Twice each year she would routinely walk north-west to Coolah, a distance of just over 200 kilometres return. Also travelling south-east to Lithgow and back, a return trip of over 250 kilometres, she repeated this trip each year as well. The total distance covered by her annually would have been hard to estimate, as she did not restrict her visits to people living on or near the main roads. She made diversions to customers in out of the way places as well.
To become a hawker or pedlar, one first needed to obtain a Hawker’s Licence. For a yearly foot licence, where her intention was to cover the distances only by walking, Mary would have paid one pound. She also required a good character certificate signed by two referees.
Although Syrian Mary provided a valuable and welcome service to those living isolated lives away from the larger towns, the contemporary newspapers often included negative, anecdotal reports about Syrian hawkers. Under the headline The Syrian Nuisance, The Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 2 September 1893, claimed that ‘for a considerable time past the people of the rural districts have expressed annoyance at the number of Syrian hawkers who have been pestering them to buy their trumpery wares’. The Sydney Mail and NSW Advertiser, 21 January 1893, using the hyperbolic headline The Syrian Invasion, claimed that too many ‘coloured hawkers’ were being granted licences. Singling out the Syrians in particular, the report described them as not only being ‘very cunning’ but insinuated that ‘their mode of life is inconceivably disgusting’. Their business ethics were also questioned. It was alleged that they deliberately waited for the woman of the house to be on her own. They then attempted to elicit her sympathy by arriving heavily laden with their baskets. Allegations of rudeness and intimidation were also made. As the Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 28 Dec 1895, claimed in another biased report, they ‘infest’ the lonely county districts.
Remembering that such newspaper articles were preluding the soon to come White Australia Policy, it was certainly a difficult time for a single woman like Syrian Mary to be travelling in isolated parts of the Australian countryside. The job was already dangerous and insecure without the addition of prejudice provoked by these negative and inflammatory newspaper reports.
Syrian Mary carried her goods in three baskets, one in each hand and balancing the third one on her head. Apparently she later used a pram. The bushman ‘Duke’ Tritton remembered meeting her in his early twenties (see right), while travelling and working in the area. This would have been sometime during the latter part of the first decade of last century. He estimated her age to be in the sixties. She obviously made a significant impression on Tritton. Some fifty years later he wrote about her in an article called Once A Jolly Swagman. This article appeared in the Walkabout Australia magazine. He described her ‘as the most remarkable woman I have ever met’. He also noted that she was ‘as straight as a ramrod, and walked like a queen’. To his knowledge, she never came to any harm during her travels, despite the fact that the bushranging Governor brothers roamed this area of the state.
Mary Byers’ childhood memories, as retold to Vicki Powys, in her book Growing up at Dark Corner, add some more light on the enigmatic Syrian Mary. Mary Bryers was born in 1895 and recalled a lady visiting the family home at Dark Corner during her childhood.
‘Another traveller that used to come around selling things was the Syrian lady. Or perhaps she was the Assyrian lady, I’m not sure. Anyway, she sold haberdashery items, and these she carried in a big wicker basket on her head. She always wore a long black dress, and we’d see her, about every three months, walking along the road from the Palmer’s Oakey direction. She spoke just enough English to get by. With the help of some sign language too. I suppose she didn’t have a husband or children to look after; if she did we never saw any sign of them. Mum always asked her in, and the Syrian lady would spread out a tablecloth on the floor of the front verandah, and then proceed to set out all the items she had for sale, cottons, elastic, hairpins and hatpins, needles and pins, ribbons, buttons and lace, all those sorts of things. Mum used to save up so that she could buy from the Syrian lady, since she was cheaper than the shops. I never knew where she had come from or where she was going to, but she passed by our door on a regular basis.’
It seems highly plausible to assume that this visitor was Syrian Mary. It also highlights again the great distances travelled by her to accommodate her grateful customers in isolated areas.
The fascination with studying history has always been for me the realisation that there is always more to discover. A final full stop cannot be put in place. The life of Syrian Mary is a good example of this. There are so many missing pieces to her story. I do not even know her name. By sharing the limited information I have about her is at least a start. I can also keep on singing a song I composed about her in the hope that someone has more information or can correct any thing I have written about her.
A road at Dark Corner