Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Had I , like my Grandparents before me, arrived in Hillgrove way back in 1899 this view of neat wide streets lined with houses and shops would have been my first introduction. 

But it would be a generation and a hundred years later before I wandered by chance into that same township, and by then none of the above was evident. Bush and trees and undergrowth had  taken hold, buildings and fences and gates and all the paraphernalia of a busy country town had disappeared.

All that remained was a small portion of its old mining establishment, a few token buildings and defined thoroughfares leading to nowhere.

Present day Hillgrove in essence a ghost town.

Family history is a hit and miss affair.  Like an archer shooting an arrow into a target,  the search either hits the bulls eye or drifts way off course, leaving you none the wiser and your family tree bereft of a place and time of vast importance to those who came before you.

In this case the town of Hillgrove, perched high on an escarpment above the Oxley Wild Rivers system of New South Wales is important for those in my family because that is where my Boer War soldier grandfather Charles Brown courted and married my grandmother Bella Marshall back in the days of the turning century when Queen Victoria ruled Brittania.

There’s not a great deal we know about my paternal grandparents early life together.  You have met them before though in the stories Two Wars Two Charlie Browns, and in the earlier Ancestor chapters, The Convicts Daughter and The Irish Born Convict
Isabella Marshall’s own grandmother was The Convict’s Daughter, her grandfather himself a convict... She epitomised the no nonsense heritage of hard working pioneers, men and women  brought to the harsh new land of Australia against their will,  surviving against all odds to carve out a new life.  Charles Brown’s family arrived a little later from Scotland, he and his father speaking with the same identifiable brogue of their homeland.
Great-Grandfather William Brown was a 17 year old living in Blairgowrie, Scotland when he chose to migrate, working his passage and arriving in the new country with nothing but the clothes on his back.

The two young people almost certainly knew of each other in their childhood.  Bella’s uncle Samuel Marshall had after all witnessed  the marriage of Charles’ parents, William Brown to the Irish lass Ellen Vaughan many years before.  It seemed fate had destined the two young people would marry, thus sealing their family’s chance friendship, and in turn so many years later produce me, the inquisitive one who would ferret out their life story, put some of the pieces back together.


For a start I had always wondered why my father was named Guy.  His siblings hadn’t been named anything quite so exotic, nor unusual. (Though later I found my Aunt Nita was really a Juanita). It crossed my mind that maybe Grandmother Bella was a keen reader of Guy de Maupassant.  A later glance at marriage records showed the couple had married in the country town of Hillgrove.  A further perusal of local maps showed the Guy Fawkes River and village close by.  Had I perhaps touched on an intimate moment in their lives,  a favourite spot forever remembered in their son’s given name?

Then, a generation and a century later  on a rambling motoring trip with my Reluctant Traveller in and around the new South Wales plateau town of Dorrigo,  we  came across a signpost pointing to Hillgrove. 

By accident, and without knowing where we were initially heading, we had stumbled upon the town where my Grandparents in 1903 had started their married life.

Nobody had told us how breathtakingly beautiful this part of the country was, the Waterfall Way a decidedly descriptive name for the highway linking coastal Bellingen with the high country rising up from the Oxley Wild Rivers system.  Luckily for us this wasn’t the wet season otherwise we might not have been able to continue to Dorrigo and push further on.  Had that been the case Hillgrove would have remained just another unexplored name on a map. 

Luckily the gods were smiling and the weather fine.

These three photos taken by others travelling the Waterfall Way  in varying years shows what could  so easily have been.

With traffic on either side banked back, the road impassable.

That first chance visit was taken in the early throes of my ancestor hunting. My antenna wasn’t at all switched on.  I hadn’t reached the point I have now where I hunt for clues with the determination of a zealot.   That initial unplanned sight of a deserted Hillgrove left me unmoved; At that stage I really knew very little about the Brown side of my family.  Had I made the trip even two or three years later I know I would have experienced a closer rapport with the barren, empty paddocks and few token buildings that remained, the only present day evidence of a town that once was.  I would have seen through the emptiness and  hopefully sensed the ghosts of times past.

On a more practical front I would at least have taken a lot more photographs and persuaded my Reluctant Traveller to mark time for a few days while I played detective with the few inhabitants who still lived there.

As it was I do remember being astounded by the view we came across after driving through the bare building-less streets to the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park.  We gazed out across deep rocky gorges and dramatic  chasms, at rivers rushing and hurrying to the distant coast, a blue haze far in the distance.  It was breathtaking and must have invited the same response from my Grandparents way back in 1900.


The family has a dearth of photographs from those early days, an absence of solid evidence as to where exactly the newly wed Brown’s lived and in what circumstances.  
A rare photo of my Nana Brown, taken with my mother’s sister Viti.

We know Bella left home at an early age and worked for a while in country pubs, perhaps as a cook or a house maid.  And we know a 28 year old Charles enlisted in the 1st Australian Mounted Rifles in Hillgrove in 1899 and returned there from the Boer War when he was repatriated along with countless others who were wounded or had contracted typhoid in South Africa.  We have the proof he married his 23 year old Bella in Hillgrove in 1903 and that eventually they produced three daughters and four sons and named one of them Guy.

 What Grandfather Charles did to earn a living and where he worked in Hillgrove is unknown.  No doubt in time new clues will emerge, blank spaces will be filled in.  But for now I can at least recreate the town as it was in the years my grandparents lived there.  Eavesdrop on their neighbours and fellow townspeople. 

Try to understand why a bustling, thriving town reputedly at boom times numbering 4,000 inhabitants and more, that in the year 1900 had grown to such an extent it boasted six hotels, four churches, two schools, a hospital, banks, stock exchange, court house, police station, race track, numerous shops and two mines, had within three decades disappeared from the face of the earth. 

The sole reason for Hillgrove’s growth and in turn for its decline was without a doubt the mining industry.  In the early 1850’s gold was being mined around Baker’s Creek near Hillgrove.  

The young man posed in front of a mine entrance in the photograph is believed to be Stephen Moore who with his parents Samuel and Catherine had a long association with the district.

Later large mining companies would establish gold and tin mines in the district, their existence and future dependent on the fluctuating market price for both commodities.

Pictures show the mines workings in the gorge below Hillgrove and the tramway used to gain access from the town above.

While prices and demand were high the town prospered.  But when they fell the community fell apart.  It didn’t happen overnight; but over a period of years, townsfolk left to find work further afield.  As the town emptied deserted and empty buildings were transported to other centres, many of them ending up in  Armidale.

Hillgrove became a ghost town, bereft of people, stripped of buildings.

Population figures say that In its heyday the town boasted 4000 and more inhabitants. Looking at the facilities that existed then I consider this understated. 

For a  start there were numerous hotels in town where a bloke like Charlie Brown,  more often known as Scotty, could breast the bar and imbibe in a beer or two.  Which I’m sure he did, his youngest son my Dad, Guy,   like most Aussies,  was certainly fond of the pale ale.  Dad liked betting on the horses too, so I guess his father patronised the local race track as well.

Charlie had at least six local pubs  to choose from.  The Commercial Hotel was one imposing establishment, others were Tattersall’s, the Sydney Hotel and the Miner’s Arms.

In 1901 When Privates Brown and Gribble returned home from South Africa they were given a hero’s welcome complete with  a marching band, a crowd of cheering townsfolk and the promise of a gala social gathering the next week.

His sweetheart Bella Marshall was there in the crowd of well wishers. Grandfather would have been 29 at the time and Bella just 21.
With four churches most denominations were catered for.  I’ve no doubt though that Charlie and Bella were married in the Catholic Church.   Many years later when my non Catholic mother Rewa married Guy Brown at St Michael’s Church in Stanmore, a Sydney suburb,  the Catholic ceremony couldn’t be performed at the altar,  instead taking place in the priest’s vestry. A similar arrangement made for his brother Leo’s wedding to Dyra two years previously.

***Postscript from cousin Noeline Brown:  Bella and Charles were married in 1903 in St Michael's Catholic Church in Hillgrove.  Bella listed her occupation as 'servant' while Charles stated he was a 'letter carrier'... in other words a postie, and no doubt he performed his duties on horseback.
In Grandmother Bella's case I feel sure she was employed as a household servant in one of Hillgrove's many hotels.

A few years before, in 1889,  the Eleanora gold mine was in full swing, the town boasted hydro electricity courtesy of the nearby Gara River Hydro Electric Scheme and already a Catholic School had been opened by the Sisters of St Joseph following a request from the region’s Bishop Torreggiani.

The school was located in a one-storey building behind the Catholic Church, close to the convent itself.  When their founder and superior, Sister Mary MacKillop visited the school in 1896 she gave a glowing report...
This is a very comfortable convent of seven good rooms and kitchen, everything breathes of order and cleanliness.  The back verandah is a splendid one and must be a lovely and much used room in summer... the attending Priest takes his tea on Saturday and his meals on Sunday at the convent... but never overstays the time.  The Sisters are the most united and happy community I have seen... and I think the dean by his cheerful fatherly kindness has made this a particularly natural and happy community.’

It was left to a former parishioner Emily O’Connor to remember the Sisters work with the comment... ‘the Sisters were loved by the people as they visited them after school, especially when there was a sorrow or distress after a mine caved in.’

(In years to come as the population of Hillgrove begins to drift away the Catholic School building will be moved to nearby Dangarsleigh and used as a community hall and venue for local dances by the Country Women’s Association.)


The local state school, one of the few existing public buildings in the town and used now as  a museum, catered for a staggering number of 350 children.  The Headmaster Mr H. Tonkin played a prominent part in the community’s affairs.


 Music played a big part in Hillgrove’s social life. Photo below shows MacMahon’s brass band winning a regional competition in the larger town of Tamworth, well known these days for its annual country and western festival.

I can  imagine Bella and Charles enjoying the country dances, strutting to the sounds of Sousa marches,  laughing their way through the Pride of Erin and lively Canadian Two Steps.

In 1888, the mines were flourishing, good prices were being realised for both gold and tin, and it was felt the town was badly in need of a School of Arts. 

The Government of the day was lobbied for a grant, and a well patronised meeting was held at the Miner’s Arms Hotel to elect a committee and collect donations needed to match the grant.  Mr George Westcott, Mr Clapin, and Mr Henry Tonkin the school headmaster were elected to office as President, Treasurer and Secretary.

The committee was quick off the mark, within a month a building had been purchased and converted into a Mechanics Institute complete with a fine selection of books.  Within a few years enough money had been raised to enlarge the building to include a reading room, gallery and a debating hall.
The School of Arts was so popular additional buildings were erected to hold the chemistry and first aid classes conducted by the town’s general practitioner, Dr Cooper Hardcastle.

Living as I do in a mining town, I‘m well aware and appreciate the wonderfully eccentric characters these communities attract...and knowing my Grandmother’s keen sense of humour, I’m sure she would have been highly amused by this 1900’s newspaper story about a fellow Hillgrove resident.    I guess the town had its share of characters, but none so unusual as this one legged gentleman who managed to ride his heavily laden bike from Hillgrove to Newcastle, a distance of 400 kilometres.

Handicapped as he was its hard to imagine how he even managed  the journey lugging a tent and 75 lb of luggage, including his bulky camera much less the added addition of a cat and a dog, perched, rather precariously I should imagine, on the bundles across the handle bars. 
Despite the district’s steep inclines cycling soon became a popular sport with another young man from Hillgrove becoming a champion road racer.  I will write about young William Davison's remarkable life in a later story.

Despite unearthing stories about the local races, visits to the mines by vice regal parties and even by the visiting English Cricket Team, I was no closer to finding out just what sort of work my Grandfather did in Hillgrove. 

It would be easy to assume he was one of the many mine workers, but just as easy to suggest he worked in any one of the many businesses dotting the town’s centre.  There were so many to consider,  the banks manned by tellers and clerks, sales staff for the newsagency, Post Office, general stores, maintenance people.  Even the hotels would employ a variety of workers.

But Hillgrove also boasted a cordial factory,  and William Brown, Charles’ father had a long and close association with cordial manufacturing and sales further south in the larger town of Liverpool. 

By 1904 Bella was pregnant with their first child, a son they named John but I would remember as Jack.  Within three years their second child a daughter, Doris was born in the central New South Wales town of Moree, 300 kilometres inland from Hillgrove.  Charles and Bella had moved away from Hillgrove.

Why? It could only have been through the lack of work.  Commodity prices dropping, mines closing.  The population drifting away.  The search for work in other towns.   Somewhere in Moree Charles found a job, and there the young couple set up home.
The Brown family remained in Moree for the next three years with the birth of another son Leo.  Then the Brown’s moved to the Sydney suburb of Ryde, where Geoffry, Juanita , Guy and Ursula would be born. 
I have no photographs of my paternal Grandfather, and only a few of my Grandmother Bella.    She was an imposing woman with a forthright manner. I always felt at ease with her and only wished I could have known her better.

But at least I had seen where she and her soldier beau had once lived.  I had been incredibly moved by the countryside, the rolling plains of the high country, the drama of the deep gorges, tumbling waterfalls  and rushing rivers.  Their love affair and the start of their life together couldn’t have had a better setting.
Robyn Mortimer © 2012

To follow the story of my convict ancestors click on these links....

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