Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

History revisited - Hillgrove proves to be more than a mine

Hillgrove was one of our favourite places to visit as kids.

Far more of the mine machinery survived then, and there was still an old caretaker living on the site attempting to look after it, although I don’t think that he had been paid for a number of years.

We used to lie on the grass and look up at the tall chimney. The moving clouds made it look as though it was about to fall, something that was a bit scary although we knew that we were safe. However, despite our frequent visits, we actually knew very little about the place. Flume Hillgrove Gordon Smith

Hillgrove’s rise began in 1877 when lodes of antimony were found were in the Baker’s Creek gorge, several kilometres south-west of the present village.

By 1881, the site was being worked by John Bracken, Peter Daly and James Elliot who, noticing specks of gold, decided to concentrate on that rather than the antimony. Bracken called the mine Eleanora in honour of his wife.

The Eleanora mine was never very profitable because the sulphide in the antimony made the extraction of the gold costly and it was soon eclipsed by a far more profitable venture.

George Smith, a shareholder in the Eleanora mine, was in the habit of searching nearby country In March 1887 he found a rich outcrop of gold near the bottom of the gorge. After three week’s investigation, Smith pegged out his claim.

Initially, Smith’s claims for his new mine were treated with scepticism. However, he formed a small partnership to pay the purchase of equipment, leading to the recovery within a short while of gold valued at £2,500. News of the success brought 1,500 people to the field in 1888, the same number the following year. Smith sold out his claim to the newly forming Baker’s Creek Goldmining Company. By the time the mine closed in 1921, Baker’s Creek had yielded 269,848 ounces, about seven-and-a-half tonnes of gold!

As had happened earlier on the Upper Clarence gold fields, Smith’s success generated a speculative frenzy. Ridiculous prices were demanded for shares in unproven claims, but a number of the new mines were successful. In 1896, the Hillgrove goldfield produced no less than 28,501 ounces, the highest return in the colony for that year.

From that point the field declined in the face of high costs and diminishing yields as the mining companies sank shafts deeper into the gorge. At the Baker’s Creek mine, the shaft eventually reached 1,700 feet.

The closure of the Baker’s Creek mine in 1974 was not quite the end of that story. In 1937, the mine was reopened by the New Baker’s Creek Company, only to close a few years later, with the company finally wound up in 1954. The old caretaker we met must have been the last surviving employee.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 19 June 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013

The photo by Gordon Smith shows the concrete flume, part of the hydro electric power station supplying Hillgrove, the hydro power station in Australia. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

History Revisited - New England gold fields lost to time

"the old and new Rockies, have become stories hidden within the New England landscape"

There are many stories hidden deep within the New England landscape. In some cases markers remain, an iron pot or cherry tree. In other cases every sign has vanished even from memory itself.

The Chinese who went to the Californian diggings called America the gold mountain. When gold was discovered in Australia it was called the new gold mountain. America became the old gold mountain. This story is well known. Few New Englanders know that there is a local equivalent.20070304-008-wollomombiAndChandlerFalls-sml

By 1856, the Rocky River gold fields had become a substantial settlement with stores, bakers, butchers, boarding houses, blacksmiths, tailors, barbers and lolly pop makers. Drays waited in the main street for the next load.

The Express’s own correspondent reported that he saw many miners wash two ounces of gold before breakfast. That’s worth a fair bit at today’s gold prices!

Twelve months later, business was down. “This place was like a town at one time”, wrote the Express correspondent, “now it is more like a country village.” Meantime, word was coming through of another field to the north in the rugged headwaters of the Clarence.

“Timbarra flows sweetly through gold-bearing hills” wrote John Taite in 1863. The Timbarra in question rises at Glen Elgin and then winds its way through rugged country some seventy miles before joining the Clarence at Tabulam.

Gold first appears to have been discovered on the Timbarra in 1853. By 1857, many of the diggers from Rocky River had moved to Glen Elgin and then to other newly discovered field beyond. They called the Timbarra Rocky River too because of its rocks. So now people spoke of the old and new Rockies.

The old Rocky River clung to the hope of new discoveries, but drift continued. By 1859 when elections were held for the newly created Northern Gold Fields electorate, the diggers on the Upper Clarence fields outnumbered those at Rocky River four to one.

Today, few signs remain of the activity that once took place along the new Rocky River, destroyed by bushfires, floods and regeneration of the bush. The mail runs, the gold escorts that took the gold first to Armidale and then to Grafton from the Upper Clarence fields, the political fights over gold field representation are fading memories.

The Upper Clarence gold fields, the old and new Rockies, have become stories hidden within the New England landscape.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 12 June 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

History revisited - legacy still stands strong

In December 1904, the still new century was marked by the opening of one of Armidale’s iconic buildings, the new emporium of J R Richardson & Co. Richardson's Building

Older Armidale residents will remember the old Richardson’s. It was indeed an emporium. There was that machine in the men’s shoe department, now banned with greater knowledge of X rays, where you could stick your foot and see the bones. It was meant to help measure shoe fit, but I was more fascinated by the bones!

Then there was the subscription library. Subscription libraries? What on earth are they? Well, before the extension of the public library, many country department stores had small lending libraries where you could borrow popular books in return for a small fee.

At the time I am talking about, the Richardson’s library must have been on its last legs, but it was still there.

As kids, we didn’t buy a lot at Richardson’s ourselves. Other stores were more to our style with the limited pocket money we had. There were Penny’s and Coles with their cheaper displays including toys and sweets, or the various Greek cafes with their drinks. But we were marched into Richardson’s for things like shoes or school clothes.

A native of Fifeshire in Scotland, John Richardson was born in 1810, son of Presbyterian minister John Richardson and his wife Grace. At 16, he was apprenticed to a linen draper in Kirkcaldy and then worked in London before setting sail for Sydney, arriving in April 1837.

In 1842, John Richardson established an importing and ships chandlery business in Brisbane. If you look at the front of the Richardson’s Building you will see this date. He was obviously a shrewd businessman, because he quickly built a considerable business empire. He also became a member of the NSW parliament.

As a parliamentarian he was something of a radical, opposing William Charles Wentworth’s bunyip constitution, while supporting John Dunmore Lang’s campaign for the separation of what is now Queensland from NSW.

Lang had a vision of Australia as a great federated nation made up of many states. After working for self-government for Victoria and then Queensland, Lang campaigned for the separation of Northern NSW, beginning a new state tradition that continues to this day.

After suffering heavy business losses, John Richardson decided to relocate to Armidale, buying John Moore’s Armidale Store in 1872. This stood on the present site of the Richardson’s building, the first of three Richardson buildings on the site.

Richardson had expected Moore to withdraw from retailing. In 1879, Moore re-entered retailing, opening a new store just across the road from Richardson’s. John Richardson was not pleased. Later, the family firm would buy the building, making it their furniture department.

John Richardson died in December 1888, leaving an estate valued at almost £30,000. His firm survived. Five generations of the Richardson family would work in the store before its final sale.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 5 June 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

History revisited - lonely end for pioneer who named Armidale

Sunday 21 December 1851. They had been riding from Euston to Melbourne so that he could take ship for Sydney on leave. He slipped away from his two travelling companions. They found his body the next day, kneeling at the foot of a big gum tree.

Reporting his death, the Sydney Morning Herald said he was on his way to Melbourne for the benefit of his health. He was forty eight years of age, twenty five of which were spent in the services of the Colonial Government. He had been suffering, the paper said, from exhaustion, the effects of the climate and the arduous duties of a too extensive district.

There was a little more too it than that. He was a sensitive man, conscious of his small stature and  deformity, of his failure to find love and the full success he craved. An aspiring poet whose poems were often published in the Sydney papers, he had described his feelings some years earlier in a short epigram entitle On a heart Locket. “tis glittering – aye as gold without”, he had written, “But hollow all within.’

Most recently, the man had been under stress and unhappy, drinking far too much. This had led to movesMacdonald Park to have him suspended from duty in the August, but he had been persuaded to take leave instead.

Today, children play in the park named after him in the city that he named. They play hide and seek or other games, running past the memorial stone, while their parents unpack picnics or prepare BBQ’s. It’s a long way from that distant Victorian gum tree against which his life ended.

When we think of George James Macdonald, many call him McDonald, we think of the Park and his place in the naming of Armidale. We do not think of him a person.

He was a neat man whose sensibilities demanded order and a degree of comfort. In March 1843, a party travelled up from the Macleay River to attend the Armidale races. Writing later, one of the party (Mrs Annie Baxter) expressed surprise at the Commissioner’s hut. While small and badly finished, it was well and tastefully furnished. The Commissioner, Mrs Baxter suggested, was clearly a man of taste.

By then, Macdonald was a disappointed man.

In 1841, Sophia Docker had agreed to marry him. The wedding was arranged, the dresses made, while Macdonald had given orders for a new cottage to be built for his bride. Then the lady changed her mind, deciding to marry Captain Edward Darvall. “Our Commissioner was reported to be going to be married” wrote John Everett to his brother in England, “but the Lady has unfortunately changed her mind, I suppose frightened at the hump on his back.”

Macdonald and Darvall fought a duel, each firing two shots without injury. The Darvalls went to India to join his regiment, while Macdonald attempted to console himself, finally unsuccessfully, with poetry and his official duties.

 Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 29 May 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013