Harry Peckman was a true ‘Blue Mountaineer’. Born at Kurrajong in 1846, he lived the whole of his life in the Blue Mountains region and died in Katoomba in 1934. As a young man, in the days before the western railway line was built, he drove wagons and coaches on the road between Penrith and Hartley. Then, when the Mountains developed its reputation as a tourist destination, he began taking visitors to the local scenic attractions.
In the early 1880s he and his brother, John, established livery stables in Parke Street, Katoomba, at the back of the Carrington Hotel. Their business flourished. Both men were expert horsemen and knew the Blue Mountains intimately and their patrons soon included a growing number of holidaying dignitaries and their families. In 1887 Lord and Lady Carrington were taken over the newly opened Six-Foot Track to Jenolan Caves1 while, in 1893 the Duchess of Buckingham and Chandos was entertained with a billy tea and damper picnic at Govetts Leap2.
But knowledge of horses and the bush were not the only skills Harry possessed. To the many visitors who engaged him he became known as ‘the poetical whip’ who would take them to places off the beaten track and entertain them en route with selections from his repertoire of mostly self-penned songs and recitations. As more than one observer commented, his verses, performed in the midst of a grand, open landscape, provided visitors with a glimpse into the heart of the Mountains that no other driver could offer.
While no one could claim that Peckman was a great poet, it is clear that his skills as a performer made up for any deficiencies in craft. “No free verse for this poet”, observed cartoonist and journalist Hal Eyre in 1922, “but rhymes tuned to the beat of his horses’ hoofs.”3 His subjects ranged over the Blue Mountains itself and included dramatic and patriotic war ballads and heart-felt ‘farewells’ to friends who had died. There were also tributes to popular heroes like the sculler Edward Trickett, the first Australian to win a world sporting title, and the popular aviatrix Amy Johnson who visited Katoomba in 1930.
Like many self-educated men, Peckman was clearly a wide reader and his verses are dotted with various literary and Biblical allusions. He was also acquainted with a number of Sydney literary figures who sought him out when they visited Katoomba, among them the poets Roderick Quinn and Henry Lawson.
Though he performed for the gentry his audience was in the main a popular one and his work, when published, appeared almost exclusively on privately printed broadsides and later, when a newspaper became established in Katoomba, in the local press.
It seems that he was performing his songs and poems and peddling his broadsides from the time he worked as a young labourer and coach driver in the Hartley area in the 1860s and 1870s. In some of his reminiscences, recorded by local journalists, he mentioned the lively sessions of song and recitation he participated in at this time, particularly at ‘Kelly’s in the Glen’ halfway to Jenolan Caves.
Some of his work attained for him what is possibly the highest accolade a popular audience can bestow, a passage into the anonymous oral or ‘folk’ tradition that carried it to places far removed from the Blue Mountains.
Towards the end of his life Harry Peckman experienced hard times and, though visitors still often sought him out even in the late 1920s, he watched as the age of the motor car gradually rendered his coach and pair obsolete. At the time of his death he had become something of an icon, a symbol of a past era. On a slow news day the local journalists would seek him out and trawl his still alert mind for reminiscences of the ‘old days’.
For his 88th birthday, in August 1934, his friends organised a party. He performed his poems for the last time and, some seven weeks later, died. His grave in Katoomba Cemetery looks out over the tributaries of the Grose River that flow into what he once described as “the Hawkesb’ry silver Rhine”.
His name is publicly remembered in Peckmans Plateau and Peckmans Road, both in Katoomba.
Note: In 1993, nearly 60 years after his death, a small biography and collection of Peckman’s surviving poems and songs, The Prince of Whips: The Life and Works of the Blue Mountains Pioneer Harry Peckman, Jim Smith and John Low, was published. Copies of this book are still available, for more information contact Blue Mountains City Library Local Studies.
© 2008 John Low
1 For an account of this trip see Smith, Jim. From Katoomba to Jenolan Caves: The Six Foot Track 1884-1984, Katoomba: Second Back Row Press, , pp. 33-4.
2 Duchess of Buckingham & Chandos. Glimpses of Four Continents, London: John Murray, 1894.
3 Hal Eyre wrote of his experiences touring with Peckman in the Sydney Daily Telegraph of 13th September 1922 and 26th September 1922. Three caricatures of Harry were also included.