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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Farrar, Phoebe Elizabeth (1868–1960)

by Lenore Coltheart

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Phoebe Elizabeth Farrar (1868-1960), bushwoman, was born on 19 December 1868 at Fish River, near Yass, New South Wales, daughter of Henry Wright, a labourer from England, and his native-born wife Martha, née Bauldrey. Nothing is known of Phoebe's early life until 1882 when she sailed to Normanton on the Gulf of Carpentaria with Jack and Mary Ann Farrar, employees of the pastoralist John Costello.

Having leased land between the Macarthur (McArthur) and Roper rivers in the Northern Territory, Costello organized an expedition that year to bring stores, equipment, cattle and horses to his property from the Gulf ports of Normanton and Burketown. Aged 13, Phoebe drove a wagon some 620 miles (998 km) to the Limmen River where Costello established his station, Valley of Springs. From 1890 the Farrars managed the property with Phoebe's help. Conditions were extremely harsh: the homestead was a collection of huts made from pandanus trunks, thatched with paperbark, with earth floors, doors of greenhide and a bough-shed kitchen.

Assisted by their son Robert, by 1901 Jack and Mary Ann were managing Nutwood Downs station. That year Phoebe gave birth to Robert's son. In 1902 they made a 700-mile (1127 km) round trip to Palmerston (Darwin) to have the child baptized. On the way they called at the Elsey; Jeannie Gunn described their visit in We of the Never-Never. Phoebe married Robert on 30 August 1904 with Anglican rites at Christ Church, Palmerston; they were to have three more children.

Bob and Phoebe next worked on Hodgson Downs station. They were among the few Whites employed on pastoral properties in the Territory where most of the labour was performed by Aborigines. Like numerous Aboriginal women, Phoebe was a competent stockwoman and a skilled rider. Slim but strong, she broke horses, tailed cattle in wild scrub country, worked at musters, and was adept at roping, throwing, branding and shooting. Her cooking was often done at night. She also made furniture and equipment for use in the house and in camps.

In 1925 the Farrars bought land at Brocks Creek. Phoebe drove a mob of cattle there and chose a site for the homestead, which she called Ban Ban Springs. About 1935, while branding cattle, she was charged by a bull and badly gored; it was two days before a doctor reached her; she was taken to Darwin and underwent an operation on her broken hip. Returning home, she continued to ride until late in life. She was again hospitalized from 1956. Survived by her two sons and a daughter, she died on 19 August 1960 in Darwin Hospital and was buried with Catholic rites in Darwin general cemetery. On her death certificate her occupation was recorded as 'housewife': the term did not encapsulate her seventy-eight years of making bush camps, droving, mustering, and mothering. Her family remembered that she had been able to 'fold a buffalo hide like other people could fold a piece of paper', and that nothing kept her down.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Baldwin (ed), Unsung Heroes & Heroines of Australia (Melb, 1988)
  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (Syd, 1988)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 23 Aug 1960
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Aug 1960.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Lenore Coltheart, 'Farrar, Phoebe Elizabeth (1868–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 31 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Wright, Phoebe

19 December 1868
Yass, New South Wales, Australia


19 August 1960
Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence