Beyond the black stump, the Never-Never, the back of beyond, the back of Bourke, the outback. These are all Australian expressions to indicate that point in the countryside that is the perceived boundary of civilisation. Wikipedia defines it as
…. the name for an imaginary point beyond which the country is considered remote or uncivilised, an abstract marker of the limits of established settlement.
The origin of the expression, especially in its evolved use as an imaginary marker in the landscape, is contested
I’ve spent a rainy afternoon in the library at Nambucca Heads researching all about the Black Stump, and I’m going to share that research with you in this blog …..
but I know the true story!
You see, when I was a little girl, a long, long time ago, our family lived in country Victoria. Over the back fence of our house there was a vacant block of land and in the middle of the trees there was a burnt out tree stump – The Black Stump. Even as a six year old I knew that if I went past that stump I would be lost in the never-never and no-one would ever be able to find me again. So Wikipedia and all my other information sources have got it all wrong …. but this is what they say anyway!
Blackall, in Queensland, claims the original black stump.
And here’s the iconic ‘stump’ at Blackall ….
And an artist’s interpretation of the origin of the Black Stump.
Historically, though, the black stump was referred to in a land dispute in 1837 around the Woolloomooloo area of Sydney, so you can see this predates the 1887 claim of Blackall.
The term “Black stump” was used as land markers on a surveyors plan and was first referred to as a boundary marker in a New South Wales court case involving a land law dispute.
….. The case refers to vacant land at Woolloomooloo where a surveyor had difficulty in ascertaining the boundaries “…and he pointed to some old stumps, which he said had been marked…..he said it ran to a black stump beyond the line, which he said had been marked…; utmost extent claimed by defendant was the black stump of which I have spoken...
As a traveller of the highways and byways of Australia there are rest stops near several Aussie towns called The Black Stump. Here’s one at Coolah, in New South Wales.
Coolah is one of several towns to claim bragging rights as the home of the legendary Black Stump. It was here that the colloquial saying ‘Beyond the Black Stump’, meaning ‘beyond the limits of civilisation,’ is said to have originated.
Supporting Coolah’s claim is a document showing land boundaries declared by Governor Darling in 1826. This boundary line passes through the centre of a property known as ‘Black Stump Run’. The local Aboriginal Gamilaraay people were said to have called the area ‘Weetalibah-Wallangan’, meaning, ‘the place where the fire went out and left a burnt stump’. Information from Visit NSW
At Mundowran, in Queensland, there is also a rest area known as The Black Stump ….
Approaching Mundubbera, from an eastward direction, a large Rest Area emerges on the northern flank of the Burnett Highway. The Rest Area signage reads:
“The Black Stump
Gateway to Mundubbera”
Directly under the signage, a concrete black stump is situate.
My grisliest find about the origin of the phrase, the black stump, is this tale from Merriwagga in the Riverina area of New South Wales.
The village of Merriwagga and nearby community of Gunbar, in the Riverina district of New South Wales, have strong claims to the origin of the expression ‘black stump’. Gunbar cemetery is the burial-place of Mrs. Barbara Blain, the woman whose accidental death in March 1886 possibly gave rise to the term.
When her husband returned to camp after a day’s work he….
found Mrs. Blain had been fatally burnt, probably after her dress had caught alight from the flames of the camp-fire. ……. an inquest into her death was subsequently held. James Blain apparently stated that when he found his wife she “looked like a black stump” . A watering place near where the tragedy occurred – roughly halfway between Gunbar and the village of Merriwagga – became known as Black Stump Tank.
The Black Stump Picnic area at Merriwagga has a waggon and memorial stone, with an inscription which explains the details of these events.
The Black Stump has also been immortalised in literature.
In 1956 British novelist Neville Shute published “Beyond the Black Stump”, a novel set in the 1940/50s, contrasting the social mores of a still remote Western Australian sheep station and a small town in Oregon, USA, which still thought of itself as a frontier town despite the Cadillac dealership and the fast food joint.
Robbery Under Arms, a fictionalised work by Rolf Boldrewood first published in 1888, refers to the Black Stump as an actual place “within a reasonable distance of Bathurst” and known to everybody for miles around. Boldrewood says it “had been a tremendous old Ironbark tree- nobody knew how old, but it had had its top blown off in a thunderstorm, and the carriers had lighted so many fires against the roots of it that it had been killed at last, and the sides were as black as a steamer’s funnel.”
And when you don’t have a Black Stump to claim, be like Boulia in Western Queensland and create a whole new myth with a Red Stump.
So there you have it! The story of the Black Stump that’s put out to the world when the truth is the real Black Stump was over the back fence in Bittern, Victoria in the early 1950’s.