The Affairs Of Isaac Beehag, Dairyman, Rockdale

by Gifford Eardley

Isaac Beehag was the eldest son of James and Mary Beehag, being born on July 18th, 1841, the address of his parents then being listed at Liverpool Road, Canterbury. In 1852 the farm property at Canterbury was sold and Isaac, together with the rest of the family, came to reside on a grant of seventy-nine acres, made to James Beehag, which ranged along the southern side of the present Bay Street, Rockdale, then known as West Botany. At the age of eighteen Isaac augmented the limited family income by cutting firewood in the Black Forest (now Hurstville), carting it by dray to Sydneytown and hawking it through the back streets for sale to householders in need of fuel for their domestic fires.

About 1860 Isaac Beehag married Miss Mary Ann Wilson, the daughter of a neighbour who lived nearby in West Botany Street, It may be mentioned that Mary Ann’s old home, built of ashlar sandstone, still stands at 1970, although at this late date it appears to be occupied by Chinese gardeners. There were ten children of the marriage but unfortunately their first-born son, named James, died at the early age of five years. Then came Isabella, who married James Godfrey in August 1890. Ellen, married Thomas Jordan of Kogarah on March 17th, 1886. William, married Alice Fry of Sofala about 1891 or 1892, Maria, married Frank Fletcher Bancroft (a messenger at the Rockdale post-office) in March 1904, Margaret, who left Sydney in September 1904 for South Africa to marry Alec Burden, formerly of Climpton Street, Rockdale, Elizabeth, married Elias Godfrey in 1890. George, married Katherine Clissold of Arncliffe about 1894-5. Alfred, married Mary Jane Cary of Bexley, (related to the Parkes family), and Mary Ann married Francis Walter Worthington on April 14th, 1914, in South Africa. This latter couple returned to New South Wales in 1924 and the husband died in 1944, Mary Ann then married Thomas Beaman, a former schoolmate, at Moorebank on April 14th, 1958, This gentleman died in October 1960. Mary Ann, now a charming lady, approaching her 90th year, is still hale and hearty and is the last of the children of Isaac Beehag, a large and pioneering family with many descendants living in the St. George District.

Isaac and Mary Ann Beehag

About 1878 Isaac Beehag was still listed as a carter, and it has been stated that he was the first Town Clerk of the West Botany Council, which then met at Arncliffe. This clerical work was evidently carried out in an honorary capacity, possibly at the instigation of his father who was a local Alderman and fulfilled the position of Mayor for the second, third, fifth, and sixth years of the Council’s activities.

It was in the early 1880s, or thereabouts, that Isaac Beehag disengaged himself from gardening and wood carting pursuits and became established as a dairyman on his Uncle William Beehag’s property around Spring Creek in the eastern portion of present day Banksia. The dairy farm ranged along the shallow northern slopes of Rockdale Hill against the alignment of Tabrett Street where a herd of cows, some Ayrshire, and others of the Illawarra breed, some red coated, some white, and others a mixture of both colours, The dairy farm supplied the needs of customers living throughout the Kogarah, Rockdale, Bexley, and Arncliffe suburbs.

One particularly white cow, named “Lily”, was a favourite of the milking personnel, but another animal, known by the distinctive name of “lronbark”, proved tough to milk and was far from popular. A good cow gave upwards of thirty quarts of milk per day (seven and a half gallons) which is a remarkable output. As cows do not recognise Sunday as a day of rest the milking team had no Sabbath rest from their everyday chores, although the roundsmen had the afternoon off. To feed the cows it required the energy of two men, one to turn the handle of the chaff-cutter, and the other to feed hay into the machine. The chaff thus gained, together with a mixture of bran and corn-meal, had to be cooked on two occasions each day and formed the staple diet of the dairy herd. The cooking process was carried out in a huge iron cauldron, about four and a half feet in diameter, heated by a wood fire placed beneath.

Isaac Beehag is reputed to have been the first local dairyman serving the then somewhat scattered community, per medium of two milk-carts and three cart-horses. In between whiles he also indulged, so it has been said, in a little market-gardening as a sideline, A weekly load of vegetables were taken by dray to the city markets for sale, and when there was a surfeit of green foodstuffs it was occasionally necessary to bring the load back to the garden, a heartbreaking journey as no money had been obtained to offset the hardwork involved, the digging, planting, watering, and the gathering, washing, and bundling, all a dead loss, apart from providing luscious tit-bits to the ever hungry cows. It may be mentioned that Spring Creek, a clear pellucid stream of those days, bordered the garden property and its waters were dammed by a sluice gate, to conserve the necessary water for distribution by watering cans amongst the various growing beds. The banks of the creek were lined with quince-trees, the fruit of which proved saleable for jam-making. The crops grown comprised beans, cabbages, carrots, peas, turnips, and such like, whilst the bed of the creek proved ideal for water-cress, then in great demand for salads.

The Beehag family at this time lived in a small cottage with slab walls located near Tabrett Street, Banksia, on the higher and dryer portion of the land. The double-fronted facade was not provided with a verandah, the door opening from the outside path, whilst each of the front rooms had its small paned glass windows. The living room was at the north-eastern corner of the house and had an outside brick fireplace, broad based at the lower end, with its small rectangular shaped flue projecting above the roof ridge. A narrow verandah, flagged with sandstone slabs, led past the window of the living room to give access from the rear door to a single width separate kitchen which had its chimney (fitted with a “Colonial Oven”) placed outside the slab walls. The cottage, free from any adornment, was purely functional in its character.

The four interior rooms intercommunicated with each other and were each lined with hessian, this rough woven material being nailed direct to the inside face of the slab walls. The hessian was well papered to prevent draughts and the entry of the dreaded night air. Candles and oil lamps provided lighting at night, being carried from room to room as required. Large circular shaped tubs, and a clothes boiler were provided for the weekly washing programme, the water being obtained from either one of the three wells which were close handy to the rear of the premises. The buckets, dangling at the end of a rope, were raised and lowered hand over hand at the well-head and carried to the house. The water supply for the cattle was also handled in this manner, although further supplies were obtained from the neighbouring Spring Creek and its sluice dam.

It has been stated that Mary Ann Beehag, the good housewife, found a cool place for the butter at the base of the living room chimney, where the circulating breeze passing up the flue had the definite advantage of keeping down the temperature. An exploring snake wriggling in from the neighbouring market garden also found the chimney hearth to its liking, and was not above having a snack from the butter container. Great was the excitement amongst the household when the presence of the snake was discovered. Isaac raced for his shot-gun whilst a daughter was sent to play suitable music on the parlour harmonium, music calculated to inspire the snake to get a wriggle on. One would appreciate a knowledge of the tune played on this momentous occasion, apparently it was alluring enough to bring the snake from its hiding place into the living room, where Isaac gave it a blast from his shot-gun, causing injuries from which it did not recover.

For reasons which are now obscure it became necessary for Isaac Beehag to vacate the dairy farm at Tabrett Street as from about 1887, and take his cow bails and milking sheds etc, together with “Lily” and “Ironbark” and the rest of the herd of cows to a small wind-swept paddock at the crest of Arncliffe Hill, Little if any agistment was available at the new site and it was necessary to seek pasture land elsewhere, the animals being driven out and returned daily under the custody of a herdsman. A sufficient supply of fresh water was a big problem and daily trips had to be made to the unnamed creek flowing into Cooks River in the vicinity of the Cooks River Dam at Tempe. The family lived in a large two-storied weatherboard house, which, it is presumed, still stands adjacent to the present day Pitt Owen Avenue, a poplar tree-lined cul-de-sac once aptly known as Cliff Street, Arncliffe. The large house is now converted to a series of residential flats. Nearby and facing Forest Road was a small weatherboard building, flanked by pepper-trees, said to have been Arncliffe’s first general store, an emporium which has long vanished from the scene. The stay of the Beehag menage off Forest Road only lasted about eighteen months, as the site proved most unsuitable in every way, and a move was made in 1888 to the orchard property of Mr. Ferrier, located in the Upper Spring Creek valley, on the lower northern slopes of Bexley Hill, where grazing and living conditions were more to the liking of the large family.

The Ferrier’s house was a single-storied place, with perhaps six main rooms, situated at the then eastern terminal of Herbert Street. Beneath the wooden floor of a large verandah was a deep well, its trap-door covered by a long table, the water being raised by means of a hand-operated pump for household purposes and then carried in buckets to the section of the house where the previous liquid was required.

The orchard ground was spread over eighteen acres of which some eight acres were devoted to fruit growing. There were seven varieties of apple-trees, plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots, orange-trees, mandarin trees, medlars, figs, mulberries, cape-gooseberries, grapes, damson plums, and also a flattish variety of Japanese plum. Guavas of both the small red and the large yellow varieties flourished and it is believed that an attempt had been made, without success, to grow pineapples.

In these shall we say fruitful surroundings the cows, some thirty in all, led a contented life, although, sad to relate, a couple died through the inroads of a particularly wet winter. These beasts, in good condition, each having a sale price of about thirty pounds cash. Evidently the place was unhealthy as Isaac Beehag also took a sickness and about 1891 he moved, with his family and cow sheds and other paraphernalia, to Mr. Stapletons old home, known as Pembroke Park, at Kingsgrove. Here they occupied a weatherboard cottage, with two attic rooms, which was located opposite Smithson’s famous wine-bar on Stoney Creek Road.

The family lived in these quarters until 1893 when Isaac Beehag decided to return to his earlier haunts at Tabrett Street. During his absence from this scene the old slab hutment had been demolished and a new cottage, built by the then owner of the “Belmont” property, Mr. Samuel Beehag, was ready for occupation. Isaac brought his now almost portable cow-sheds and bails from Kingsgrove and re-erected them on their original site. The cows were driven overland to their former pasture ground and everybody was happy. It is unfortunate that Isaac died in June 1894, leaving his good wife to carry on the dairy business until about 1901 when, her health having failed, the business as a going concern was sold to an Englishman named Joseph Moreton. It may be mentioned that the entrance gate to the new dairy farm was opposite to the intersection of Gibbes Street with Tabrett Street.

It has been related that Isaac Beehag was either the first, or the second, person to be buried in the then newly opened Woronora Cemetery at Sutherland, Mr, Charles Fripps being the registrar. In due course his beloved and industrious wife was laid to rest beside him, The Tabrett Street farm has long departed, and its place is now occupied by rows of modern bungalows, a housing estate served by Chestnut Drive and a pair of cul-de-sacs.

This article was first published in the May 2000 edition of our magazine.

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Book Review: “Into the Unknown: The Tormented Life and Expeditions of Ludwig Leichhardt” by John Bailey

396 pages, published by Pan Macmillan 2011

Review by Laurice Bondfield

Another recently published book! The author, John Bailey has written two much praised books on Australian history: The White Divers of Broome and Mr Stuart’s Track, and this book is sure to be another. There has not been much non-specialist writing published on Leichhardt and this book fills a gap. Leichhardt’s life story and accomplishments as an explorer have often been overshadowed by the sensational fact of his disappearance and by Patrick White’s novel Voss vaguely based on his character.

What do we learn from this biography? Firstly, how well educated Leichhardt was. Born to a poor farming family in the village of Trebatsch in Prussia, the sixth of nine children, he was sent at the age of six to a boarding school in a nearby village. As the author points out, except for holidays, he never lived with his family again. From there at the age of eleven he won a place against stiff competition in the Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymnasium in Cottbus. There is much fascinating detail about the political background of the Prussian defeat by Napoleon and the course the Emperor Friedrich-Wilhelm took to strengthen his country by reforming the education system and army.In 1831 at age eighteen, he graduated with the “Abitur” and entered the Fiedrich-Wilhelm University of Berlin (now Humboldt University) where he studied for six years (with a” Wanderjahr” (wander-year) at Gottingen University in the German tradition), constantly changing courses until he struck on the natural sciences which fired his interest.

Since childhood, he had been fascinated by the travels and scientific discoveries of Alexander von Humboldt in Latin America and longed to emulate them. A holiday walking and camping in the Harz mountains strengthened this resolve. A friendship with two English brothers John and William Nicholson led to a trip to England and a period in London then Paris, studying the collections at the famous museums in these cities and attending the free lectures offered by these institutions as well as walking tours in France and Switzerland observing and collecting plants and rocks. One problem faced Leichhardt – like all young Prussian men he was required to spend a time in the military, which interested him not at all and which he tried to avoid.

Finally with the help of William Nicholson, whose brother was migrating to Australia, Leichhardt set out on the Sir Edward Paget in 1841 bound for Sydney. He felt Providence had offered him a chance to lead the life he had always wanted in a land where so many mysteries both geographical and natural needed to be solved. From the moment he arrived he was fascinated by the land and determined on leading a journey of exploration as soon as he could. He travelled extensively in the Hunter region and northern N.S.W. and Queensland, sleeping rough and learning how to live on the land. In 1844 he began his first and most successful journey to Port Essington (near present day Darwin).The account of this expedition is harrowing. The expedition was meagrely funded and Leichhardt made poor choices in the men to accompany him. Nevertheless in 1845, after most people in the colony had given him up as dead, he and his ill-assorted companions reached Port Essington. On the journey Leichhardt’s hardiness, botanical knowledge and willingness to try eating “Everything that grew, flew, swam, hopped, ran or slithered” saved them from starvation: bandicoot, a joey, kangaroo, cockatoo, lorikeet, emu, fish, eels, mussels, goanna, snakes, native lemons, nonda plums, palm hearts, bush honey, caper bush berries cassia pods cordia tree fruit all were consumed when flour, tea and sugar ran out. He even found passable substitutes for coffee and tea!

On his return to Sydney, he was lionised by society, which did not suit him at all and he hurried to plan and begin another expedition to cross the continent and reach the Swan River settlement. This was an unmitigated disaster: constant rain, sickness and dissension among another ill-assorted group forced him to abandon the attempt. Humiliated by this disaster and by hostile stories spread by his former companions, convinced Providence was deserting him, he hastened to set out again in 1848. On 5th April he and his six companions rode out from Cogoon Station in the Darling Downs heading west and were never seen again.

The author details attempts to find him or any remains-over nine different expeditions with little result. After all, there is a huge area to cover and Leichhardt did not give any precise indications of which way he intended to go. Bailey also lists the common explanations of what could possibly have happened to the group-no theory has any persuasive evidence to back it. All that remains is a nameplate from a gunstock-not even the stock itself was kept. The gunstock was found wedged into a fork in a tree and no-one could explain how it came to be there as no other items or bodies were found anywhere near.

John Bailey has written a detailed and intriguing account of one of the most mysterious episodes in Australian colonial history. His portrait of Leichhardt -driven by a thirst for knowledge, by an insatiable desire to explore the unknown- is compelling. Highly recommended to all who love biography and mystery.

This article was first published in the January 2012 edition of our magazine.

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Bexley: As I Knew It, from 1895 – 1917

Grace (Middenway) Nicholls, Faulconbridge N.S.W. 1963

John S. Middenway was the principal of Bexley Public School from 1895 to 1917 (courtesy Bayside Library)

I have been asked by Mr Philip Geeves, Historian for the St. George District, Sydney, N.S.W., to write some of my early memories of Bexley; also to give a brief outline of the life and work of my father, John Saunders Middenway. I remember so much that it is difficult to know what to record and what to leave unwritten.

We went to Bexley towards the end of 1895, when I was nine years old. We had been living in Wagga, where my Father had been Headmaster of Gurwood Street School.


Father was born in Sydney, when his parents were living in a house near the Observatory, somewhere in the vicinity of Fort Street School, on April 24th, 1855. Later his parents moved to Woolloomooloo Bay. Part of the backyard of their home was a sandy beach, washed by the waters of the bay. That was before the reclamation was carried out, and the bay was filled in as far inshore as the old Fish Markets. His father, of Dutch descent (Gerritt Hendrick Middenway), was an engineer at “The Sydney Morning Herald” office. He died as the result of an accident while working there. His mother was an Englishwoman) whose first husband was Captain Spicer, an English Military Officer on duty in New Zealand during the Maori uprising in March 1845.

My grandmother was the first white woman living at Russell, in the Bay of Islands, in the north of New Zealand. I did not know either my grandmother or grandfather as they had died some years before I was born. After her first husband died, Grandmother came to Sydney where she married Grandfather. She had two children by the first marriage, and three Sons by the second. Father was the youngest.

Father was educated to the age of 14 years, at Fort Street School, Sydney, as also was my mother, Sarah Elizabeth Venteman, also of Dutch descent on her father’s side. Father left Fort Street, and became a pupil teacher at Paddington School. He received- instruction before and after school hours from the headmaster, and taught a class of boys during the day, many of them being older than he. He later became an Assistant at Paddington School. When he was about 20 years old, he was appointed Master of Clarence Town School. While there he and Mother were married. (Their parents had been friends before either of them was born.) They had 3 sons: Frank, Arthur & Gerritt Hendrick (Dick).

Father was teaching at Clarence Town for five and a half years. He as then transferred to Greta at that time a very small coal mining town. He was there for 11 1/2 years. My sister Ada Oliver, and I were born in Greta. From Greta we went to Wagga Wagga. My youngest- brother, John Reginald (known as “Reg” as a child, and “Jack” as…. he grew older) was born while we were living in Wagga.

After being at Gurwood Street school for three years, an exchange was arranged with Mr Hume, Headmaster at Bexley. Mr Hume did not have good health, and as Bexley was not far from the coast, he wished to move to a drier and warmer climate. Father was only too pleased to make the change as his children were growing up; the eldest, Frank, was then in charge of North Wagga School. He was 19, and the next 3 children were aged from 18 to 14 years. He realised it was a good opportunity to give them the advantage of living near a city.

Eliza Pearse was an early Bexley storekeeper and Bexley’s first postmistress (courtesy Bayside Library)

After the town of Wagga, with a main street nearly 2 miles long, and which even then in 1895, had 46 hotels, Bexley was quite a small village in comparison. The school, two or three small shops, two churches and a tiny Post Office, with a number of scattered houses, comprised Bexley. (On thinking back, I believe the Church of England was the only Church and that the Presbyterian Church was built later.) One side of Harrow Road was fairly well built on, but the district near the school was not nearly so closely settled. The Post Office was a tiny, whitewashed building of the very early type seen in the country many years ago, with a low corrugated iron roof, and built almost flat on the ground. It was in Forest Road, on the western side, in about the same position as the Community Centre occupies, near the top of Harrow Road. I believe it was attended by a Mrs Pearse. There were quite a number of people of that name living in Bexley then. Several of that name came to school. I remember a Charlie Pearse being in my class.

Eliza Pearse’s Bexley Store and post office (courtesy Bayside Library)

There was a larger cottage of the same type as the Post Office on part of the ground where Bexley school now stands. Granny Parkes (she was never known by any other name) lived there with her, daughter and son-in-law, Mr & Mrs Luck, in their family. Granny Parkes appeared to grandmother or close relative of nearly all the school children. I think she must have belonged to one of the earliest families to settle in Bexley. I would think by the style and age of the cottage that it was her original home. Mr Luck was a wood & coal merchant. They lived opposite the school residence, or “school house” as we called it, where we lived. It faced Forest Road, the ground went to the corner of Bay View Street. The house has been demolished for some years.

Mr Luck’s house was similar to the Post Office, only larger; very low roofed, whitewashed, & almost flush with the ground. It had a 3 roomed frontage. The 3rd room had no connecting door with the rest of the house, so the person occupying that room had to go out into the open when he wanted to go to bed, which was not too comfortable on a cold night.

One of Mr Luck’s sons was a teacher at the school when we arrived. Other teachers Were Miss Rose Simpson, Miss Woods & Miss Swan, who was a member of one of the highly respected, earlier families to settle in Parramatta.

From the verandah of the school house we had a fine view of part of Botany Bay, the high ground on which Long Bay Gaol is built, the district round the northern end of the bay and beyond, near where Bunnerong Power Station now stands. It wasn’t long before houses were built at the top end of Frederick Street (near Forest Road) & on the spare ground opposite the old school, blocking out much of our view; but on turning into Frederick Street on my way to the train or to the Congregational Church, Rockdale, which we attended, & where I was for many years Church Organist, I always had immense pleasure from the view of Botany Bay, Bare Island, Cape Banks Solander (“The Heads”), Kurnell, then in its native state, forming a dark green background to the obelisk which was erected to mark, the first landing on Australian soil. All this could be seen very plainly on a clear day (before the days of factories & smoke to take away the clearness of the atmosphere); the whole picture being highlighted by the blue of the bay the distant ocean showing between Botany Bay Heads. Eventually that view was also blocked out, as the large expanse of open country in that area was subdivided & streets & houses took the place of open ground.

The first night we spent in Bexley, it was decided that we would sleep at my Aunt’s home in Judd Street, Rockdale Park (or at least some of us would) as our furniture having come by train, was still partially unpacked. (I remember my job was to unwind yards & yards of strips of rag which had been wrapped round the legs of our dining room suite; how different from the easy way of moving furniture now!)

Rockdale Park is now Banksia, the name being changed when Banksia Railway Station was built. (Jannali & Allawah Stations were also built during our time at Bexley.) To go to Rockdale Park we crossed Frederick Street & Herbert Street. It was very dark, no lights anywhere. Soon we found ourselves stumbling over row after row of what we later found out to be grass covered furrows. It had been cultivated ground some time before. We were told later that it had been part of an orchard owned by Mr Lauff or his father. They lived in Lauff Street, a street running off Railway Street, Rockdale, towards the higher land on which Bexley is now built, on which was the furrowed ground we stumbled across that night. (Lauff Street was about the second or third street from Frederick Street, running parallel with it.) The furrowed land stretched from the foot of the grounds belonging to “Lydham Hall”, the large stone house on Lydham Hill, which was near what are now Oswell and Clarence Streets. After crossing the furrowed ground we eventually came to some rocks down which we had to scramble to get to the lower ground of Rockdale Park, not far from what was then Caincross’s dairy.

Lauff family home in Villiers Street, Rockdale, since demolished (courtesy Bayside Library)

It is all laid out now with streets and cottage homes. Mr Alec Sutherland was the first builder to buy land & erect cottages for letting or selling on terms in that area; in fact, I think possibly in Bexley. He was a Deacon of the Congregational Church. Why all the streets in that area were named Herbert, Frederick, Oswell, Clarence, etc., I am at a loss to know. I don’t know if these boys’ names had any historical significance or not. I never heard anyone speak of it, but I do think a little more originality could have been shown.

The street lighting in 1895 was most primitive and inadequate. The lamps were very few and far between, and many of the footpaths were not made. Frederick Street after rain was anything but pleasant to walk in, especially at night. One could easily be bogged as the ground was composed of clay in parts and would be very slippery and dangerous to walk on. Later the centre was laid with a path of bricks, about 3′ wide. The light from the street lamps was practically of no sue at all as the lamps were lit by gas. To the time of our leaving Bexley in 1917, there was no electricity. The school building had no lighting whatsoever. If a meeting was held there, it had to take place in the daylight hours, or those attending had to take kerosene lamps, storm lanterns, candles, etc., to light the room in which the meeting was held. Often lanterns were carried to church or meetings which were attended at night as the street lighting was so poor.

Aftermath of a 1930s flood, looking from Frederick Street on to Rawson Street, Rockdale (courtesy Bayside Library)

When we first went to Bexley we would see the lamplighter carrying his little step ladder over his shoulder every evening as he went on his rounds lighting the lamps.

Later, when incandescent burners were introduced, he used a stick with a hook on the end. There were two chains with rings attached at the end, hanging from the burner. To light the lamp, one of the rings would be pulled down and the burner would light. In the morning he would come round again and pull the other ring and the light would dim, but not go out. It was then ready to light in the evening by repeating the process.

Incandescent lights had a great habit of burning holes in the asbestos mantle if the light was pulled up too quickly, or exposed to a draught. The lamplighter must have spent as much time renewing mantles as lighting lamps.

An area which changed tremendously after we had left Bexley was along Forest Road from the old school to Preddy’s Road. There were no streets running off Forest Road from Stoney Creek Road corner to Preddy’s Road, and there were only two houses in all that distance. The houses and the land belonging to them occupied the whole of that space.

“Besborough” was the home of George Preddy between circa 1859 and 1876. It stood on Forest Road, Bexley between what is now Besborough Avenue and Preddys Road (courtesy Bayside Library)

They were Preddy’s home “Besborough” and “Kinsel Grove”, the home of the Kinsela family. The Freddy home was fairly large, but “Kinsel Grove” built by Mr Kinsela, founder of the firm of that name, was a large square stately home, standing in park-like grounds with a tennis court and carriage drive on the rise between Forest and Stoney Creek Roads. In the parklands from the house to the corner of these two roads were animals and birds roaming under the large trees. I am not quite clear as to the kind of animals they were. If my memory is correct, there were kangaroos, emus and deer. It was all very peaceful, and has left a delightful memory; the large shady trees, the tiny creek running through the grounds and the animals grazing; the green grass and tiny stream giving food and drink to the animals. There was also an animal shelter built for bad weather.

On the eastern side of Forest Road, from Dunmore Street to Queen Victoria Street, there were about three large houses, possibly four. One near the top of the hill was occupied by the Macleod family. Mr. Macleod’s brother was Dr Macleod of Rocky Point Road, Rockdale (now I think known as “Princes Highway”). The girls came to school with me, – Jessie, Flora and I think there was a third girl.

The Wyndhams lived in a house nearer Dunmore Street; Hilda and Vera were also at school with me.

From the corner of Queen Victoria Street, looking towards Carlton, there was a large open common. Away in the distance could be seen a few houses. I would say those houses which were seen in the distance would be within walking distance of Carlton Railway Station.

Other large houses in Bexley, Arncliffe and Rockdale are worth mentioning, as also are the families who lived in them.

Mr Gibbins lived in a large home on Wollongong Road, about half way between Bexley and Arncliffe. I have been told that he accumulated his money in the pearl fishing industry. Before we left Bexley, the house had been taken over by the Salvation Army as a “Girls’ Home”. Another residence was purchased about the same time by the Salvation Army, as a “Boys’ Home”. It stood on the top of the hill between the first and second gullies. Miss Gibbins married Mr David Stead, for many years a leading official in the Government Fisheries Dept. They lived for some time with their family of young children at “Lydham Hall”. Christina, a daughter of Mr Stead by a previous marriage (known at school as “Peggie”) was a very, quiet & almost shy girl when at school. She later wrote a book which was wonderfully received. The reviews were the most outstanding I have ever read. It took the bankers & men of the financial world by storm. It was stated in effect that never before had a woman shown such insight and understanding in matters of finance.

John Horatio Clayton served as an alderman on Rockdale Council from 1891 to 1903. He was Mayor of Rockdale from 1895 to 1898 (courtesy Bayside Library)

Mr Clayton, a well known Sydney solicitor, lived with his family at “Myee” near the junction of Wollongong and Forest Roads. Hector later became a solicitor and Harry became a doctor. Both these boys were at school with me. I am told the home is now a Babies’ Home or Hospital.

“Esrom” Convalescent Hospital, which is connected with the Rachel Forster Hospital, Sydney, was once the home of the Cormack family. It was later bought by Mr Torn Morse (one of a large family of that name, who married & settled in the St. George district some years previously). He named the house “Esrom” which is the name “Morse” spelt backwards. They were still living there when we left Bexley.

Mr. W.G. Judd, who had at one time a business interest in the Hurstville Brick Works, was a very much respected & well like member of the community. He was always a most enthusiastic member of any organisation of which he was a member. He was Mayor of Rockdale for some time. He was much interested in the Congregational Church. He lived at “Athelstane” in Wollongong Road, Arncliffe. He owned a large piece of land adjoining his house. This he made available for the use of the church football and cricket clubs. He was very interested in young people, & on occasions he & his wife would entertain a number of them at his week-end cottage in a delightful setting at Howie Bay. My first drive in a motor car was with Mr & Mrs Judd. I’ll never forget it. Mr Judd sped at 34 miles per hour!! It was an open car of course, & compared with the very low cars of today, we appeared to be perched very high in the air.

I would like to tell of 4 clergymen who impressed me very much, and were well known to most people in Bexley in the earlier years.

Reverend Charles James Byng, Rector at Christ Church, Bexley (courtesy Bayside Library)

Rev. Mr Byng. He was Rector of Christ Church in Albyn Street,Bexley. He gave religious instruction to the school children. He was a man of wonderful physique; very tall, well built, upright, with a natural dignity of bearing. He had iron grey hair, which he parted down the centre of the back of his head & brushed forward on each side. He had a very swarthy skin. All this has been attributed to an Indian Princess mother & a distinguished English father. He always wore a huge plain gold cross hanging from his watch chain. It caught the sun as he walked, so that the first thing one noticed was Mr Byng’s gold cross, then the man himself, almost always surrounded by a group of children, all trying to hold one of his hands. He was a friend of Father’s. They often took Saturday outings together, often joined by Mother.

The Rev. Mr. Waddell came to the district later, but he has his place on this list. He was a retired Methodist Minister. I especially remember him for his genial kindly manner, his cheerful happy face and smile & his love of children. He had a white flowing beard, & this with his whole appearance made him the personification of a perfect Santa Claus.

The Rev. Thomas Hill, was the Bexley Presbyterian Minister. I did not know him well, but admired him for the steadfast way he carried out his duties. He was elderly & also blind, but he did not let these things interfere with his work & duties.

The Rev. James Clark – he had once been Rector of the Church of England at Kogarah, years before we arrived in Bexley. He was reputed to have been an exceptionally clever man, but overstudy is blamed for the brain disturbance from which he suffered for the rest of his life, He had to give up the Ministry.

The trains until after we had left Bexley, were all steam driven. They ran once an hour, to & from Sydney Station, which at that time was situated on the southern side of Devonshire Subway. We lived 3/4 of a mile from Rockdale Station. The only conveyance from the station was a horse drawn wagonette, which occasionally met the trains. As the charge from the station to our home was 2/-, we mostly ended up walking home up the steep Frederick Street Hill.

A tram line was laid from Arncliffe Station, along Wollongong Road, into Forest Road, past the old school, & along Stoney Creek Road. The whole line was 3 miles in length.

The Kinsela Estate was subdivided, the trees & parklands disappeared and rows of houses were built round the old home.

A daily paper article of the time stated that by worldwide statistics, it was found that Sydney was the healthiest city in the world, & medical statistics proved that by average, Bexley had the least deaths of any of Sydney’s suburbs. Bexley residents were going about telling people that Bexley was the healthiest spot in the world.

Commencing near Stoney Creek Road, through the back of Bexley, old Arncliffe nearly to Tempe ran a small gully. The part of the gully we liked most was at the bottom of Bay View Street, about 10 minutes walk from the school. It was the first of 3 gullies running almost parallel with Forest Road on the western side, almost as far as Belmore. The East Hills Railway Line runs along the second gully.

When we went to Bexley, the attendance must have been something over 200, as I remember Father coming home soon after we went there, and telling us there had been a record attendance of 240 people. Quite a number of the children in the earlier days had to walk up to 2 miles each way to and from school.

About this time a large galvanised iron building was erected in Broadford St very near the school. It was used for the “Silent Movie”. One half only was roofed, 6d. was charged for the roofed end & 3d. for the unroofed part. The whole building was later floored & covered, & for quite some time it was used to accommodate school pupils. Christ Church Hall was utilised next. Finally a brick two-storey building of 4 rooms was erected in the grounds. Before it was finished, it was found necessary to double it in size. By that time the playground had so many buildings, there was not much room for the children to move about.

When first World War broke out, there were calls for books & reading matter for the troops. The result was astounding. Hundreds of books, magazines & other reading matter came in, & continued to do so until we left Bexley in 1917. Each magazine enclosed a letter from one of the senior pupils, & some very interesting replies were received. Father packed them in cartons which a local carrier took to the receiving depot.

One of the lady teachers organised knitting classes for girls & boys, and these classes were held regularly during school hours. They made socks, scarves, Balaclava caps and other comforts for overseas troops.

It became very difficult for the Education Department to keep up supplies of men teachers to the various schools which were short staffed owing to enlistment, numbers killed and other casualties.

Father through this lack of sufficient teachers was obliged to teach a class of 80 boys, as well as supervising a school with an enrolment of 1200 pupils & a total teaching staff of 22. The school had a few years previously been divided into 3 departments, boys, girls and infants, all at Primary level.

We were then planning for Father’s retirement. The strain was telling on him. He had been teaching for 48 years, and for more than 30 of them had suffered attacks of Angina Pectoris. I do not think he would have retired during the war if he had been in good health.

Father retired at the end of 1917. He held a 1A Classification and he had built the school to a 1st class Classification. He had been teaching at Bexley School nearly 22 1/2 years. He was nearly 63 when he retired, and his salary on retiring was under 6 pounds per week. Better conditions and pay came in a few years after Father’s retirement.

I will finish this paper by telling of Father’s main interests, apart from teaching.

Music, the study of Native Flora of N.S.W. and photography. These things he was keenly interested in and gave much time to, often using them in his school work.

In each of the country towns where he taught, he conducted a Church Choir, and inaugurated a Band of Hope for the children.

This article was first published in the October 1980 edition of our magazine.

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Cooks River: The History Of Its Early Homes And Bridges

Cooks River has always played a part in the history of our Municipality therefore, Mrs. I. E. Currey, of the Canterbury and District Historical Society, thinks its story should be told in this the year of the probable sighting of the river by Captain James Cook.

Captain Cook, after whom the river was named, apparently rowed up the stream as far as where the Princes Highway now crosses it. Cook spoke of the area as being banked by lovely meadows where many hundreds of cattle could browse. The foreshores were at this time lined densely with mangroves and other trees.

Exploration of the River

In September 1789, Captain John Hunter (later Governor Hunter) probably entered Cooks River after exploring Georges River. However he was not greatly impressed, as he described one journey of about five miles up the river to have been mostly through shoal waters.

In December of the same year, Lieutenant Bradley was sent to explore the north-west branch of Botany Bay. There he found a creek about eight. miles in length. The description of this stream was “winding shoal channel,, ending in drain to a swamp., all shoal water”.

The name Cooks River does not seem to have been given the stream until 1798, for in this year Governor Hunter sent home a map to England of the area around Sydney Cove. On this map Cooks River is named, but on a previous map in 1796, it was not mentioned.

After the first land grants in the district, the river came to play, an increasingly more important part in the lives of the people affected by it.

Some of the leading citizens of the young colony began to build homes in this., then outer-area of Sydney. In 1831, on the Arncliffe side of the river, Alexander Brodie Spark. built a fine mansion which he called ‘Tempe’. This lovely home is still in existence, beautifully preserved and is owned by a Roman Catholic order of nuns. It can be seen from the road bridge over the Princes Highway at Tempe.

The Unwin family built their pleasant home on the river at Undercliffe and called it “Wanstead”. It was later occupied by Edward Campbell, merchant, and, was still kept on by his widow after his death.

There was also “Undercliffe House”, in which at one time, Mr. P.A. Thompson, a solicitor, lived. It was a neat cottage made of stone and contained 9 rooms, It was built on that part of the river where the cliffs are steep and so gave the residence its name.

Sketch of a settler’s bark hut near the Cooks River, circa 1860 (courtesy Bayside Library)

A little further up the river on the right bank, during the 1860’s, Mr. Thomas Holt built a mansion of ‘noble proportions’. This home was on the hills overlooking Marrickville, and could be seen for miles, Mr. Holt called his home “The Warren”.

Two stone pillars, all that are left of this one time lovely building, have been erected at Richardson’s Lookout by interested citizens of Marrickville, can be seen from the train before entering Sydenham Station on the left hand side going from Marrickville. Station.

The River Crossings

To get to the various residences, farms and grazing lands along the river banks, the owners had to construct fords, punts or bridges. Thus many of the early bridges were frail affairs.

We have a record from James Meehan, an early surveyor,, in which he mentions Laycock’s Bridge This is probably the same ‘slender bridge’ mentioned in 1810 by Governor Macquarie, near Hannah. Laycock’s farm, Kingsgrove.

A dam was constructed across the river near ‘Tempe’, by convict labour, in 1835. This, for many years. was used as a ford as well. There is of course a very busy road bridge across the river on the Princes Highway now.

An article in the Sydney Gazette of the 1st August 1883, says, “We understand that Mr. Prout finished a large, substantial punt at his residence, Cooks River”, This punt was used until 1839, when the same Cornelius Prout built a bridge over the river. For many years this bridge was known in the district of Canterbury as Prout’s Bridge. There was also a smaller bridge across the river up towards Enfield. This was called Miller Bridge, after the farm nearby.

At a later date, a punt was established about half way down river, between Prout’s Bridge and Tempe Dam. This was known as Thorpe’s Punt. It was still in existence in 1854, when a bill was passed in the Legislative Council to give Mr. Fisher and Mr. Thompson power to build a bridge over the river. About 1835, a second road to Illawarra was opened and a punt used to cross the river. This was later succeeded by a bridge built about 1840 by Mr. F. T. Unwin of “Wanstead”. It was known as Unwin’s Bridge. This bridge was still in use until 1889, when it was replaced by an iron and concrete span.

A bridge over the river at Undercliffe was built about 1870. It too, was replaced by a new structure in 1880. The present bridge over the river at this point is still known as Undercliffe Bridge.

After many suggestions by both the Canterbury and Marrickville Councils, a bridge over the river at Wardell Road was commenced in 1898 and was completed in the following year.

Many of these bridges have now been replaced and new bridges constructed in areas where expansion in the districts made river crossings necessary.

The older folk of our Municipality, no doubt remember Cooks River as a pleasant stream, lined with trees and flowing through a timbered countryside. Erosion, silt and commerce have all played their part in despoiling the rivulet in past years.

However, there is a resurgence of effort and will among many of our citizens to once again see the river banks as public parklands, and beautiful with trees. We have an association in the district dedicated to this scheme. Our Council too, seems to have in mind ideas for better usage of the small stream called after our great discoverer, Captain Cook, and perhaps one day we will see the banks along the river looking as he described them, ‘lovely meadows and lined with trees’.

My appreciation to James Jervis and his History of the Canterbury Municipality and to the Canterbury and District Historical Society for the use of their journals. From these two sources came much of the material for this short history.

(By courtesy The Campsie News & Lakemba Advance 25.2.70., and written by Mrs. I. E. Currey, member of the Canterbury & District Historical Society. )

This article was first published in the June 1970 edition of our magazine.

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2022 Ron Rathbone Local History Competition

Inaugurated in 2006, the Ron Rathbone Local History Competition is an initiative to explore and appreciate Bayside’s rich, diverse and vibrant history.
Former City of Botany Bay Council and former Rockdale City Council were amalgamated in 2016 to form Bayside Council. The Ron Rathbone Local History Competition now extends to include these two local government areas that both have a long rich and diverse history and cultural heritage.
Ron Rathbone OAM was Mayor of Rockdale, holding that position for a record four terms. The prize is awarded in his honour.

The 2022 winners were announced at Rockdale Town Hall on 20 September.

Congratulations to all entrants, especially the young historians in the Schools categories.

Open Category

Stannumville by Leonie Bell

Recognition of Effort Award
A History of the Bexley Bowling Club: 1946 – 2022 by Panayiotis Diamadis

Encouragement Award
The Eve Street Wetlands by Alan Russell
The Origin and Building of Pemberton’s Baths, Ramsgate: 1918 – 1929 by Dan McAloon
Pioneering flights at Botany Bay, 1910 – 1911 by Hugh Tranter

Schools Categories

Joint Winner – Years K to 2
A Special Place by Lola Melia
Around Where I Live by Kyla Silke
Cooks River: A Long River with a Long History by Annabelle Woo

Winner – Years 3 to 4
Mr Angelo Anestis – A great man to be remembered by Ivy Zhong

Encouragement Award – Years 3 to 4
Sir Joseph Banks Park by Sebastian Gatt

Winner – Years 5 to 6
Rockdale Library – A Journey Through Time by Carlton Public School Year 5/6E

Encouragement Award – High School
An Exploration of Streets in Daceyville by Margaret Oszywa
Where We Live: Wolli Creek Region by Elysia Woo
Gardeners Road Public School: Then and Now by Gardeners Road Public School Class 1/2
Gardeners Road Public School: Then and Now by Gardeners Road Public School Class 1G
Gardeners Road Public School: Then and Now by Gardeners Road Public School Class 2G
Gardeners Road Public School: Then and Now by Gardeners Road Public School Class 2L

The History Of Tempe House

May Hook

The historic “Tempe House” was built for Alexander Brodie Spark, who owned a large area of land at Cooks River in the early 1800’s, and became a director of the Bank of New South Wales in 1826.

“Tempe House” is a stately home of Georgian style set in a number of large gardens, trees, and sloping well kept lawns. According to a yellowed clipping in the possession of Miss Madeline Spark, of Roseville, a grand-daughter of Alexander Spark, the name of Tempe was suggested to the latter by its resemblance to the landscape of the Vale of Tempe in Thessaly, Greece.

The clipping says “Mr. Spark, a gentleman of means, arrived in the Colony while he was touring the world, and, being struck by the possibilities of the country he decided to remain at least for a time, but subsequently became a permanent resident”. He also was given a grant of land in Darlinghurst, by Governor Darling, where he built “Tusculum”, whose first tenant was Bishop Broughton.

Miss Spark said “Tempe House” was a show place of the era. Conrad Martens, the artist (1801-1878) painted the landscape three years after he arrived in Australia from London. His views of early Sydney are collector’s items.

“This delightful residence, the seat of A. B. SPARK, Esq., is situated on the western bank of the river named after the immortal martyr of “OWHIEE”, Captain Cook, and was selected originally as a retreat from the cares of business, yet within easy distance of the town. The spot formerly displayed all the wild features of the unbroken interior, which yielded indescribable charms to the seeker after the tranquillity of romantic retirement. The “Avenger”, has, however, broken through the once apparently impenetrable serenity which prevailed, a massive dam protruding its rude masonry to the briny waves of far-famed Botany Bay, now supplies the place of “Old Willie and his skiff”, and in lieu of the plashing of the paddle, or the joyous carol of “sweet sounds” sent forth along the, moonlit waters by a cargo of returning visitors, the echoes of “TEMPE” are now degraded to the reverberations of woodmen’s slang, and lime-burner’s orgies.

Alas, alas, truly hath the Poet written –

“Like the gale that sighs along”
“Beds of Oriental flowers”
Is the grateful breath of song
That once was heard in happier hours”.

“But these are not days of sentiment and pathos – plodding matter of fact men are in the ascendancy and taste succumbs to Mammon.

The bath, the lodge, and the garden with its fruits and its flowers still remain, but the privacy of the one hath been invaded, and the grandeur of the other, impaired, aye, and the oyster-growing mangroves temptingly inviting one to partake of their juicy dainties – where are they? Torn down by the ruthless hand of time, destroyed, and almost forgotten – yet “Tempe” thou sittest still in beauty on thy mound, and even could the vibrating chord of recollection cease to awaken in me the most pleasing reminiscences which connect they past history with mine own, I, enraptured with thy simple stateliness could ever in sincerity exclaim “With all thy faults I love thee still”.

“Tempe House” is now part of a convent conducted by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, and is now in an excellent state of preservation.

Conrad Martens, Australia, 1801 – 1878, Residence of A.B. Spark, Tempe House, Tempe 1838, 1838, Sydney, watercolour on paper, 44.0 x 63.5 cm, 80.5 x 100.0 x 2.0 cm (frame); Gift of Douglas and Barbara Mullins 2009, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

There is a 128-year-old painting by Conrad Martens showing “Tempe House” and Cooks River, which was purchased by Mr. Stanley Lipscombe for the low price of ninety guineas. The house is situated behind rising ground a short distance from the Princes Highway. It faces the river on the north and a few hundred feet west is the main Illawarra Railway line. The house is situated between the turbulent traffic airlines. That is not all as the sky-way above is busy with air traffic coming into, and going out of Kingsford Smith Airport, one of the world’s busiest. All this is far removed from the days of “Old Willie and his skiff”.

In conclusion, it should be mentioned that Mr. Spark had a good deal to do with the establishing of the historic Church of St. Peter on the Cooks River Road, now Princes Highway, and he was buried there. He died at his Tempe residence on October 21st, 1856, aged 65 years.

This article was first published in the June 1970 edition of our magazine.

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Frog Hollow: Rockdale 70 Years Ago

Reprinted from the Rockdale Times of April 17, 1947

This account of the early history of Rockdale deals with the period over 70 years ago, when a fine orchard flourished where the Town Hall now rears its proportions; from the Grand Hotel to Bay Street was called “Frog Hollow”, and the oldest Aboriginal at Sans Souci was named Jimmy Lownes.

The Grand Hotel, Princes Highway, Rockdale, 1940s (courtesy Bayside Library)

Our historian, Mr. Joseph Bowmer, is 89 years of age, but has a memory like that of a schoolboy. He is not so old, except in years — his mental outlook is surprisingly modern. He says:

I will start at Wickham Street, Arncliffe, near the Public School, which is on the Terry Estate. On the southern side of what is now called Princes Highway (late Rocky Point Road), stretched the Terry Estate, except for Mrs. Vincent’s property at the corner of Spring Street and Rocky Point Road. Opposite the Vincents lived the large Lawrence family, their land finishing at the Free Church. Next was Mr. Lawson’s orchard. Mr. Iliffe had a large nursery, followed (as we pass to Rockdale), by Frank’s beautiful orchard, where the present Town Hall stands. Another orchard extended to the hotel site, and was owned and worked by Mr. William Bray.

From Bray’s Lane to Bay Street was called “Frog Hollow”, as it nearly always was full of water and frogs, and eels used to be caught there.

A gentleman named Campbell owned from Chapel Lane to the old fire station; then came John Andrew’s property. His wife had the first drapery shop here, while he conducted a denominational school next door.

From there to the stormwater channel was Mr. Sam Schofield’s – an orchard and vegetable garden extending as far as the present-day Ashton Street. His brother had an orchard and garden to Beach Street; and a Mr. Podmore owned from this point to the site of Moorefield racecourse.

Mr. Bowmer then gives us details of the properties on the eastern side of Rocky Point Road.

The hotel at Arncliffe was kept by a Mrs. Clune, and had a large area of land attached. Sheath’s land came next, and the next again extended to where Rickett & Thorp’s factory is a vegetable garden belonging to Mr. Touchell. On the adjoining property the first Rockdale shop was erected — a general store run by Mr. Moss, who had a vegetable garden around it, and looked after both person- ally. Then came Soden’s orchard; and Humphrey’s property reached to the corner of Tramway Arcade and the main road. Here Rockdale’s second general store was opened by Mr. Yeoman Geeves, who also conducted the post office.

The story then tells how Rockdale came to be so-called (see Mr. Fred Geeves’s reminiscences in our last issue).

Continuing, Mr. Bowmer says a Mr. Waltz owned the next block as far as Napper’s store; and the ambulance station site belonged to Mr. Fred Barden. This gentleman owned a vegetable garden and slaughterhouse here, and a butcher’s shop at Cooks River. Then came Skidmore’s land – he and his Sons gardened, and also carted wood to the city. The bridge over the watercourse was known as “Skidmore’s Bridge”.

One of the pioneers, Mr James Beehag, owned from Rocky Point Road down Bay Street to what is now James Street, where the hospital stands, and his area took in the swamp land, now Draper’s nursery. He had four boys and two girls and divided the property between them, reserving portion as a gift to the Methodist Church, in Bay Street.

On the west side of West Botany Street a Mr. Warren had a large market garden, and the next again was Mr. Chas. Napper’s; then Wilson’s garden; and at the rear of this Mr. John Bowmer, Snr. , tilled a market garden. From there on to Bestic Street belonged to Mr. Foulks, who gave portion of the West Botany Methodist Church. Following this was Wilmot’s, then Mr. William Beehag’s farm, while Mr. James Beehag owned from Bay Street to March Street.

The other side of March Street was a bullock paddock owned by Mr. McGuinness, who also conducted the hotel at Cooks River. The next settler was Mr. Lankorn; then Mr. Terry, as far as Spring Street; from hereto Tabrett Street was William Beehag’s; to Bestic Street, Mr. Godfrey’s; to Bryant Street, Mr. Foulks’s, and from Bryant Street to Bay Street, Mr. James Quirk. All were market gardens and orchards.

Rockdale Park is part of the old Quirk’s Estate.

The only outlet from the beach was Bay Street. At Rocky Point Road end, a cliff of rocks blocked the way, so a track was used through private land. Mr. Saywell cut through this cliff for his tram line.

The only private property on the beach was where the Brighton Hotel stands, and it was owned by Mr. Hook, who had slaughter-houses at Marrickville, a slaughter-house where Sydenham Station now is; and butcheries in the city.

The bush from Cooks River to Ramsgate was called “No-man’s land” and firewood could be cut without licence, and sold. Barton Park was a swamp, partly covered with ti-tree and swamp oak.

It was a great place for snakes, and there were ducks, snipe, plovers, and curlews for the sportsman. A colony of flying-foxes lived here.

The largest tree in Rockdale was blackbutt, on Godfrey’s property, known as Avenel Estate. It was 200 feet high. Mr. Godfrey had it felled, used the top as firewood for his boiling-down works, and had the barrel blasted asunder with “black-jack” for posts and rails. A photo of the old stump may be seen at Mr. F. Beehag’s office.

In these days there was no gas, and no laid-on water this side of Cooks River.

Aboriginal camps existed at Blakehurst and Sans Souci. They were later moved to La Perouse. Jimmy Lownes was the oldest aborigine at Sans Souci, and the boys of the village used to enjoy visiting him.

Mr. Joe Bowmer’s father came to Australia from England in 1853. He was in the formation of West Botany Municipal district, and was elected alderman in 1875. He was Mayor for 1877, and the six years following. In 1885 he was appointed a Justice of the Peace. At the Wesleyan Church he was a frequent preacher. He had 10 children.

This article was first published in the June 1963 edition of our magazine.

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Vale John Isaac Swann (1887 – 1963)

The sudden death of the President of the St. George Historical Society, Mr. J. I. Swann, has left in our ranks a large gap which will be extremely difficult to fill. Since its inception some two years ago, Mr. Swann was the driving force and inspiration of this Society.

Those of us who were privileged to know him away from meetings of the Society, as a friend and as a neighbour, cannot speak too highly of this very forthright, public-spirited and far-sighted old gentleman whose love for the history of the St. George and Parramatta Districts was infectious.

Perhaps this is not surprising when it is realised that it was Mr. Swann’s schoolteacher father who many years ago rescued derelict Elizabeth Farm House at Parramatta, Australia’s oldest and most historic building from the hands of the demolisher and raised a large family within its walls.

Mr. Swann’s eldest sister, Miss Margaret Swann, whose death was announced only last week, founded the Parramatta Historical Society. For many years she was its President and the late James Jervis, its secretary.

Many tributes have already been paid to Mr. Swann in the various capacities in which he served this community and it remains only for this Society, which he founded and which absorbed his time and his interest in the last years of his life, to say John Isaac Swann, we honour you.

This article was first published in the June 1963 edition of our magazine.

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Book Review: “The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia” by Bill Gammage

434 pages, published by Allen and Unwin 2011

Review by Laurice Bondfield

Most of the history Australian books from Rockdale Library that I’ve so far reviewed have been on the shelves for a few years. This book was published last year, so is quite “hot off the press” by comparison. It is well worth reading as it attempts to rewrite the pre-1788 history of Australia in a way that is bound to be controversial.

You may be familiar with Bill Gammage’s earlier work on Australian soldiers in World War 1 , The Broken Years. This current book has taken at least twelve years to write and includes material from history, anthropology and ecology-turn to the bibliography and be awed by how much research in every state archive and document collection he has undertaken to complete it.

What is his argument? Simply that the Australian landscape the earliest white settlers and explorers encountered was not a “wilderness” but a land tamed and managed by Aboriginal people over thousands of years to be able to support them in abundance, not scarcity. This management encompassed the whole continent from the Torres Strait Islands to Tasmania, principally by using fire. It enabled Aboriginal people to live almost like European aristocrats, with little time needed to provide food and shelter and much time to be devoted to cultural pursuits. The landscape was much more open grassland than forest and fostered the animals and plants that the people relied on for food, tools, weapons, clothing and shelter.

What evidence does he cite? In historical terms, letters from explorers and early white settlers from every state describing the landscape they first saw as “like a gentleman’s park” with monotonous regularity. They write of open space where they could ride with no hindrance, thick grass fields, open areas near rivers and creeks for easy access to water for drinking and fishing. Since, at the time they wrote, the ideas of municipal parks or national parks were far in the future, they were likening it to a cultivated landscape of open areas like paddocks with copses of trees and bushes here and there of the English “gentleman farmer”. Bill Gammage also contends that contrary to the views expressed by some art historians, the drawings and paintings of the early colonial artists were not trying to fit the Australian landscape into their pre-existing European ideas but painting what they saw. He has gone back to some of the places the artists depicted and shows how little they have changed and in what ways. One of Eugene von Guerard’s views of a landscape in Victoria is being used as a source for what plants to use in revegetating the area! The author uses comparison photography between the artist or surveyor’s work and the present day reality as an important part of his argument. It forms a whole chapter explaining the different types of landscape he claims Aboriginal people fostered. The colonial writers also constantly mention seeing Aboriginal people firing the land but with such control that the writers could walk behind the fire, unlike hot wildfires. Sadly, when many of the writers returned to the places they had described after the Aboriginal people had been forced off the land, they found the open grasslands they had described now choked with weedy growth and though some of the small farmers had tried to continue the burning regime, they lacked the intimate knowledge of the whole area which was part of Aboriginal land management and either burnt too often or too little.

From anthropology, Bill Gammage argues that traditional Aboriginal religion encouraged conservatism-that present day people had received the land as created by ancestral beings and were required to maintain it and pass it on unchanged. Each family group was responsible for managing a tract of land, in cooperating with neighbouring groups and had to know it as intimately as any farmer knows their property. This meant visiting different areas on a regular basis, camping there and carrying out ceremonies or other activities. People often left sets of tools at these places so they weren’t burdened with carrying them to their next camp. As evidenced both by historical sources and modern day observations in places like the Northern Territory, where some Aboriginal people still live quite a traditional life, these activities could involve harvesting yams or bush fruits in season and replanting shoots or burying fruit stones in middens to ensure regrowth. Interestingly, Gammage mentions that one of the longest running battles in early colonial history – on the Hawkesbury River – was fought over an area of prime yam growing land.

The ecological/botanical evidence he cites include such things as different types of yams growing in places where they could not have been spread to by natural means, suggesting that groups exchanged cuttings. Trees, the way they grow and group in the landscape are also cited as evidence of deliberate cultivation by means of consistent burning. Native grass was also burned to keep pathways open and to create the kind of “first pick” that grazing animals prefer (incidentally the reason kangaroos love golf courses!)

This is just a small taste of the evidence Bill Gammage uses to advance his argument. Most of the evidence I have recounted here is historical as that is my main interest(and yours I hope!) and I don’t feel as confident in interpreting the anthropological and botanical reasoning. Some of you may be familiar with the term “firestick farming” as advanced by Rhys Jones and others in 1970s- this book is an extension and elaboration of that theory. Don’t be put off reading this book by my short review. It’s written in clear prose, there are no difficult terms or jargon-though I do suggest you read the introduction where he defines the way he uses some familiar words. This is a book sure to intrigue you and set you thinking – as Bill Gammage says – we still have to learn to live in this country.

This article was first published in the January 2012 edition of our magazine.

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The Heritage of Bexley

by Kirsten Broderick, Local History Services Coordinator, Rockdale City Library

The National Trust runs a heritage festival every year, and every year Rockdale Council tries to participate in some way. This year, Council is holding a range of activities and I was asked to give a talk at Bexley Library focusing on the heritage of Bexley. This invitation has provided me with an opportunity to take a closer look at Bexley’s heritage-listed items, the reasons why they were heritage-listed and what they can tell us about the history of Bexley.

When looking at heritage-listed items, it is important to distinguish between the two different heritage lists that affect properties in Rockdale. Firstly, there is the State Heritage Register, which, operating under the NSW Heritage Act, lists places that are considered to be of significance to the whole state of NSW. Twelve items in the Rockdale local government area appear on this list, none of which are in Bexley. Lydham Hall, which is often talked about as a Bexley property, has been placed on the State Heritage Register; however, Lydham Avenue is actually within the suburb of Rockdale not Bexley. The second heritage list is the local heritage schedule contained within Rockdale Council’s Local Environmental Plan (LEP). This list contains those items that are considered to be of significance to the Rockdale local government area. In order to be assessed as being significant enough to appear on the heritage schedule, items have to meet at least one of a set of defined criteria. That is, they have to have historical, associative, aesthetic or social significance; research potential; be rare; or be representative. Rockdale Council has listed 237 properties or places as heritage items. Of these 237 items, 68 are in the suburb of Bexley.

This is a large number of heritage items for any one suburb and the number is indicative of the richness of Bexley’s history. When people hear references to council’s heritage list, they often just assume that it only includes houses and that the houses have been listed either because of their age or because of their architectural features. The list of items in Bexley does indeed include many fine individual homes that are representative of different eras and architectural styles – Victorian, Federation, Art Deco, Californian Bungalow and Inter-War houses all appear on the list. Many of these houses meet several of the criteria for heritage listing. Most of them have been assessed as having historical and aesthetic significance, and some of them meet other criteria as well. To give an example, the lovely stone cottage known as “Montrose” in Broadford Street has been assessed as having historical significance due to its being one of the earliest houses built west of Forest Road on the Chandler Estate; as having aesthetic significance because the fine details of the building demonstrate late nineteenth century building materials and techniques, and because the house contributes to the streetscape of Broadford Street as a whole; as being representative of the type of stone buildings that were built in Bexley during the 1880s; and finally as having associative significance because it is associated with its builder and original owner George Bain and his wife Catherine. George Bain was a gifted stonemason who worked on the building of Sydney University. Catherine Bain, known as “Kitty”, was a well-known Bexley nurse and midwife who delivered hundreds of Bexley babies and was remembered for her role in successfully nursing dozens of patients through the 1918-1919 flu epidemic that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths worldwide after World War I.

The house “Montrose” in Broadford Street, Bexley, built circa 1887

Another Bexley property on council’s heritage list, “St Elmo”, is more well-known. This large house in Harrow Road, Bexley, was built in 1897 for Joseph Palmer. As is the case with “Montrose”, even a brief look at “St Elmo” will show how it matches the criteria for heritage listing. “St Elmo” is considered to be of historical significance because it is an example of the type of grand villas that were built in Bexley in the late 1800s. “St Elmo” meets the criteria of aesthetic significance and the criteria of rarity because it is a rare example of a house built in the transitional architectural style between Victorian and Federation, and because of its distinctive gable which features a decorative panel depicting a Kookaburra – evidence of the turn-of-the-century fashion for Australian motifs in architectural design. Harrow Road contains several heritage-listed properties and many distinctive houses, “St Elmo” is of aesthetic significance not just because of its own beauty, but also because it is one of a number of fine homes in Harrow Road and it adds to the streetscape as a whole.

“St Elmo” in Harrow Road, Bexley, designed by William Kenwood for Joseph Palmer in 1897

Lastly, “St Elmo” is considered to be of associative significance because it is associated with its architect William Kenwood and its original owner Joseph Palmer. William Kenwood was probably our most well-known and successful architect; he designed many buildings in the area, the most prominent being Saywell’s Brighton Hotel, the St George Bowling Club and the heritage-listed Victorian terraces on The Grand Parade. Kenwood designed “St Elmo” for Joseph Palmer, a senior railroad official. The Palmer’s were a successful, community-minded family. One of Joseph’s sons, Claude, had married a musician named Edith Dickerson who performed regularly with a group called the Cheerio Girls. After their marriage, Claude and Edith lived in the 14-roomed house along with Claude’s brother Oriel. By 1928, the Palmer’s had been part of the Bexley community for 30 years, Joseph Palmer was retired and nearly an invalid but his niece Jessie was a nurse and had moved into the house to take care of him with the help of a housekeeper named Elizabeth Astley. Another relative, Garnet Robb, a nephew of Joseph’s wife, was also staying with the family. On Thursday 1 November 1928, while Claude and Oriel were at work, Robb hid himself behind the kitchen door and, while the family were having lunch, fired off seven gun shots in quick succession. Jessie Palmer and Elizabeth Astley were both killed instantly. Joseph Palmer and Claude’s wife Edith were both shot and would die later from their wounds. After shooting his family, Garnet Robb then shot and killed himself. This tragedy was one of the worst murders in the district’s history and made headlines around the country.

This is just a brief look at only two of Bexley’s heritage-listed houses, but it demonstrates how when you start to look at the houses on the heritage list in detail you can begin to build up a picture of the suburb’s development and the story of its residents. However, the heritage list contains more than just houses: parks; churches; a convent; the former quarry in Bexley Road; street plantings; the sewer vents in Connemarra Street; the original Bexley Public School buildings; the Marist College in Wolseley Street; the Bexley School of Arts; the St George Bowling Club; a service station; the Jack and Jill Preschool, which was built in 1901 as the Bexley Council Chambers; and the Bexley Fire Station all appear on the list. When you look at these places in detail you build up an even better picture of Bexley and its history – its infrastructure, educational and religious institutions, and its municipal history. Bexley and Rockdale, once separate municipalities, were amalgamated in 1949, and, in the years since then, Bexley has inevitably lost some of its separate character and unique identity. However, the sheer number of heritage-listed items in this single suburb offers an eloquent testimony to the depth and richness of Bexley’s history. Moreover, an understanding of Bexley’s heritage-listed items reveals the dual value of having a heritage list. Firstly, the heritage list ensures that historically significant items are preserved for future residents to enjoy. Secondly, even a small amount of knowledge about the items on the list and the reasons they appear there opens a window into the past and provides a pathway to understanding Bexley’s own unique history.


In September 2016, Rockdale Council was merged with Botany Council to form Bayside Council. The council’s local heritage schedule can be found on the NSW Legislation website.

Both Bayside Council’s local heritage schedule and the State Heritage Register can be found on the Heritage NSW website.

This website also contains the criteria for heritage listing, information about all the properties on the heritage list and the reasons for their listing.

This article was first published in the January 2012 edition of our magazine.

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