“Furphy” is such a wonderful word ….. and it’s origins in the Australian lexicon have always intrigued me.
A furphy is Australian slang for an erroneous or improbable story that is claimed to be factual. Furphies are supposedly ‘heard’ from reputable sources, sometimes secondhand or third hand, and widely believed until discounted. The word is said to derive from water carts designed and made by a company established by John Furphy of J. Furphy & Sons of Shepparton, Victoria. The steel and cast iron tanks were first made in the 1880s and were used on farms and by stock agents. Many Furphy water carts were used to take water to Australian Army personnel during World War I in Australia, Europe and the Middle East. The carts, with “J. Furphy & Sons” written on their tanks, became popular as gathering places where soldiers could exchange gossip, rumours and fanciful tales – much like today’s water cooler discussion. (Wikipedia)
I had, through my interest in classic and historic cars, come across the Furphy water cart in the past. Having seen the heavy cast circular ends with the name clearly emblazoned at swap meets and clearing sales, I had not made the connection between obsolete colloquial language, engineering, farm machinery and books.
That was, until the name surfaced in a family line I was researching for a friend. Was there a connection? Did the Furphy family I had stumbled across in Western Australia have anything to do with the Furphy water cart?
Reading up on the Furphy water cart and its origins in Victoria, it still seemed strange that I had this Furphy connection in Western Australia. It was one of those rabbit holes I just had to dive down and try and unpick…. especially as, in researching my family of interest, I came across the grave of the great great aunt Boleyn (nee Balcam) I was tracking and here she was, buried in Karrakatta Cemetery in a grave named FURPHY!
This Balcam family was a family that had started out in the Channel Islands, migrating to Victoria in the 1860’s and, in this case, finally fetching up on the other side of the continent in Western Australia. Mrs Boleyn didn’t have a big family – she had married in 1866 in Victoria and her husband died there in 1880. Of her seven children, two died as infants and another predeceased her. With the exception of her daughter Emily, the remaining children stayed in Victoria.
Emily married Felix Ernest Furphy in 1893 and by 1903, had 5 children all born in the Shepparton/Mooroopna area of Victoria. For reasons that seemed inexplicable at this point, some time between 1903 and 1915, Emily and Felix, together with their four surviving children and Mrs Boleyn, made the trip to WA and settled there. Mrs Boleyn already had family in Western Australia as her sister, brother-in-law and their children had already relocated their family west some 10 years earlier.
Emily buried her mother and husband Felix three years apart in the same grave.
The Furphy family were just begging for a little scratching under the surface to see if there was any connection – nothing like a distraction from the task at hand! Some basic investigation in the Victorian Births Deaths and Marriages Indexes revealed Felix’s parentage: Joseph Furphy and Leonie Selina (or Celine) Germain. Discovering this, I tried to find death registrations in Victoria for these two – no luck! Imagine my surprise to discover that both parents could be found on the WA Death index – did Joseph and Leonie move interstate to join their son and his family or was it the other way round?
The next question was to find out whether Joseph was connected to the Furphy Water cart family or not…..
Trove to the rescue:
FURPHY.—On September 13, at Claremont, suddenly, Joseph Furphy, late of Shepparton, Victoria, beloved father of Felix, Sylvia, and Sam. Interment private.
And then there was more to the story that started to help put the pieces in place:
“Tom Collins,” whose franchise name was Joseph Furphy, was a “Bulletin” writer who died in 1913, and now a selection of his verses has been issued in book form, with an interesting preface, by Mr. Bernard O’Dowd. Furphy was an Irishman born of Methodist parents, but in Australia he took a
more cosmopolite view of human affairs and destiny, so that his writings assumed a wider outlook than his early
environment favored. Some years ago he published a book, “Such Is Life,” which Mr. O’Dowd describes as remarkable. Without going so far, we may say it was well reviewed, and is
worthy of survival. The present collection of verses is not poetry, however. It contains good facile rhyming and is easy reading: The best thing in it is undoubtedly ”Brahm,” as the author’s sponsor says, and is better than a lot of stuff that appears in
anthologies of alleged Australian verse.
Mr. Furphy came to W.A. in his later years and lived at Claremont, where he died. His mother, aged 98, is still
living with his widow, and his two sons, Felix and Sam, are proprietors of a foundry at Fremantle.
It was looking very much like I had a connection – the comment at the end of the piece was the clincher as”…are proprietors of a foundry at Fremantle” sounded as if ironmongery and those water carts were, in fact, all in the family! And this was further confirmed by a comment in this article written in 1949:
Furphy’s daughter had been settled in W.A. with her husband
for a year or two before hard times in Shepparton decided her
brothers, Felix and Sam Furphy, to try their luck in the West, then booming. In 1903 they landed at Albany with some idea of staying there. Instead they came to Perth, immediately secured jobs at Hoskin’s Foundry, and sent back to Victoria for their wives to follow. The jobs did not last long. The young men saw an opening in Fremantle; and in less than no time had their own foundry established. Furphy Bros. soon built a reputation that it still enjoys.
Why write about this family now? I was prompted to revisit this story by an article that had appeared in the paper
over the weekend – and, like the niggle that insisted I trace the possibility of a connection, the article lit that little fire! There’s to be a national short story competition – and what better time to tell a little story of my own.
To honour the author of Such is Life, and “the furphy” that was born of the water cart, the family will launch a national short story prize, breathing fresh life into the tradition of yarn-spinning – either fact or fiction – that Joseph and his contemporaries Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson made a part of Australian life.
5 Feb 2020 – Addendum: The Furphy Short Story Writing Competition has it’s own website: Check it out!
….. and get writing!