Friday, 31 March 2017

A Life Cut Short at 109

      Cobar, New South Wales: in 1870 three teenagers camped by a waterhole, where they collected some colourful rocks. When they showed them to a Cornish woman, she recognized them as copper, and the mining boom began. Later, one fellow picked up a rock to throw at a noisy possum, and noticed a fragment of gold the size of a postage stamp adhering to it. And for 31 years it was the last stamping ground of a remarkable character known as "Old Norman" Fersen, whose life was cut short by a tragic accident when he was just over 109 years of age. To tell the story, I can think of no better way than to copy verbatim the pamphlet produced by the city's Heritage Centre. In reading it, kindly remember that the old age pension had been introduced to the state only in 1900.
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Norman Fersen 1800 - 1901
     In 1903 age pensions were reviewed. Norman Fersen was among those required to appear before local magistrates and produce evidence of birth. The examination proceeded as follows.
Bench: What age are you?
Fersen: 103 years.
 Where were you born?
Fersen: Quebec, Canada.
Bench: Married or single?
Fersen: Married. [In fact, he was a widower]
Bench:  Any children?
Fersen: Three.
Bench: Where are they?
Fersen: Dead.
Bench: What did they die of?
Fersen: Old age. [!]
     Probably the magistrate took one look at him, and gave him the benefit of the doubt about being over 65 - like those whipper-snapper baristas who give me the seniors' discount without even asking me. Anyway ...
     Pension was granted and his birth certificate revealed that he was born in Quebec in April 1800 [in fact, he was born in July]. Norman, known as "Old Norman", was shipwrecked off the North Australian coast and came ashore near Normanton in the Gulf of Carpentaria. He lived in that area with the Aborigines for seventeen years. Arriving in Cobar, he supplemented his pension by chopping stove wood for housewives.
     He was a tall erect man, wore no boots, and raised his knees high as he walked. His clothes were gifts of benevolent humorists. A claw-hammer morning coat exposed his grey flannel shirt and dickey front. Trousers were rolled up to the knee. His greasy, smoky grey locks protruded through the cracked crown of his straw boater.
     Fond of reading, he cherished books. When he saw a book that he had lent to a wheelwright in Dierke's blacksmith shop put up for auction, he went to Dierke. The wheelwright saw him coming and fled out to the Back of the shop. As he climbed the back fence Norman hit him on the head. The wheelwright died six months later from injuries received. Norman was charged with assault and sentenced to three years. He said he just "gave him a tap on the napper with the spoke of a wheel". He was then 103 years old [no! he was just 92]. He served his time in Cobar, dining at the gaol and, during the day, sitting on a form on the boardwalk of the Commercial Hotel. [He was probably better off than if he had been free because, as mentioned, the pension was not introduced until 1900, while the assault took place in 1892.]
     Ward and Lebb's Store, Linsley Street, was burnt down in April 1909 and the fire assessor gave Norman a case of pickles from the salvage. The case would have weighed about 38 kg [84 lb]. As Norman, with the case on his shoulder, stepped on the footpath, he slipped and broke his hip. He was put in hospital, where he wanted his leg removed, for he knew his chance of recovery was slight. His request was not granted, and he died in hospital in September 1909.
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     I'm impressed. My gym instructor informs me that the weights I use are heavier than those of most men my age (I'm almost 68), but I would balk at the idea of carrying a box of anything weighing 38 kg on my shoulder. Indeed, even in my younger days I would have needed a pretty good reason to do so. It makes the mind bogle to think that a man would attempt it at an age when most people would be quietly vegetating in a nursing home. (Correction: at that age most people would have been quietly pushing up daisies for several years.) And one is bound to wonder how long he would have lived had it not been for that accident.
     I have not been able to find any mention of this living legend in Australian newspapers prior to 1892. His obituary states that he had been a painter by trade, had first come to New South Wales in 1825, and had lived in Cobar for his last 31 years. It also relates how, a few months before his death, someone had jocularly addressed him as "Robinson Crusoe". That suggests the story of his 17 years as a castaway with the Aborigines was well known at the time. Nevertheless, one wonders where it fitted into his known life history. In particular, the 17 years is suspiciously identical to the length of time Jame Morrill is known to have spent with the Aborigines near present day Townsville when he was shipwrecked. One wonders whether Norman, being a prolific reader, hadn't read Morrill's account and appropriated it for himself.
     It seems he was an avid bookworm right to the end. It reminds me of my own experience when I was returning home by bus from university, and an old man in old, shabby clothes sat beside me, pulled out a bag full of books, and announced, "They keep me poor." So, as a fellow book-aholic, I can well appreciate his anger at the wheelwright. Book borrowers have no respect for other people's property. It seems this sympathy was shared by a correspondent of the Evening News (Sydney), who wrote on page 4 of the edition of 20 April 1892:
Among book owners in general there will be a certain sneaking sympathy with that Cobar bibliophile, Fersen, has to-day become famous for inflicting four grievous scalp wounds on Sydney Halliday who had borrowed a book from him and did not return it. Fersen's means of vindicating his rights of ownership was the spoke of a buggy wheel. How many persons, who have fruitlessly written on the title pages of their treasured volumes verses threatening: confusion in this world and perdition in the next — ' steal not this book for fear of shame, &c' — must have wished that they could similarly have had recourse to the 'secular arm' ? Though, however, drastic measures may be the only means of enforcing honesty, upon a generation that has not the lively faith of its forefathers in a minute and all-searching post-mortem examination as to how every item of literary property was come by, it would be inadvisable to revive the custom of armed revenge for lapses from probity by book borrowers. Not only would such a course resolve society into its original barbaric chaos, but it is to to feared that it would mean the clubbing to death of a very large percentage of those who are able to read, to say nothing of the necessity of combining the functions of public librarian and public executioner.
And while we're on the subject . . .
     His encounter with the law towards the end of a long life reminds me of the case of Thomas Saulsby Wright, otherwise known as "Tommy the Banker".
     But first of all, you must understand the British penal system of the first half of the 19th century, which was brutal, but fair. As I explained in the case of my own great-grandfather, if you were convicted of a crime in the Old Country, you served your time there. However, if you were caught a second time, it meant that you hadn't learned your lesson, and you were a menace to society, so you were shipped off to the ends of the earth - Australia - where you would no longer be a threat to decent citizens and, if you behaved yourself, you had the opportunity to be rehabilitated away from the baleful influences of your former life, and become an ancestor of respectable citizens. On the other hand, if you returned to a life of crime over there, you went to one of the outer hells, such as Norfolk Island, which resembled mainland Australia the way Dachau resembled Club Med.
     Now Tommy the Banker was a professional banker and forger, who was over 60 in 1799 when he was sentenced to death for forgery. But, as was frequently the case, the sentence was commuted to transportation. Alas! After he had been released, he discovered that there was still no old age pension, and precious little honest work for 102-year-olds, so what could be do but forge ahead - literally? Brought up before the court with a fortune in counterfeit notes, he pointed out to the judge that he didn't have too many years left, and perhaps he could be let off for a consideration (ahem!). Off to Norfolk Island with you! declared the judge. For 14 years!
     I presume, however, that his age spared him the back-breaking toil and the back-scouring lash for which the island was notorious, and at least he had a roof over his head and three square meals. He finally shuffled off his mortal coil at the age of 105.
     But I shan't elaborate on the story, because it is all here on the blog of the Norfolk Island Museum.


  1. I found Norman's story quite fascinating, having read the report at the Cobar museum. Thanks for adding some more info. Did you find out anything not mentioned here? eg wife's name?
    Laurel Wilson

    1. Sorry, that's all I could find. I did a search for more details in the Australian newspapers, most of which have been digitalised by the Australian National Library. You can follow the link I provided.