The pioneers of this country did it tough and none tougher than those that ventured into the desert country. This is a story of such hardship and the lengths that people went to in order to support each other. They worked hard for little return and suffered much. But would travel long distances in very tough conditions to help each other as can be seen by the efforts of Mrs Looney to rush to the aid of a girl in need. This is a story of the pioneers that settled the Mallee before towns like Rainbow, Jeparit, and Nhill existed. They lived a remote, lonely and vulnerable existence to make something out of nothing.
Around 1854 a young Irish girl Margaret Henry of about 17 years of age arrived in Victoria seeking a new start in a new land of promise. She had left her parents Francis and Margaret Henry and the farm in Ireland to seek a new life in the land of the gold rush. Her education was little or non-existent as she could neither read nor write but was evidently a capable cook and managed to get a job as a cook at a property called Maryvale which was about 20 miles to the north of Harrow the only town in the area although today Maryvale is located east of Edenhope. It was at Maryvale that she met a young Scotsman “James Jardine” about six years her senior, the son of a Scottish sailor George and his wife Margaret, James was a farm hand on the same property. They were married at Maryvale by the Reverend Mark Dixon of the Church of Scotland on 11th Feb 1861 and soon left for a new life together.
After some wanderings, crossing briefly over the South Australian border then returning to Victoria where they found themselves working for John Coppock as shepherds on Albacutya Run in the desert country of the north west of Victoria. They had two sons James and Francis but child birth was not easy for Margaret and she was living in a very remote and lonely part of the world. It was a tough area for these pioneers and help was not easy to get at the best of times.
Margaret was pregnant with her third child but there were complications she suffered severe pains all day Thursday 2nd August 1866 and on Friday 3rd James decided to seek help as Margaret was in a lot of pain, in James’s words her previous confinements had been severe and tedious. So he sent a messenger to Dimboola some 40 miles away over sand tracks to get the doctor and also sent a messenger for the help of a midwife (or as he put it at the time the nearest useful woman) the closest being some 15 miles away, but the woman wasn’t there so the messenger went to find Mrs Looney four miles further away. The pains continued all day Friday and about 8 o’clock they stopped. Margaret told James that something was wrong as she felt something give. Mrs Looney arrived at three o’clock Sunday morning after travelling the 19 miles through semi desert in the dark to help, but on arrival she discovered that the womb had burst and there was nothing she could do to help other than comfort her and wait for the doctor. Mrs Looney sat with Margaret all day Sunday and at 8 o’clock that night Margaret passed away.
A messenger was sent to tell the doctor that it was too late, The messenger found the doctor traveling up the east side of lake Hindmarsh and delivered his message, but the doctor informed him that he was also the coroner so he would attend in order to do the coroner’s report so he continued to the shepherds hut. After completing his examination of Margaret and interviewing James he wrote his report and then gave James permission to take Margaret to Dimboola for Christian burial. James placed Margaret’s body in a dray and with his eldest son James accompanying him, set off for Dimboola the next day. But his misfortune was not at an end yet. Just three miles from the shepherds hut where Margaret died, while traveling along a sandy track on the east side of lake Hindmarsh the axle broke on the dray and James could go now further, so on the 8th August 1866 he dug a grave and buried his wife on the side of the track and returned to the hut.
James left the area after losing his wife and went to live in Dimboola where he raised his two sons and purchased 7 acres of land. He never remarried and when his sons were adults James and his eldest son James left the younger son Francis in Dimboola and went to Queensland to seek new lives but were never to return. The eldest son James was not heard of again and when James senior died in December 1899 his younger son Francis claimed the probate of his estate in 1900 reported that he had not heard from his brother and had not been able to locate him after months of searching.
Margaret’s grave is still there on the side of the sandy track that is now called pioneer lane in respect for the lonely grave by its side although the locals call it dead man’s lane and used to travel it regularly to a location on the lake they labelled Picnic Point. The plaque was changed on the grave in 1966 changing the inscription when a genealogical mistake was made and it was assumed that Margaret was the wife of a Joseph Jardine who was a co-owner of a lease for Outlet Run on the other side of the lake and a map of the holding was placed on the grave dated 1847 and the words stating Mrs Jardine and child with no other information. When Joseph owned the lease Margaret was only 10 years old and living on a farm in Ireland, so could not have been his wife. The information in this story comes from much research as well as their marriage register and the report from William Johnston Coroner dated 6th August 1866 at Lake Hindmarsh.
If you pass by this way. Pay Margaret a visit and look around the area. Crops are growing either side of the track today on what were sand dunes in 1866 with mallee scrub which can still be experienced around the lake and in places like Wyperfeld Park. If you visit these places stop to consider the environment they lived in and how remote it was and spare a thought for the effort that Catherine Looney went to in travelling 19 miles through this country at night to help a girl she didn’t even know. Would you walk 19 miles (32 Kilometres) through such inhospitable land to help a stranger?
Margaret’s story is an example of what it was to be a pioneer in this country, especially the land north of the netting fence that my own great grandfather John Burgin crossed looking for a selection and reported in his day book that he had crossed into land that was fit for neither man nor beast. He was actually camped close to where Margaret Jardine died when he made this observation some 25 years after her death.
Mrs Catherine Looney (also known as Loney) who endured the 38 mile round trip to assist a girl in trouble lost her husband a short time later in a tree felling accident and died eleven years later in Horsham in March 1877 at the home of her daughter Jane O’Donnell Her youngest daughter Bridget married John McPhee in 1864 and lived in Kenmare until her death in 1922 in Rainbow. She is buried in the Kenmare cemetery