Unearthed Toonalook Diaries Rewrite Australian Surfing History
A stunning treasure trove of documents, diaries and newspaper clippings has recently been uncovered under the floorboards of notorious Toonalook enforcer Barry ‘Baz’ Cornell’s kitchen, it can be revealed today.
This cache of artefacts – verified by The Toona Historical Society – not only illuminates a fascinating chapter of our convict past, it may very possibly turn the accepted narrative of Australia’s surfing heritage on its head.
The extraordinary find came about thanks to some modest renovations Mr Cornell was reluctantly carrying out under an ultimatum delivered by long-suffering live-in partner Sharon.
“Geez, ya pull back a little corner of lino to see what’s going on, next thing ya know ya got half the fucken floor ripped out and ya Missus is four hours up the road at IKEA pickin’ out new fucken benchtops ‘n’ taps ‘n’ shit…
“Anyway, found this ratty old suitcase wrapped in a tarp, and yeah it’s heaps full of shit from the olden fucken days ay.”
We can report that, along with a number of empty liquor flasks and a comprehensive stash of Victorian-era pornography, this small brown suitcase contained dozens of letters of correspondence, newspaper clippings dating back to 1850, and most significantly of all, several handwritten volumes of journals and diaries kept by Mr Cornell’s Great Great Great Great Grandfather – identified as one Bartholomew H. Cornelius.
Apart from the pornography, which Mr Cornell has deemed too precious to release, Ding Alley has been granted access to these diaries and clippings, which it has been combing through with forensic care, reconstructing the remarkable story of Cornell’s ancient forebear, which we shall summarise here.
Born 1827 in Yorkshire, Britain, to schoolteacher parents Barrie and Esmae Cornelius, young Bartholomew embarked upon a carpenter’s apprenticeship in London, aged 16.
“My masters were never pleased with my efforts with woodwork,” Cornelius reflects in his earliest diary. “And I cannot wholly blame them, my lines were never straight, my corners forever curved, and edges always rounded. It is a compulsion I could not remedy no matter how hard I tried, or how instructively I was beaten or buggered.”
Thus it was that by the age of 17, in the year 1844, Cornelius was relieved of his vocational training, and eked out a living through petty crime and finding occasional employment as doorman at London’s ale-houses of low repute, where his eagerness to discipline troublesome patrons earned him modest renown as “Bartholomew The Enforcer.”
By the age of 21, Cornelius’ escalating run-ins with the law culminated in his arrest “for theft of several unwashed ladies’ undergarments, worth upwards of three pennies, with the intent of vile self-gratification through the inhalation of their aroma.”
The Judge’s entirely reasonable sentence – Death by Hanging – was commuted instantly to Transportation to the Colonies, and Cornelius spent fourteen months in a hulk on the Thames awaiting departure.
Details of this incarceration and subsequent journey south to the colonies are scarcely acknowledged in his diaries, other than mentions of the “supreme pleasure of feeling our ship rolling forward with the swells”.
Of significant note, however, is the fact that ‘Bridgewater’ – the three-mast Brigantine which ferried Cornelius and 237 fellow convicts across the hemispheres – was the last convict ship ever to be dispatched to the New South Wales colonies.
Much ado was made of this historical bookend. A colonial newspaper clipping from 18th July 1850 reads as follows. “The Governor – who seems most afternoons these days to be in such a state of jovial libation that walking in a straight line is only achieved with much concentration – made a special appearance dockside to mark the arrival of the last transport vessel, and after selecting three of the most handsome female convicts to serve as his scullery maids (as is his custom and right) – impulsively bestowed total pardon to the last convict to disembark from the Bridgewater, chortling heartily all the while.
“Bartholomew H. Cornelius, guilty of theft with intent of self-flagellation, was the astonished recipient of the Governor’s good graces, and was granted 30 acres of land in the fledgling coastal settlement of Toonalook, two days’ north by supply boat, departing forthwith.”
And thus Cornelius’s first night on Australian soil was as an unexpectedly free man, with land to his name overlooking Toonalook’s picturesque headland, “where aquamarine rollers would groom themselves in orderly accordance with the angular bathymetry”.
Fortified with a surfeit of provisions he had discretely availed himself to off the supply boat, Cornelius’s diaries from that period are flavoured with the heady optimism befitting a man granted a second chance at life in a promising new country.
Diary Entry, July 21st, 1850
“My first morning in this exotic new land proved unvexed were it not for a fly – practically the size of a sparrow – alighting on my buttocks as I performed my morning toilet and rendering a pain so piercing and sharp as to be exquisite.
“Fortunately, this appears to be the extent of malignant creatures that might threaten my person, as in my brief reconnaissance I saw neither snake nor spyder nor ant, so I am confident I shall find easy comfort in this terrain.
“Indeed, combing the shoreline, I uncovered a charming, playful specimen of octopus in the shallows, that – when engaged with – adorned itself with brilliant, iridescent blue rings that glowed like so many shimmering beacons of welcome.
“So taken with admiration for this charming creature was I, that I ferried it henceforth into the hands of a passing-by youngster, a delicate lad who introduced himself as Charles, offspring of a neighbouring settler, on whose good terms I would do well to position myself.
“Charles bade me goodbye, thanked me for his new pet, (remarking that his parents forbade such kinship with the local fauna), and promised to take good care of it, at which its iridescent blue rings glowed more joyously than ever.”
Diary Entry, July 30th, 1850
“A week into my stay and I have hewn myself a lean-to which provides adequate shelter for the short term, and have reconciled to sharing it with a number of remarkable spyders, large as a man’s hand, but benign and familiar, their fur gentle to the touch, weaving wondrous, intricate webs fashioned in the form best described as a funnel. I have given them names and am coming to enjoy their company.
“The small community of settlers I find myself among are polite and respectful but yet to fully embrace my presence, which is understandable given they are collectively mourning the unfortunate demise of their young lad Charles, who by all accounts was beloved pride and joy of the settlement, and who’s mysterious passing (on the day of my arrival no less) defies easy diagnosis.
“Whether it was the consumption, the pox, or the dropsy that claimed him, we shall never know, though my intuition tells me it was the dropsy, as he seemed wan, pale, and easy to tire on my brief encounter with him that fateful day.”
Cornelius’s journals over the next months paint a vivid picture of a man finding reward in his labours, warm embrace in the tight knit Toonalook community, and the giddy joy of intimate companionship.
Diary entry, October 12th 1850
“Though I have not managed to curb my disdain for a straight line, my carpenter’s training has served me well, and my cottage is coming together splendidly. All that remains is a few items of comfort, a table and some chairs, and I shall be quite comfortable.
“While on matters of comfort, I have established a mutually beneficial relationship with a robust ground-dwelling bear, known by some as a ‘Wombat’, but whom I address as Beatrice. A bashful, indolent creature to be sure, and at first blush not readily tameable, but soft of fur, firm of rump and with most pleasing symmetry of teat, and who’s obliging presence more than adequately entertains the God-given cravings felt by a man separated by the hemispheres from the night-company of his treasured spaniel.
“Our small community grows steadily, as more settlers are granted their freehold plots of land, and it is heartening to see the influx of visitors. I believe I speak for myself and all future Cornelius generations, (if, indeed my dear Beatrice is ever supplanted by a partner better provisioned for reproduction) when I proclaim the more inhabitants and visitors to Toonalook, the better. I cannot imagine a day would ever come where I, or anyone, would begrudge visitation.”
Cornelius’ diaries through the rest of 1850 and into 1851 show a man – wise, community-minded and generous of heart. A man at peace and thriving.
An extraordinary occurrence on March 23th, 1851, however, proves to be a profound turning point in the life of Barton H Cornelius. A pivotal, seismic event – scarcely credible, were it not so vividly documented in his journal – that would reverberate for generations of colonial coastal culture to this day.
What follows is his diary entry in full.
Diary entry, March 23th 1851
“I write tonight by candlelight, scarcely able to control my trembling hand. I have banished Beatrice to the stables for the night, lest that wanton slut distract me from my duty, which is to document what has transpired today so I may one day make sense of it.
“Morning dawned with no foreshadowing of the tumult ahead, indeed a glorious blue-sky day beckoned. I resolved to at last craft myself a small dining table – the final adornment to my modest cottage – and, noticing the fallen tree out on the headland, carried my tools, my adze, axe and saw-horse out to the exposed promontory and began my labours.
“As I hefted a slab of lumber from the tree and onto the saw-horse – with the sparkling ocean and white, roiling surf either side of me, the land-wind dramatically feathering their crests – it was a sublime pleasure to strip to my undergarments and set about the task of crafting a table at which myself and Beatrice would enjoy our suppers, seated at either end, like a real Lord and Lady.
“In deference to dear Beatrice’s stocky demeanour, I had in mind a low-lying table, slightly elevated at my end, rockered so as to provide her with a level dining surface. I purported to craft it as a rectangle, but fell back on my old irreducible habits and, as if guided by providential hand, found myself with a creation roughly six feet long, 20 inches wide and two-and-five-eighth inches thick, tapering at either end, with rolled edges. The end, at which Beatrice would dine, was pointed, whereas my end was rounded in a semi circle, on the underside of which I used my adze to create two parallel concaves, for reasons I cannot satisfactorily explain.
“In totality, the shape might somehow be comparable to a rounded eucalyptus leaf, but with unique symmetry and heft.
“Were I content to tuck my table under one arm, my tools and saw horse under the other, and stroll back to the cottage, the day would have passed uneventfully and satisfactorily enough.
“Instead, I determined to avail myself of Neptune’s plentiful spume, to banish the dust and woodshavings that adorned every inch of my flesh, not to mention my new creation.
“I took myself to the elevated rock platform at the end of the isthmus, where the rollers colliding with the land resulted in a dramatic showering of water, suitable for the purposes of bathing.
“Alas, I was so smitten by the wondrous sculpture under my arm I paid insufficient attention to the sea, and found myself snatched from the platform by Poseidon’s treacherous ambush, violently cast into the briny, whereupon I greatly feared imminent death by either drowning or being dashed upon the rocks.
“Desperately, I clambered aboard my wooden table and endeavoured to produce some forward locomotion by making paddling gestures with my arms.
“Fortuitously, the gently curved outline and rockered nature of my creation proved amenable to cutting through the water under my exhortations, and for a moment I dared dream I might yet see Beatrice on this earthly plane once more, as I set out on my aqueous perambulation back towards the sandy beach.
“I cannot find the words to describe the feeling of sheer discombobulation, (other than discombobulation) when a swell, seemingly without warning, lifted me abruptly from behind as I was motioning shoreward.
“I paddled faster, hoping in vain to outpace Neptune’s evil harbinger, but this only enjoined me more intimately with its fearsome and relentless march forward.
“As if in some awful nightmare, I found myself atop the crest of this mighty unbroken swell, which now seemed to be gathering and directing its energies at the outcrop of rocks drawing ever closer.
“Instantaneously and without warning, I found myself propelled forward and down with fearsome velocity, heading directly for the aforementioned boulders. With a great cry of alarm I leapt to my feet so as to put the utmost distance between myself and catastrophe, and instinctively made to spring to my right, away from the wretched outcrop… but as I did so, my wooden creation followed suit underfoot and together we propelled ourselves perpendicular to the wave, moving from the white foaming water to the beckoning calm of the unbroken swell in a manner I can only describe as miraculous.
“And much as I cannot adequately describe the terror of this experience, similarly I cannot begin to articulate the pleasurable sensation of traversing across the grain of this swell.
“By leaning this way and that, and distributing my weight at times forward and back, I was able to regulate the tempo of my diagonal journey shoreward, and it gave me profound satisfaction to move from the base of the roller up into the crest, where, when nearing the apex, suitable bodily adjustments would henceforth redirect me with great acceleration back down to the base again, whereupon I would repeat the process with metronomic joy.
“How much time elapsed during this journey, I cannot say, for not only was I transported from the furthermost extremity of the headland to the sandy beach on the inside of the bay, (a distance of several hundred yards), I was, more profoundly, transported into a state of euphoria that surpassed even the heights of pleasure attained in nightly union with my beloved. And, in uncanny echo of my proprietary feelings towards that cherished creature, I felt fiercely possessive of this experience.
“So potent was the pleasure coursing through my veins, that on gaining the shore, instead of returning gratefully home, thankful to have evaded Davey Jones’ locker, I immediately made tracks back around to the headland, for I felt an unquenchable desire to repeat the experience.
“Hastening along the beach, with my creation under arm, I was surprised by a fellow leaping out of the bushes in a state of great excitement. I recognised him at the grief-stricken father of the departed Charles. It was pleasing to see him animated for a change, as his incessant moping did little for morale of the settlement.
“ ‘Good heavens Mr Cornelius,’ he ejaculated, ‘I saw you vigorously carried ashore on that swell! It looks like an activity of tremendous pleasure!
“ ‘I wonder, Bartholomew, if perhaps you might see fit to allow me to undertake this intriguing new pastime as well? We could perchance take turns, as it were. I sense it would lift my grieved spirits no end.’
“To say I bristled at this scoundrel’s suggestion is to wildly understate the matter, for during that rapturous encounter with the swell I can only surmise that in the heights of pleasure, when I felt my senses could no longer contain themselves for the otherworldly exhilaration, Poseidon himself took possession of my soul, for surely it was not Bartholomew H Cornelius who delivered my coarse rejoinder – my voice now an octave lower, my Yorkshire accent replaced with something broad, base and harsh.
“I jabbed my forefinger into his sternum and, foaming at the mouth, exclaimed a stream of invective that for all I know may have been the devil’s tongue: ‘FAARRK ORRRF YA CAAARRRNNT! I’M FARKEN BARRY CORNELL AND THIS IS MY FAARKEN SPOT. ALWAYS WAS, ALWAYS WILL BE, AND DON’T YOU FFFAAARRRKN FORGET IT ORRIGHT CAAARRRNT?’
“This extraordinary outburst set the interloper back on his heels, and it may have been the end of the matter, but for the fact that a group of natives had been within earshot, and regarding this encounter in its entirety.
“Had I not known they were brute savages void of human sentience, I could have sworn they were shaking their heads in disbelief and emitting scornful, contemptuous chuckles. One even gestured at me and made a motion to self-flagellate, as if my rightful claim to ownership of this domain was something to be made mockery of! This perplexed me greatly.
“And now, in a state of exhaustion both mental and physical (I performed over a dozen aqueous circuits of the headland), I must close my diary and sleep.
“My candle is burned to a stub, Beatrice is scratching perpetually at the door, demanding affection I fear I cannot muster in return, for I am deeply in thrall to the transcendent sensations uncovered today… yet I feel a conflict, a jealousy, stirring anew in my heart.
“It is a disquiet I fear may only be subjugated through the nightly ingestion of spirits and beer, and the five-leafed wild-tobacco plant that grows bountifully wherever one turns in Toonalook – a substance for which I have a sudden and powerful desire. (Tomorrow I shall fashion an intricate smoking device of sorts, hollow and sealed at its base for the containment of water, with a perpendicular spout, with which to inhale this liberating tobacco.)
“For now, however, my heart pounds in unison with the sound the surf pounding the shore this starless night. I sincerely intend to wake early to avail myself of it.
// DING ALLEY
Ding Alley is Illustrator David @maccatoons McArthur and (clearly-off-with-the-pixies) writer Gra Murdoch. (It should be noted that the name and date etc of the last convict transport ship here etc, is arbitrary and not historically accurate. That would involve research etc.)