Writing The Dog on the Tuckerbox

ON THE ROAD TO GUNDAGAI

© Corinne Fenton

Since 1932 generations of Australian children have travelled along the Hume Highway between Melbourne and Sydney and stopped five miles (eight kilometres) further on from Gundagai, at a place called The Five Mile where a bronze statue of a dog sits on a tuckerbox.

I remember picnics by this roadside spot, family photographs with my parents and siblings and much later, almost those same photographs with my husband and children.

There have been many poems and stories written about the legend of The Dog on the Tuckerbox, but it had never been told as a children’s picture book and I felt strongly that this piece of Australian folklore needed to be made accessible to today’s children. Luckily, Maryann Ballantyne, Publishing Director at Black Dog Books agreed, so I began researching and writing. Although most of us think we know the story of the Dog on the Tuckerbox, as I researched I was amazed to find these facts:

An original doggerel (bad poem) (supposedly crude and vulgar) was written by an unknown person (bush bard) writing under the name of Bowyang Yorke, about an incident that occurred back in the pioneer days when bullock wagons travelled into the unknown interior. Gundagai was the main stopping point between Melbourne and Sydney. The legend of ‘The Dog on the Tuckerbox’ was born in the 1850s.

As Bill (and many were called ‘Bullocky Bill’ in those days) was leading his team across the Five Mile Creek (and there are many questions as to whether it was at the Five Mile or Nine Mile point) the wagon became bogged, ‘Nobby’ strained and the yoke broke, then the dog sat on the tuckerbox.

In June 2006 I travelled to Gundagai (combined a family holiday – crept about the Gundagai Cemetery at dusk with two complaining teenagers and one complaining husband) because I needed to visit the Library, the Museum and the Gabriel Photo Gallery. I also returned to Gundagai in November 2007 to take photographs of the landscape for illustrator, Peter Gouldthorpe and to once again capture the feel of this unique Australian town.

I concluded that it is quite likely that there may never have been one particular dog, there were many bullockies and many dogs, and quite probably many dogs that waited for their masters who never returned.

At this point I realised that there was simply not enough truth to make this a non-fiction book, so rather I decided to write a Faction book, fill the pages with useful, true and interesting facts, but lace it with an exciting and page turning story for children. In Gundagai I spoke to many people and gathered all the information, facts and photographs I could lay my hands on.

From my research I found that it is likely that dogs around that time would have had some amount of heeler, and possibly dingo in their make up. The Australian Cattle Dog or Heeler is absolutely loyal and obedient to its master, and is something of a one-person dog. It is diligent, courageous, tenacious and loyal. It is a remarkable watch dog and has incredible stamina.

I spent time sitting and talking to every dog I know, and many I didn’t know and watched and took note particularly of heelers, and kelpies. (It is interesting to note that in Australia Kelpies didn’t emerge as a breed – from the Scottish Collie – until the 1860’s so well after the incident of the dog on the tuckerbox.)

Then right at this time, by chance, my daughter was house-sitting and dog-sitting, and it was in this house that I very briefly came to know Kate to whom I dedicated this book. I believe this was the point at which I came to know The Dog, truly bonded with her character and found my emotional connection.

Once I knew the dog, I felt the strong need to know what this area was like back then. I needed to ‘feel’ it. To know what the bush was like and how it felt to camp out under the stars with only your dog and bullocks to keep you company. I needed a sense of place. To do this I turned to the masters of Australian poetry ~ Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson and other poets who had penned words on pioneers, bullocks, wagons, drays and bullockies ~ Edward Dyson, Frank Hudson, Veronica Mason and Judith Wright.

To gain more affinity with the pioneers and what it was like in that era, I visited Gulf Station, an 1850’s homestead in the Yarra Valley. Here I gained more of a sense of place for homestead life back in the days when Bill and Lady would have called to deliver goods or stay the night at a similar homestead. I also read through the diaries of pioneers of those times, many of these easily accessible on the internet.

It is a fairly common belief that bullockies were rough and ready types who swore and abused their bullocks and were hard drinkers. It’s important to note that while this no doubt was the case with many, it certainly wasn’t with all. I created Bill’s character as a Scott, who came to Australia as a young man around the 1830’s. He’s an Aussie through and through, although he still retains some of his strong Perthshire accent. He was a strong man, physically and mentally. He could turn his hand to anything and treated his dog and bullocks with the utmost fairness and respect. Times were tough and you had to be tough to survive, but Bill had ‘a heart of gold.’

I contacted Rodney Hutton, the Secretary of the Bullockies League in Australia. He was incredibly generous in assisting me with all information concerning bullocks, bullockies, wagons, drays, harnesses and especially how Lady would have travelled when she was injured.

Although I live close to Melbourne, I am lucky to live in a rural suburb where walking along unmade bush tracks, amongst the wattles and gums and watching the sun filter through the trees, is simply a walk out the back door and up the road a bit.

I walked my tracks of Warrandyte many times at first getting the feel of what I wanted to write and later, getting ideas and then reading my words out loud or listening to them on my tape recorder.

It was along these tracks I imagined the wooden wheels of Bill’s wagon rumbling along and the pad of Lady’s footprints. It’s also where I gained most of my inspiration for the feeling of the bush and listened to the sounds of the birds. I smelt the gums and dust and felt the warm sun on my back. I walked in all the seasons, but I had to race out immediately when it rained so I could appreciate it while it lasted. I used to squint my eyes half closed to block out a modern letterbox or any other tangible thing that lifted me away from the 1850’s. A passing car of course was an infuriating intrusion.

These were incredibly challenging times in Australia and we would not be living as we do today, if these brave people had not ventured forward into a wild and unknown interior. Lady and dogs like her were loyal companions, best mates – no different than our dogs today.

The book was launched at the Gundagai Library. It was a little strange for me launching a book without my family and friends around me, but there is no question in my mind that this was the right place to launch such a book. The people of Gundagai and especially the children, have claimed it as their own, which is as it should be.

I have travelled the road to Gundagai quite a bit, doing writing workshops with school children and talking about the research and writing of the book, as well as being part of a music and arts festival, and I have a feeling I’ll be going back again.

‘The Dog on the Tuckerbox’

By Corinne Fenton

Illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe

Published by Black Dog Books $24.99

This book was named a Notable Book

in the picture book category as well as the

Eve Pownall Information Book category of the

2009 Children’s Book Council of the year awards.

It was also shortlisted in the Australian Book Industry

Awards and the Australian Publishers Association

Awards 2009.


Photo taken by David Murphy

http://web.mac.com/davidcmurphy/David_C_Murphy/Welcome.html

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Comments

  1. 's Avatar
    Chris Bell This is a beautiful story about a story, Corinne. You’ve transported me and not only shown the wonderful ways you recreated and researched the bullocky life for your reader, but for yourself first as the writer. A pleasure to read this backstory. Thank you. Chris
    July 20, 2011 at 8:39 am · Reply
    • Corinne Fenton
      corinne Tx. Chris. Glad you enjoyed it.
      July 20, 2011 at 11:40 pm · Reply
  2. Kaye Baillie Hi Corinne. Wow, what a great story and I really appreciate you sharing so much of the background work needed to produce such a lovely book which I read a couple of weeks ago. I'm sure the people of Gundagai are delighted to have their famous story told so beautifully.
    July 20, 2011 at 10:01 am · Reply
    • Corinne Fenton
      corinne That's terrific Kaye. Congratulations and thank you, once again, for your kind comments.
      July 20, 2011 at 11:39 pm · Reply
  3. Toby Hanasen Hi Corinne, Injoyed the books u wrote! Thanks for coming to St.Clement of Rome !!! See ya Toby
    August 18, 2011 at 10:13 am · Reply
    • Corinne Fenton
      corinne Thanks very much Toby. See you next month.
      August 18, 2011 at 4:24 pm · Reply
  4. Ruby Hi Corinne, It is amazing where you live!!! Your blog is awesome! I'd love to reply. From Ruby.
    August 18, 2011 at 10:14 am · Reply
    • Corinne Fenton
      corinne Hi Ruby. You just have replied. Thank you. Corinne
      August 18, 2011 at 4:24 pm · Reply
  5. olivia I realy like your work.I think they are the best books I have read.I hope I get a chance to read your other books.The books I have read are The Dog On The Tuker box,flame stands waiting and Queenie.They are fantastic.
    August 18, 2011 at 10:26 am · Reply
    • Corinne Fenton
      corinne Thank you Olivia. Corinne
      August 18, 2011 at 4:24 pm · Reply
  6. 's Avatar
    scott crichton Many, many years ago as a young boy, my father had an old record of bush song and ballads. One track featured the old poem (Dog on the Tuckerbox) read by someone. But in it's content the word "sat" was not used, but instead the word "shat". Of which, is coloquel for, well you know!! Hard not to maybe think that the dog was not so much a hero but naughty.
    December 1, 2012 at 11:08 am · Reply

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