The Megalong Piano

(Ref: Hut News, No 297 October 2012 pp6, by John Low)

Surely one of the most unforgettable images from Australasian cinema is that of the alien and awkward-looking piano stranded on a remote New Zealand beach, a touching symbol of civilization confronting wilderness. Despite their cumbersome bulk, pianos proved remakably portable during the 19th century with something like 700,000 estimated to have arrived in Australia, often transported with great difficulty and expense, thousands of miles in small ships and then inland over mountains and rivers by bullock dray and sheer tenacity. A remarkable figure that emphasises both their central place in colonial family and social life and their perceived embodiment of the civilizing values of home. Re-reading Mary Shaw's "historic Megalong Valley" recently I came across a small incident I'd forgotten that offers a local insight into this phenomenon.

When the Scots-Irish Duncan family moved into the Megalong at the end of the 1880s they brought a piano with them, no mean feat when you consider that no proper road existed into the valley until about 1900. Perhaps they got it down Nellies Glen, or, more likely, took it the long way round via an old bullock track from Hartley. Whatever, it took its place in the 'Ballymore' homestead and daughter Marjorie was a devoted player, her music (according to family lore) drifting across the sunny paddocks with unexpected results, bewitching their passing neighbour, the scholarly Frank Dyson. English-born Dyson, balancing both literary and business interests with the hard physical labour of pioneer farming, had taken up land on the Coxs River around the same time as the Duncans. When Marjorie and Frank moved into Dyson's home on the Six-Foot Track where it crossed the Coxs River, the piano went with them.

Cloudlands Leura

The story of its journey became part of valley folklore. Bernard O'Reilly remembered his father Peter recounting it to him as a child. Four miles down the bridal path over the Pinnacle Ridge took stamina and determination. Dyson 'used two strong poles with their front ends through shaft harness on a cart horse, the piano was slung between the poles behind the horse, and the rear ends of the poles were manned by a few strong neighbours. It was an ingenious idea but it took a lot of sweat and language to carry it out." But carry it out they did and the piano's music was woven into the music of the Cox.

Marjorie, however, soon succumbed to the isolation and they left the valley, settling eventually in Katoomba where they purchased 'Cloudlands' in 1931. Frank was not, in any case, your typical farmer. He harboured literary ambitions and his translation (from the French of J B Nicolas) of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam appeared first during WW1 and again, in an edition by William Brooks and C in 1927. Frank died in 1937 and Marjorie in 1943. Their son, Frank Jnr returned to farming in the valley, his house filled with books when it burned in bushfires in 1936. The fate of the 'pioneering' piano is unknown!