Monday, August 16, 2010

Hidden History – Mickies and Polers



Do we still have colourful characters or do they exist only in the past, when communities were smaller and society had room for the ordinary life lived eccentrically, without compromise, endearing, picturesque, vivid. The Blue Mountains has had its share of colourful characters but perhaps none more so than the men and women who drove bullocks for a living.

From the building of the first road over the Blue Mountains until the early decades of the 20th Century, bullocks were a significant and dependable source of draught power, whether it was clearing land, carting massive logs to local saw mills or carrying heavy loads over the mountain passes, and although some bullock drivers never swore, relying solely on gesture and whip movements; many were renowned for their strong language.


A language which it seems, like other less respectable parts of our history, is now all but lost except as oral tradition. When taking steep hills or on narrow winding roads, when the bullocks closer to the wagon, known as polers, risked strangulation or a broken neck, the driver would talk continuously to the team, calling each bullock by name to adjust its pace and effort. Talk that took the place of halters and reins and we can now only imagine.

Unlike the horse, which is subject to erratic displays of emotion, the working steer, known as a micky, tends to remain calm and collected and is more dependable in a predicament. Competent bullock drivers developed a philosophical, sanguine temperament, saving the strong language for the most difficult situations, otherwise their swearing reserve would have been exhausted before it was really needed. At the right moment the normally complaisant teamster would explode into profanity, the sudden shock of the awful words provoking the bullocks to bore into their yokes, all pulling together to overcome their load. The bullocky would then regain his usual easy-going composure, reserving his store of swearing until the next difficult situation.


Some of our well known bullockies were Bob Duff, Ted Duff and James Lewis Duff; in fact the Duff family has been associated with the Blue Mountains for over 150 years. Robert ‘Bob’ Duff was born at Hartley in 1845, his parents having arrived from Scotland five years earlier. At the age of nineteen Bob married sixteen year old Caroline Smith from Campbelltown and the couple settled in the Megalong Valley, farming 1100 acres on the Cox’s River. Between seasons Bob worked his team of bullocks, sometimes on the road for up to five months. Physically he cut an imposing figure, standing 6’3” and weighing 17 stone. Bob Duff died in March 1893, killed while breaking in a colt, he was forty eight years old and left a family of sixteen children. His wife Caroline eventually moved her family to Blackheath where she died in 1942 at the age of ninety seven.


Perhaps it’s not just the bullocky’s language that may fascinate us; there is also a lesson in self reliance in what was one of the most difficult and challenging of occupations. One old driver remarked that when faced with the seemingly impossible or extreme danger, you will have your doubts and will feel like not going on, but remember to always look on the humorous side and never lose your temper for a man who can drive bullocks can do anything.

Images from the Local Studies collection 1900-1920s
1. Mrs Foy cracks the whip outside the Hydro at Medlow Bath
2. Team outside Collers Stores at Blackheath
3. James Duff and daughter Peggy outside Collier's General Store, Blackheath
4. Road roller at Blackheath

Reference: The Bullock Driver’s Handbook, Arthur Cannon, 1985.

© 2010 Blue Mountains City Library
John Merriman, Local Studies Librarian