Woodford Academy, Oldest Building in the Blue Mountains

From its origins as a roadside inn, the Woodford Academy on the Great Western Highway has seen a variety of uses over the years. It started out as a weatherboard and stone inn called the ‘Sign of the Woodman’ in 1834, providing accommodation for 10 people and stables for passing travellers.

During the early decades of the 19th century, the Great Western Road to Bathurst was a journey of up to four days. Twenty Mile Hollow (now known as Woodford) was a popular stop at the end of the second day of travel, between Springwood and Blackheath on the road west.  The pub was rebuilt and expanded further during the gold rush years of the 1850s onwards, when it was known as the King’s Arms. In 1868, it was bought by Alfred Fairfax as a gentleman’s residence, and he renamed it Woodford House.

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Old taproom with shelves marked out and a centrepiece of grapes, peaches and corn above the door

The alternations, extensions and repurposing of the property helped to ensure its survival. Various uses included as a guest house, licensed hotel, boarding house, private hospital and a boarding school, when it became known as the Woodford Academy. From the late 1930s onwards it was a private home until Gertie McManamey, daughter of scholar and principal of the Woodford Academy, bequeathed the property to the National Trust in 1979.

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Old schoolroom at Woodford Academy

Aboriginal heritage in the area is acknowledged; the nearby reserve has an engraved groove in a sandstone platform, considered likely to be a signpost or signal to assist travelling Aborigines.

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View from bedroom in loft looking towards Great Western Highway

From foot traffic to horse and carts, wagons to motor vehicles, the passing parade of people heading west has been viewed from this site. The loft area above the residence is accessed through tight wooden stairs. The rooms offer views of the highway, gardens and courtyard. The property has a central courtyard area, reminiscent of Rouse Hill House, with access to washrooms, kitchen, laundry and stable areas.

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Kitchen, including stone sink

Throughout the property there are series of photos celebrating previous eras, highlighting the many lives the property has had. Memorabilia in the rooms provide insights into what life was like in earlier times, before the arrival of electricity, sewerage and running water.

On the day of my visit the academy was doubling as an exhibition space, continuing to provide a place for people to come and gather and experience something unique.

[Photo: front of Woodford Academy from Great Western Highway, Woodford]

 

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Cicada Days

As a harbinger of warmer days to come, it’s hard to go past the cicada. It might be due to the combination of a dry winter and a warm start to spring but in recent weeks there have been discarded cicada shells all over the place. Fence posts, brick walls, tree trunks – all are seemingly dotted with husks, cast aside as cicadas move on to their final phase of life. During the day the air often thrums with their calls. Usually camouflaged by leaves, they are hard to spot unless being chased around the neighbourhood by hungry birds.

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After the countdown, they go over the top, grey shapes in the grey dawn, clambering out of themselves (Cicadas by David Campbell)

Cicadas were captured as temporary trophies when I was a kid, with a league ladder of varieties according to scarcity. The common Greengrocer wasn’t given much weighting; Yellow Mondays were a bit harder to find, Black Prince cicadas were highly sought, along with the noisy Double Drummer. The cicadas would be brought to school in ice cream containers with holes punched into the lids, to be admired and swapped before the cicadas were released.

There are Miller or Floury Baker cicadas, covered in fine, silvery hairs. I haven’t seen a Cherrynose cicada, but they are meant to be more common on the coast. There are Red-eyes along with smaller varieties such as Fairy, Maiden and Midget.

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A shell on the left, a cicada getting ready to emerge on the right

It is mainly the male cicada who sings by flexing their tymbals which are drum-like organs found in their abdomens. They drink and eat using their beak or rostrum, and begin life as an egg embedded in a tree limb. When the egg hatches, the ant-like form falls to the ground and digs until it finds roots to feed on. Cicadas can remain underground for anywhere up to 17 years, according to the species. It is an active life spent feeding and tunnelling.

As nymphs, they return above ground and climb the nearest tree to shed their exoskeleton. Their wings inflate and their bodies harden. They search for a mate with males singing to attract females, and the cycle begins again. As an adult they have a short life, usually only a few weeks.

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Greengrocer

There are over 3,300 varieties around the world, and a couple of unusual Australian cicadas are the Blue Moon and Bagpipe Cicada.

There is a lovely poem about cicadas by David Campbell here.

Do you have cicadas in your backyard?

Main source of information on cicadas: Cicada Mania web page. It is brilliant – hover over a link and the mouse arrow turns into a cicada!

[Photo: Greengrocer cicada]

Challenging Assumptions: Colonial Convict Women

Recently I listened to Australian academic Carol Liston talk about a research project she is working on with Dr Kathrine Reynolds. One of the aims of the project is to better understand the lives and circumstances of women from England, Scotland and Wales who were sent to Australia as convicts from 1810 to 1835. Due to record limitations, Irish female convicts were not included.

A common perception about convicts sent to Australia from 1788 to 1868 is that many were sent for minor misdemeanours such as the theft of a loaf of bread or that ultimate fashion accessory, a handkerchief. There are instances of this, but by casting a wide net over three decades and looking at trends across the female convicts, the perception is firmly challenged. The women who were sentenced to transportation were usually repeat offenders and thefts were often significant – in many cases the financial equivalent of a year’s wage or more. Another perception about female convicts is that they were usually young, in their late teens or early twenties, and of childbearing age. The research indicates that the average age was closer to twenty-nine, and that there were many instances of women in their forties and fifties being sent across the seas.

During the period in question, over 5,000 women were transported to the Australian colonies. The sheer volume of women, although significantly lower than the number of men transported over this period, means that the ability to focus on individual stories is limited. As genealogists know, tracing female convicts can be challenging as there can be various name changes for marriage and other reasons, making it difficult to have a clear or continuous record. Sources used to assist with the research include trial documents, newspapers, correspondence, surgeon journals and petitions.

Evidence confirms that in many instances the women were organised, risk-taking innovators; in some cases there were networks of criminals fencing stolen goods or acting in groups to lure victims and steal from them. Part of the challenge for the successful criminal, male or female, was the limited ways in which to spend their ill-gotten gains. The property market was controlled by the aristocracy so money was spent on food, alcohol, clothes and travel – ‘flash’ criminals would be seen travelling around in carriages above their station and attract suspicion.

To be sentenced to transportation was a life-changing event. Part of the consideration of the research project is the impact this had on the women. There are stories of successful female convicts – ask any descendant and they can usually confirm the success in the simple fact that they are here, the maternal line survived – but what of those who struggled with the upheaval and psychological impact of being sent to other side of the world with very limited chance of return? To be leaving behind family and friends and in some cases, their children and husbands? Children were allowed to be transported in some instances, and there are a few examples of husbands and children following the convicted women but these are the exception. How did the convict system take care of those who didn’t cope?

Prior to transportation there were some measures put in place in an attempt to ensure that convicts were fit to travel before they boarded the ship. Various strategies were employed by some women to try to defer or cancel their departure, including pregnancy (which might delay the inevitable for up to a year) or pouring boiling water over their feet. During the trip, some convicts became so upset as to die on the voyage or arrive in a state of distress. Some deaths on the trips were put down to broken hearts, the toll of being sent away simply too much to bear. An example was given of a French governess who was transported to the colonies. The records show that she went from being an English-speaking woman, able to take care of her appearance and manage herself prior to departure to becoming so distressed during the voyage that she was able to communicate only in French, with six convicts being assigned to take care of her during the voyage as she could no longer manage to feed or take care of herself.

In some cases, women who were unable to cope with the life in the colonies ended up self-harming, struggling with alcoholism or committing suicide. Some ended up in colonial hospitals and asylums. But the records also show the spirit of resilience and acceptance. One woman, convicted for theft, applied to have some of her property including cash that had been her own but confiscated by the local sheriffs following her conviction returned to her so that she might be able to purchase provisions for the long and arduous trip as well as goods to set herself up in the colony.

Have you had any of your historical perceptions challenged recently?

Carol Liston is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Western Sydney, and I listened to her talk at a meeting of the Fellowship of the First Fleeters – Eastern Farms Chapter. 

[Photo taken at the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, Tasmania: Through this gate passed thousands of women and children. Lest we forget.]

Summer Garden Blues

The talk for weeks in Australia has been about the heat. As we are in late summer that isn’t necessarily a surprise, but swathes of days of above average temperatures have captured the conversation of just about everyone. The heat is being felt even in the usually cooler upper Blue Mountains, with expected highs nearing forty degrees. Sustained hot weather and wind gusts lead to fire bans and warnings of catastrophic fire conditions.

There are signs of heat fatigue in the garden, but a few days of rain mid-week have helped and at present it is awash with purple and blue blooms. There are agapanthus, wisteria and petunias of a particularly deep, lush shade of purple. Hebe blossoms bristle in the breeze, a mix of magenta, bright pink and white flowers. A late blush of hibiscus blooms along the fence are a mixture of soft mauve and crimson. Tucked among dark green foliage, there is the tiny flash of purple and pink lobelia flowers.

Vincas offer up clean white petals, anchored by a deep pink centre. There are white and purple shades of alyssum, one of the favourite plants of my childhood. The odd pansy is still in flower, the self-sown plants lasting the longest. Bright pink and red fuchsia flowers abound with delicate bell-shaped blooms. The vivid green and purple of coleus leaves provide a contrast to the soft pink begonia plants set against brown foliage. The bright red petals of salvia, bookmarked along green spikes, draw the eye.

After the rain bright white daisy flowers appeared overnight. The gracious dark blue petals of an old hydrangea shrub nestle against the fence. Soft pink salmon petals of geranium plants, one of the hardiest plants I’ve had in several gardens in varying climates, endure through most conditions. And, a hidden gem, blue-studded blossoms on a plumbago variant. A constant delight.

What is blossoming in your garden?

[Photo of Chinese plumbago]

Bygone Beauties: Treasured Teapot Museum & Tearooms, Leura

Tucked a block away from the main thoroughfare in Leura, Bygone Beauties is the home of the world’s largest private teapot collection. The collection spans over 5 centuries with teapots from all over the world and they have been predominately collected within Australia. The teapot collection commenced in 1974 when a geisha girl teapot was spotted by Ronald Hooper, a previous joint owner of the museum.

The museum reflects and preserves the diversity of tea drinking in Australia. The scope of the collection gives an indication of how wide-reaching the tea drinking culture extends around the world, with samples of teapots from Australia, America, Europe, Africa and Asia. The materials used in the making of teapots includes china, fine porcelain, silver and cast iron, to name a just a few.

A wide selection of teas is on offer in the tea room, along with morning and afternoon teas, traditional high tea and champagne high tea. There are light meals and refreshments, and the specialised teas can be purchased along with all sorts of tea-related paraphernalia.

The tradition of drinking tea has been honoured for centuries. For millions of people, it has been an integral part of the fabric of daily life, providing structure to the day at set intervals, offering familiarity and comfort in times of need. The phrase ‘tea and sympathy’ comes to mind.

Thinking about the ritual of tea drinking reminds me of a tea tray set with a well-used teapot, covered with a hand-knitted cosy, surrounded by a milk jug, sugar bowl, tea cups, saucers, spoons and a tea strainer. The loose leaf tea had been measured into the warmed teapot. Then there was the pouring of tea and the requests for the weaker first cups rather than the more robust later cups of tea. There were everyday, serviceable cups and saucers, made of a heavier china to withstand regular washing as well as the fine bone china sets which were used for special occasions, exquisitely decorated with flowers and intricate patterns. I am still compelled to check the bottom of cups and saucers when I come across them to see where they were made.

It was a delight to look around the teapot museum and see the extensive range and variety of teapots, cups, canisters and even tea cosies on display. There were some tea sets in smaller cabinets, and the collection is grouped into various sections including geography, age, novelty and Australiana. Silver teapots are displayed along with Art Deco style teapots; teapots were also used for advertising and were popular as souvenirs. Children were given miniature tea sets and there are several on display. There were the sturdy Brown Betty teapots as well as fine china that was almost transparent in its delicacy. It was thirsty work and I needed a cuppa after taking it all in.

Do you have a tea-drinking ritual or memory?

[Photo: detail of one of the many exquisite tea sets in the museum]