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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