“I’m going to Hoskinstown this weekend,” I said to a friend the other day. She looked at me, nodding knowingly. Or seemed to. “Oh, you’re going to the Coast?” she said. “Ah, no,” I said. “Oh, down near Sydney?” she tried again. “Or Melbourne?”
Hoskinstown is only around 40 minutes from Canberra CBD, situated 30km out of Queanbeyan. It is located in spectacular country that is part of the strong gold mining and pastoral history of the early settlers in New South Wales. But these days, you probably only know about it if you go out to pick chestnuts at Tweenhills, attend the Hoskinstown annual Mothers Day chestnut roast, or if you are a trail bike rider.
Although I first moved to Canberra 18 years ago, I only heard about Hoskinstown last year. I go out there regularly now to visit my fiance’s parents who live there. My man used to live out there, too, before meeting me. Although we now live in Canberra CBD he still remains part of the community through his involvement in the Rural Fire Service. However, on this occasion, we were there to celebrate 90 years of the Hoskinstown War Memorial Hall and to take part in a community bush dance (1920s fancy dress).
Hoskinstown in 1928 was very different from the sleepy rural community of today. Canberra had only just been established as Australia’s capital city for one, but most public servants did not yet live there. As for Hoskinstown, most residents probably made their living on the land, mostly from sheep farming and forestry. Many of them were probably wealthy by the standards of the day, as wool and timber were major industries. The town was on the main road to the coast, so in those days it was a comparatively busy highway down to the ports. A railway line also went through town, going out to the mining town of Captain’s Flat. There was not one, but several pubs, a post office, school and even a hospital.
With these dynamics in mind, I can only imagine that a ball to open the new Hoskinstown (note the spelling is without a ‘g’) would have been a fashionable affair. I can almost picture new-fangled automobiles stopping outside of the hall, with women dressed Gatsby style alighting with their short bobs hidden underneath cloche hats. A newspaper report of the day described in detail the outfits that all one hundred of the couples who attended wore, with them draped in crepe de chine and other expensive fabrics.
There was dancing, socialising, and lots of merriment. Yet not everyone was fully coordinated with the dancing. A small yet steady stream of participants disappeared up the road, and on returning, appeared somewhat legless. It turned out that the ball guests were going to the local post office, where the postman ran a sly grog operation. In a story you would expect to read about in 1920s Chicago, the Queanbeyan police ran a sting operation and the postman was arrested and charged. (Alcohol was illegal in the Australian Capital Territory from 1911 to 1928. People used to go across the border into Queanbeyan to buy their grog. Presumably, there was a market for bootleg alcohol in the region at that time.)
Back now to 2018 and to the 90th celebrations. The hall committee, led by Rowan Simpkin, organised a bush dance headed by Paverty Bush Band. It was a whole lot of fun. I hadn’t done bush dancing since primary school, and as we warmed up with the heel and toe polka, I found myself getting back into the swing of things. I was surprised, too, to see so many kids involved and excited to take part. There were squeals of delight ahead of the Hokey Pokey, and no I didn’t at all feel weird doing it.
I was even more surprised by the flirtiness of the moves, which involved holding hands, swinging arms, lots of jumping around and partner swapping (aka progressive dancing). “Speed dating for the 1920s,” one of my friends noted just before we partner swapped yet again. It was certainly a good way to get to meet everyone in the room – and no worries if you didn’t like the partner you came with, as you could flirt (and even touch) the one you really liked. As for me, I was happy to be with a man who enjoyed dancing and having fun. But while I thought my fiance was quite handsome, I must admit that the cutest dancer was a three-year-old redhead, somewhat confused but bravely keeping on amidst all the partner swapping.
On the dancing went, and by the end of the night, we had done several complicated moves that involved things like threading the needle and casting off, tried simple square dancing and much bowing and clapping and spinning partners. I especially enjoyed dancing to the elegant and graceful Pride of Erin. I remember being forced to touch hands with sweaty school boys in the fifth grade when learning it, and despite being told that it was an important social dance, had not danced it since. I was confused by the steps at first as I had learnt the Queensland version (there are in fact several different versions). As we finished with a rendition of strip the willow (once again I was struck by the flirtiness of it all), I was sad that the evening had come to an end so quickly.
It occurred to me that there is so much depth to these seemingly simple bush dances, and they are such an important and often overlooked part of Australia’s cultural heritage. I could hear the Irish and English – perhaps Scottish? – influences in the dances. I could imagine my Protestant Irish grandmother dancing to one of these bush dances at a church hall mixer in rural Victoria. Maybe that’s how she met my grandfather. Or perhaps the hall could have been filled with Catholic Irish relatives of my fiance, who were early settlers who set down roots in the Cooma Monaro region (some of who immigrated not too far from Hoskinstown in Majors Creek). They sound like they were a bit of a wild bunch.
There are now fewer and fewer opportunities for these types of bush dances. The ability not only to play bush dances but to call them – as Paverty Bush Band did so well – is a skilful art. So, too, are opportunities in our busy lives for the community to come together. There is nothing like a bit of a bush dance in the country to put things into perspective.
Hoskinstown is between Bungendore and Captains Flat. It is a 20 to 30-minute drive from Queanbeyan via the Captain’s Flat/Briar Sharrow/Plains Roads.