the summation of what McDermid said at the inquest. Dr Cutting, who examined the body, gave his opinion that "the deceased came to his death by the effects of cold and inanition"inanition meaning "exhaustion from want of food". No post mortem was performed. No hint or mention of Frank's convict past was reported in the newspaper - a taboo subject in Ihis new era when males had recently been given the vote and from 1861 onwards were able to make a selection, for themselves, of 40 acres to farm. Nobody had convict parents or grandparents any more!

Frank had told Welsh to go and collect some money owing to him in the town and share it with McDermid. Shortly after the inquest concluded some of that money would have been paid to an undertaker, perhaps the carpenter Vowles, who lived nearby. A horse and cart carrying a simple coffin with one grief stricken man, supported by one other – both trying to walk in the expected dignified way followed by a group of upright diggers and some shuffling drinkers, traversed the two blocks west along Market Street to the cemetery. Passers-by would stop reverently, the men removing their hats. Irish women, in their shawls, would cease smoking their white clay pipes or put down their baskets and make the sign of the cross as the sad procession passed. The gravedigger, that day, surely was honoured for his labour with an extra few shillings and perhaps the undertaker was given another pound to come back in a few days with a hardwood wooden cross, "Francis MacNamara" painted on it, and tidy up the mound. It is a scene from a Henry Lawson story.

Maybe the money was kept and went towards a riotous wake at Hughson's, the Shamrock Inn, the Royal, McQuiggan's or The Fountain of Friendship. If that were the case it becomes a scene for Brian James to describe.

Frank the Poet had been, for the last four weeks of his life on the Pipe Clay diggings of which the Eurunderee district, 7 kilometres out of Mudgee, is a major part. Henry Lawson (1867-1922) was to live at Eurunderee, among abandoned shafts and mullock heaps, when his father took up a selection there. John Tierney (1892 - 1972) who under the name of Brian lames wrote stories of Mudgee, both tragic and humorous, was born at Eurunderee thirty-one years after Frank's death. Some of his stories are about "hatters" still prospecting the hills for the stupendous find of gold that had eluded them,

This discovery of the details of Frank's inquest and his certain burial in the town graveyard, now a park, means Mudgee may add one more significant figure to its literary heritage. When Frank died he "had no effects, excepting some papers". Was there, I wonder, among those papers a small booklet where, in Frank's tiny writing, were recorded not only ballads of bushrangers and convicts but new poems and satires of the days of gold?
                                                                                                                        –Peter Mara