Artist Will Ashton shakes hands with his son, Adrian, as Archer Russell looks on. (Sydney Morning Herald, 12 September 1933.)

Archer Russell: Australia's unknown literary great

  • BY Matthew da Silva |
  • November 17, 2011

He literally wrote the book on solitary bushwhacking in the 20th century. Meet Archer Russell.

A NATURALIST AND AUTHOR for almost 40 years, George Ernest Archer Russell captivated Australian readers with his tales of journeys across the land in all weathers and seasons, back in the early 20th century. Born in 1881 and known as Archer, his first-person accounts of bushland wildlife and outback settlements emerged in at least seven books, with hundreds of articles also being published in newspapers. He was also made a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society.

He was different, an outsider, a self-confessed "scribbler" and also something of an iconoclast with a preference for universal values. His first travel book appeared in 1919. Wild Life in Bushland was published in Adelaide and contains a sort of manifesto Archer adhered to all his life.

"I think one of the greatest delights in this trammelled world is the enjoyment of periods of unrestrained freedom," he wrote in a note at the front of the book. "In all my life I have experienced no greater exhilaration than when pursuing an unmapped itinerary. Going a-sauntering! I fear too few of us go a-sauntering nowadays."

Early Australian literature

Archer went to write a biography of William Farrer, the Australian agronomist, but his natural bent was to follow the open road. His second book, Sunlit Trails, appeared in 1930, followed by A Tramp Royal in Wild Australia in 1934, Bush Ways in 1944, and Murray Walkabout in 1953.

Archer's travel books struck a chord with readers living in the nation's crowded cities who had begun to value wild places.

One person who would like to see some of Archer's fame restored is Winsome Roberts, whose father named a property in pristine bushland condition that he bought north of Perth 'Burragorang' after country Archer described in Bush Ways.

Winsome is a lecturer in social work at the School of Health Sciences at the University of Melbourne. "It was only subsequent to his death that I read this, and realised the deep significance it had held for Dad," she wrote in an email.

Nature writing

Archer's dedication to nature had an unlikely start. He went abroad in 1908 to seek his fortune, shooting big game and taking up as a trader amid the jungles and mining concerns of colonial Africa. These stories would be recounted in his book Gone Nomad which appeared in 1936.

On his return to Australia in 1911 Archer took up other employment. At the time of enlisting in the Imperial Forces, in August 1914, his occupation was recorded as 'station overseer' with an address at Port Pirie, South Australia.

He was sent to Gallipoli as a driver but was admitted to hospital in Alexandria in October 1915. The following year he was in England where, on Anzac Day, he sat proudly in Westminster Abbey with 2000 other WWI veterans on "a seat within a few feet of, and facing, the King and Queen". "The biggest crowd London has seen since the Coronation turned out to see and cheer us," he wrote in a September 1916 article.

But it is in describing nature that his passion emerged. "One balmy May day of this year," Archer wrote, "the air pungent with the scent of flowers and wild woodbine, I heard for the first time the song of the lark, the piping of the cuckoo, and, in the evening, the trill of the nightingale - the sweetest of English song-birds. Rising still and clear in the cool twilight air of a Sussex woodland."

After being discharged from service in 1917, Archer spent seven years mustering cattle and sheep, worked as a station bookkeeper, and even took to "opal gouging" in western NSW. The year after his first book was published, in 1920, Archer and his wife Marion joined the South Australian Field Naturalists.

Archer moved on to work in the defence industry later in life, but he will always be known for his literary contribution.

Near the end of his literary life, Archer was chosen to edit a 1958 collection of writings by John Fairfax, scion of the family that owned the Sydney Morning Herald for almost 150 years, titled Laughter in the Camp. It's believed Archer was once the literary editor for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Archer died in Sydney in 1960.


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