Founders of Our Literature: Simpson Newland

Years ago, a short, bearded man used to stand up in the House of Assembly in Adelaide, and quietly but fervently speak on two great projects that lay near his heart. These were the north-south railway, and the development of the Murray River. The man was Simpson Newland, a great pioneer and the author of what has now deservedly become an Australian classic novel, "Paving the Way".

Those Australians who have not yet read "Paving the Way" are urged to do so. It may not be great literature. Many may see faults in the rather stilted Victorian style, which, however, was common to the literature of the period. But sincerity and truth make a halo for every word of it and reflect the nature of the man who wrote it.

Newland wrote the book fairly late in life. It was first published in 1893 and the author arrived in South Australia in 1839 at the age of four. His early life was spent in pioneering, first of all in the beautiful Encounter Bay region of South Australia, which is now the State's premier tourist resort, and later on, on the Darling River, not far from Wilcannia, where he prospered sufficiently to enable him to retire to Adelaide with his wife and family.

And there, from a naturally keen observation and a most retentive memory he produced his book, which took him two years to write.

"Paving the Way" immediately achieved a popularity which did not wane. Its success spurred him on to write another novel, "Blood Tracks of the Bush," which is as sanguinary as its name and which stamped the author as a one-novel man.

But in his old age he wrote his memoirs, and these, along with "Paving the Way," form a most valuable section of our pioneering literature. They are unique in this way, that the man who wrote them saw his field from the inception of things until almost the present day.

Simpson Newland was one of those paradoxes, a sickly child who lived to a great old age. It was in his ninetieth year that he laid down his pen after having completed his memoirs, and three weeks later, in June, 1925, he was gathered to his fathers.

South Australians are exceedingly proud of their parent stock. Simpson Newland's father was a descendant of Puritans, a Congregational Minister who migrated, pioneered the land and in between times ministered to a pioneer community of which he was the undisputed leader.

The boy grew up among people whose methods were at first necessarily so primitive that they used oxen, like the ancient Hebrews, to tread out the corn. He saw Riddley's first wheat stripper. He was there when the first steamer went up the Murray. He saw the blacks -- now extinct -- in the pride of their aboriginal life. He saw South Australia grow from nothing to a sovereign State with vast growing wheatfields and a handsome capital city. Every "first" thing in most of the Commonwealth occurred during his life time, and he lived through that devastating war, under whose influence a whole world is still staggering.

Much of his life has gone into "Paving the Way," which in itself is a valuable historical record.

Himself, a great friend and protector of the aborigines, he is forced to write thus of them: "It is pathetic to be thrown among the aboriginals and note how they wither away when brought into contact with the people of our race. It seems to make little difference how kindly they are treated, how well clothed or fed, they tend to die out on the appearance of the white man. Among those I have known, this has been brought about by no epidemic, nor the use of intoxicants, or cold or hunger; none of these have had much to do with it. I can vouch for their being well fed and clothed, and for years spirits were almost entirely kept from them; yet they died off, and the young, the strong and the weakly alike, sometimes with startling suddenness, at others by a wasting sickness of a few days, weeks or months. They have always represented themselves to me as comparatively free from diseases."

When "Paving the Way" first appeared an English critic said that it was evident that the author had never been in Australia. Certainly the critic had not.

These two books, "Paving the Way" and "Memoirs of Simpson Newland" have a value for all time, and are due for a niche in our library of immortals.

First published in The Herald, 5 May 1934

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on November 23, 2007 9:27 AM.

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