A sort of heritage

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The campfire was slowly dying, as was the dream. Brady continued to ponder the Northern Territory’s future, but the sounds of progress filling his thoughts gradually yielded to the insistent ‘tramp of young Australian feet at drill’. Instead of ‘clinking’ harvesters, he now heard ‘the wireless keeping watch by night and day’; instead of rumbling freight-trains there was the sound of ‘scouting aeroplanes coming home to their military hangars’. As the embers crumbled to ash, Brady concluded his campfire devotions, looking up at the stars ‘glittering like bayonet points’ and offering a prayer to the ‘God of Nations and of Battles’ that ‘this Northern State-to-be might put her young feet upon the paths of Destiny… in peace’. 1 Brady’s hymn of the future was scored to a martial beat; Australia’s unlimited future could be assured only through determined vigilance and resolute defence.

Australia Unlimited was a ‘Book with a Mission’, the publisher’s prospectus boldly announced. By leaving its ‘Great Wastes’ undeveloped, Australia was ‘not keeping step in the Forward March of Nations’. ‘A mere handful of White People’, perched uncomfortably near Asia’s ‘teeming centres of population’, could not expect to maintain unchallenged ownership of the continent and its potential riches. Australia’s survival as a white nation depended upon ‘Effective Occupation’, secured by a dramatic increase in population and the development of its vast, empty lands—‘The Hour of Action is Now!’. Stepping forward to defend the ‘cherished ideals of Australian Nationhood’, Australia Unlimited promised to set the country’s attractions and possibilities before the world in 750 royal quarto pages. Potential immigrants would be inspired, and doubtful Australians would be enthused. Australia Unlimited would be ‘the most important book yet published in the Commonwealth’, a ‘patriotic effort’ addressing ‘important national questions’ in ‘a cheerful literary fashion’. 2

In typically flamboyant style, Brady proffered his literary skills in defence of a nervous nation. For all its youthful exuberance, the newly-minted Commonwealth of Australia was beset by doubts about its security and legitimacy. 3 How could it hold a continent it was unable to occupy? ‘One has only to turn to the map, and see how unpeopled our northern lands are, to realize the obligation upon us’, argued Littleton Groom, the Minister of External Affairs, in July 1909. 4 The blanks on the map were a warning to White Australia, a grave reminder of its failure to take full possession of its political inheritance. Only by ‘effective occupation’, by ‘peopling’ the land and extracting its potential, could Australia meet the obligations of nation, race and empire, and withstand the looming threat of Asia.

Maps haunted Australia’s destiny, counterposing images of hope and of danger. In one of his poems, published in 1909, Brady imagines himself travelling across the country, admiring its vast, unused resources. All at once, he chances upon his old schoolroom. So much had happened in the intervening thirty years, and yet the map of Australia on the schoolroom wall seems little different than he remembered: ‘It told no tale of centres new, nor inland cities great; / Nor townships in black circles drawn across each growing State’. Worried, Brady continues his journey, visiting the well-appointed halls of Federal Parliament, where politicians ‘wormed and crawled’ in the ‘slime of little matters’. There on the wall, accusing and unheeded, another map hangs ‘undotted blank unlined / A fringe of towns along a coast and Emptiness behind’. But while Australians foolishly ignored the map’s urgent warning, ‘slant-eyed cynics in the North’ eagerly consult their charts: ‘With High Ambition wedded to the Asian mode astute / They’ve marked a map in Japanese: “THIS CONTINENT TO LOOT”! 5

Australia Unlimited offered a recipe for progress and security. The needs of both defence and development would be served as roads, fences and towns were drawn in across the empty map. But as Brady set about the compilation of his mammoth book, he was troubled also by questions of personal security. The birth of his fourth child, in 1910, forced him to consider ways to bolster his modest income. ‘Literature would have to be put aside for a time’, he concluded, ‘Mammon demanded the usual sacrifice’. And so Brady quit his much-loved camp in Mallacoota, and ventured forth with £10 in his pocket, vowing to multiply the sum ‘three thousand times’. His formula for financial success included ‘several commercial propositions’, ‘a plan for the development of east Gippsland’, and ‘a scheme for a great book on Australia’. 6 Wealth may have eluded him, but the ‘great book’, Australia Unlimited, did at least enable Brady to buy some land in Mallacoota and build a simple fibro house—a measure of security, perhaps even a sign of progress.

In 1890, the young Brady was dismissed from his post as a shipping clerk for supporting the maritime strike. 7 It was, indeed, a turning-point in his life. For the next sixty years he earned his living as a poet, journalist and author. The financial rewards were meagre, and in ‘Pro Patria’ he joked that occupation by Japan or Germany might at least improve the living conditions of Australia’s ill-used poets: ‘I rather gloat the vision / My secret mind within / Of sleek well-groomed Ah Lawson / Or jovial, stout Hans Quinn’. 8 But unlike his friend Henry Lawson, Brady’s entrepreneurial bent encouraged him to turn his literary skills towards more remunerative ends. Constant ‘warfare between the writer and the journalist’ resulted, as Brady struggled to make a living against the impulses of his art. 9

For all its undoubted passion and commitment, Australia Unlimited was a commercial venture underwritten by subsidies and subscriptions. Brady had attempted a similar mix of travelogue, statistics, photography and advertising in two earlier publications, Sydney Harbor and Picturesque Port Phillip, but even a sympathetic critic remarked that these were ‘pitched too high’, with ‘the flavour of a commercial “boost”’. 10 Australia Unlimited was aimed more at the immigrant than the tourist, a self-conscious contribution to ‘national publicity’ that was dependent on government support for its financial viability. 11 The chapter on the Northern Territory was paid for by the Commonwealth at the rate of £10 per page. 12 For that, the Commonwealth bought the right to soften Brady’s concerns about the use of white labour. 13 The governments of Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales entered into similar contracts to ensure that their resources and industries were adequately represented.

As well as direct subsidies, all state and federal governments supported the project through the provision of maps, photographs, official publications, free rail travel and letters of introduction. Meanwhile, as Brady travelled the continent collecting data, his salesmen worked their own territories, gathering subscriptions from commercial firms and wealthy pastoralists. For a modest fee, such enterprising Australians could ensure that their own unique contributions to national progress were faithfully recorded. In March 1913, Brady reported to his publisher on the success of the business canvasser: ‘He has got George Kiss of the Horse Bazaar for £30.00 but the AMP for only £16.10.00. The Govt Savings Bank £50 (5 pages @ £10 a page)’. 14 Australia Unlimited offered all manner of opportunities.

Brady’s ‘great book’ provided him with a measure of financial security, but its production and distribution were beset with difficulties. As the book neared publication, Brady drafted a ‘Author’s Statement’ defending himself against any ‘Hostile Criticism’ that might arise in parliament, the press, or amongst ‘aggrieved clients’. The publisher, he claimed, was primarily to blame for any delays and omissions. He was disappointed also by publisher’s failure to institute a ‘scientific business-like method of selling the book’. 15 For several years thereafter, Brady was left to lobby federal ministers in an attempt to dispose of remaining stocks. 16 In 1921, he suggested that the government might purchase 5,000 of his ‘golden-tongued literary missionaries’ for distribution overseas. 17 But no, came the reply, cheap pamphlets were the preferred means of generating ‘national publicity’. The election of the Bruce-Page government in 1923 offered new hope, and Brady journeyed to Melbourne to continue his sales pitch in person. He eventually returned to Mallacoota, disappointed and ‘hundreds of pounds poorer in pocket’. Rejected once more in 1925, he concluded that ‘nationalism in Australia seems to be on its last legs’. 18

Yet despite a litany of setbacks and rejections, Brady remained enthusiastically committed to the vision of Australia Unlimited. Even before the book had been published, he had begun work on a second volume focusing on the nation’s industrial development. 19 Brady imagined an ‘Australia Unlimited Series’ that would include volumes on Australian cities as well as an ‘Australian Encyclopaedia of Agriculture and Farmers Guide’. 20 In the 1920s, he began work on an ‘Edition De Luxe’ of Australia Unlimited that would add new sections ‘devoted to Australian celebrities in various walks of life’. 21 And then there was the film version! Opening with a ‘pioneer prologue’, Brady imagined the film as a stirring saga of development, ‘a vitally national tale’ invested with ‘a patriotic moral’. 22 None of his plans succeeded. In 1943, Brady sought government support for a wholly new edition of Australia Unlimited that highlighted possibilities for postwar reconstruction. The offer was refused. The responsible minister reviewed the conditions of the earlier subsidy and concluded that ‘we were swindled before and would be foolish indeed to be swindled again’. 23

With its naïve enthusiam, Australia Unlimited seems to encapsulate the dreams of a simpler time—progress was something to be wrested from nature by a willing and determined people. It provides contemporary historians with a convenient archetype, while enabling them to underline their own comparative sophistication. But such easy characterisations become problematic when we examine the circumstances of the book’s production. This paean to progress was subsidised by government and wealthy landowners. Its production was troubled by disagreements with the publisher, and thousands of copies remained unsold. For Brady it was a work of passion, but also a chance to win his family some financial ease. Australia Unlimited brought him his greatest success, but Brady’s inability to build upon this modest achievement remained a source of frustration. The story of Australia Unlimited shows how progress entwines personal hopes and national ambitions, optimism and disappointment, fear and longing. The apparent simplicity of its expansionary creed is given depth and meaning through the uncertainties of its author’s life. Instead of a providing a convenient example of the misguided enthusiasms of the past, Australia Unlimited demonstrates how the dream of progress is experienced as something much more complex and contradictory.

Australia Unlimited gained Brady broader recognition, but overshadowed his literary aspirations. It promised security for the nation and for himself, but delivered little. And yet he remained hopeful. One day the country might listen. One day he might be rewarded for his efforts. The dream of progress nourished him always, expressed in his schemes, his writing, and his family. Brady’s youngest daughter, Edna June, was born to his third wife in 1946. What could he leave her? A ‘modern edition’ of Australia Unlimited lay completed but unpublished. ‘If it fails to find a publisher’, he remarked wistfully, ‘the MSS will be a liberal education for her after she has outgrown her father’s nonsense rhymes’. It was, Brady pondered, ‘a sort of heritage’. 24


  1. Brady, Australia Unlimited, p. 571
  2. A copy of the prospectus is contained in NAA: A659/1, 1943/1/3907.
  3. David Walker, Anxious nation: Australia and the rise of Asia 1850-1939, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1999, ch. 9.
  4. CPD, vol. 50, 30 July 1909, pp. 1878-80.
  5. Edwin James Brady, ‘A continent to loot’, Bulletin, vol. 30, no. 1528, 27 May 1909, p. 6.
  6. Edwin James Brady, ‘Life’s highway – extracts (concluded)’, Southerly, vol. 16, no. 4, 1955, p. 199.
  7. Webb, ‘A critical biography of Edwin James Brady’, pp. 18-19.
  8. Edwin James Brady, ‘Pro patria’, Bulletin, vol. 31, no. 1566, 17 February 1910, p. 3.
  9. Vance Palmer, ‘A note on E J Brady’, Meanjin, vol. 11, 1952, p. 291.
  10. Edwin James Brady, Picturesque Port Phillip, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1911; Edwin James Brady, Sydney Harbour, Builder Printing Works, Sydney, 1903; Stevens, ‘Australian writers – Edwin J Brady’.
  11. Letter from Brady to Austin Chapman, 8 June 1921, Brady papers, NLA: MS206, Series 10(b).
  12. For details of the arrangement see correspondence between the publishers, George Robertson & Co., and the Department of External Affairs, February-March 1912, NAA: A659/1, 1943/1/3907. Brady provides an account of the support provided by state and federal governments in his ‘Author’s statement re Australia Unlimited’, July 1918, Brady papers, NLA: MS206, Series 10(a).
  13. Memo by DB Edwards (External Affairs), 29 July 1915, NAA: A659/1, 1943/1/3907.
  14. Letter from Brady to George Robertson and Co., 5 March 1913, Brady papers, NLA: MS206, Series 10(b).
  15. ‘Author’s Statement re Australia Unlimited’, July 1918, Brady papers, NLA: MS206, Series 10(a).
  16. See correspondence in Brady papers, NLA: MS206, Series 10(b).
  17. Letter from Brady to WM Hughes (Prime Minister), 1 August 1920, NAA: A659/1, 1943/1/3907.
  18. Letter from Brady to Austin Chapman, 14 August 1925, Brady papers, NLA: MS206, Series 10(b).
  19. For various drafts and correspondence relating to the proposed volume see Brady papers, NLA: MS206, Series 11.
  20. See Brady papers, NLA: MS206, Series 10(a) for drafts and correspondence relating to various projects, in particular: ‘Australia Unlimited Series (Section B) – Australian Encyclopaedia of Agriculture and Farmers Guide’, typescript, 1918; ‘Australia Unlimited Series – Vol III, Australian Cities’, undated.
  21. ‘Australia Unlimited – Edition De Luxe’, undated, Brady papers, NLA: MS206, Series 10(a). This series also contains lists of names and addresses of ‘celebrities’ and draft letters seeking their subscriptions.
  22. Letter from Brady to FLW Ashby, 1 March 1921, Brady papers, NLA: MS206, Series 10(b).
  23. File note by JS Collings (Minister for the Interior), 16 July 1943, NAA: A659/1, 43/1/3907.
  24. Brady, ‘E.J. Brady, by Himself’, pp. 22-3.

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