Published: 20 October 2017


SPECIAL INTEREST MATTERS Tuesday 17 October,02017

Ms FORREST (Murchison ) - The Balfour Correspondent is a beautiful book that takes us back to a time when Balfour was a busy mining town in the early 1900s.  I have a copy of the book here if anyone would like to look at it. 

Balfour is located in north-west Tasmania within the Tarkine.  It is 20 kilometres inland from Temma - formerly known as Whales Head - south of the Arthur River and north of the Pieman River.  Alluvial tin is thought to have been discovered there in 1875 and mined as early as 1883.  However, it was the discovery of a copper deposit, for which mining began in 1908, that drove the establishment of the township of Balfour.  Copper mining activity intensified between 1908 and 1912 and Balfour's population peaked at around 900 residents during this copper boom time.  The boom time began to stagnate in 1913 and Balfour was all but abandoned by 1924. 

The Balfour Correspondent gives us a sense of what life was like through a conversation extending across time by way of 14-year-old Sylvia McArthur's original letters and modern-day responses of author James Dryburgh.  Sylvia was born in Zeehan on 16 October 1897.   Her mother died when she was just seven years old.  Sylvia and her family moved to Balfour in late 1911.  Not unlike girls of today, Sylvia wanted to share her experiences.  In January 2012, Sylvia started writing letters to the 'Young Folks' page of Launceston's Weekly Courier.

She wrote of the exciting two-week journey that took her family from Zeehan to relocate to Balfour in 1911, when her father got a job at the Reward mine.  She wrote of social events, such as a concert given to raise funds for a school library and how, despite the dismal weather, it was voted 'the best yet'.  In contrast, she wrote that the Empire Day celebrations were disappointing, unlike those of Zeehan, which she described as a 'bonnie place'.  It is worth noting that Zeehan was a much larger and bustling town at that time than it is now.  Zeehan's population peaked at approximately 10 000 residents in about 1910, when the town boasted over 20 hotels.

Sylvia was an avid reader who also wrote of the antics of her brothers and how tired her father was from working 12-hour days.  Her sense of isolation and loneliness and her longing to go to school can be felt at times.  Today's communications are, of course, instant, and young women and girls now use social media to express themselves.  Sylvia's letters took days to make their way to Launceston via packhorse and ship.  Nevertheless, there is something very relevant about the story.  It is a reminder that girls' voices are important, and we need to listen to them.  This is timely, as we celebrated the International Day of the Girl Child, a yearly United Nations initiative since 2012, on 11 October. 

The voices particularly of young women but also of young people in general in isolated areas are often not heard.  Sylvia was all of these, and thankfully her voice has been heard and recorded.   These letters had long been forgotten and largely ignored, but they provide a valuable account of daily life in the township of Balfour and a history of the area we know as the Tarkine. 

Tragically, Sylvia died in 1912 at the age of 15, presumably of typhoid after drinking town water contaminated by sewage.  Not long after her death, mining all but ceased.

Not much now remains of the once-bustling mining town.  It was quickly reclaimed by the forest and only a few dwellings now remain. 

The book also contains a number of photos that show people and the township of Balfour during this time, including photos of Sylvia and her family.  It is interesting that Sylvia was just like girls of today, sharing what she did day to day and talking about social events that were a bit boring.  She used to do it in a different way.

This book contains such wonderful insight into the life of a young girl with great sensitivity as the book is steeped in tragedy - the tragedy of disease, untimely death, loneliness - both geographic and social - suicide and harsh living conditions. 

The book spans two centuries.  When reading it, I was drawn to consider changes to our communications, transport and our respect for and management of the natural environment.  While much has changed, some things are eerily similar.  Have we learned from the past?  Perhaps we have; perhaps we have not.

This book provides a glimpse into our past, and brings us skilfully into the present.  I conclude with some of the words of the author, James Dryburgh.  James said at the book launch in Burnie last week that it was important to see where we came from, to think more clearly about where we are going.  Towards the end of the book, James wrote -

Language is a ceremony of belief.  Its words and images compel us to believe in its creations.  They are materials that construct a bridge across the gulf that separates us ... Visiting your world was a reminder that we can choose languages of destruction that divide and isolate or languages that build narratives worthy of sharing, of living.

Words sculpt the world:  the stories we choose to live, the meanings we adopt and the words we leave behind - our bequest for the After Time.  The right ones can steer and sustain you.

Thank you, Sylvia, for yours.

I say 'thank you' to James Dryburgh for this most sensitive and engaging sharing of the history of one of Tasmania's most beautiful places.

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