They came by starlight, and they came silently so as not to disturb the residents by their coming. For weeks along the route excitement had been rising. Children slept restlessly if they slept at all; one eye open, all senses alert, hoping to be the first to see them come. Then a low rumble, iron tyres on the road, the clatter of hooves, the jingle of harness and whispers on the air, the muffled snorting of horses. Run to the window, press your face against the glass. Shadows moving in the dark, the glint of moonlight on bits and collars. The showies are in town! (Artwork: ‘Ready for Work’ by Judith Edwards-White. Reference photo is credited to Cathy Sheeter. [Scratchboard Art] © Artwork courtesy of Judith Edwards-White.)
From Songs of the People by L.J. May (© L.J. May 2006)
If it hadn’t been for the Spanish ‘flu in 1919
I never would have learned how to read and write. If the authorities hadn’t closed the Queensland/New South Wales border we might have gone on to Roma and I could have died instead.
My family were showies. Back in those days people used to get us confused with gypsies or circus performers and most townies didn’t trust us at all. In rural Queensland they had a saying: ‘Lock up your daughters and your chooks
– the showies are in town!’ But that was unfair. We were a tightly-knit business community who moved around the countryside rather than staying in one place, and we had a strong code of ethics.
My parents were Dave and Margaret Nelson and they called me Gracie (or Grace if they were mad at me). Dad ran Nelson’s Boxing Troupe and mum ran a shooting gallery. I just ran. In those days a ten-year-old girl was expected to pull
her weight and there was always something that needed doing.
We had a shooting gallery as well as the tent because not all shows allowed boxing troupes and we had to have
something to fall back on. Some people said that the fights were brutal but there were always plenty of takers. A bloke could win a fiver and a bottle of beer by going four rounds with one of our fighters and Nelson’s was always very careful about matching
opponents fairly so that no one got seriously hurt. Seeing that dad had a reputation for running a clean tent and treating his boxers well, the agricultural societies that banned other boxing troupes often made an exception in our case.
Old Barney was dad’s right hand man. He was an ex boxer and a great spruiker. He was always proud of the fact that he never used a megaphone and that people could hear his voice clear
down to the other end of the showground. The drum would be banging, trumpets blaring, mugs chattering and laughing on the pitch, and every spruiker trying to outdo the other, but you could still hear Barney shouting: ‘Come on gentlemen – be in
it. Now’s the time to earn yourself a reputation!’
Sometimes, if there was no one else around to do it, I would bang the drum on the line-up board. The booming
sound of ‘blam! blam! blam!’ repeated over and over, was used to drag in the customers. Once the fight started I would fan the boxers with a towel and yell encouragement to the opposition. The mugs loved that.
We used to do between twenty and thirty shows and race meetings a year, including the big show in Brisbane. The regular showies had a beat and went back to certain towns year after year if they had a good relationship
with the community.
It was the sort of life that I grew up with and I loved it.
all showie kids travelled with their parents. Some stayed at home with their grandparents or with people who were paid to look after them, and others went to boarding school. If there was a long stopover the kids used to go to the local school if the townies
would let them. There was no schooling on the road and children had to rely on the town schools or their parents to teach them how to read and write and do arithmetic.
friend Maddie’s parents (who operated a merry-go-round) always sent her to school whenever they stayed in town and she hated it. The teachers used to sit her next to the dirtiest and scruffiest kids and she always came home with nits. She told me that
all townspeople had nits.
I never got the chance to find out because dad wouldn’t let me go to school. He couldn’t read or write himself (not uncommon in those
days) and he said that there was no point in me learning because I was only going to grow up and get married. Mum tried to reason with him but he wouldn’t have it. I think he was embarrassed because mum could read and write and do our books and
payments but he couldn’t.
It was really starting to worry me that I was ten years old and still couldn’t read. I asked mum to teach me but she just didn’t
have the time. If Maddie and I were in town at the same time she used to read me all these exciting stories from her grade book and I longed to find out how to read them for myself.
During the autumn of 1919 we were on the road heading for the Roma show in western Queensland. Every year the showies going to Roma camped in a paddock on the Jackson farm just out of Miles and gave themselves a few days off. People did the washing,
inspected wagons, spelled the horses, caught up with old friends and swapped gossip. The blokes would usually take off for a couple of days fishing down the Condamine River twenty miles south of the camp.
Our friends Bill and Maude Moxley were driving their wagon back to Brisbane from Roma and stopped off to bring us the bad news and a copy of The Western Star. The Spanish ‘flu – we called it the grippe – had arrived
in Queensland. The border had been closed for traffic into Queensland, although people could still cross over into New South Wales. The paper said that the people of Roma had already been inoculated.
There was a big campfire meeting that night and people were starting to panic. Showies with families in New South Wales and Victoria left immediately. Bill said that the Roma A & P Society intended to go on with the show even though
people had been warned not to go to meetings or places of amusement.
Some showies were worried that they could lose their ground space the following year if they didn’t
turn up, so they went into town. That was a mistake. Even though the authorities closed all the schools in the Maranoa district, the ‘flu hit in May, right after the show. Six hundred people in Roma got the grippe, including many of ours, and about forty-five
of them died.
Mum put her foot down and told dad that she wasn’t prepared to put me at risk, and the idea of taking a boxing troupe into such a situation was ridiculous.
For once dad didn’t give her an argument and he and the other men went out bush to fish and shoot pigs.
Luckily the Jacksons had a mixed farm so we didn’t need
to go into town for supplies. My parents, along with the six remaining outfits, reckoned that it was probably safer to remain in the camp than go anywhere else, so we decided to stay put and wait out the epidemic. By August it was over – in Roma anyway.
It was during this time that Regina Pasquale, otherwise known as ‘The Great Pasquale’ (and known to us as Queenie), taught me how to read. I had always been too shy to talk
to her on account of dad said she was up herself because she had once worked as a flyer and high wire artist for P.T. Barnum.
At that time she was about forty-five years
old and 110 pounds of pure muscle –most of it heart. In an effort to entertain a bored little girl she invited me around to her tent and brought out the most precious things she owned. Her books!
When she asked me which book I wanted to borrow she could tell by my red face and stuttering that I couldn’t read. But, instead of laughing at me, she took my face in her hands and said in an accent so thick you could cut it, ‘Reading
is like singing for the eyes. You like to sing, yes? Then you must read also. I shall teach you and your mama and papa will be very proud, no?’
I said that dad was
more likely to kill me, but she just smiled and said that flowers must grow and people who could not water them should stay out of garden plots.
When Queenie left us at Rockhampton
to go back to America I thought my heart would break. As a parting gift she gave me a book covered in red leather which she said had been given to her by P.T. Barnum when she was a young girl (so it was true then). On the flyleaf she had written: ‘To
my little Gracie. I love you as my daughter. This book is my favourite. Read it sometimes and remember me. All my love – Regina Pasquale.’
I am now eighty-five
years old. Once a year I bring Queenie’s book along to an adult learning class to read in memory of her. I hope that those of you who never learned to read properly, and are maybe embarrassed by that, will take some heart from my story and give it another
go. Queenie’s message was that it’s never too late to learn – so let’s begin.
‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain…’