Adam Lindsay Gordon and Father Julian Tenison Woods

By Michael Wilding

Father Julian Tenison Woods is most often remembered today for his association with St Mary Mackillop and the establishment of the Institute of St Joseph. In those same years Woods became a close friend of the poet Adam Lindsay Gordon. His ‘Personal Reminiscence of Adam Lindsay Gordon’ in the Melbourne Review in 1884, is one of the major records of Gordon’s life. ‘I think I may say that for five years I was the only intimate friend he had in the bush,’ Woods recalled.

Julian Tenison Woods was born to Irish parents in London in 1832. In 1850 he entered the Passionist order at Broadway in Worcestershire, then went to France where he joined a Marist novitiate, and later taught at a naval college in Toulon. In 1855 he came to Australia. After working as a subeditor on the Adelaide Times, Woods studied with the Jesuits at Sevenhills, and in January 1857 was ordained as a priest. For the next ten years he ministered to the diocese of Penola. It was here that he met Gordon and Mary MacKillop.

Gordon was born in the Azores in 1833 into a British military family. His father wrote wrote: ‘My father, grandfather, brothers, six uncles and all their sons, twenty of us, have all been brought up for the Army, and half of these have been killed or died in foreign countries or on foreign service.’ While at the Royal Grammar School in Worcester Gordon entered a steeplechase. The horse had been impounded for debt, so Gordon broke into the stables and liberated it. His exasperated father packed him off to Australia, where he served in the South Australian Mounted Police for two years, based in Penola. In 1855 he set up on his own, buying, selling and breaking in horses, travelling from bush station to station.

Woods recalled: ‘I became acquainted with poor Gordon in 1857. I had then charge of a large district called the new country. It was comprised between the coast line of South Australia and boundary line of the Victorian colony, enclosed on the north by the River Murray. This tract included about 22,000 square miles of country, more than half of which was desert. The remaining portion being taken up as sheep and cattle runs. Gordon was occupied as a horse-breaker and dealer, and at the races in the various bush townships he used to ride as a jockey, but only in steeplechases and hurdle races.

‘My introduction to him was at a cattle station, Lake Hawdon, near Guichen Bay. He was breaking in a few horses for Mr Stockdale, the proprietor. I arrived at the station in the evening, and he was at work, I remember, in the stockyard, sitting a young colt which was making surprising efforts to throw him. I watched the struggle for some minutes, and it ended by the girths breaking, and Gordon landed on his feet. We met that evening at supper, for in those days master and man, stranger and guest, all sat at the same table and shared the same fare. I remember little about Gordon that evening except that he was painfully near-sighted. He scarcely spoke. After supper he came to me upon the verandah and chatted for an hour; and I was surprised to find that his conversation was not about the usual station topics, but about poetry and poets. I was much interested and inquired who he was …’

Harry Stockdale, the nephew of the station proprietor, recalled in The Argus,17 May 1919: ‘I was present on the now historic night when the Rev. J. Tenison Woods came to Old Lake Hawdon station and sat talking with Gordon till past midnight. They talked of their favourite authors – of home associations and schoolboy days – Gordon regretting that he had not gone into the army, where he would have bid an aim in life congenial to his inclination. Tenison Woods said … that the whole tenor of his life was changed through coming in touch with the famous Newman. Prior to this I understood him to say he belonged to the English Church.

‘They also talked of the antiquity of man and either soon after or just before, Tenison Woods delivered a lecture at Robe on the same subject. Gordon that night said “Look here Father, what does it matter? Old or young it all comes to eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die.”’

‘Next morning he overtook me as I rode on my journey,’ Woods recalled. ‘As soon as we could talk, he plunged into poetry again. To my astonishment, he began to recite long passages from Virgil, Ovid and Homer. His pronunciation of the Greek was so peculiar that I could not understand him … He questioned me about French authors, and then recited long passages from Racine’s Athalie and Corneille’s Cid.

‘After that day we often met,’ Woods wrote. ‘My duties consisted in going from station to station, often long distances apart, and separated by little known and desert country. It was always a great advantage to have a companion, if it were only because the horses travelled better, and two heads are better than one in crossing difficult country. But to meet with a companion like Gordon was quite a treat. He was so remarkably shy and retiring that he scarcely ever came to see me at my house, that is when I had a house …

‘I remember his telling me that he knew very little of Horace, and so I gave him a small pocket edition. When next I met him he had learnt a good many of the odes, and recited them for me as we rode along … He used always to carry a book with him in his pocket, and generally it was a Latin classic. It will be easily understood how soon the volume became knocked to pieces in this way. Whatever books I lent him were generally returned in a most dilapidated condition, yet I could not complain when I saw how well used they had been.’

 Meeting Woods crucially stimulated Gordon’s poetic development. ‘This friendship revived in Gordon the love for classical literature which pervades his verses,’ A. W. Jose wrote in his History of Australasia. Gordon’s biographers agree. ‘Meeting Tenison Woods made a profound change in Gordon’s life. He was the first really intellectual man the poet had met since he left England,’ Douglas Sladen wrote, and Geoffrey Hutton concurred: ‘The chance meeting was a stimulus both to his reading and his writing… His friendship reopened a door which had been closed.’

Gordon’s contemporaries remarked on his amazing memory. Woods recalled an example: ‘We were overtaken by a severe storm and lost our way. Night came on, and the rain poured down in torrents. As my sight at night was nearly as defective as Gordon’s we gave up looking for the track, and sat crouched under a tree waiting for the rising of the moon. We were both miserably cold and hungry, and it was most ludicrous to hear my companion reciting long passages from various authors on the subject of storms. We could not light a fire, and I only had to shiver while he gave me the tempest scene in King Lear,which he knew by heart. He was much amused when I asked him whether he would like a nice drink of cold spring water after his exertions. We got to a station about midnight and had to share the same room; but Gordon would not go to bed. The warm tea we had had at supper had revived him, and he kept walking up and down the supper room reciting Childe Harold till near morning.’

Woods shows no amazement at Gordon’s memory, having inherited and developed a similar memory himself, George O’Neill records in Life of the Reverend Julian Edmund Tenison Woods.

Woods recalled: ‘He was remarked as being unsociable in his habits. He would prefer riding by himself, unless he would meet with a congenial companion, and when alone used to saunter along slowly, very seldom putting his horse out of a walk. I believe now that it was at these times that he was composing his poetry. He hinted this to me, but I never could get him to show me any of his compositions.’

The friendship of Woods and Gordon was important to both of them, often isolated in the bush, yearning for literary companionship. The Australian Monthly Magazine, May 1867, recorded: ‘The literary proclivities of the Rev. Mr Woods are evidently hereditary; many of his near relatives having been occupied, and are still occupying, proud positions on the English press. His father, a barrister of the Middle Temple, has been connected for over thirty years with the London Times; his eldest brother was long engaged upon the same journal and subsequently upon The Argus; whilst a second brother, Mr N. A. Woods, will be readily remembered as the colleague of Dr Russell in the Crimea, and afterwards as special correspondent of The Times, on the occasion of the visit of HRH the Prince of Wales to the American continent.’

Woods had begun appearing in print in 1857, writing about Australian flora and geology in the Transactions of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria. In 1862 his Geological Observations in South Australia was published in London. His History of the Discovery and Exploration of Australia appeared in 1865. In 1864 Gordon launched into print with his ballad The Feud and in 1866 he published three poems in Bell’s Life, and two in the Melbourne weekly The Australasian which now became a regular publication venue for both Gordon and Woods.

      Meanwhile in 1860, eighteen-year-old Mary MacKillop had come to work as a governess for her uncle and aunt at Penola. In An Extraordinary Australian: Mary MacKillop, Paul Gardiner quotes her account of meeting Woods: ‘I heard the pastor from the altar speak of the neglected state of children of his parish – and I had to go and offer myself to aid him as far as the nature of my other duties would permit.’ In her Julian Tenison Woods: A Life, completed by 1903 but not published until 1997, she quotes from their ensuing correspondence. Woods outlined his scheme to educate the children of the poor, and a school was established in Penola in 1861. ‘By a singular dispensation, I am appointed Director General of Catholic Education, Chairman of the Board, and Inspector of Schools throughout the diocese,’ he wrote to her in 1866. That year the teaching order, the Sisters of St Joseph, was founded.

In 1862 Gordon married Margaret Park. Woods recalled: ‘Nothing ever surprised me so much. Of all my acquaintance, he was least like a marrying man… He smiled in his usual quiet way, as I told him of my surprise, and said that there was no romance about his love-making. He had met his wife at a place where he stayed frequently… He said that he noticed that she was a very respectable and industrious girl, who would make him a good, thrifty housekeeper. A few days before he married, he said one morning, as he was leaving, “Well, girl, I like your ways. You seem industrious and sensible. If you like, I will take a cottage at Robe, and we will get married next week, and you shall keep home for me.” This was the whole history of the matter, he said. The girl consented, and they were married a few days after.’

‘I was just eighteen years when we were married,’ she told The Advertiser, 23 March 1912. Woods felt she looked even younger: ‘When I called upon him some time afterwards, I was introduced to a small, slim, rather good-looking lassie, in appearance about fifteen years of age. Gordon had a strange habit of addressing her as “girl,” which sounded a little odd before visitors, though it was appropriate in one sense.’

Then, in 1865, Woods had a bright idea: ‘I persuaded Gordon to allow himself to be nominated for the electorate… The electors were searching on every side for a local representative, but this was difficult to find, where every squatter was too busy for anything but his station work… Gordon was the only man who had the time and money for the work, and he was unanimously fixed upon … but he declined to stand… He consulted me on the subject, and I prevailed upon him to accept the position. I must say that my advice was mainly for his own sake. I thought it would give him occupation, which he evidently needed, and might open to him a successful, if not a brilliant career. I must own, too, that he had shown a tendency to a morbid melancholy about which I was not without apprehensions. He used to complain a good deal that he was not in any useful career. That his life was being wasted, and so forth, and he indulged more and more his solitary habits, walking and riding alone, or sitting for hours by the seaside.’

After eighteen months Gordon resigned. His fellow parliamentarian John Riddoch recalled in The Advertiser, 19 August 1895: ‘My colleague was a very ready speaker, but he was not an orator. He was immensely popular everywhere he went. He had a remarkable memory, and after listening to a speech could repeat it all off almost word for word. He used to amuse himself a lot when the House was sitting in writing verses and making sketches, but he did not find the political atmosphere particularly congenial.’ His wife told The Advertiser: ‘He soon became weary of public life. He was too quiet and reserved for that kind of existence, and the necessity of attending regularly at sittings of the assembly was very irksome.’

Woods recalled: ‘He spoke of trying to get literary employment on a newspaper, and had made up his mind to resign his seat in Parliament and go to Melbourne to reside. He had at this time published some more verses which had gained for him quite a name. He was very proud of those efforts, and I noticed more self-assertion, and, if I may use the expression, more personal vanity about his talents than ever I observed before. He said, amongst other things, that he was sure he would rise to the top of the tree in poetry, and that the world should talk about him before he died. He made great use of the Parliamentary library. All his spare time was taken up in reading classics and the best English and French poets.’ The last time they met, Woods recalled, ‘the conversation turned upon novel writing, at which he was going to try his hand.’ After he left South Australia, Woods recalled: ‘I heard from him repeatedly.’

In 1867 Gordon published two volumes of poetry, Ashtaroth and Sea Spray and Smoke Drift. He became partner in a livery stables at Craig’s Hotel in Ballarat. But the business was badly managed, Gordon suffered a severe fall and was bedridden, during which time his infant daughter died. In 1868 he sold up and moved to Melbourne. He continued to ride competitively and that year he achieved the legendary feat of winning three races on the same day at the Melbourne Hunt Club meet.

By 1870 both Woods and Gordon were heavily in debt and struggling with their demons. The Southern Cross, the magazine Woods had been running, ceased publication in 1870, leaving him responsible for its debts. Other debts had been incurred for the Sisters of St Joseph and for housing for the community of men he had founded. Woods had insisted the sisters should own no property; but someone had to provide accommodation for them. Margaret Press writes in Julian Tenison Woods: ‘Father Founder’: ‘He had borrowed from the banks for these building projects at a high rate of interest; even when he paid in over £800 which he had received from his publishers, the amount owing on mortgage and interest had crept beyond £3500.’

Sister Mary MacKillop was now in Brisbane. George O’Neill in his Life of the Reverend Julian Edmund Tenison Woods quotes a letter Woods wrote to her, 20 June 1870: ‘The other night … three beings entered my room in the dark, and without my being able to resist or cry out, carried and placed me in some conveyance there was outside – a very common and rough cart – and hurried me away at a great rate down past the gaol to the banks of the Torrens below North Adelaide. Here the ground seemed to open and I was taken to an awful place, the horror of which I cannot described … I was paralysed with fear. I felt that I was in the hands of the devil and had done with this world. It was surely death in life. I was then taken to this awful place, and one of the beings seized me and said that I had died suddenly and that my body and soul were now to be cast into hell for all eternity for having worshipped a creature; and at this moment a fearful serpent twined itself round my waist and said that I was his for ever. I still feel the awful, stifling pressure of that serpent.’

He continued: ‘They dragged me towards the fire and tormented me in many ways for three hours; but the name of Mary, though it seemed to redouble their fury, weakened their efforts … My guardian angel brought me back and healed my wounds and bruises.’

He conceded that he had ‘ever since been troubled lest it might be an illusion’ but nonetheless, he told Mary MacKillop, ‘I say to you that I solemnly assert in the names of Jesus and Mary that all I tell you is literally true.’

 21 June he wrote again: ‘My dear Sister Mary, if I have tried your credulity by what I wrote yesterday, I shall try it very much more by what I shall write today …’

Having fallen asleep ‘I was very rudely awoke by a devil – the one which usually assaults me and whom I believe to be a fallen spirit of a very high order. He was like a hideous dog but walking erect with like human limbs. He had a drawn sword of a very wide blade in his hand – a kind of sharp, heavy scimitar … He gave me a blow on the left leg above the foot and nearly severed it. I began to bleed, as you may imagine, and soon I was in a pool of blood… he stood mocking me and gibing for a quarter of an hour, and then suddenly seemed to get into a fury and struck me across the stomach, burying the sword in my body and laying open the intestines. I felt that my hour was come …’

But then Mary herself intervened and healed him completely. She told him that after his death ‘the scars of these wounds would be plainly visible upon my body. My guardian angel removed everything from the bed that was stained with blood, and placed other things perfectly similar there. Even the boards of the floor were removed and others like them placed there. I am sure these blood-stained things will be found again some day. Our gentle Mother then told me to be of good courage and said that in a few days a great sum or money would be placed in my hands to meet all my wants …’

At the very same time Gordon was in similarly dire straits. He was deeply in debt. His claim on a Scottish baronetcy and estate, in pursuing which he had accumulated substantial legal bills, proved invalid. He had suffered another serious fall in a horse race in March 1870, writing to John Riddoch: ‘I don’t think I shall get over this fall easily, and you know, old fellow, I’m not likely to complain more than need be; but I am hurt inside somewhere, I think.’

23 June, Gordon called in at his printer’s. A. H. Massina recalled, Herald (Melbourne), 2 March 1909:

‘He expected some money on the day his last book, Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes, was published.

‘He owed me about £75, and said to me, “I suppose you want some money.”

‘And I replied, “Printers generally do.”

‘Gordon said, “Well, I’ll be up in the morning with a cheque.”’

But the cheque never came. 25 June, The Argus reported ‘that Mr A. L. Gordon, the well-known poet and gentleman steeplechase rider, had committed suicide by shooting himself in the scrub near the Brighton beach.’

Woods wrote: ‘the dreadful news reached me of the manner in which he put an end to his career. I must say, however, that it did not surprise me. In my intercourse with him of late years I had noticed a morbid melancholy growing more upon him. My own opinion was that he had kept up appearances until pecuniary and legal embarrassments came upon him, and then gave up to despondency. His difficulties could not have been great; but he could not bear to apply to friends, or that anyone should know his real position. Those who did not know Gordon attributed his suicide to drink, but I repeat he was most temperate, and disliked the company of drinking men.’

Woods’ own troubles continued. They were many, and they are enumerated in the biographies by Mary Mackillop, George O’Neill and Margaret Press. Amidst them all, despite indifferent health, he continued his religious work and his scientific work, and from 1883-6 he was surveying and reporting on the botany and geology of Malaysia, the Philippines and Japan. As he told Mary Mackillop, ‘Well or ill, I am always able to write.’ He died in Sydney in 1889 and is buried in Waverley cemetery.

Michael Wilding is emeritus professor of English and Australian Literature at the University of Sydney and author of Wild Bleak Bohemia: Marcus Clarke, Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall: A Documentary (Australian Scholarly Publishing). His latest novel is The Travel Writer (Arcadia).