State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 63 Autumn 1999


Above: Nicholas Chevalier 1828–1902, engraver. ‘Lost in the bush’. Illustrated Melbourne Post, 22 September 1864. La Trobe Picture Collection.

Right: The Duff children, from the School Paper, 1908. Argus Collection, General Series, Box 7. La Trobe Picture Collection.


Jane Duff's Heroism
‘The Last Great Human Bush Story’?

The last great human bush story was in 1864 when Jane Duff, then seven years, cared for her two brothers in bush west of Horsham for eight nights and nine days … a child who was a reminder of the finest human qualities needed in a faraway province.
Brian Brooke and Alan Finch, A Story of Horsham: A Municipal Century, 1982
Many Generations of Victorian schoolchildren have read the story of the Duff children who were lost near Horsham in 1864. Under the title, ‘Lost in the Bush’, the story was included in the Fourth Book of the Victorian Readers, which was used in Victorian schools from its publication in 1930 to the 1960s. The version which the schoolchildren read was, however, significantly different from that which the Victorian public followed so avidly in the newspapers of the time.
The headline, ‘Loss and Apprehended Death of Three Children’, in the Melbourne Argus of 27 August 1864 introduced the first version of the story. The Duff children, Isaac, Jane and Frank — aged nine, seven and nearly four — lived in a hut on Spring Hill station around 35 miles north-west of Horsham in the mallee country of Victoria. The older two were children of their mother's first marriage and their surname was Cooper. On Friday, 12 August 1864, all three went into the bush to collect broom for their mother and became lost, remaining so for nine days and eight nights in cold winter conditions. The report's assumption of the children's death tells us how likely a fate it was, given their youth, the length of time they had been missing, and the type of country into which they had wandered:
The sufferings of the poor trio will, as far as human foresight goes, never be known, but it will require little experience of colonial life to understand how great they must have been.1
More than 30 local people began a search, following tracks for days before a thunderstorm obliterated them. When Aboriginal trackers were brought they quickly rediscovered tracks and found the children, emaciated and weak, but alive. All survived their ordeal. It was calculated that they had walked over 60 miles, with the older two jointly caring for Frank, carrying him, and placing him between them at night. On particularly cold nights Jane used her dress to cover Frank.
The first report of their survival contained few of these details, focusing instead on what was to become the main thrust of the story, the noble selflessness of Jane. It included an ‘eyewitness’ account of how:
when found [Jane] had just divested herself of her little frock, and was with it covering up her two brothers, who were lying helpless on the ground. This … was not the least touching incident of the whole affair.2
Although this account proved erroneous, the immense emotional force of the image could not be denied. In spite of evidence that both Isaac and Jane looked after Frank and cared for each other, the conception of Jane as mothering the boys was rapidly established. This is exemplified by Nicholas Chevalier's romantic portrayal of the incident (see above), an engraving of which appeared in the Illustrated Melbourne Post (22 September, 1864). It remained the way in which the story was presented.
The most detailed and influential version of the story was published in the Weekly Review and Messenger, a Protestant religious paper, written by the Reverend Patrick Simpson, Horsham Presbyterian minister, who explained that his purpose in writing this account was ‘to transfer it from the class of anonymous reports to the class of authenticated statements’.3 He was certainly close to the events, both in time and place, having accompanied the local doctor on a visit to the children three days after they were found. The minister gathered the details of the story from the children, their parents and ‘the principal persons who had been engaged in the search’. The resultant account of the episode was detailed and extensive. It introduced elements of the story which were to grip the public imagination and remain part of every subsequent retelling. One such feature was the children's search for wildflowers, as well as broom. This idyllic note harmonised with notions of the innocence of childhood and provided a dramatic contrast to the dark events which were to follow. Similarly, the immediate response of helpful neighbours served as a reassurance of solid bush values; ‘word was sent to the neighbouring stations, and men in numbers flocked to Spring Hill to render aid’.
The ‘reading’ of the tracks by the Aborigines was described in great detail by Simpson, mainly because of ‘the touching incidents’ evoked. The bigger children would carry the tired younger child, until the older child became too weak, and collapsed under the double burden. Another pathetic incident involved the discovery of bundles of broom dropped near a spot similar in appearance to country around their hut. Imagining themselves to be near home, the children had collected broom for mother. Reverend Simpson related the story of their survival as a clear example of God's care. The children's behaviour, particularly that of Jane, had earned them His care. She had used her own clothing to warm little Frank and, each night in the bush, had said her prayers, ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. Here was a direct answer to prayer.
Public interest in Simpson's story necessitated a reprint in the following week's edition of the paper.4 The story of the loss and discovery of ‘the Duff children’, as they became known, appeared in local papers across Victoria. They remained in the public eye because of an appeal, begun in Geelong, to reward the ‘heroic conduct of Jane Duff’ with ‘something more substantial to the little maiden than empty praise.’ Over £300 was raised. News of the children's experiences also spread overseas, with emphasis on the religious aspects.5 Another British publication, The Australian Babes In The Wood (1866), described on its title page as ‘A true story told in rhyme for the young’, was a story of moral instruction for children.
Thirty years later the story was revived as ‘The Babes In The Wood’, in the children's column of a weekly religious magazine, the Southern Cross, in January 1895.6
The opening sentence — ‘It was when I was a boy that they were lost.’ — makes clear that this is a remembered version of the story. The author, Reverend P. W. Fairclough, did not remember the children's ages and position in the family. Perhaps reflecting the central position originally accorded Jane, he described her as being eldest. Thus she was represented as caring for both boys, though primarily for the younger one.
Even more influential on following versions were the creative details with which Fairclough filled out his story. An example of this is the description of the children at play in the bush before becoming lost. Simpson mentions only that they collected wildflowers; Fairclough expands upon this, possibly in an attempt to help his readers identify with the children:
They had a good time in the scrub. Very likely they climbed trees. Perhaps they found a ‘possum asleep in a hollow log, and poked him with a stick. I daresay they chased lizards and butterflies. No doubt they found some wild flowers, and ate some bright amber gum from the wattle trees.
In the story's first appearance in the School Paper for Class 111 in April and May of 1896, these possible activities were rendered as facts. ‘Very likely’, ‘Perhaps’ and ‘I daresay’ disappeared.7 Every subsequent writer does the same, even L. J. Blake, in what has been regarded as the definitive book on the story.8 Fairclough wrote:
If we suppose that they were lost on Saturday, for I don't remember the day, this was Tuesday night. On Wednesday the blacks set out…
In the 1896 version this became, ‘They were lost on Saturday, and on Wednesday the blacks set out.’ and it remained accepted fact. The story published in the School Paper of 1896, ‘The Australian “Babes In The Wood”’, retained the religious emphasis of the Fairclough story, but by 1903 these had disappeared. Jane's noble, motherly behaviour was seen as sufficient reason for telling the story. A note appended to the 1903 version indicates that it was written by a teacher at Horsham State School, Mr. B. T. Pearse, based on the Fairclough story. Closely following on its publication was the second public appeal to raise money for Jane Duff, by then Mrs. Turnbull.
A letter to the Argus in 1904, from a Thomas Young of Horsham, described the present financial difficulties of Mrs. Turnbull. Coincidentally, he explained the division of the money raised by the first Jane Duff Testimonial Fund, with £150 going to Jane and £75 each to the boys.9 The Education Department took upon itself the task of raising money from the school children of Victoria to provide Mrs. Turnbull with an annuity. When the appeal closed in February 1905, over £366 had been collected.10 In 1908 the story reappeared in the School Paper under its lasting title of ‘Lost In The Bush’. This version remained virtually unchanged throughout subsequent publication in 1923 and its inclusion in the Victorian Readers.
The death of Jane in 1932 added impetus to a third appeal being made in her name, again by the Education Department. Part of the money was used to erect, near the spot where the children were found, a granite memorial stone with an inscription that reads:
In memory of the bush heroine, Jane Duff, who succoured her brothers, Isaac and Frank, for 9 days, when lost in the dense scrub near this spot in 1864. Erected by the school children and citizens of Victoria, March, 1935.
In 1943 a headstone bearing virtually the same inscription was placed on her grave in the Horsham cemetery. The legend of Jane Duff had become as solid as the stone of her memorial.
Changing interpretations of the story mirror shifts in community values. By the early 1900s the incident had become subsumed into the ‘early pioneering days’, representative of the noble pioneers who sacrificed themselves to settle the land for the later generations. To an increasingly urban population, the ‘bush’ was imbued with near-mythic qualities, and to survive the bush made heroes of pioneers. For a nation looking to establish its own identity the combination of bush and children, particularly a girl, was very potent. At the 1905 presentation of an illuminated address and cheque to Mrs. Turnbull, the Minister of Public instruction spoke of the need to direct children's attention to:
the deeds of heroism that were quietly enacted in the Australian bush … Among those might be counted that of their friend, Jane Duff.11
It was her death that occasioned the fullest flowering of the myth of Jane Duff. The Horsham Times, in an article headed ‘Bush Heroine Passes’, 12 described her as being one ‘of “the women of the west” that … Geo. Essex Evans wrote so admiringly about. In this poem, Evans pictures the women sacrificing youth, health and family to develop the land. It concludes, “The hearts that made the nation were the women of the West”’.13
In his speech to the large crowd attending the unveiling of her memorial in 1935, the treasurer of the fund, Mr. G. T. Graham, placed the incident firmly into the pioneering framework, ‘We have met here today to commemorate an event unique in the annals of pioneering days of this State.’14 The nostalgia of his view highlights the dual aspect of the way in which the past came to be viewed. They were hard days but good days, great achievements were possible at great cost.
The State of Victoria… is an incredible feat. The exploration, survey, fencing and working of it is an odyssey of deprivation, sweat and loneliness. We still await the day of literary achievement, when stories such as that of the Duff children will be enshrined in that achievement. We have fine traditions handed down by the pioneers… It is time we got into our ears the beat of the Australian drum and marched to that beat.
This theme was echoed eight years later at the unveiling of the headstone over Jane Duff's grave by Horsham schoolteacher Mr. J. E. Menadue, then Chief President of the Australian Natives Association, who gave an address in which he spoke of a lack of appreciation of ‘our short but eventful history.’ He affirmed that ‘The people of this district… have done much to give adequate recognition to this epic — the pioneering life of Australia.’15 The resonances of ‘lost in the bush’, Jane Duff, and pioneering are linked to encourage a sense of national pride.
The images of Aborigines in the stories is problematic for the modern reader. The period closest to the actual event produced the most mixed reactions to Aborigines, possibly because people were having to deal with a present reality. The valuable skills of the Aborigines were implicitly recognised in the first newspaper article which lamented the absence of trackers, ‘Unfortunately, no black-fellows could be got to assist in the search’.16 In his telling of ‘The Story Of The Lost Children’, the Reverend Simpson described Duff returning with ‘three blacks from behind Mount Elgin, Dickey, Jerry, and Fred.’ They may have been ‘blacks’ but they were accorded the individuality of names, albeit European names. This was, of course, very mixed recognition. In rejecting Aboriginal names the culture was also rejected. The Aborigines were, however, accorded unqualified respect for their skills,
At once the superiority of the blacks was apparent. They detected three tracks where at least only one had before been seen, and they travelled on at a greatly more rapid rate.17
There was nothing patronising about this description: the worth of these men and their importance to the search was fully recognised, ‘Hope revived in every heart’. This description came from first hand contact with the Aborigines. Compare it to the Rev. Fairclough's, written 34 years later, from another country and based on memory:
Then someone set off to get some black fellows — Natives of Australia — to track the children… Now the blacks can find and follow a trail like a dog; perhaps better. They have very sharp eyes, and perhaps a kind of instinct too.18
The skill of the Aborigines has been reduced to mere animal instinct, a quality of their race rather than the product of intelligence and training, and the Aborigines are debased to animal status with it.
The Fairclough version marks the critical point at which the episode of the lost Duff children moves from factual account into something much closer to fiction. The characterisation of the blacks inherent in this shift reduces them to stock figures. Although always described in the plural, only one Aborigine is actually named, ‘Jimmy, the black’. Their speech is rendered in a sort of universal pidgin, ‘Him no get cold’, ‘Him plenty tired.’ They became the comic black relief, reminiscent of representations of American negroes. For example, when the children were found, ‘the simple blacks… rolled, danced, and cried with joy.’19 They are stereotypes rather than individual people.
Poems based on the incident appeared in local newspapers, the earliest being ‘The Lost Children’ by William Stitt Jenkins.20 The other poems focussed on the suffering of the children, with the blacks accorded only minor roles.21 Jenkins took an epic view, the Aborigines were variously ‘ye sable heroes’, ‘ye gallant blacks’, and ‘sable brothers’. This Rousseauian view of the noble savage was poised against a recognition of treatment often accorded blacks — ‘The long-neglected and downtrodden blacks.’ Their help in spite of such treatment accorded the Aborigines even greater nobility. The Jenkins poem suggests a duality in popular attitudes towards the Aborigines, similar in many ways to that manifested towards the Fuzzy Wuzzy
Angels of New Guinea during World War II — either ignored, despised or eulogised, with little in between. The vision of them as God's agents, particularly evident in the Jenkins poem, demanded that they be accorded noble status. This imperative does not appear to operate by the end of the century. Fairclough's story incorporated the Aborigines as God's agents in the form of slightly superior tracker dogs.
In William Strutt's Cooey, or, The Trackers of Glenferry (begun in 1876 and completed in 1901 but not published until 1989), an illustrated book based on the story of the Duff children, the Aborigines are portrayed as nomadic ‘Sons of the Desert’. He accords them full credit for ‘extraordinary … sagacity and intelligence’ and laments what he sees as their inevitable passing:
Much it is to be regretted that these poor Aborigines, in many ways so keen and clever, should soon become only a memory in the land of the ancestors, not withstanding all the benevolent efforts made to save their race from extinction.22
However, Strutt's Aborigines are as stereotypical as Fairclough's. They are exotics, outside everyday society. Strutt depicted the children's father finding a group of wandering Aborigines and begging their help. According to the Rev. Simpson the father headed for a station ‘where, it was supposed, that natives were at work.’23 These were Aborigines functioning within the society, not nomadic wanderers. The photograph of the search party includes at least one Aborigine who appears quite comfortable as a member of the group. Nothing about his clothes or stance renders him different to other men. One must remember that Strutt was telling a story in which picturesque, foreign touches would be expected by his readers. Also, there was another force imposed by the readership, their sense of what was acceptable. The natives must be kept in a recognisable, safe role. Strutt accords generous recognition of their skills, but always within the confines of the noble savage image. He marvels at the Aborigines’ explication of the tracks:
Then followed more indications, all of which were plain as living words to these marvellously sagacious Sons of Nature's own Domain.24
‘Sons of Nature’, ‘Sons of the Desert’, even ‘sable pioneers’ are all terms which emphasise the picturesque quality of the Aborigines, keeping them apart from mainstream society.
Fairclough's ‘The Babes In The Wood’ was the progenitor of the story titled ‘The Australian “Babes In The Wood”’, which appeared in the School Papers and Reader. The version which appeared in 1896 was very close to the original, containing the description of the Aborigines tracking ‘like a dog’; they were still ‘the simple blacks’. By the 1903 version some changes had appeared, including more accurate factual details. There is no recorded explanation of the changes in title. Possibly the shift from the earlier title with its reference back to a European culture and experience, indicates a developing perception of a local culture. Certainly the phrase ‘lost in the bush’ had, and retains to this day, a strong resonance for Australians.

William Strutt 1825–1915, The three lost children ‘Cooey Cooey’ ca. 1874–ca. 1875. Watercolour and pencil. H92.304/1. LTF Box/Strutt. La Trobe Picture Collection.


‘King Richard’ or ‘Dick-a-Dick’, the tracker who found the Duff children, 20 August 1864. [Photo courtesy Horsham & District Historical Society.]

The Aborigines continued to fulfil the comic role in the story as it appeared in subsequent editions of the School Paper. They still laughed, cried and rolled on the ground when the children were found, even the use of the name ‘King Richard’ has mocking overtones. Yet the photograph of King Richard which appeared with story from 1903 on mitigated any sense of his being a figure of fun. He was a dignified figure, impressive even in European clothes.25 Neither was there anything mocking about the School Paper description of Aboriginal trackers. It had much more in common with Simpson than Fairclough:
The Australian blacks can find and follow a trail with wonderful skill. They have sharp eyes; and their training in searching for the tracks of … game … causes them to note signs to guide them in places where a white man, even with good eyesight, sees nothing.
Skill and intelligence were accorded due respect. These Aborigines, unlike Strutt's and Fairclough's, existed within the everyday society as boundary riders on a distant station. As such they were valued workers. The mixed view of Aborigines displayed in the 1903 version remains unchanged in subsequent years until the 1987 publication of a version of Lost In The Bush in a school reader series. There are no ‘blacks’ or ‘natives’ in this version, only Aborigines; they are not fetched, but simply arrive to join the search. They speak correct English and do not roll on the ground in joy. It is a sanitised version of the story in this, as in other respects.26
The didactic intention of the Victorian Readers version of the story is made clear in the notes for students at the end of the reader. They are asked to consider:
What do you think of Jane's conduct?… “The world's most noble girls” — how many more of them do you know? Among them would you place Grace Bussell, Florrie Hodges, Grace Darling, Florence Nightingale, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth Fry? When does what is noble in people show itself? How would you behave do you think?27
The latter is the critical question, reflecting a view that children needed to be directed to correct values and beliefs, and led to behave accordingly. This theme of the nobility
of self-sacrifice is reinforced by other stories in the Fourth Book — ‘A Brave Australian Girl’ tells the story of Grace Bussell, the work of ‘Simpson and His Donkey’ is ‘among the bravest deeds of Anzac’, and General Gordon is admired for his assistance to homeless boys and his refusal to leave his soldiers, rather than for his military record. In his speech at the presentation of the proceeds from the 1904 Jane Duff Testimonial Fund, the Minister of Public Instruction described the role of the Education Department as:
educating the children of the State to be useful citizens and the bread winners of the future, [and] it also endeavoured to promote every good sentiment, and to inculcate the principles of honesty, truth, love, purity, and noble action.28
The Jane Duff story was admirably suited to such a purpose.
Kim Torney


Argus, 27 August 1864, p. 6.


Hamilton Spectator, 27 August 1864, p. 2.


Weekly Review and Messenger, 3 September 1864, pp. 4–5.


ibid, 10 September 1864, Supplement, p. 1.


Sunday at Home, (1865), pp. 268–270.


Southern Cross, 18 January 1895, pp. 66–67.


School Paper, Class 111, April-May 1896, pp. 33–36 and pp. 52–54.


L. J. Blake, Lost In The Bush, 1964.


Argus, 16 July 1904, p. 17.


School Paper, May 1905, p. 60.


ibid, Class 111, May 1905, p. 16.


Horsham Times, 22 January 1932, p. 1.


G. Essex Evans, ‘The Women of the West’, Victorian Reading Books, Eighth Book, pp. 69–70.


West Wimmera Mail, 3 May 1935, p. 1.


Horsham Times, 16 March 1943, p. 3.


Argus, 27 August 1864, p. 6.


Weekly Review and Messenger, 3 September 1864, p. 5.


Southern Cross, 18 January 1895, p. 66.


ibid, p. 67.


Geelong Advertiser, 14 September 1864, p. 2.


‘One Above All Watcheth’, (no author), Hamilton Spectator, 1 October 1864, p. 4.; and ‘The Australian Babes In the Wood’, ‘Ossian McPherson’, Hamilton Spectator, 11 January 1865, p. 2.


W. Strutt, Cooey, or, The Trackers of Glenferry, 1989, p. 1.


Weekly Review and Messenger, 3 September 1864, p. 2.


Strutt, p. 48.


‘King Richard’, also known as ‘Dick-a-Dick’, was a member of the Aboriginal cricket team which toured England in 1868. See J. Mulvaney and R. Harcourt, Cricket Walkabout.


P. Edwards, ed., Lost In The Bush, 1987, Eureka Treasure Chest Series.


Fourth Book, Victorian Readers, 1930, p. 166.


School Paper, May 1905, no.74, p. 61