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History Feature — The remarkable Oscar Hughan of Bourke

William Landsborough at right with Jemmy and Jack Fisherman. Collection State Library of Victoria

Dr Paul Roe The Outback Historian

Oscar Hughan may well be the forgotten man of Bourke history.

The piercing blue eyes, cultivated moustache and dapper clothes in the portrait, wouldn’t immediately suggest a pioneer of the country around the Darling, but the adventurous Oscar was in fact Bourke’s first storyteller.

Single-handedly, this articulate Englishman wrote the character of the remote frontier settlement of Bourke into the minds of coastal Australians.

From the early 1860’s through to the late 1870’s, Oscar poured a steady stream of articles into newspapers across the country. He proved himself a colourful wordsmith whose pen pictures captured the growth of ‘Fort Bourke’ from primitive settlement to promising river port.

Family historian, Jen LaMonde wrote in a recent blog; “From transcribing hundreds of pages of Oscar's articles from various newspapers, I think that I have developed a real sense of the man that he was… he loved Bourke...of that there was no doubt, despite his occasional sarcasm about the state of the town. He must have loved it... why else would he have stayed for almost 20 years in conditions that would have broken weaker men?”

Born in 1826 into a battling Scots Presbyterian family of nine children in Essex, 22-year-old Oscar left England for Canada in 1848 to make his way in the wider world.

His parents had prized education, so it’s no surprise to discover that in 1853 he was making his way in literary circles in Massachusetts. He began contributing to leading periodicals and counted as friends America’s leading poets Henry Longfellow and Nathanael Hawthorn.

Oscar’s short-lived marriage to Sophie Tuttle may have launched him on a journey through Mexico, South America, and South Africa to join his mother and siblings in Geelong, Vic. There he found work as sub-editor of a newspaper ‘The Spirit of the Age’ and was reported to be ‘a distinguished Shakespearian scholar’. He became a friend of the best actors in the southern colony, unafraid to perform alongside them. […]

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