Forgotten Hack lacked killer colonial instinct

John Barton HackJohn Barton Hack was one of the pioneers of Adelaide and, at first, one of its rising stars, a dynamic figure around the small, bustling settlement from the moment he arrived from his native Cheshire in February 1837.

One of his several civic honours was membership of the Nomenclature Committee – a group of prominent Adelaide men with the task of assigning names to the main streets of the new city. But while his colleagues on this committee, such as Judge Jeffcott (Jeffcott Street) and Robert Gouger (Gouger Street), managed to imprint themselves on the map forever, Hack, despite his advantageous position on the committee, did not. Perhaps this apparent failure to win the full respect of his no doubt rampantly ambitious peers was the first sign of the weakness, the lack of a colonial killer instinct, which would bring Hack down and turn his early and sensational successes into terrible failure.

In the end, he gave his name to an insignificant laneway in North Adelaide and a range of hills and a track near the township of Echunga, a place he singlehandedly established and where he prospered until setbacks, unwise investment, and the ruthless treachery of his ‘friend’ Jacob Hagen set him on a downward path from which he never recovered.

For fifteen years I lived on Hack Range Road, Hack’s meandering, unsealed and nondescript memorial just outside Echunga. That was how Hack and I ‘met’ and how I came to know his story. One spring morning about a year before I left, I came across a baby kookaburra in the middle of the track. He was sturdy, more than a handful, but couldn’t fly. So, stabbed repeatedly by that ungrateful and needle-sharp beak as I scooped him up, I took him home.

I installed him in a spacious, aviary-style cage, gave him watery milk to drink laced with a drop or two of post traumatic brandy, and christened him J B Hack. At last, the original and betrayed Hack had some sort of memorial. And in Echunga, where he should have been honoured. Inside the cage I made JB a shelter and installed rough branches at various levels for perches. Settling in to a diet of worms and raw meat, he flourished. Hack had, so to speak, come home!

Each morning I would call: ‘Hack, come on, you fearful Jesuit!’ This somehow seemed appropriate because kookaburras have a beady, religious eye. We may, in our anthropomorphic way, assume they are laughing when they utter their famous cry, but kookaburras are too inward, too much taken up with some avian equivalent of St Ignatius’s examination of conscience, to indulge in cacophonous, mindless laughter. Cacophonous – yes. Mindless – no. That’s what J B Hack taught me anyway. Daily encounters never habituated me to his unblinking stare of calculating disdain, made the more penetrating because it came via the length of that murderous beak. My idea that we might strike up a master/pet bird relationship, somehow atoning for the nonentity of the original Hack, dwindled in exact proportion with JB’s growth to full maturity. The bigger he grew, the more he looked down on me. It didn’t help that, thanks to my assiduous provision of perches, he could do this literally.

Periodically, twenty or thirty local magpies would squat on the roof of his cage or cling briefly to the surrounding wire and warble lyrically to each other. He regarded these gatherings with his customary slight, magisterial tilt of the head. Often the magpie visitation would be dispersed by twenty or thirty of the resident kookaburras whose apparently side-splitting mirth JB found equally unimpressive – like a bunch of comedians shouting ever more desperate jokes at a statue.

Our relationship, never close, was further harmed by JB’s growing capacity to fend for himself. Lizards aplenty, field mice and several small snakes broached his castle but never left it. Gradually I realised that the gulf between me and nature red in tooth and claw was almost unbridgeable.

With my departure imminent, I contacted National Parks and Wild Life and learnt two crucial things: one, J B Hack – that inscrutable Jesuit – was not a ‘he’ but a ‘she’; and two, had the visitors – whether fellow kookaburra or territorial magpie – managed to get at her they would have torn her to pieces. So JB went to a safer place and I left the Hack Range to its mute, fading remembrance of the much less canny John Barton Hack.

One morning last week I found a young, stranded magpie on the track. I moved it to the temporary safety of the roadside scrub, knowing it was doomed. It stared at me – sadly? ‘I can’t help you, mate,’ I said. ‘Nature is red in tooth and claw.’ Somewhere I sensed JB's saturnine eye and heard her raucous scorn.
Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place, The Temple Down the Road and Manning Clark — A Life.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, John Barton Hack, nomenclature, Adelaide, Echunga



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Existing comments

Just take the stranded magpie to the RSPCA in Morphett Street Adelaide and they will take it to a safe haven. From personal experience the bird society is of little help. The RSPCA has been most helpful on three occasions.

philip herringer | 18 November 2009  

Mr Matthews I attended Echunga Primary School with your children and was a close friend of your middle daughter J. We learnt a little of John Barton Hack in primary school, I enjoyed your article especially as I have found JB to be a distant relative of mine.

Kylie Willison | 23 January 2010  

Enjoyed the cute kookaburra story, especially as he was named after my gr gr grandfather John Barton Hack (who by the way was the spitting image of my late father)

shirley (hack) martin | 24 April 2010  

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