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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I have been requested to present a description of the affairs of Rockdale in the early days of my youth, which, so I have been informed, would be of interest to my fellow members of the St. George Historical Society. On a first things first basis, I must mention that I was born in 1887 at Ulmarra, a village near the Clarence River some thirteen miles north-east of Grafton on the North Coast of New South Wales. My father, James Napper, had taken over a farming property at Ulmarra where he was principally engaged with the growing of maize. Unfortunately a series of disastrous floods ruined his prospects in this district, and, during 1892, James Napper, his wife and his family of two sons and two daughters, returned to live at Rockdale. Here a cottage was obtained in West Botany Street and James Napper, in conjunction with Mr. Bowmer, established a produce business on the apex portion of the Wesleyan Church (now Methodist) property at the southern side of the intersection of Bay Street with Rocky Point Road.
My early schooling was undertaken at Rockdale Superior Public School, established on the crest of Rockdale Hill, and tuition lasted until I reached the age of thirteen years. During this period I was a regular attendant at the West Botany Wesleyan Sunday School and still retain pleasant memories of the annual Sunday School Picnic held in the spacious grounds of the Sans Souci Hotel at Rocky Point. It was a great day indeed with the trials associated with the organisation of such an important event. The local market gardeners sited around the agricultural flats of Muddy Creek cleaned out and refurbished their two-wheeled carts, usually spoken of as “Dung-carts” for obvious reasons, and provided extra seating accommodation to each vehicle, said seats consisting of a somewhat thin and narrow plank, fitted with end stops, resting on the side-boards of the vehicle, the cherished seat being at the back where we kids could dangle and kick our legs over the tailboard. Then, in procession, the carts, up to ten in number, would wend their way along Bay Street to Rocky Point Road, the children singing, and the nags prancing. Rocky Point Road was followed southward, down to Skidmore’s Bridge over Muddy Creek, up Skidmore’s Hill, past the few shops of old-time Kogarah and the two storied Gardener’s Arms Hotel, then the climb up Fitzgerald’s Hill, followed by the climb up Clark’s Hill to Ramsgate, after which the way was downhill, easy on the horses, through bush country to the excitements of Rocky Point and its pleasure ground. Occasionally the Sans Souci Steam Tram would pass our cavalcade, the engine driver giving a screaming whistle of goodwill as the steam-motor rumbled past.
At the pleasure-ground the carts were lined against the fence, the horses out-spanned and tethered, and also given the consolation of their feed-bags of chaff, together with buckets of water to wash it down. Meanwhile the children were assembled and mustered into age groups to receive small bags of boiled blues and a cup of lemon syrup, ladled out of wash-tubs and galvanised iron buckets. This syrupy concoction was sweet to taste and manufactured at home on the stove from boiling water, sugar, tartaric acid, and essence of lemon was added when the mixture cooled. The resulting liquid was broken down liberally with cold water and was greatly appreciated. However, it is related that an Irish Sunday School teacher, in his desire to be of help, espied a couple of buckets full of the undiluted mixture, which he mistook for dirty water and promptly threw the cordial out onto the grass, much to the mortification of the ladies’ committee and the ever thirsty children.
A diversion occurred when an adult male member of the committee donned an old full-length if somewhat derelict night-gown, as worn at the time by elderly females, onto which several calico bags of lollies had been sewn. In this cumbersome garb the man commenced to run and was chased by swarms of the younger fry, all intent in wresting the coveted lolly bags, and great was the joy when the man fell over and in the ensuing all-in scrum he was divested of the buy bags and most of his nightgown. Mr. Joseph Bowmer entertained the older children by bowling a coconut along the ground. This was chased by a number of teams on a competitive basis, the winning team gained the unbroken nut.
There were plenty of competitors for the “Three-legged Race” in which it was usual to combine the efforts of a boy and a girl, or, perhaps, a man and his wife, if they won it was regarded as a good omen for their future married happiness. The “Egg and Spoon Race” was also most popular, big eggs and small spoons, coupled with the roughness of the turf, created many hazards for the players, only the onlookers laughed. There were foot- races for both girls and boys, all sorted into age groups, rather than size and stamina. The various prizes awarded to the winners of these events included pen-knives for boys and handkerchiefs for the girls. These items were donated for the most part, by friends of the Sunday School administration. It was always a very tired, but very happy, cortege which wended its way homewards at the conclusion of a most exciting day.
Another great event of my early days was the annual sports carnival, proceeds of which were donated to the St. George Cottage Hospital at Kogarah. This was quite a feature about the turn of the century. The Prince of Wales Birthday, kept with due ceremony on November 9th, was chosen for this gala outing and a street procession left Rockdale Town Hall to pass southwards through the Rockdale business centre and follow Rocky Point Road (now Princes Highway) down to Skidmore’s Bridge and up Skidmore’s Hill to eventually reach the Moorefield Racecourse enclosure. Music for the procession was furnished by the St. George District Band and also by the Rockdale Fire Brigade brass band.
The procession was regarded by the local business men as a great advertising medium and, as most of the shopkeepers carried out home deliveries in horse-drawn carts of various kinds, these vehicles were newly painted for the occasion and elaborately decorated to catch the public eye. Interest was also aroused by the prizes offered for the best turn-out of the day, the best pony and sulky outfit, the most comical, and the worst turn-out of the day. One recalls the entry of an ancient hansom cab, considerably the worse for wear, in which a seemingly bashful bridal couple were ensconced. The bride wore a veil made from a hessian chaff-bag whilst the groom was attired in a frock coat cut from the same material, his top-hat had certainly seen better days. On the back of the cab was a placard which read “At Trinity Church we met our Doom”.
My father, the local produce merchant at Rockdale, generally entered the competition by displaying a four-wheeled lorry loaded with various brands of poultry food and also farm produce, all being neatly stacked in terraced rows. A large calico sign, stretched over the length of the cart, displayed a pair of roosters, one at each end, one bird reputedly saying “We have something to crow about – our food comes from Napper’s”. Tied behind the lorry were two horses, one a lovely big black horse, groomed and polished “until you could almost see yourself reflected in his curvaceous body” . He carried a sign aloft which stated “Fed on Napper’s Feed”. The other horse, the poorest and skinniest nag that my father could find, bore the sign “I wish mine did”.
It was certainly a grand sight to see the horses trotting gaily along, each with its harness polished with neatsfoot oil and rubbed till shiny with “Black Fat”, a semi-liquid substance contained in tins. Some horses had head ornaments in the way of brightly coloured tufts, and the collars of others were set off with tinkling silver “horse-bells” which made a merry sound as they paced along, much to the admiration of the crowds thronging the roadside.
After the vehicle judging had been completed and winners announced at the racecourse enclosure known as the Saddling Paddock, various sporting events were held. One great feature was the “LAST HORSE RACE”, in which a large number of old nags appeared, the last horse to appear at the post being declared the winner. The field was lined in a row, but before starting the amateur jockeys were changed, so that the horse each one was riding belonged to someone else and was urged to do its best, thus giving their own nags a good chance to come home at the tail end of the field. A very well thought out arrangement. Whips or spurs were not permitted but most of the would-be jockeys discarded their coats, or shirts, to belabour their steeds into some form of spirited action, to the amusement of the onlookers who spurred them on with choice and often ribald badinage.
Another race was named “THE UMBRELLA AND CIGAR RACE”, in which the riders held aloft an open umbrella and smoked a cigar, both items had to be in their appointed positions at the finish. There was the keenly contested “INTER-SCHOOL TUG-OF-WAR”, and numerous competitions for the ladies, and more of the rougher kind for the men and boys. The Prince of Wales Birthday was certainly a day to be remembered.
One of the civic problems of my boyhood was the great number of dogs which roved at will and fouled the streets at their leisure. This circumstance led one of the leading drapers of Rockdale, Charlie Barsby, to engage a boy on Saturday afternoons to parade the footpath outside his shop situated at the north-eastern corner of Bay Street and Rocky Point Road in an attempt to distract the attentions of the canine family from the rolls of cloth displayed outside the store. This young gentleman was provided with a cane and also a shilling for his services and justly earned the nickname of “Billy the Dog Wolloper”.
Charlie Barsby was also troubled with the ever-present road dust which rose in eye-filling clouds when the westerly winds gathered force. One Christmas Eve conditions were so bad that he went to the local Chinese market gardeners and was successful in hiring two of these gentlemen to bring their shoulder yokes and huge watering cans to lay the dust outside his shop, thereby shaming the Rockdale Municipal Council into purchasing a two-wheeled watering cart, consisting of a large white- painted wooden barrel and a sparge pipe at the rear. This vehicle paraded the business centre of Rockdale and made conditions livable.
Throughout the year there was a regular parade of street hawkers traversing the streets and back lanes of the Rockdale area, some with baskets and others aboard two-wheeled carts of all manner of designs. There was the “Bottle-oh” who paid one half-penny each for empty beer bottles and a penny a dozen for other varieties of sauce, medicine or soft drink bottles. We kids used to scrounge around the houses collecting a few bottles here and there to “raise the wind” for a feed of ice cream. The “Bottle-oh” in person usually stood upright in his two-wheeled spring-cart, one hand holding the reins, and the other to his lips to guide the sound of his voice, reciting “Any Empty Bottles” to the right quarters. Another familiar street cry was “WILD RABBIT OH”, uttered by a gentleman who also rode in a small spring cart, with his wares tied by their back legs in pairs and draped over the side and back boards of the vehicle. His fresh trapped rabbits sold for eighteen-pence the pair, and were skinned in front of the customer and her cats, the latter receiving odd tid-bits from the tiny carcasses which were greatly appreciated. On Mondays in particular, for obvious reasons, the “CLOTHES PROP MAN” drove his horse and cart through the back lanes incessantly calling out “Clothes Props, Clothes Props” from the front of his “horse-breaking” vehicle, chosen because the horse was well forward in the long shafts. For one with a mechanical mind the backyard clothes line was always worthy of notice, particularly if the housewife had been making temporary repairs to its structural arrangements.
Other regular callers included the “Egg and Butter Man” and the fruit and vegetable merchant who came to the backdoor of the residences with a small hand-basket displaying samples of his wares. The Chinese gardeners also were engaged in this latter trading, some trundling along the streets with two heavy cane baskets, dangling by cords from the outer ends of a shoulder yoke, the leading basket containing fruit and the rear full of vegetables. The more prosperous Chinese rode their rounds in two- wheeled spring carts, with a split-open corn-sack spread-eagled by cords beneath the vehicle to accommodate potatoes, onions, swedes and suchlike root vegetables. One wily Celestial made it a practice of throwing an apple or a peach to small children playing in the street and telling them to go and inform their mothers that Charlie the Chinaman was outside, with plenty of cheap fruit and vegetables. His initial kindness and forethought generally brought good financial results.
It is passing strange that Rockdale was comparatively free from the larrikin element who were present in the streets of most suburbs. Inebriation, however, was somewhat rife with beer selling at 3d. per pint, two pints of the then potent brew was seemingly sufficient to give the imbibers a feeling of elation, a desire to sing, and an instability of gait. Without a doubt the best temperance method adopted was the reduction of the alcoholic contents of the beer, plus the extortionate costs charged at the present day for a greatly inferior chemicalised product.
The streets were crowded on the late Saturday shopping night when it was difficult to move along the footpaths and horses were liable to kick or bite you on the roads. The St. George District Band played popular tunes, waltzes and marches, moving from place to place according to the donations given them by the various tradespeople. Music was also provided by the Rockdale Fire Brigade Band, and the Salvation Army held their public meetings, generally oh Rocky Point Road in the immediate vicinity of the Bay Street intersection. Their brass band and members of both sexes would form a wide circle with the Army flag spread on the road as a centre-piece. There was preaching and testifying, the thum, thum, thum of the big bass drum, the lilting music of the comets, and the din, din, din of the whirling tambourines, the unaccompanied singing of hymns, and the solicitation of alms, seeking sufficient small coins to make a total of one shilling, and then onwards to two shillings and so on and so forth. Infidels standing around outside the circle have been known to heat halfpence on top of the bowl of their lighted pipes and then flick the coin onto the waiting flag. Here an attempt would be made by the Officer-in-charge to pick it up, much to his discomfiture. The late Jack Carter of Arncliffe related that on one occasion the coin heating process was witnessed by an Army lass, and when the coin was thrown, quick as a flash, she picked it up and threw it in the open-necked shirt of the donor who, in turn, provided considerable enjoyment in his writhings and contortions, both to the highly amused Army personnel and the foregathering of infidels.
There would also be political and municipal speakers, mounted on soap boxes and surrounded by small oil flares smoking horribly at the end of a broom-stick. Religious groups, of sparse numbers, discoursed on the evils of the day, the lack of justice, and the terrors of Hell. They often lacked an audience apart from children minding the baby seated in its go-cart, who were well aware of judgement, swift and terrible, if they strayed away from the shop-front. There was a vacant block of land at the rear of the Royal Hotel which was utilised on Saturday nights to present an open-air concert, weather conditions permitting. A stage was erected and temporary seats were available at a small charge. The younger members of the audience perched on the narrow edge of the top rail of a post and rail fence as best as they may. As 10 o’clock approached the crowd gradually dwindled and many sore-footed people wended their way home through the silent gas-lit streets.
In conclusion it is fitting to mention the greatest event of my life, the day on which I married Lily May Spackman who lived at Done Street, Arncliffe, her house being against the somewhat noisy steam tram depot at the northern end of the railway station. On a wage of forty-five shillings per week we could not afford a honeymoon so I took two days off duty from my father’s produce store. My first job on my wedding day, (Wednesday, September 20th, 1911) was to borrow dad’s horse and delivery cart and convey trestle tables and seating forms from the West Botany Street Methodist Church to the St. George District Band Hall situated in Cameron Street, Rockdale. This latter building, incidentally: is now in use as a dry-cleaning establishment. The second day was occupied in returning the forms and trestle tables to the place from whence they came.
A hansom cab was hired to bring Miss Spackman to the church for the wedding ceremony, after which Pius Walz, the cab driver, sporting a garlanded whip bedecked with white ribbons, took my wife and myself for a “time-killing” trip to Brighton le Sands, thence along The Grand Parade to President Avenue and Rocky Point Road, the final jaunt being along Bay Street to the Band Hall and its festivities. Meanwhile the guests walked the half-mile or so from the church to the hail, threading their way for the most part via the short cut across Mr. Quirk’s cow paddock, a traverse that needed much circumspection as ladies’ dresses then trailed at ground level and the patent leather boots of the menfolk betrayed dirt to its fullest advantage. It might be mentioned that the Rev. W. E. Bourne, although retired from the ministry at that time, came down from his home at Bexley, aboard his four-wheeled buggy, to officiate at the wedding ceremony.
In due course our union was blessed with seven sons and it was stated that Bill Napper, in the interests of boot leather economy, taught his children to take long steps when walking. Over the years we have amassed seven daughters-in-law, fourteen grandchildren and eight great grand-children. We are both pleased to announce that we celebrated our Diamond Wedding on Saturday, September 18th, 1971, after sixty years of happy married bliss, at the former West Botany Street Methodist Church, which is now in use as a Sunday School Hall. Here we were entertained by fifty-two members of our large family group, all of whom, like ourselves, have descended from Charles Napper, one of the early pioneers of Muddy Creek, near present-day Rockdale.
This article was first published in the March 2000 edition of our magazine.
Sarah Bellamy was born in the small Worcestershire village of Belbroughton, the sixth of eight children of Richard and Elizabeth Bellamy, and was baptised on February 3rd 1770 at Holy Trinity Church. The church stands upon a former pagan Saxon burial ground, whilst the village of Belbroughton itself can proudly trace its origins to an ancient settlement recorded in the Domesday Book. It was a village with a proud reputation for its scythe-making industry, which dated from the mid 16th. Century right up until the 1960’s, when it was finally superseded by modern technology. The unique and attractive village sign, together with the many old millstones which serve as front doorsteps and garden ornaments, bear witness to a thriving industry not long past.
The Bellamy family lived in a small cottage tenement administered by the Parish Overseers. In 18th, Century England, each parish was responsible for the care of its poor. Money raised by a levy on householders was distributed to the needy by the Overseers, who were answerable to the parish. Records, which had to be strictly kept, show that Richard Bellamy was a recipient of such payments.
It was also common for the Overseers to find employment for the children of the poor, which they did with compassion. So it was, sadly, that on February 7th, 1779 – at only nine years of age – Sarah, like her brothers and sisters, was apprenticed to James Spurner, the Overseer at Malthouse Farm, Fairfield. The malthouse was a very large, two-storeyed brick building that, apart from the malt factory, also included the residence of the Overseer, the servant’s quarters and a coach and harness room. It is occupied to this today, and the land is still being farmed.
It is quite possible that Sarah never saw her parents again, nor her homely village. No oracle could have foretold that she was destined to be part of history, as one of the founding mothers of a great nation far beyond the seas.
Seven Years Transportation
Whether Sarah served her full, five year apprenticeship at Malthouse Farm is not known; but in May 1785, she was in service to Benjamin Haden, a weaver in Dudley. In that month, Sarah was summoned to appear before the Summer Assizes at Worcester, charged with stealing from “the dwelling house of Benjamin Haden, one linnen purse, value 2d., 15 guineas and 1 half guinea, the property of the said Benjamin Haden, and 2 promissory notes, value 10 pounds and 5 pounds and 5s.” It is interesting to note that Benjamin Haden, together with his wife Sarah, also had to appear before the court to acknowledge that he owed the King “the sum of Forty pounds of good and lawful money of Great Britain,” In other words, he was bankrupt!
On Saturday, July 14th, 1785, Sarah was sentenced to be transported for seven years ‘for stealing fifteen guineas and a half” She was only fifteen years old, and the only female before the Court; but the sentences of some of the six males who were arraigned with her were, by comparison, amazingly lenient: “John Meredith, for stealing articles out of a barge; to be publickly whipped this day at Upton and the following Thursday; Richard Crump, for killing Richard Bourne, found guilty of manslaughter, fined one shilling.”
Though Sarah prayed to be “publickly whipped” instead, her pleas were ignored; the sentence of transportation stood. On May 13th, 1787, Sarah Bellamy was one of the 101 female convicts aboard the Lady Penrhyn, one of the First Fleet ships that carried only female convicts bound for Botany Bay.
A Storm At Sea
What a welcome the New Year brought! At sea, on December 31st, 1787, Surgeon Bowes Smythe recorded: “This day, the women (of the Lady Penrhyn) were washed out of their berths by the seas we shipped. The water was brought out from between decks in buckets – the seas were mountainous high; sometimes it seemed the ship was going over.” The women convicts knelt and prayed.
Towards the end of the voyage, Sarah bore a child to Joseph Downey, acting Quarter Master on the Lady Penrhyn. Little Joseph lived only a few weeks, dying on February 29th, 1788.
The New Land
We next hear of Sarah in Sydney Cove, where she was one of the few female convicts permitted to live in her own small hut on the east side of the Tank Stream.
Late one evening in August 1789, Sarah was awakened from her slumbers by a loud knocking on the door of her hut. Two officers, Captain Meredith of the Marines and Mr. Keltie, master of the Sirius, who had both imbibed too much, decided to call in on her on their way home. When Sarah refused to open the door, Captain Meredith went to the side of her hut and pushed on the window shutters, which fell in onto her bed, and, as he leaned in, his hat also fell onto the bed.
When he then began to pull her hair and beat her, Sarah cried “Murder!” so loudly that the nightwatchman was alerted, and came running. She opened the door to him, but when he asked for a lamp, she replied that “the hour is too improper for a light!”
What courage she had, to then appear before the Justices, “resolved in her own breath” to make the accusation that the two officers “had disturbed her peace” and that she “was determined not to put up with such unmerited treatment from Captain Meredith, or anyone else!” The case was found in her favour, but no action was taken against the two officers. However the following year the Marine commander, Major Ross, took Captain Meredith’s company to Norfolk Island, while Meredith himself had to remain at Sydney Cove.
A Happy Ending
Sarah won the affections of James Bloodworth, who had made the first bricks in the colony and built the first Government House. He became Australia’s first Master Builder after gaining his freedom; only the second person to receive “the highest reward the Governor was empowered to bestow on a convict”. James was now also allowed to marry, and it was Sarah whom he chose to share his life and the house that he had built in South Row. It was here that their eight children were born, although unhappily four died in infancy. In 1794, Sarah was given a grant of 20 acres of land at Pyrmont.
Sadly, James Bloodworth died of pneumonia on March 21st, 1804, aged 45 years. Sarah Bloodworth was to survive him by almost forty years, dying on February 26th, 1843, aged 73 years.
Many thanks to our Honorary Chairman Nell Sansom, and her sister, Alice Clarke, for submitting the fascinating story of one of their ancestors for our feature article.
This article was first published in the March 2000 edition of our magazine.
Compiled by Walter G Kirton, Interim Pastor March 1990. Reproduced with Permission
(Editor’s note: In 2017, the church, at 316 Princes Highway, Banksia, was sold and refurbished to become the Orthodox Church of St Savvas of Kalymnos).
The fact that this independent church has been able to continue a fruitful ministry for Christ our Lord over a period of 100 years gives us this opportunity of recognition of divine guidance in leading our forefathers to establish this place of worship on this present site on 4th May 1890.
The circumstances prompting this decision are both interesting and unusual. On September 6th, 1885 a place of worship was opened at Kogarah by a small group of people who wished to keep themselves together until circumstances allowed them to return to their own church, for they had not resigned their membership.
Others joined this group until it became an active and progressive church. According to their 3rd Annual Report, a steam train was hired to take 600 teachers, scholars and parents to Parramatta Park for their Sunday School Picnic. The services and ministry were helpful and encouraging in the midst of this rapid growth of the church. The members were shocked by the announcement on 24th July 1889, that this church, which had fulfilled its purpose, decided to close.
From the Supervisor’s closing report on September 30th, 1889 I quote:
“This church has been closed, not because of any lack of interest, or financial difficulty, or decrease of its prosperity but in the midst of its prosperity and at the brightest moment of its existence, surrounded with abundant proof of the value of its operations in the direction of spiritual advancement. This church, only being considered as a temporary expedient,was kept open until a successful accomplishment of the object of its establishment which had been attained. Such object being realised, it has closed, amidst expressed regret from its congregation and many who have watched its successful career.”
After the closing of this Kogarah church it was felt, by many people who had attended the activities and services and were not involved in the circumstances under which it closed, that there was a real need to continue these activities as an Independent church. It was these people who requested that they be permitted to erect a new building on another site and continue to worship and work together under the same name.
Their request being granted, the present site at Banksia was purchased with freewill offerings and gifts and a church building was erected by J. W. Syman and opened on 4th May 1890. This building consisted of church and vestry and was wholly paid for in 1897.
The present school hall was erected in 1899 at a cost of £210 with a gift of £100 by Mrs W. A. Beehag. This debt was paid off within 12 months. The first section of the Kindergarten was built in 1914 by Mr T.D. Pearce in memory of Mrs S. A. Beehag at a cost of £212. The second section joining the Sunday School was added in 1925 costing £150. The kitchenette and new amenities were added in 1965.
Like the church at Kogarah, this new church at Banksia grew rapidly and became well known by its successful youth work and missionary interests. This Free Church, then established, was governed by a Committee of six men with Mr W. A. Beehag as Secretary, Mr W. McKern as Supervisor and Mr James H Perry as Chairman, with Robert Allars, W. Lawrance; S. Schofields, S. A. Beehag, Henry Caton and Frank Beard were added to the Church Committee before the end of 1890. The first Trustees were Messrs. H. W. McKerne, W. A. Beehag, J.E. Cooper, J. Schofield and A. Walker.
The Church of England ritual, Prayer Book and Order of Service etc., were practised by the early church, but, as they were not affiliated with the Church of England denomination, it was decided in 1904, to change the name of the church to the “Free Church” and the Constitution and Form of Service also underwent a change and the evangelical service now in use was adopted.
The early church was lit by gas jets with stick and taper. This was changed to candescent gas and, in 1923, was replaced by electric lights. In those early days street lighting in Rockdale was with gas lamps. In 1890 a Sunday School was opened the same day as the church with an enrolment of 30 children.
At the beginning of the second year, 1891, there were 144 scholars with 12 teachers and, in the fifth year, 144 scholars with 11 teachers. In 1897 the Sunday School picnic at Oatley Bay was attended by 500 children and parents. In 1902 the 12th Annual Picnic at Kurnell was attended by 300 with the Steamer Boat “Federal”. Also in 1901 the picnic was held at Parksvale Georges River. A train was taken to Como, then 7.5 miles up Georges River by Steamer “S. S. Telephone”.
It is interesting to note successful participation of our children and young people in concerts held in Rockdale Town Hall during 1901 held by the St.George Sunday School Union – admittance charges for adults sixpence and children threepence. The Free Church choir, quartet and duets were successful in competing with other churches.
The present pulpit is the original pulpit donated by Mr J. H. Perry in 1890. The communion table was donated by the Partridge family, the three communion chairs by the Kirton family (in memory of their parents) and the Thomas electronic organ was purchased by members in memory of Mr A. A. Beehag.
Organisations of the church over the years were
Band of Hope 1893-1903
Debating Society 1899-1903
Young Peoples Institute 1917
Junior Christian Endeavour 1901
Intermediate Christian Endeavour
Young Peoples Christian Endeavour
Youth Bible Class
Women’s Devotional Fellowship 1936
Mid-week Bible Study and Prayer Meetings
The Banksia Free Church, over these 100 years, has been ministered to by efficient lay preachers and Ministers of various denominations, including its own Pastors, and has been helped and encouraged by their faithful preaching and ministry of the Word of God. Some have continued regularly for many years.
The first Minister of the Church was – James H. Perry 1890-1900, followed by – Henry Phillips 1900-1938, A. L. Perry 1938-1955, D. Woodward 1955-1959, W. G. Kirton 1961-1984, Hans Rietenbach 1984-1985 and W. G. Kirton as interim Pastor from 1985 continuing 1990.
Church Secretaries have been – Mr W. A. Beehag 1890-1897, Mr M. Tuck 1897-1903, Mr I. Barlow, Mrs F. W. Bye, and Mr T. D. Pearce 1906-1914. When Mr Pearce was overseas during the war, Mr Tom Perry was secretary from 1914-1919. Mr K. Matta 1933-1941, Mr W. G. Kirton 1941-1961, Mr E. Hunt 1961-1965, Mr Cohn Kirton 1965-1969, Mr Ivan Perry 1969-1985, Mr Paul Perry 1985-1987. The present secretary is Miss E. Webb.
Church Treasurers were – Mr H. W. McKern 1890-1895, Mr James Mackie, Mr A. E. Green 1895-1900, Mr A. H. Willison 1900-1902, Mr H. Phillips 1902-1903, Mr W. J. Buckland, Mr A. L. Perry 1903-1940, Mr C. A. Perry 1946-1956, Mr W. Unsworth 1956, Mr Victor Kirton 1988. The present Treasurer is Mrs I. Wood.
Auditors were – Messrs W. M. Onions, W. H. Cadagon, W. B. Doust, H. C. Martyn, C. B. Doust. The present Auditor is Mr Wilfred Davies who has been in office since 1949.
Organists have been – Messrs H. W. McKern, S. Sharlock, A. H. Willison, C. A. Pain, Miss Dora Beehag, Mr Charlie Martyn, Miss P Partridge, Miss Flo Pearce, Mr Mark Larkinson and Mr Victor Kirton who held the organist position for 51 years. The organist position is now vacant.
Over the years we acknowledge the long, faithful services of these people. Also … Mrs M. Pearce- J.C.E. Supt., Miss Nance Tester-J.C.E. Supt & National Supt.J.C.E., Mrs Muriel Perry-J.C.E. Supt – Women’s Fellowship, Mrs Elsie Kirton – K.G.Supt. – Women’s Fellowship Mrs Margaret Kirton – K.G. Supt., Mr N. Sachisthal, Mr K. Matta & Mr Jack Wrightson -Y.P.I. Mr & Mrs Paul & Yvonne Perry for recorded music to whom we are indebted.
A very interesting history can be recorded of men and women who have entered the ministry of other churches and organisations or who are engaged in missionary work after service with Banksia Free Church.
We mention …. Miss Elaine Webb – A.I.M. – Mr Keith Napper – Borneo – Miss N Tester – New Guinea – Mrs D. Lambert -China Inland Mission – Rev. Keith Matta – Congregational Union – Mrs Norma Warwick-A.I.M.
Members of Wal Kirton’s Bible Class – Rev.A. Dube, Rev. A. Tester, Rev. Alan Gardener, Rev. Doug Gibb, Pastors Alan & Eric Hall and voluntary workers with O.A.C – Ted Hunt, Keith Graham, Eric Porter, Malcolm Gardener, etc.
This church, over the years, has become very well known by its activities in youth work, in competitive sport, in missionary interests, in women’s meetings, in Bible training classes and Sunday School classes.
The original church building was demolished in 1960 to make provision for the widening of Princes Highway and the present church building was erected by Mr Bate (Builder) and Mr Ken Werry (Architect).
The church tower was erected in memory of those who served in the war years.
The new church building was opened by former Pastor A. L. Perry on 7th October 1961. The meeting was chaired by the secretary, Mr Wal Kirton, who later that year was inducted Honorary Pastor, by Rev. Arnold Long.
Over a period of 100 years so much must be recorded and the names of so many who have made valuable contribution not mentioned – but we thank you all.
However, we cannot live in the past. Today we are facing a challenge to continue which requires the faithful attendance and services of all our members and interested friends.
We rejoice that the church established here in 1890, has been so wonderfully blessed for a century.
For the work to continue we would value the return to worship and service of all interested friends to revive and build upon the past a new church for the future.
This article was first published in the April 1990 edition of our magazine.
In Notes on the Early Life in Peakhurst, written in the 1930’s by Mr George Peake, son of Issac Peake and grandson of John Peake, it is stated that during the Gold Rush in the 1850’s, firewood was carted from the present St. George district to a place in Darlinghurst where there was a water pump, and sold there at good prices (copy held by Hurstville Historical Society).
However, he says that, after the gold rush, there was a slump, money was scarce, and firewood nearly had to be given away. The wood-carters no longer went to the pump, but the wood was cut into small pieces almost ready for use, hawked around the streets, and sold by one shilling’s worth instead of by the load.
In an article about old residents of Newtown in 1922 (Smith S.D., ‘Municipality of Newtown Diamond Jubilee Souvenir’, 1922 – Mitchell Library: 352.911/1A1), is the story of Mr T Deaman, (who was 73 years of age at that time and so was born between 1848-1850) and his connection with the wood-carters, perhaps from as early as the mid-1850s:
“I claim that Mr Tom Deaman, of Alice Street, Newtown is Newtown’s longest resident.
‘Tom’ Deainan was born in the district 73 years ago, and has lived in it ever since. He started work as a nipper in the fuel business, and stayed in that business, and was never in any other, to the end, and now resides in Alice Street.
Actually it was outside the municipal boundaries of Newtown as we know them today that Mr Deaman was born; but he was brought within the boundary shortly after his birth, and has never gone outside. The family home is in Alice Street.
Mr Deaman’s first job was among the ‘Bushmen’ as they were then known. Fuel for practically all purposes was wood-logs from gum trees, felled, stripped, dried and split. And a hardy breed they were who engaged in the work.
The logs prepared, you took your dray in early morning out Gannon’s Forest (Hurstville and Bexley these days), loaded up and started for town. You did your best to sell it at some works, or to some householder, on the way, of course. If you didn’t you went up Oxford Street, and took your place in the line by the ‘old pump’ (from which the householders around drew each day’s supply of water).
When a buyer came along and bought it (6/- per load was about the usual price), you took it home and packed it into his wood-house for him. Then you went out Gannon’s for another load. If (as sometimes happened) you didn’t sell out, you very rarely took the load home, but ‘dumped it’ on one of the paddocks, down near where Grace Bros’ is now, say.
They don’t go into the bush at Bexley ( ! ) nowadays, and sell loads of logs up Oxford Street (!) these days; but Mr Deaman is still in the fuel business – or, rather, the boys still carry on the same old biz (that is probably almost 60 years old) with never a break. Dad sits back and takes it easy these days.”
This article was first published in the September 1980 edition of our magazine.
In the short space of 70 years, the world of the Aboriginal tribes of the Sydney region, which had remained unchanged since the Dreamtime, became a living nightmare. The land which had been theirs alone for so long was suddenly and irretrievably lost to the fair-skinned newcomers of the First Fleet. The aborigines were in no way prepared for the cataclysm which engulfed them as settlement spread, and they found themselves dispossessed not only materially but also spiritually.
A recently-published book by Keith Willey, When the Sky Fell Down, traces the dynamic years of the colony’s growth between 1788 and 1860. It is the story of the effects of the exploits and achievements of the white men on the country’s original inhabitants. Keith Willey had used such information as is available in personal journals, newspaper articles and official documents to find the world of the nineteenth-century aborigine.
A number of the incidents mentioned in the book are of interest to our local area.
The attack by aborigines on Bond’s far at Punchbowl on 1 October, 1809 was not an isolated incident. It was part of the resistance, verging on what we would now call guerilla warfare, by the aborigines to the white settlers who were taking possession of their hunting grounds. As mentioned in an article in the Canterbury and District Historical Society Journal Series 2 No.8, the aborigines were led by Tedbury, who was the son of Pemulwoy, and both father and son had been leaders of the resistance to the white settlers over a number of years. Keith Willey’s book discusses this quite extensively.
Willey refers to a trial of a number of settlers on the Hawkesbury in 1799 on charges of having murdered two aboriginal boys. During the trial, Sarah Hodgkinson, whose husband had been killed by aborigines about 3 weeks earlier, admitted asking the defendants to kill the boys. Is this the same Sarah Hodgkinson who was given 60 acres at the present-day Canterbury-Ashfield on 12 November 1799? If so, it is an example of the possibility of finding local history information and references in a variety of unlikely sources.
Another interesting reference is to Mahroot, also known as the Boatswain, who was said to be the last man of the Botany Bay tribe, who gave evidence to the N.S.W. Legislative Council’s Select Committee on Aborigines in 1845. Mahroot was born at Cooks River, probably about 1796 and he related the changes which had resulted from the arrival of the white men. Some of his evidence was hearsay, since the First Fleet arrived 8 years before he was born. When he was born, the Botany Bay tribe numbered about 400. By 1845, it had been reduced to 4 people, himself and 3 women. His evidence stands almost alone as an aboriginal overview of the succession of calamities which befell the tribes of the Sydney area after the arrival of the First Fleet.
Not mentioned in Willey’s book is the fact that Boatswain died on 31 January 1850. The Sydney Morning Herald of 2 February 1850 refers to him as “the well-known Aboriginal Boatswain, whose intelligence and superior manner, coupled with the fact of his being the last of the Botany Bay tribe, rendered him a favourite with all who knew him, and especially with his white countrymen.”
Willey’s book, which is very readable, increases our understanding of this era of Australia’s history.
This article was first published in the September 1980 edition of our magazine.
Written & Illustrated by Gifford and Eileen Eardley
William John Iliffe was born in London in the year 1842 and came to Sydney as a young lad in 1852, where he followed various pursuits in the nature of employment. It is evident that he had a natural bent for plant cultivation for he took up an area of ten acres of land at West Botany, a one-time bush hamlet now known as Rockdale. Here, against the border of Rocky Point Road, he established the Rose Vale Nursery, and more or less concentrated his efforts on the growth of numerous varieties of roses. At one time, so it has been related, he had more than eighty-thousand plants, each growing in separate earthenware pots, to supply the demands of the gardeners of Sydney Town.
Unfortunately there does not appear to be any record or illustration of the design of the original Iliffe homestead at Rockdale, however, William Iliffe succeeded in his business and eventually married Sarah Morse, who lived in a small double-fronted cottage almost opposite the nursery property. In 1873 the splendid stone residence, aptly known as Rose Vale Villa, was erected, the walls being constructed of exquisitely wrought sand- stone, insofar as the facade was concerned, taken from the quarry which then existed at the eastern end of Bestic Street where it then terminated at the north-western slopes of Rockdale Hill.
Rose Vale Villa was a commodious one and a half storied residence which contained, on the ground floor, a large Drawing Room, a Dining Room, an-Entrance Hall and two Bedrooms. Upstairs there were four Bedrooms contained within the slated roof slopes, each served by attractive dormers, two at the front of the roof and two at the back, whilst end windows, with stone mullions, admitted. light from the end gables. The deep overhanging barge-boards of the gables were excellently cut into pierced pattern-work. The two stone chimneys were gems of their kind and followed an Italian design, the top of each being enclosed with a rectangular shaped cut stone slab. The smoke apertures were placed immediately beneath the coping slab and, arranged in groups of three, were shaped like round-topped pigeon holes. There were separate verandahs at ground floor level, one at the front, and another at the northern side, each being provided with cast-iron supporting posts and a delicate cast-iron fringe, which was of the type now known as Sydney Lace. Each verandah was entered from path level by gracefully curved hand-cut steps. Full length French windows, complete with double folding shutters, were provided to the main rooms. The Drawing Room projected from the facade to the front level of the verandah and contained an excellently wrought three-sided oriel window, the flat roof of the extension being surrounded on three sides by a stone-topped balustrade, supported at short intervals by stubby turned stone pillars. A really beautiful entablature adorning a residence which may be regarded as one of the finest of the stone cottages erected in the St. George District.
The kitchen and scullery, together with a breakfast-room, were formed by an eastern extension at the rear of the main building, access being given by a side verandah. This arrangement was common to houses of the period, as it served to keep cooking odours from the bedrooms and living rooms, and also had the merit of giving, to a certain extent, safety against fire, when wood was so universally used in fuel stoves and clothes boiling “coppers”, The scullery, apart from its general purpose for washing clothes and dishes etc., also came into use for “washing up” humans on the occasion of the normal weekly tub. The everyday business of hand and face washing was generally relegated to the sanctity of the bedroom wash-stand, where the marble top supported a large water basin and a jug- of ornate floral pattern inlaid in its voluptuous curves, together with a china soap-stand, ring-stands, and similar bric-a-brac.
East of the kitchen was a large packing shed, built of timber scantlings, its sides and roof covered with corrugated iron, purely functional without any architectural merit There were. some eight or nine heated-glass-houses which gained winter warmth from a coal heated boiler per medium of circulating hot-water pipes. Each hot- house possessed a small water trough, replete with gold-fish, to provide the necessary humidity for the plant growth.
Double white-painted gates provided entrance of vehicles to the property from the Rocky Point Road,’ the entrance, being flanked by a huge “monkey-nut” tree (perhaps a Scotch Fir) which provided edible items of great interest to the local children. These nuts were often taken by the girls of the family to the Zoological Gardens, then at Moore Park in Sydney, where the monkeys, although interested in the offering, and appreciated the gesture, found that they ‘had no hammer to crack them open and they were too hard for the teeth.
Some fifty feet away from the entrance gate, on ‘the northern side of the drive, were the stables, -cart-houses, harness-room, feed-loft, and beneath the same roof at its southern end were two small rooms dedicated to the use of John Ah Hee, a delightful kindly-natured and tiny Chinese gentleman with an enchanting surname. The stable building housed the, four-wheeled flat-topped horse-drawn lorry,- which, under the care of the nursery overseer, Lambert Laurence, made the daily round, of the Sydney florist shops, such as Searles and Birmingharns in Oxford Street. John Iliffe had two horses for, this work, using one at a time in the lorry. There was a fine white coated animal named “Victor” and a more demure lass, of brown, colouration, who answered to the name of “Dolly”. The horse paddock ‘ranged northwards along the frontage- of Rocky Point Road to the intersection of Bestic Street, and covered about an acre of grazing, land. Leaving the stables the drive curved round to the south in order to reach the confines of the packing shed where the lorry wagon was loaded with orders gained for the daily round. In addition to the glass-house equipment there was a large edifice given over to the propagation of ferns.
Quantities of the seeds of the Kentia Palm were specially imported from Lord Howe Island, and, under the care of John Ah Hee, were individually planted in separate earthenware pots, and, when about a foot or so in height, found a ready market for the decoration of drawing rooms of both cottages and more pretentious houses of suburban Sydney. Another speciality was the importation from Japan of Haresfoot Fern; the roots of which were fashioned, or rather entwined, to represent monkey and other animal shapes, houses, boats, and kindred subjects, they were even to be purchased wrapped around coconuts fitted with a short length of cord for suspension purposes. On arrival these seemingly hairy roots were first soaked in water and then hung in the green-house until they sprouted, and when covered with a mass of tiny fern shoots, were ready for distribution per medium of the florist’s shops. These pretty novelties were in great demand by people fortunate and interested enough to maintain a bush house.
The trickling creek, known as Bray’s Drain, flowed through the Iliffe property, about midway in its depth, its banks being covered with tuber-roses and overtopped by rhododendrons. Between the horse paddock and the creek was a large area devoted to rose growing, these plants also extending to the eastern boundary fence. Opposite the drive, on the eastern side of the creek, was the Bulb Garden, given over to narcissus of various sorts, daffodils, and such like botanical treasures. East of this floral paradise was the cow-paddock where two cows dined in comfort amidst a surround of the local bushland. South of the bulb garden, and also on the eastern side of the creek, was a flower garden, usually riotous with colour, then an acre of feathery-plumed pampasgrass, and then another acre devoted to camellia trees.
All in all Rose Vale Villa was the show place of Rockdale, with its flower dotted lawns, kept in immaculate condition by Ah Hee, and its hydrangea and azalea bordered walks. People came from everywhere to purchase flowers at three pence per bunch, to inspect its green-houses and its hot-houses, coming away with all manner of beautiful plant gems which the green fingers of William John Iliffe and John Ah Hee had so lovingly raised.
As before stated this latter Celestial gentleman lived within the stable, at his own desire, and his only recreation appeared to be his Saturday night jaunt to visit his compatriots living mostly in the Haymarket area of Sydney town. Otherwise he chose to dine in solitary state, in his own domicile, on the numerous rice dishes that he concocted, intermixed with pieces of pork and duck, the latter having the appearance, as far as the skin was concerned, of having undergone the rigours of French polishing. John Ah Hee used chop sticks for eating and never, under any circumstances, did he dine with company. It is interesting to note that his little teapot, together with his chop-sticks, are still cherished, as mementos of a kindly gentleman, by members of the family.
One of John Ah Hee’s few pleasures was to sit beside the driver of a horse-drawn hearse at funerals associated with the Iliffe family or immediate friends of that family. On one occasion when John Ah Hee was absent in town, the stable rats decided to have a feed of wax-matches, the resulting conflagration, although surprising to the rodents no doubt, burnt down the stables and the two roomed domicile. John Ah Hee was found temporary accommodation with his countrymen until such time as the stable structure was rebuilt and his domicile re-established. John Ah Hee was said to be well over ninety years of age, and completely blind, when he passed away. According to Chinese custom he was temporarily buried at Rookwood Cemetery, and after a passage of ten years or so, his remains were disinterred and sent back to his ancestral grave in China. It should be mentioned that William John Iliffe held a very high opinion of the character and merits of John Ah Hee, and made provision in his will “that he should be retained and kept in comfort to the end of his days”.
At one period a florist shop was established in the Sydney Arcade for the sale of seedlings, palms, ferns, and floral products of the Rose Vale Nursery. This shop was later taken over by two maiden ladies, the Misses Balcom and Baptist. Another venture was the purchase, and development, as a nursery of some forty acres of land at the head of Stoney Creek, located at the corner of Stoney Creek Road and Croydon Road, extending along the latter thoroughfare to its junction with the Forest Road, the house being erected near this latter junction. This land was subdivided by Messrs. Peach Brothers about 1917, the housing allotments being served by streets named after members of the Iliffe family, such as Ada Street, Hancock Street, Rose Street, and Iliffe Street. The beautiful expanse of the Bexley Golf Links and the adjacent Kingsgrove Park were also included, at one time, in the estate.
There were five children in the Iliffe family who, in turn, were named Emily, Harriet, Annie, William, and Ada. After the death of William John Iliffe the eldest girl (married to Mr. Hancock) carried on the business at Rose Vale Villa. Harriet married Thomas Smith and resided in a cottage fronting Bestic Street at the north-eastern corner of the Rose Vale property. Annie passed away at the early age of nineteen years, whilst William died in babyhood. The youngest girl, Ada, married Frederick Mumford.
After the closure of the Rose Vale Nursery the family opened a florist’s shop on the original property, with its frontage to Princes Highway. About this period, although the major part of its land had been subdivided, Rose Vale Villa came into use for wedding receptions and similar small public gatherings, for which its tree clad surround and interior beauty were well suited. The former nursery gardens, at their subdivision, were served by extensions northward of York and George Streets.
About 1962 the Rockdale Municipal Council became interested in the purchase of the Rose Vale Villa for the establishment of a regional folk museum. However, the purchase price of £27,500 was beyond the council’s resources for this particular cultural venture and the matter lapsed. The house was later demolished but fortunately the stones of the beautiful facade were given to the council for inclusion in some structure which, someday, we hope, will again show their beauty to the best advantage. The site of the old home is now occupied by the Rose Vale Garage, constructed after the manner of its kind, but conveys no semblance of the erstwhile beauty of the famous house once known so far and wide as “Rose Vale Villa”.
The authors are indebted to Mrs. Cottrell, and her sister Mrs. S. A. Messer, and also to Mr. Clive Smith, the florist of the Tramway Arcade at Rockdale, descendants of the Iliffe family, who have kindly supplied much of the information utilised in the preparation of the above essay.
This article was first published in the May 1970 edition of our magazine.