The Speewah

I can vaguely remember hearing people refer to The Speewah when I was a lad, but you don’t often hear it mentioned these days. But since it’s a part of Outback mythology, it deserves to be revived.

The Speewah was a mythical Outback property of vast proportions, where everything – the people, the weather, the wildlife, the mustering and shearing feats – was larger than life. Many an Outback yarn featured The Speewah, and sometimes Crooked Mick, one of its most fabled workers, or Big Bill “who built the barbed-wire fence”, or Slab-face Joe. These stories were often set in the period from a bit before the great shearers’ strike of 1891 through to the 1920s.

The location of The Speewah is hard to pin down. Workers on the Darling said it was back o’ Bourke, but in Bourke they’d tell you “out west”. When you got out west, they’d point to Queensland, and in Queensland, they’d tell you it was in the Kimberleys. Some would just say “west of the sunset”.

Many a claim to some extreme conditions or achievement would be met with something like:

• “Call that mud? You shoulda seen it up on the Speewah …”
• “Yeah, but on the Speewah, if you were told to ride down and shut the main gate, you had to take a week’s rations.”
• “Crooked Mick’s feet were so big, he had to go outside to turn around.”
• “The dust storms were so thick on the Speewah that the rabbits dug burrows in them.”
• “Up on the Speewah, when the cook was frying up bacon and eggs for the men, he needed a motorbike to get around the frying pan.”

When Crooked Mick was a boy, he started growing so fast that his father tried to slow his growth by ring-barking his legs. It didn’t work, but it did give him a nasty limp – and the name “Crooked Mick”. In his working life, he seemed to exceed the norm in just about every way possible. He shore sheep at such a rate that his shears ran hot, and so he kept half a dozen pairs in a water pot to cool. He was a heavy smoker, and it kept one rouseabout busy just cutting tobacco and filling Mick’s pipe. He ate two sheep for each meal – that is, if they were small Merinos – but only one and a half if they were crossbred wethers. He was also a champion fencer, and when digging post holes used a crowbar in one hand and a shovel in the other. It’s been said that he used Uluru to stone the crows (although this may be an exaggeration).

There are a couple of places in Australia today called “Speewah” or “Speewa”, but these are thought to have been named after the original legendary Speewah.

Here are some suggestions for further reading about the Speewah and Crooked Mick:

• The Great Speewah Flood: http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/speflood.htm
• Crooked Mick Builds a Railway: http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/mickrail.htm
• Bulls of Speewah: http://users.tpg.com.au/dandsc/op/op29.htm
• The Speewah Picnics: http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/campbell-david/the-speewah-picnics-0544022
• A True Tale of the Speewah: http://archiearchive.wordpress.com/2006/07/15/the-speewah/

Crooked Mick was so big it was hard to get all of him in the picture. (This is a still from the movie Crooked Mick of the Speewah.)
crooked mick

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About dazzlerplus

Writing about the things that interest me helps me to discover what I think. One of my loves is the Australian Outback, and I travel out there often, and when possible take friends with me.
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10 Responses to The Speewah

  1. Mandy says:

    Never heard of the Speewah before so I will be doing some research now. Thanks for the education Rob.

  2. Lavinia Ross says:

    Love these accounts of the local lore, wherever it may be. Never heard of the Speewah – thanks for sharing. My father came from the coal mining area of southeast Kentucky, full of its own legends.

    • dazzlerplus says:

      It seems to me that hard physical work is often a breeding ground for legends. Remember John Henry?

      • Lavinia Ross says:

        Yes, sure do! Many versions of the song “John Henry” based on that legend are out there. I also remember hearing stories of a creature called The High Behind. It walked around bent over, with a sack on it’s back. It stole little children, stuffing them in the sack, presumably took them home for dinner.

  3. dazzlerplus says:

    The High Behind sounds pretty nasty! Strangely, Google doesn’t tell me anything about this creature. Maybe too nasty to talk about.

  4. Lavinia Ross says:

    Found a reference to a creature called a “Hide Behind” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hidebehind )
    The creature and story could have morphed into the “High Behind” in that area. My father was also good at putting his own spin on tales….

  5. Quentin says:

    There was a station in the Kimberly’s named Speewah, next to Dunham River station.
    It or Dunham River Station is now Doon Doon.

    They were bought back buy the Government and given to back to the Indigenous groups as I understand it.

    Have heard a rumour there is a link to the Speewah station and a new Speewah named after it in WA by the same family.

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