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‘A Blood-Stained Corpse in the Butler's Pantry’: The Queensland Bush Book Club

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 April 2012

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‘Dear Mrs. Ford,’ the correspondence often begins, then follow accounts of misfortune and privation:

During the floods our home was an inch out of the water and the river four miles wide. We lost heavily in cotton but the stock are alright, though they were standing in water 3 ft. deep for a day and … 8 pigs lived on the verandah for two days.

The drought was so bad that water was scarce and baths unknown. We had to do what we could with a wet sponge. But I missed vegetables most of all. Fruit one learns to do without, but the memory of vegetables used to torture me.

We certainly had a terrible experience in the cyclone. [We] lost everything but our house. The sea rose 20 feet over high tide mark and swept through our little home, destroying everything and drowning my poultry. I took the children on to a high piece of ground and put them in the flanges of a large stump while I tried to rescue my poultry. My husband stayed at the house tying down the roof.

It's easy for a bloke to be pleasant at the factory … but pretty hard when he is pulling old Strawberry out of a bog or chasing the pigs out of the sweet potato patch. And calves! Have you ever heard the raucous, nerve-splitting, bellowing of an army of desperate little demons, who begin to scream at daylight and keep it up all through the hot day?

I'm afraid I've been a bit depressed because you see we mortgaged the place to feed our dairy herd and the little drop of rain last month killed most of those left.

One might wonder what floods, drought and hungry calves have to do with books and reading in the Queensland outback. The connection becomes apparent through an examination of the records of the Queensland Bush Book Club, a Brisbane-based philanthropic organisation that operated a book- and magazine-lending service for families living in the Queensland bush in the early twentieth century. Mrs Ford served as the group's corresponding secretary for many years, and letters detailing the hardships of life in the remote countryside ended up on her desk.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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