Hartley Historic Village

One of the first things to know about the Hartley area is that there is a lot of it. From the Blue Mountains heading towards Lithgow you first pass through Little Hartley (with the old Harp of Erin on the left hand side, past the lolly shop) then the roadhouse cafe and farming produce store at Mid Hartley. A detour along Browns Gap Road will take you through Hartley Vale, providing an opportunity to enjoy a lovely drive through the valley.

The historic village of Hartley is under the care of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). The NPWS took over the upkeep of the village in 1972, and there are various tours and accommodation options available. On the day I went for a wander there was a bus load of school kids visiting from the south coast, and they were split into groups to explore the historic courthouse and the Catholic Church.

The village of Hartley began to take shape in the mid 1830s with travel along the Great Western Road passing nearby following the opening of Victoria Pass. By 1837 the Hartley Courthouse was in operation, administering local justice until 1887 when court business was transferred to Lithgow. The building became a popular backdrop for tourists taking group photos on tours to the Jenolan Caves and was set up as a museum from the period after World War II until it came under the control of NPWS.

Hartley is one of the towns that came into existence due to the needs of travellers heading to the western districts, but then declined in significance when bypassed by the railway in the 1870s. The remaining buildings include old pubs and places of worship.

6241690640_IMG_0299

Old Post Office, Hartley

The old post office is now a family-owned and operated cafe. The pressed tin ceiling, painted white, has a lovely rose design and there is local artwork on display and for sale inside the cafe. The granite tor, which I’ve written about previously, is located behind the old post office. There is an energy about it, and it is worth the walk up the slope in order to see the vistas stretching out towards Oberon and Lithgow, with the Great Western Highway snaking its way up the incline to Lithgow, Bathurst and beyond.

6241690640_IMG_0277

The Farmer’s Inn, which now includes the Kew-Y-Ahn Aboriginal Gallery. St Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church in the background.

The Farmers Inn, which has served various purposes including time as a pub during the gold rush, is now a tourist centre and a gallery for indigenous artists from the central west of NSW.

6241690640_IMG_0334

St Bernard’s Presbytery (right) and St Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church

Evidence of the strong Irish Catholic community is evident in St Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church and Presbytery, built in the 1830s and 1840s. The Anglican church, St John the Evangelist, is located closer to the highway and was built in the 1850s.

6241690640_IMG_0276

The Shamrock Inn, Hartley

During my occasional visits to Hartley I’ve been drawn to the Shamrock Inn, one of the last buildings along the road. It seems to be settling down into its foundations with each passing year, the stones at the front of the building a little more uneven and the doorways slightly shorter than my height.

Pride and preservation combined with an interesting heritage make Hartley Historic Village a place well worth the trip. 

[Photo: Hartley Courthouse]

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.]

Mount St Mary’s College and Convent, Katoomba

This grand old building catches my eye whenever I glimpse it from the Great Western Highway. The sheer physicality of the building remains striking despite the air of dilapidation and dereliction that surrounds it. There are blazes of graffiti along with eyeless windows, covered with plastic following the ravages of fires. It requires quite a bit of imagination to think what it might have been like in its earlier days.

The Sisters of Charity arrived in Katoomba in 1900 seeking a place of respite for exhausted nuns “where they might find fresh vigour for God’s work”. Initially they moved into a former guesthouse, converting it into a convent and then opening a school for girls. It had a mix of day students and boarders and soon reached the capacity of the initial premises despite the purchase of a neighbouring property. A larger site was needed.

The new site, located within easy walking distance of the train station, fronted the Great Western Highway. Building commenced in 1909 and by 1910, boarding pupils were being accepted into the new college. The vision of the college included its role as a monument to higher education and its place in creating a progressive society. Students attended from interstate as well as from the Pacific Islands as the reputation of the college grew. Over the decades there were additions to the original buildings and continued development of the grounds, with land being purchased and sold as required. The college included a kindergarten, infants school, and middle school as well as university classes to prepare students for entry to Arts, Teacher Training, Medicine, Science and Law.

The impact and presence of the college on the hill was acknowledged by the local community. This was symbolised by the illumination of an eight foot cross on the roof of the tower in 1938 at the suggestion of a non-Catholic community member. The costs were covered by the local community, and it became a visible point of reference for travellers and locals alike. The site played an important role in offering refuge during World War II for Orders living close to Sydney Harbour during the Japanese submarine attacks. It also offered shelter for locals affected by the devastating bushfires in 1957.

Inevitably there were various changes to the educational offerings over time. In 1965, Mount St Mary’s became a regional school for girls, then became co-educational following the closure of St Bernard’s College at Katoomba. But by 1973, the school’s operation was regarded as non-viable and the Sisters withdrew from the education ministry. This was taken over by the Archdiocese of Sydney but with enrolments down to 180 students, the school was closed at the end of 1974.

The property was subsequently gifted to the Archdiocese of Sydney, and the premises were used for a decade for educational and religious retreats until a fire order was placed on the building and it was closed down. The costs associated with bringing the site up to standard was considered prohibitive, and the property was sold in 1985.

A new lease of life for the site commenced in 1987 when it was opened as the Renaissance Centre, a mix of speciality shops, performance and teaching areas. Ownership changed hands again in the early 1990s, but as tenants continued to leave, the site became vacant. Vandalism and fires have taken their toll in the intervening years, and it remains in its current state of disrepair.

A detailed history of the site is available here. There is a wonderful early photo of the convent along with a concise history by Blue Mountains Local Studies here.

There is a blog post here from the time the building was put up for sale in 2012.

There are some wonderful recollections of past students here including tales of tunnels and stories passed between siblings and students about a One-Eyed Nun.

Is there a place that you pass by that makes you wonder what it was like in its glory days?

St Mary's Convent and College, Katoomba

St Mary’s Convent and College, Katoomba

Sources: Mount St Mary’s College and Convent, NSW Office of Environment & Heritage; The Convent, Katoomba, Blue Mountains City Library; Mt St Mary’s: The St Bernards Katoomba Old Boys Association Website; Old Estates for Sale (WordPress).

[Photo: detail from above an entrance to the main tower]

Bowenfels Gun Emplacements, Lithgow

Over time I am learning more about Lithgow and its history, and I was vaguely aware that it played an important role in providing guns for Australian troops during both World Wars. Lithgow had been chosen as the preferred site for small arms manufacture in 1909 after much lobbying and extensive consideration of various sites in regional Australia. A combination of cheap coal and an established steel industry in the town helped with the site selection.

In June 1912 the factory was formally opened with its own powerhouse, tool room and forge shop, employing nearly 200 people. This swelled to about 1300 during World War I; following the war the numbers fell steadily during the Great Depression before picking up again during World War II. But along with increased employment demands, there was the growing threat of air attack after Japan entered the war. As the factory was making the rifles and machine guns for the Australian Army, it was considered a potential target. Lithgow was an important location due to its mining, manufacturing and transport industries.

On 10 December 1941, 20 officers and men from the 9th Heavy Anti Aircraft Battery arrived in the town to set up sites for guns in two locations. Scenic Hill, on the approach from Windsor, and South Bowenfels, were the selected locations based on the likelihood of any attack coming from either end of the valley. The gun emplacements were commenced on 22 December 1941 and were operational on Scenic Hill from 2 January 1942, and at Bowenfels shortly after. The sites were manned 24 hours a day. A Lewis Machine Gun detachment was assigned for the close defence of the Lithgow Small Arms Factory with the machine gun installed on the factory roof.

26215376_unknown

Emplacement with replica gun

The Bowenfels site had been a farm, and the existing infrastructure was used to provide camouflage. There was a farmhouse, manse, cattle yards, outhouses and pigpens: these were put to use by the soldiers who manned the site. Further modifications included the skeleton construction of a barn and gravel roads to give the impression of a normal farm layout from above. Sections were removed from the barn roof for observation and rangefinder areas, and one gun was located within an orchard. Trees were shaped out of scrap metal and nets used to disguise the guns. Concrete slit trenches surrounded the emplacements to protect against aircraft attack and enemy troops dropped near the guns. There were also dummy emplacements set up as decoys.

As the threat to Australia moved further north, the guns were removed during December 1943 and January 1944. It is thought that the guns and the artillery crews were sent to islands off the northern coast. The ‘hoax farm’ buildings were auctioned off after 1945.

26215360_unknown

Replica gun with Lithgow in the background

In recent years, the Bowenfels site has been restored and replica guns installed in three of the emplacements. The site is located near Tom Lesslie Place, off Kirkley Street. It is signposted with access carved out between housing and commercial developments. The emplacements, nestled into the hillside, are surrounded by scrub and a wide scattering of rabbits. It remains as a physical reminder of a time when Lithgow was identified along with Bathurst as a valuable location under threat outside of the Sydney Fortress Area. Fortification of the industrial areas of Sydney, Newcastle and Port Kembla were the priority, but the threat of a land based enemy invasion was real and precautions were taken to prepare the town. There is an article on a re-enactment that was planned for the site here.

Sources: Lithgow Heavy Anti Aircraft Gun Stations and Dummy Station, Office of Environment & Heritage; Lithgow Mercury; Lithgow Tourism; Proud Valley – Lithgow by Ian Kirkwood, 2003; Lithgow Small Arms Factory Museum.

 

Book Review: Hidden History of the Blue Mountains by Magda Cawthorne

For the last few years, I have been keeping my eye out for local history books based in and around the Blue Mountains. I have managed to find specific books about some of the mountain villages, and some books with a larger scope taking in most if not all of the area from the base of the mountains right through to the Hartley Valley.

If I had a wish list of what I would like to find in a book on the mountains, it would be this:

  • An overview of the mountain ranges to give scope and context;
  • An explanation of the key transport changes – without roads and rail, the mountains would not be a viable place to live;
  • Acknowledgement of the significant role played by fire through the mountains; and
  • A chapter on each of the villages from Lapstone to the Bells Line of Road.

In a perfect world, this information would be presented in an interesting, easily accessible fashion with appropriate references, key timelines and fabulous photos. Images are really important in helping to define the essence of the villages, particularly as for many people most of the villages are merely signs or points along the Great Western Highway when the speed limit drops and you have to slow down, again. There would also be an index so I can locate whatever specific place I need to find at any given time.

When I came across a tweet from a local bookshop that they were holding copies of the newly released Hidden History of the Blue Mountains by Magda Cawthorne, I knew it was the book for me. Even sight unseen it promised to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge about many of the villages, along with over 500 photos. It is all that I hoped for and more – check out the website to get a glimpse here.

The book provides an overview of how each village came about. For example, near Wentworth Falls there was another village called Brasfort which was incorporated into Wentworth Falls in 1895. I was aware that Wentworth Falls had been known previously as Weatherboard, but it was interesting to know how this name came about. The beautiful lake at Wentworth Falls was originally dammed to provide water for steam trains. There are many historical stories and snippets to pique interest as well, including the life and death of Mary James at Twenty Mile Hollow (Woodford), and the tragic fate of her eldest daughter whose body was found on the Victoria Pass. The ghost of Caroline Jones was said to haunt the area, and there is a poem by Henry Lawson called ‘The Ghost at the Second Bridge‘ about a spectral encounter.

I have barely scratched the surface but that is one of the joys of a book like this. It is perfect for dipping into, or reading chapters on villages of particular interest. The further reading section will encourage the expansion of my book collection and there is a stack of websites to explore. It is a fabulous read for anyone with an interest in the Blue Mountains.

Have you been lucky enough to find a dream book on an area you are interested in?

[Photo: mountain views near Leura/Katoomba]

Kate Kelly’s Bed

Tucked away in one of the upstairs rooms in the museum at the Mount Victoria Railway Station is a double bed. It has a dark wooden frame with a crocheted lace cover on a mattress. There is a neatly printed handwritten sign, noting the following:

Kate Kelly’s Bed (sister of Ned, the bushranger). Originally a four poster, this bed was purchased by Mr Geo. T Palmer of Ginmuderra Station, near Yass, NSW, about 1880, from Kate Kelly, (who at that time was Mrs White) on whose property Kate was employed. Kate later left the property and re-married a William Foster, who is reputed to have made the armour for Ned Kelly. Kate Foster died in 1898, aged 36 years and is buried in the Forbes Cemetery.

I first spotted this a couple of years ago and thought it was interesting but filed it away in my mind. Then recently I heard ‘Kate Kelly‘ by The Whitlams. It made me wonder – just how did this bed end up in Mount Victoria, after Kate had died over a century ago in the central west gold town of Forbes, New South Wales?

There is a fictionalised account of Kate’s life written by Jean Bedford called Sister Kate. This had lurked on my bookshelves for quite some time and reading it provided some insight into what life might have been like for the sister of the infamous Ned Kelly. Her relationship with Joe Hart was explored, along with the exploitation of the family’s notoriety following the capture and execution of Ned in 1880. Kate moved around, living and working in different country towns before marrying and having several children in Forbes.

The portrayal of the last years of Kate’s life in Bedford’s novel is one of grief, misery, madness and addiction. Her early death – she was found drowned on the outskirts of town – was the tragic conclusion of her life. There is an interesting post on Kate’s life here, part of a project by Merrill Findlay.

Kate stands apart in my mind as one of the women linked to bushrangers in Australian history. Of course, there are many more who were affected, positively and otherwise, by familial connections with outlaws. Her life has been documented by various historians, and there are links to a recent art exhibition based on her life here.

As for her bed, it was a material possession in an age before items were largely disposable.

Have you ever come across a snippet of history that has taken you on a journey of sorts?

Impressions of an Island: Norfolk Island

A rich, fertile island located about 1,600 km from Sydney and 1,000 km from New Zealand, Norfolk Island is home to approximately 2,000 people and is a popular tourist destination. It is compact, about 35 square kilometres, and has witnessed some extraordinary chapters of Australian history. Whilst looking for something else entirely, I came across some notes I made during a trip to the island a few years back.

The origins of this place are unusual with four settlements acknowledged by the locals. The first was the Polynesian settlers, who left minimal traces and were long gone by the time Captain Cook found the island and named it for the Duchess of Norfolk in 1774. Cook was taken with the place, calling it paradise. He saw much opportunity for the thousands of tall pine trees and abundance of flax growing on the island. He found a landing-place relatively easily and didn’t spend much time on the island.

Based on Cook’s recommendations, the place was the second settlement under Governor Phillip’s command. Phillip was instructed to have the place settled and under British rule as a priority with the French also being in the area. He sent off Philip Gidley King with a small group of settlers, convicts and marines shortly after landing in January 1788. It took them about 6 weeks to get to Norfolk, and it was days before they could land. The island is still notoriously difficult to approach by sea.

This second settlement lasted from 1788 to 1814. The high hopes for the use of the pines for masts on the fighting ships of the British fleet were in vain; due to the lack of sap in the wood and the way that the branches were formed, they were unsuitable for this purpose. The flax was also a disappointment. Initially King could not identify it, thinking it was a type of iris. They had brought along a flax weaver, but the man could not make this flax work. Later on, a couple of Maoris were enticed onboard a ship and taken to Norfolk to show how to work the flax. Alas, this was women’s work and they could not assist. However the rich soil and conditions helped the convict settlement to survive at Kingston. It was eventually closed due to cost considerations. All of the buildings, painstakingly constructed, were burned upon departure to discourage anyone living on the island.

The third settlement is the most notorious. Following the Bigge Commission into the convict system in Australia, it was decided that a secondary place of punishment was required, a place so abhorrent to the convict community that the thought of being sent there would be a deterrent in itself. The settlement commenced in 1825, and was in operation until the early 1850s when it was wound down and finally closed.

The island became home to Pitcairners in 1856. The Pitcairn islanders were the descendants of the Bounty mutineers, with 194 arriving on the island. They inherited all of the buildings and infrastructure created by the convict settlement, and understandably avoided the gaol areas. Stones were quarried from the buildings over time, and families lived in the houses and administrative offices in Quality Row until houses were built ‘up country’.

Norfolk Island has been popular tourist spot for decades and there are lots of tours and packages designed to explore the history and enjoy the many activities on the island. Thinking back my impressions are a mixed bag. The people were friendly – there are very few road rules apart from a speed limit of 50 km/hour, give way to cattle who range all over the place and wave at any car passing by – and the locals were proud and informative about their heritage. The island has a range of restaurants and some of the tours included a progressive dinner at various homes which provided a glimpse into what living on the island permanently might feel like. I was drawn to the remnants of the convict buildings, clustered around Kingston. Plaques dotted the island, anchoring the past in the present.

All goods need to be shipped or flown in. There is no safe, natural harbour and it felt isolated enough now in the age of telecommunications and regular air travel. I could only imagine the isolation during the convict settlements. We watched a boat being unloaded which was quite a feat in itself as it had been waiting 18 days for the water to be calm enough to get to the dock. A couple of days before we left there were major dust storms across NSW and Queensland. TV footage showed Sydney shrouded in red dust, with even the Harbour Bridge obscured. The day we left the dust was visible in the water, crashing against the shoreline.

The rugged coastline with sheer cliffs contrasted with the rolling green hills. There were many beautiful gardens, including one called Camelot which had a series of gardens designed as rooms, a sensory delight to explore. We went to a convict night out with traditional fare, singing and dancing. And jokes with lots of puns from memory. I read a number of historical books whilst there, including one which focussed on the Commandants who ruled the island. Some were average, others were sadistic beyond understanding. The reconstruction and preservation of officer’s houses along Quality Row provided insight into what life was like for the military, and we also had a chance to go through Government House which was beautifully set out. A stroll through the nearby cemetery was sobering with many gravestones of young men in particular.

Have you been to a place which has left an impression on you?

[Photo: Norfolk Island coastline]

Glimpses of Another Time: Sydney Streetscapes

Recently I attended a talk on early photography in Sydney. The focus was on the changing streetscapes of the city from the late 1880s through to the early 1920s. The first photo of Sydney was taken in 1841, and changes in recording technology led to an increase in landscape photography with the introduction of dry plates. One of the benefits was as the glass plate negatives were less likely to warp or distort there remains a vivid record of what the city was like all those decades ago.

There were a couple of photographers in particular who extensively recorded the changes in Sydney and its suburbs, including panoramic shots from some of the many bays looking back towards Sydney. Henry King and Charles Kerry were the photographers, and a portion of their work is held in the Tyrell Photographic Collection which is now held in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. The collection consists of 7,903 glass plate negatives which provide a fascinating glimpse into another time.

Some of the more visible markers of change over the decades were the transport options available to the city’s population. The earlier photos show people streaming across the wide streets, dodging hansom cabs and horse-drawn omnibuses. The omnibus could carry 24 passengers and there is one restored vehicle still on view at the Powerhouse Museum. Then came the trams, including steam engine trams that could cope with the steep inclines and grades of the sprawling city. There were photos of clusters of hansom cabs lined up at the early railway stations and along the foreshore of Circular Quay, waiting for trains and ferries to arrive and disgorge their passengers. The last hansom cab in Sydney – 1937 – was also recorded in a photograph.

Another couple of photographs captured the thousands of well-dressed spectators at the Association Ground, later renamed the Sydney Cricket Ground. The Members’ Pavillion had mostly men but also quite a few well attired women in long, elegant white dresses. Photos of beach outings captured men wading in their long bathing suits. Women were more likely to use the bathing cages, curious contraptions that had room for changing into a bathing suit before being wheeled into the water where you could dip into the ocean from the safety of the cage. It would keep sharks – and marauding men – right out of the way.

The talk covered just some of the extensive collection, and it provided an interesting glimpse into an earlier time.

Have you seen anything recently that makes you ponder on the past?

[Photo taken in the stables at Eskbank House (Lithgow) where there was the last working hansom cab from Parramatta on display, to the right of the photo]


Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta

Located on a rise that would have once commanded a view of the growing settlement of Parramatta, Elizabeth Farm remains a treasured property with its status of oldest European homestead in Australia. It is located near the Parramatta River, and construction commenced in 1793. The house had various additions over time and grew from a simple bungalow to a substantial homestead with servants quarters. It was the home for John and Elizabeth Macarthur and their family, before changing hands over the decades until it was purchased by the Swann family in 1904. It stayed in the Swann family until it was transferred to the Elizabeth Farm Museum Trust in 1968.

The property is now managed by Sydney Living Museums, and it feels much more like a living space than a typical house museum where there is much to see but access is firmly limited by thick red ropes. The property has been filled with replicas of period furniture, and you are invited to touch, sit, be at home and to have a unique experience in the house. Guided tours are available as well as iPads with additional content about the Farm for self-guided visitors. The content includes photos, newspaper reports and recollections from the time of the Macarthurs, and also from the Swann family whose occupancy played a significant part in the preservation of the property. They were a large family with nine daughters, only one of them married, and they used all of the extensive property between them.

But it is the property’s association with the Macarthur family that is primarily on display. From the the hall entrance off the wide verandah with the dining room on one side and the drawing room on the other, there are many references to the Macarthur family throughout the house. I was particularly taken by the smaller rooms at the end of each side of the front of the house with their windowed alcoves looking out into the garden. These sunlit rooms were a contrast to the bedrooms at the rear of the house, especially the blue room which is kept in shadow in reference to the difficult times that John Macarthur spent here when his mental health declined before his death in 1834.

There is much to enjoy in the shape of the house and the servants quarters, the courtyard and the gardens, along with the kitchen with its big old range and copper saucepans lined up along the mantle. The kitchen garden was inviting with hearty silver beet, including heritage varieties, their yellow and scarlet stalks translucent in the afternoon light. The garden is a joy, modelled on letters and diaries outlining the botanical delights of the garden in the 1830s. Spending time in this historic house is like heading back to an earlier era, and you can nearly forget that you are within an extensive business and residential area, just 23 kilometres from Sydney.

Have you been somewhere that made you feel as though you have stepped back in time recently?

[Photo: view of the front of Elizabeth Farm from the carriage loop]

Minding Her Own Business

From mid winter till late spring, the Blackheath History Forum holds fortnightly talks on a wide range of Australian history topics. The talks are usually held at the Blackheath Primary School hall, the backdrop featuring six stunning scenes in mixed media, highlighting some of the local views and including a vibrant red waratah.

The introduction to the talk outlined how history leaves an imprint on the present, and the importance of understanding the role of history as it shapes the present and our future. There was also commentary on the importance of trade and commerce: this isn’t always a focus of conventional history texts but it provides us with our daily needs and has much to tell us regarding what matters at a particular point in time. This weekend’s talk was given by Dr Catherine Bishop on the topic of colonial businesswomen in Sydney, with the focus on the period from the 1830s up until the 1880s.

Dr Catherine Bishop is an engaging and often humourous speaker, bringing to life aspects of everyday existence from over 150 years ago in a relatable manner. The topic, colonial businesswomen of Sydney, formed part of her doctoral thesis. The thesis also covered their counterparts in New Zealand.

There are no memorials to the colonial businesswomen of Sydney, despite the important role that they played. A common perception is that women were engaged in trades primarily to supplement the household income, to help provide for children, often in the absence of a male breadwinner. But this is only a fragment of the reality of the times. Women used their skills across a wide range of industries to create businesses which were sometimes later subsumed into their husband’s name upon marriage.

Bishop cited several businesses that continued to trade over decades, and sometimes evolved into large family businesses across generations. The starting point for her research was the Mitchell Library with its large collection of diaries and letters. Despite an extensive search, there was barely a record of any businesswomen of this period to be found. Bishop had to look further afield. Using a wide range of records including Trove, insolvency files at the State Records, Westpac Archives (bank account registers) and other tools such as the Sands Directories, Bishop has been able to unearth a rich chapter of colonial history.

The scope of businesses owned and operated by women was extensive. Bishop used Castlereagh Street in Sydney as an example, and women were running various businesses including bonnet cleaning, butcher shops, a cab operator, dressmakers and a hotelier in this street alone. Other businesses included milliners, fruit sellers, umbrella makers, grocers, a servant registry office, boarding and lodging houses, pawnbrokers and a haberdashery. You can get a taste of this in Bishop’s entry in the Dictionary of Sydney under Women of Pitt Street 1858.

The talk included snippets of the lives of several women who not only survived but thrived whilst operating their own businesses. This is seldom reflected in their obituaries, where women are usually described as wife of X, mother of Y, mother of daughters who married well, rather than as a successful woman in her own right.

For me the talk was a starting point for further reading, including Bishop’s book Minding Her Own Business: Colonial Businesswomen in Sydney. I am particularly intrigued by Elizabeth Cadman (wife of John Cadman of Cadmans Cottage) and some of the female proprietors of The Belgravia Hotel, which was later bought by Mark Foy and included in the extensive grounds of the Hydro Majestic Hotel.

You can find out about upcoming history talks here.

[Photo: front of the Blackheath Public School hall]