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Going with the flow of history

Date

Ian Warden

The placid Queanbeyan River, whose waters can deliver an almighty wallop.

The placid Queanbeyan River, whose waters can deliver an almighty wallop. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Readers, this is a bit of a trick question but can you identify, from these lines clipped from a 19th century poet's description of it, this well-known local river?

Ever murmuring onward floweth

Whilst sea-ward fast it goeth

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Through wild-woods ever green.

The live-long day it singeth

The moss-green crags among,

DISASTER: The 1922 flood after the river broke its banks. The roof of the Elmsall Inn can be seen just above the water level. Photo: Queanbeyan and District Historical Museum Society

DISASTER: The 1922 flood after the river broke its banks. The roof of the Elmsall Inn can be seen just above the water level. Photo: Queanbeyan and District Historical Museum Society

And aloft its bright spray flingeth

Where the water-lilies throng.

Then flow on, dear old river!

Glide swiftly to the sea;

Anon where green myalls quiver

Thy silvery track shall be:

Give up? It's the Queanbeyan River, a river we seldom see except in Queanbeyan itself where in our cars we pass over its bridges, glimpsing its usually billabongy sluggishness and never crediting it with the turns of speed and energetic spray-flinging the poet ''Bushman'' describes in this 1865 poem. But of course when in flood it is a surging brute of a thing.

Back to the Queanbeyan River's riverbank in a moment, but first the reflection that this history-conscious column is tiptoeing into Queanbeyan quite a lot these days. That's because to be Centenary-conscious is, really, to be Queanbeyan-conscious too.

Without the envisioning, pushing, shoving and campaigning of crucial Queanbeyaners it's most unlikely there would be a federal capital city at Canberra.

But from where does Queanbeyan, our crucial neighbour, our parent, gets its name?

Well the poem just quoted from, published in its swiftly gliding entirety here a few weeks ago, is The Quaen-Bien, written in 1865 by this column's friend and bard ''Bushman'' of Molonglo. Another of his poems, Christmas, graces this very page.

But his The Quean-Bien is his hymn of praise to the Quean-bien river and in a footnote he says ''Quaenbien is the name originally given to the river and district by the aborigines; since changed to Queanbeyan by their pale-faced successors. Some of your readers will, perhaps, be able to give the meaning of the word in English.''

Some local historians pricked up their ears at this, at seeing the poem and its footnote in Gang-Gang. It turns out that there have been multiple attempts at explaining the word Queanbeyan. Queanbeyan historian Connee Colleen has supplied us with oodles of information.

It seems that there have been at least 11 known ways of writing, spelling and pronouncing the name, plainly an Aboriginal word, before (and still after) the NSW powers-that-be standardised the spelling of the name as Queanbeyan when it was gazetted on September 28, 1838. Colleen has, for example, found Cu-Um-bean, Kyun-bi-ana, Quinbean, Quinbeam, Qiom-bee-ann, Queenbeenn, Quinbeane, Quinbien and then, of the river, Bushman's Quaen-bien.

It is not clear whether the word was the Aboriginal word just for the river but some historians have thought the word has some especially watery associations. So for example in his book Bygone Queanbeyan (1985), Rex Cross muses that ''Some claim that the name Queanbeyan means 'clear waters' and others 'beautiful lady', the latter translated to seeing the outline of a pretty lubra formed by pebbles in the clear waters at the junction of the Queanbeyan and Molonglo Rivers [this junction is at today's Oaks Estate]. Most authorities, however, seem to prefer the meaning, 'clear waters' and it is highly unlikely that sufficient evidence will ever be found to change that meaning.''

Frederick Slater and others insist on Queanbeyan meaning something like ''the sun, the great orb of the day, Father of Light''.

Meanwhile, fun though it is think of the poet Bushman as just a semi-mythical being and to have a mental picture of a kind of jolly swagman, historian Lyall Gillespie found out who and what he was. ''Joseph Kelly, a schoolteacher, contributed to the Golden Age and the Queanbeyan Age over a period of several years. He wrote under the nom de plume 'Bushman' and he gave his address as Queanbeyan when a poem The Black Tracker appeared in the Golden Age in August 1862. Apparently he moved away from Queanbeyan in 1864 or earlier as his address was shown as Newtown from June to October of that year but in 1865 he was back in Queanbeyan district residing at Molonglo. Kelly apparently remained at Molonglo until 1874 when he was appointed as teacher at Tuggeranong Provisional School. He moved to Ginninderra Provisional and Weetangera public schools for short periods in 1876 and 1877 and subsequently taught at Spring Creek (later known as Euralie), Murrumbateman and Mulwala schools. He retired on April 14, 1900.''

Bushman's poem about the river does seem to rather flatter the river we see at Queanbeyan but he makes it clear with the whole hymn that he's describing the whole river from go (somewhere high up near Bredbo) to whoa.

High up and before reaching Queanbeyan it very probably does go helter-skelter , singing, ''the moss-green crags among [where] aloft its bright spray flingeth''. His assertion that it tangos all the way to the sea is a bit romantic since by then any of its unique waters have long since been blended with the Molonglo and then with the Murray-Darling family of waters.

But it's a sweet thought.

On Thursday this columnist went to try to interview the confluence of the Queanbeyan and Molonglo rivers at Oaks Estate, hoping to see an outline of a pretty lubra formed by pebbles in the clear waters. But the place is inaccessible now, being wild, willow-infested and snake-patrolled. Even hyperbolic Bushman would struggle to find any loveliness there at the moment.

Gang-Gang thanks Connee Colleen for her great help with this essay.

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