The only known photograph of “Possum”. Soul Gifts

They called him “Possum”, but his name was really David James Jones. But those who knew him well, called him, “Jimmy”. He was born on 19 April, 1901, in tiny town of Ruapuna, approx. 110kms WSW of Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand. He was the second of six children, three boys and three girls, born to James Emery Jones and Ellen Elizabeth (née Gorden). Being an accomplished shearer, he emigrated to Australia in 1927 where he knew his skills were in demand.

At first, he was in demand, and was almost fully employed. Unfortunately, it did not last. By 1929 the Great Depression was starting to bite. Although he was in the far south-west of New South Wales where good shearers were in demand, work only came his way occasionally. In late-1930, the Federal Government introduced “Sustenance Relief”, or “the susso”, as it became known. With no money, no job, and no home, Jimmy applied for the susso. But getting approved was extremely difficult; it was only available to the most destitute of society who had no money, no job, and no home. It involved filling-out a lengthy questionnaire, and being interviewed by bureaucrats who had little or no interest in the wellbeing of the applicant. But Jimmy was repeatedly refused the susso, he assumed it was because he was a New Zealander. He also realised that if there was any work available, it was given to locals.

These rejections cut deeply into Jimmy’s soul. It made him reject society and take to the bush to live as a hermit. He actively shunned contact with the outside world. That is not to say he didn’t know the news of the day. If he found a newspaper in a farmers’ mail box he would “borrow” it, read it from cover to cover, then return it to the same mail box, albeit a few days later. If he saw a party of fishermen, farm-workers, or campers, etc., he would use anything that floated, such as; an upturned bucket, a log, etc., to swim to the opposite bank of the river to elude them.

Possum’s range

Jimmy walked great distances along the Murray and Darling rivers. It is thought that his territory ranged along the Murray from Mannum, in the west, to Red Cliffs, in the east, and north along the Darling to Wilcannia. Walking at night, with no distractions, he could cover up to 50kms. As he travelled, Jimmy set-up camps in secluded locations, generally not far from the river. Some of these camps he used many times over the years.

He would never accept any offer to sleep or to dine in any home. He generally slept in the bush, but occasionally, in inclement weather, he condescended to sleep in abandoned buildings, including pump houses, chicken sheds, hay sheds, or anywhere with a roof. He was also known to sleep in trees, hence his name of “Possum”.

As he travelled, Jimmy would carry-out any menial work he found that needed doing. He would mend fences and gates, remove noxious weeds from gardens, chop firewood, and crutch sheep. But he would also do things that annoyed the farmers. He was a great lover of dogs, and if he found any chained-up, he would release them. Although Jimmy would never accept any charity, should he find any clothes, shoes, etc. he would always accept them. The farmers would not leave them at the station, but in the bush where they knew Jimmy would find them eventually.

Survival

His diet consisted of whatever he could catch. He fished the rivers, and used snares and traps to catch small animals. He rarely ate vegetables, unless he found a farm garden with enough crops where the farmer wouldn’t miss one or two items. To make-up for this, he made sure that he had done a chore that would make the farmers life easier. Jimmy also had a sweet tooth, and was known to climb trees to raid the hives of bees.

On several occasions Jimmy was arrested by the police for vagrancy. On one of these occasions, the police in Wentworth implored him to apply for the age pension, but he refused. Even in court, the magistrate urged him to apply, but again on three separate occasions he refused. They even offered to fill out the paperwork for him, and all he had to do was sign it, but again he refused. His argument was that he had hardly ever worked, and had paid no tax, so he wasn’t entitled to a pension. He happily spent time in jail (see note 1) in Wentworth and Wilcannia for vagrancy rather than apply for the pension.

Life was very hard for Jimmy. Not only because he lived off the land and ate whatever he could find, but he was also exposed the extremes of the weather. The summer daytime temperatures could reach above 40˚C, and overnight winter temperatures could drop to near zero. There were also floods, droughts and dust-storms to contend with. The 1956 flood was the greatest since “the big one” of 1870. In 1956 both the Murray and Darling flooded simultaneously, inundating all towns between Robinvale and Renmark, and more than 100kms up the Darling. Although there is no evidence of Jimmy’s location at this time, it most definitely caused him, at least some inconvenience, and at most, forced him to remain on high ground unable to travel.

With his increasing age, Jimmy’s body became severely unwell. A major problem was his lack of teeth, which caused him to eat softer foods. He had to cook his meals almost to soup consistency to be able to chew and swallow it. He found the winters particularly harsh, although he had plenty of clothes, most of them were often threadbare. He could no longer swim across the rivers, and it became difficult for him to walk great distances. When his eyesight started to fail, at age 60, the police officer at Renmark provided him with reading glasses so he could at least read the newspaper.

In the freezing winter of 1982, Jimmy’s body was found leaning against at tree on Ned’s Corner Station, between Wentworth and Renmark. It is thought that he had passed away about four weeks previously, cold, hungry, and alone at his camp near his beloved Murray River. He was aged about 81 years and three months (see note 2), and had spent about 54 years alone in the bush.

Although he had shunned society, everyone knew him, or at least of him, and there was no way anyone was going let his death go unmarked. He had performed many good deeds, and never a harsh word was said against him. A collection was taken-up amongst the population of the area and sufficient money was raised to provide him with a decent burial. On the day of the funeral, over 180 people turned-up to pay their respects to a much-loved man. He was buried in the private family cemetery at Wangumma Station, on Pomona Road, north of Wentworth, with a headstone bearing the simple inscription; “David James Jones ‘Possum’ 1901-1982 – at rest where he roamed”.

Mourners pay tribute to Jimmy at Wangumma Station. The Sunraysia Daily

There are a couple of monuments to Jimmy; one is a concrete fibro statue (there are plans to replace it with a bronze statue) in Fotherby Park, Wentworth, with a recording that tells the story of his life, the other is carved from a river red gum tree in the town of Colignan, approx. 40kms south of Mildura.

The statue of Possum in Fotherby Park, Wentworth. The Sunraysia Daily

Story researched and contributed by Barry

Notes

Note 1. I have used the American spelling rather that the Australian spelling, as “jail” is now more common in Australia than “gaol”.

Note 2. I say his age was “about”, as no-one knows his exact date of death.

Note 3. A book about Possum has been written and published by Max Jones, and is titled “A Man Called Possum”, and is available for purchase from the Wentworth Visitor Information Center.

References

Wentworth Region Visitor Information Centre, A Man called Possum, https://visitwentworth.com.au/a-man-called-possum/ Retrieved 21 February 2022.

New Zealand Government, Department of Internal Affairs, Birth Search,

https://bdmhistoricalrecords.dia.govt.nz/Search/Search?Path=querySubmit.m%3fReportName%3dBirthSearch%26recordsPP%3d30#SearchResults , Retrieved 21 February 2022.

New Zealand Government, Department of Internal Affairs, Marriage Search,

https://bdmhistoricalrecords.dia.govt.nz/Search/Search?Path=querySubmit.m%3fReportName%3dMarriageSearch%26recordsPP%3d30#SearchResults , Retrieved 21 February 2022.

Sydney Living Museums, Skint! Making do in The Great Depression, https://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/stories/skint-making-do-great-depression , Retrieved 22 February 2022.

POLICE COURT (1945, June 1). Western Grazier (Wilcannia, NSW: 1896 – 1951), p. 1. Retrieved February 23, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article133045143

Mildura Weekly, Bushmen Still Pay Respects to ‘Possum’, Apr 9, 2021. https://www.milduraweekly.com.au/bushmen-still-pay-respects-to-possum/ , Retrieved 23 February 2022.

DICK’S BLOG, Hermit of the Murray River – “The Possum”, 5 January 2021, http://passingparade-2009.blogspot.com/2021/01/hermit-of-murray-river-possum.html , Retrieved 23 February 2022.

The Age, From the Archives, 1982: Hundreds gather in Mildura to farewell hermit, by John Lahey, 9 August, 2019. https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/from-the-archives-1982-hundreds-gather-in-mildura-to-farewell-hermit-20190807-p52eun.html , Retrieved 23 February 2022.