Droving is how livestock was transported, and grazed, over thousands of kilometers in Australia
At 22, Edna Jessop (nee Zigenbine) was Australia’s first female boss drover. The year was 1950, she and her father, renowned Northern Territory cattleman Harry Zigenbine, were to drive 1550 head from Bedford Downs station, near Halls Creek in northern Western Australia, more than 2000 km to Dajarra, south of Mount Isa in Queensland.
It came as second nature to Edna, who had grown up on the stock routes of northern Australia. She was born in 1926 in Thargomindah, Queensland, the fifth of eight children, one of two to be born in a hospital. Her family lived at Dajarra until her father went droving with Sir Sidney Kidman.
Edna left school at a young age, having only learned the alphabet.
A keen horsewoman Edna broke in her first horse at age six. Edna Zigenbine had a talent for working cattle and horses. As she got older she began breaking horses for her father’s droving team. At 16 years of age Edna followed her father to the Northern Territory where she was cook for the droving team.
“Dad left mum behind at Newcastle Waters one year, we went on with the pack horses and they said ‘who’s going to do the cooking?’ – poor silly me had to do it.” “I couldn’t even make damper, by gee I got good, I had to.” A few years passed and while on the 2000 km trek from Western Australia to Queensland, Edna’s father fell ill and went to hospital. “You take over, you’re the best man I have,” he told her.
Edna was reduced to two stockmen to continue droving the cattle. “It was nothing,” she said. “I grew up with it and the trip went as normal. “There were plenty of times I prayed, times I was afraid – when my father was sick or we were short of water. “You get pretty close to God out there.”
The drove took six months and media from across Australia were reporting on the young “girl” droving cattle across the country. “When those old bullocks went I really missed them badly, some of them had become like mates to me,” Edna told the media after the job was complete. Not only did Edna attract the attention of Australia’s media but in particular, Australian’s men.
One ordered her a carved stock saddle from Brisbane and met her to present it to her. When she returned to the Northern Territory letters poured in from all over Australia and overseas with marriage proposals but she was just happy to get home to the bush.
She gave up droving for a while and worked as a wards maid in the hospital and as a waitress. Edna was twice belle of the ball at Tennant Creek’s St Patrick’s Day gala. But eventually she went back droving. She met her husband on a droving trip to Winton, Queensland. She married drover Johnny Jessop but after a few years and the birth of their son Jack, they drifted apart and Edna moved back to Mount Isa in 1960.
She battled different jobs, making sure her son had an education she didn’t have. She joined Mount Isa Pony Club, teaching children to ride. In 1965 she became a pound keeper. Known as the Queen of Mount Isa rodeo, she would ride around the arena shifting stock and tending gear. Edna died aged 80 in 2007 in Mount Isa, where she had lived for about 40 years.
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