100 Australian Poems 3.0: "Taking the Census" by Charles R. Thatcher

Charles Thatcher's poem, "Taking the Census", contains a number of elements that most of us would see as being indicative of the character of early Australian settlers from Europe: humour, resilience and a healthy disrespect for government.

The narrator of the poem has bribed the local census-taker for a look at the "papers" of his fellow townspeople;  he doesn't say why, but we can just assume he likes to snoop on his neighbours.  As he originally suspects, the local ladies are lying about their ages:

Miss Fluffen says she's thirty-two,
   But to tell such a story is naughty,
She's a regular frumpish old maid,
   And if she's a year old she's forty.

Which leaves me feeling positively ancient. 

But it's not just their ages that people lie about: a washerwoman puts down her occupation as a "clear starcher", the chemist's assistant becomes an M.D., and no less than three hairdressers transform themselves into "professors".  None of them are too happy with the government collecting this data and, mischievously, attempt to circumvent the process at each turn.  A trait that is still evident today, as the census-recorded religion of "Jed Knight" attests.

But it's the last couple who provide the humour of the piece. The census-taker visits "two girls,/Who are noted for cutting rum capers" and who live in "an elegant crib".  They've left their occupations blank on their forms and find it vastly amusing that they would be asked to supply one: "..young man, shove me down as a milliner."  Well, yes. The modern reader will have little doubt about these young women, nor, I suspect, did the poem's original readers.

Text: "Taking the Census" by Charles R. Thatcher

Author bio: Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB)

Publishing history: another poem that's difficult to track.  ADB states that Thatcher was born in Bristol, England, in 1831 and arrived in Australia in 1852.  He left Australia in 1869 and died in Shanghai, China, in in 1878. The first publication of this poem is listed as being in The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse edited by Les Murray in 1986.  Thatcher appears to have self-published two or three collections of his verse in the late 1850s and 1860s, so it might be that this poem appeared in one of those.  Failing that, it would have appeared in a newspaper or magazine of the time, but I can find no record of it. 

 Next five poems in the book:

"The Sick Stockrider" by Adam Lindsay Gordon

"My Other Chinee Cook" by James Brunton Stephens

"Bell-Birds" by Henry Kendall

"Are You the Cove?" by Joseph Furphy ("Tom Collins")

"How McDougal Topped the Score" by Thomas E. Spencer

Note: this post forms part of my series on the poems contained in the anthology 100 Australian Poems You Need to Know edited by Jamie Grant.  You can read the other posts in this series here.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on May 21, 2009 11:08 AM.

National Library of Australia Newspaper Digitisation was the previous entry in this blog.

Reprint: Araluen Kendall by F. W. Hosken is the next entry in this blog.

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