The naked truth: Great Furphies of Australian history

Sidney Nolan’s The trial, 1947 from the Ned Kelly series.


As countries go, Australia is fairly young (the European-derived version of it, anyway). But we have plenty of stories, old yarns, and historical tales, involving everything from intrepid explorers to republican bushrangers. The problem, according to this highly entertaining book, is that many of them are not true.

Jim Haynes is a good person to be tackling this subject. He has written and compiled a large number of books about Australian stories – Best Australian Drinking Stories and Great Australian Scams, Cons and Rorts – to name only two, and he obviously loves the national trait of storytelling.

His focus in Great Furphies of Australian History is stories that can be shown to be untrue with a little research or even some common sense, yet have somehow gained the patina of truth. Some of them are even taught in school history classes, which may say as much about the education system as it does about the national psyche. These truthy-but-false stories are called furphies (a uniquely Australian word connected to the water-carts manufactured by the Furphy family, around which people would meet and gossip). Haynes emphasises that many old stories require an understanding of the social context of the time, so he devotes considerable effort to ferreting out the truth behind the most notable furphies.

Take, for example, the story of the Ashes, which has become a part of cricket history, following an early win of an Australian team over an English one. Yes, there is a little bottle (which probably contains ashes of some sort) at the MCG sports museum, but there is actually no evidence that the contents were once wicket bails. Think about it, says Haynes. How likely is it that in a moment of triumph the winning team would take the time to burn some of their equipment? And how would you do it, and collect the ashes? The origin of the story appears to relate to a joke “obituary” in a newspaper about the death of English cricket, with the body to be cremated and the ashes sent to Australia. The urn was donated to the MCG in 1927 by a woman called Florence Bligh; her late husband, who had previously owned it, was a notable English cricketer in his day.

Some of the most persistent furphies relate to Captain Cook – who was actually a lieutenant when he “discovered” Australia. Haynes devotes several chapters to him, noting that while he was a highly competent navigator and good administrator he was primarily a naval officer. For most of his explorations he was simply following directions set out in his orders. This is what military men did in those days, Haynes says: independence of mind was not considered to be a professional asset. And, no, Cook never lived in the cottage transplanted to the Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne. Sorry.

Haynes might have an admiration for Cook but he has less warm feelings for Ned Kelly. He wonders why he is often seen as a folk hero when there is ample evidence that he was a professional criminal, bordering on psychopathy. Kelly did not rob banks out of some attempt to strike at the upper classes but simply because that was where the money was (or so he thought; he was not particularly competent at the business end of things). But somehow he has been cast as an underdog hero of the oppressed working class. There is scant evidence that he had any political views at all, which makes it strange that he has even been claimed as a sort of proto-republican.

Haynes admits to being puzzled by the Kelly myth, although Australians have always had a liking for backyard inventors – and Ned, with his innovated suit of armour, might qualify.

Great Australian Furphies by Jim Haynes

Haynes has a good time chasing down the origin of some of the more colourful Australian words. “Dinkum” is sometimes thought to have originated as a Chinese word on the early Australian goldfields, meaning “pure gold”. Not true: it comes from Lincolnshire in England, and it means “due share of work”. “Pom” is not a derisive term for British people but is connected to pomegranates, probably due to their ruddy complexion. No insult intended, originally.

Haynes wades through all this with his tongue firmly in his cheek. After all, there is no real harm being done by these furphies, and they have a place in our national narrative. He concludes that they persist, and often become “true”, not just by repetition but because the fake can be more interesting than the reality. The train that runs from Adelaide to Darwin, for instance, is called the Ghan not because of the legacy of pioneering Afghan cameleers but after George Gahan, Commissioner of Railways when it was built. But Afghan cameleers is a better story than the public servant. As Ned Kelly (possibly, maybe?) said: such is life.



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