Freddie Campion was a member of the Governor’s staff, the NSW golf champion of 1895 and an athletic horseman who loved to shoot. The neglect of the spiritual health of the Western people haunted him; he returned to England to train for the ministry. February 1902 saw him disembarking from the SS RUNIC in Sydney with two other passionate young Anglican missionaries, Charles Matthews and Reuben Coverdale. They were bound for Dubbo as the nucleus of a unique band of men who were to become known across the Western plains over the next century simply as ‘the Bush Brothers’. Click READ MORE
“You go out to Bourke, my boy, as the first Australian priest they have ever had,” the bishop told 22 year old John Dent Martyn in the spring of 1924. “You are the Anglican bush brother in charge of Bourke and the 25,000 square miles beyond it.” It was a far cry from the quaint image of the parson cycling around his comfortable English parish. Four months after his arrival, John wrote to his sister about adventures in his T model Ford.
“The old Lizzie in which I have to travel is quite a specimen for the Museum. It is six years old, has done 76,000 miles, has been up two trees, has torpedoed one cow, has had the chassis snapped, has been bogged, I might say, hundreds of times! I have just got in tonight from a 150 mile trip. That is the shortest trip I have to do…Who wouldn’t be a Bush Brother? This district is half the size of England and just as large as the whole of Victoria.”
Eventually provided a new Ford, the young priest jubilantly covered 1,300miles of his parish in three weeks, his faithful dog Kreuger perched on the running board.
Brother John’s robust manliness earned him respect with the bushmen. He abandoned the clerical garb while on the road, took boxing gloves with him when he dropped into the shearing sheds and often went a few rounds with any willing starter. He quickly learned to understand the wool industry, and yarned intelligently with the men over a meal or a game of cards. The Union rep. would more often than not organize the men to attend Brother John’s services, which were somewhat different.
John was to write on another occasion, “I have joined in the singing of this hymn in Cathedrals…but here in this corrugated iron kitchen, twenty one miles out of Bourke, it had another meaning.”
Endless stories circulated the town and district of John’s kindness and practicality; everything from loaning ‘Curley’ the shearer a quid to get by , praying through the night with a dying child, or visiting households day and night when dengue fever gripped the town. John once drove 22 hours straight to Sydney in the old Ford without brakes to donate blood to his desperately ill niece. He spent many nights working as an extra nurse at the hospital. The Matron recalled, “I am not at all religious and I never once went inside his church. He could do more for the world by the life he lived and the example he showed than all the preaching of the most eloquent nature.”
When Brother John's five year commitment was up, the town was grieved to lose their cheerful, commonsense pastor; the words most often used about him were “‘big hearted.” A few days later a poem appeared in the Western Herald written by a Bourke bloke ‘while sitting on a tin beside a campfire’. A year later, when news arrived from Sydney that John Martyn had passed away as the result of an accident, aged only 29, these lines became a kind of rough bush eulogy.
When you first came among us Brother John,
With your kindly face so good to look upon,
The kindly smile was there,
With a cheery word to spare,
We will miss you when you leave us, Brother John.
Five Years you’ve been with us Brother John,
Five droughty years have come and haven’t gone;
But there isn’t any doubt
With the Church there was no drought,
For you’ve been the goodly shepherd, Brother John.
Here in Bourke and further out Brother John,
In this land of dust and drought, Brother John,
The West will write your name
In her guarded scroll- the same
Will be in golden letters, “Brother John”.
Join The Outback Historian, Paul Roe, on an unforgettable journey into Australia's Past as he follows the footprints of the Master Storyteller and uncovers unknown treasures of the nation.