Our esteemed federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg celebrated the recent re-opening of pubs by pouring a beer for the TV cameras. Seen on ABC TV that night he had a wry chuckle when a customer asked for a beer called Furphy. The irony of a politician indulging a slang word that means an unreliable rumour was not lost on him.
How did furphy come to mean an erroneous or improbable story, an exaggeration, if not an outright lie, something that we have come to expect from politicians every day? Like gossip around a modern-day water cooler, in WW1 it was the fanciful stories told by soldiers gathered around a water cart, with a sign that said ‘Made by J Furphy and Sons’.
Communications a hundred years ago was so poor rumours abounded: movements of enemy troops, missing supplies, inadequacies of officers. Gradually these falsehoods came to have the name of the water cart: Furphies.
But where did the design of those water carts come from? They are the creation of John Furphy, Australian-born eldest son of Irish immigrants who were early farmers in Victoria in the 1840’s. Training as a blacksmith, at the age of 22 he established his own workshop in 1864. In 1873 he expanded his iron foundry works in Shepparton, making his own designs for agricultural machinery, including a patented grain stripper similar to the later combine harvester.
His varied designs won many awards, particularly in Centennial shows in 1888, but his best-known product was a water cart which carried 180 Imperial gallons (818 litres). It was a cylindrical iron tank, mounted on a timber frame on cast iron wheels, that could be pulled by a horse.
The key memorable detail was a cast circular plate at the ends, with the firm’s name as advertising and later a series of biblical sayings, the latter added by sons William and George, a key part of the name: J. Furphy and Sons. During WW1 they made an average of 300 per year.
A key worker starting in 1884 was John’s younger brother Joseph. He had battled drought and poor land holdings before establishing a thriving business as a carrier driving bullocks for 11 years, before that business also failed during a drought.
Joseph worked for 6 days a week for 20 years as a machinist in the foundry of his brother, but it was his ‘work after work’ that is of great interest. Every night he retreated (from his loveless marriage) to a small shed on the boundary fence of his house where he read widely and wrote.
He had little formal education save his mother’s teachings of the Bible and Shakespeare, but he had already established himself as a writer in the late 1860’s, mostly through encouragement by Kate Baker, a schoolteacher who boarded with his mother; and he had some stories printed in The Bulletin under the name ‘Warrigal Jack’.
During his time at the Foundry he wrote 1200 pages of handwritten manuscript (pardon the tautology). It was a portrait of the life of squatters, rural dwellers, bullock drivers and itinerants in southern NSW and Victoria during the 1880s. Titled ‘Such is Life’, the immortal last words of Ned Kelly, he sent it to The Bulletin where A. G. Stephens at recognized its worth, but could also see it was not a commercial proposition.
It was a further six years before it was published in 1903 and only sold about a third of the print run. After Joseph Furphy's death in 1912 Kate Baker bought the copyright from The Bulletin and published further editions as it became better known.
The book is now regarded as being the first great Australian novel. It is written as excerpts from a diary by a fictitious Tom Collins (common Australian slang for a tall story). The text varies between the elaborate language of high prose used by the author and the avuncular vernacular language of his characters. The book veers into sidetracks, indeed a whole section was removed from the manuscript and published in serial form as ‘Rigbys Romance’.
This legendary single book was commemorated by another great Australian writer, no less than Miles Franklin, author of ‘My Brilliant Career’, who published a full biography in 1944: “Joseph Furphy, the legend of a man and his book”.
The descendants of John’s second son, George, still run the company to this day, including Andrew Furphy who, together with John Barnes, wrote a beautifully researched and illustrated book ‘Furphy: The Water Cart And The Word’, in 2005, from which some of this story and images are taken.
Furphies may well be lies in Australian slang, but these two Furphys were great designers and writers, both contributing enormously to Australian life at the start of the 20th century.
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