On the afternoon of Sunday 18 December, 2011 members of the small local rural community and a few Cornish from much further a-field will again gather at the Byng Uniting Church for a simple Christmas Carol service and afternoon tea.
25 years after the First Fleet landed convicts, sailors, marines, at Sydney Cove in the newly declared Colony of New South Wales, the settlement of the Colony of New South Wales was locked into regular bouts of famine and then relative but limited prosperity on the coastal plain.
A way was found in 1813 over the Blue Mountains barrier, leading quickly in 1817 to the establishment of the town of Bathurst on the Macquarie River.
For years settlement was banned to the west of the Macquarie River but when the land further west was released for selection in 1829 a small group of Cornish farmers were among the first to settle at a place in a relatively well watered valley called soon after simply Cornish Settlement (and now called Byng).
The economic conditions in Cornwall in the 1820s produced “Agricultural Distress” as reported in the West Briton of March 1822 (ref 1). 482 signatories to a petition to the High Sheriff of the county of Cornwall from owners and occupiers of land wrote, “We … , labouring under unexampled distress from the unprecedented low price of all agricultural produce, and oppressed by an excessive weight of taxation, which added to the payment of rent, rates, tithes, and an enormously increased poor-rate, has become intolerable, request you to call a meeting … to consider the present distress of all classes, and of the agricultural classes in particular, and of the best and speediest means of obtaining relief … .”
In these conditions, it is little wonder that William Tom Senior, his wife Ann, daughter Mary (4 years), John (3) and James (2) left Cornwall in 1823 for Sydney Town. They sailed on the Belinda but, coming into Tasmania waters, they met a fearful storm near the mouth of the Derwent River. It is said that the Captain knew that William Tom was a deeply religious man and told him of the plight of the vessel, drifting with two lifeboats gone, both masts, rudder and the cook’s deck-house smashed; Tom went below to pray.
It is written that the doomed vessel was saved when the wind changed direction soon after and sent it into the mouth of the Derwent. Not daunted once safely in port, William and his family moved onto the Jubilee and headed for Sydney Town. During the five day trip, Ann bore another son, William Tom Junior.”]
Hardy people that they were, they walked across the Blue Mountains to the west, looking for land for which to lodge a Grant application. They chose a site on the southern bank of the Fish River, 680 acres not far south of the half way mark between Lithgow and Bathurst. It was not far from the village of Tarana. William had a hard time for some six years on his low-lying land which was unsuitable for sheep, large numbers of which succumbed to foot-rot.
By 1829, the ban prohibiting settlers selecting land west of the River Macquarie (the Western District) was lifted. Tom and his family were early in taking advantage of the decision. In 1830, they chose 640 acres at the place where Lewis Ponds Creek is joined by Sheep Station Creek; they called their property Springfield. Less than two years later, they had constructed a lath and plaster house with five rooms, built well up a hill overlooking Sheep Station Creek.
He very soon had the company of other Cornishmen – George Hawke, John Glasson and his brother and others with recognisable surnames such as Lane, Grenfell, Pearse, Thomas, Oates and Paull. Two in particular will come into our story for the moment, George Hawke and John Glasson – but the others may well receive mention as we dig deeper like true Cornishmen! It is no surprise to find that this area became known as the Cornish Settlement.
”]Among the settlers was George Hawke. Here we have a very determined man indeed. In his own words in a letter at age 70 years to a nephew back in Cornwall, he wrote in amongst the many pages of the story of his life, “I never succeeded in any important undertaking in my first attempt, so that if I had never made a second assay, I should never have succeeded in anything of importance”. This letter is reproduced in full in Yvonne McBurney’s little book, The Road to Byng. George Hawke was born in St Eval Parish on 2 October 1802 at his father’s farm Bedruthan. After a period as a wool stapler with his brother, supported by funds from his father, they had losses in the economic recession which caused them to close the business.
George decided to emigrate to Australia and his brother returned to farming in Cornwall. A passage was procured on a ship due to leave Plymouth early in 1828. His first set of disappointments and losses resulted from a gale which forced the ship ashore off its Plymouth anchorage, breaking its back. The passengers’ luggage was already on board and recovering it from the ship’s agent required some determination and argument. He eventually left Plymouth behind on 16 June 1828 and arrived in Sydney on 15 November 1828 after a long and tedious passage in a ship which was too small for the number of passengers it carried.
Before leaving Cornwall, George had become acquainted with William Tom’s friends in Blisland. He had letters of introduction to both Mr Tom and his brother-in-law William Lane from these Blisland friends. It is not possible to go into all the difficulties which George experienced after arriving in Sydney. Suffice to tell that he obtained a job as an agricultural and stock superintendent at the Cowpastures (now Camden) property of Rev. Thomas Hassell. Eventually this task led him to another Hassell property called Lanbedar at O’Connell Plains about 12 miles east of Bathurst where sheep were kept. George was not there long before Hassell appointed an Overseer. When he left, George’s journey took him to the residence of William Tom where he slept a night and then went to stay with William Lane who lived nearby. After some discussion, it was agreed that George would be a domestic teacher to the two families and he held this position for a year. George entered into a two-year agreement to teach the Tom children only.
After something more than a year, George bought his farm Pendarves from John Glasson though he found the teaching and the farm work were too much for him and he had to give up the teaching post. He had found a friend in John Glasson and, both being single, he went to live with him at Bookannon. Their cattle ran together and they carried on dairying together to make butter and cheese for sale. George grew some wheat for sale on his own farm. It was about this time that he thought he had the prospect of supporting a wife and cast his mind back to his cousin Jane, the daughter of his Uncle Robert Hawke. Although Robert Hawke was arranging to emigrate to Australia, his son became ill and died; then he died soon after leaving two sisters without family. George was unaware of this turn of events for some time but went into action when the news did reach him. John Glasson advised him to go to Cornwall after writing to her of his intentions. She agreed, though with an imposed limit of two years.
With the usual Hawke propensity for difficult situations, the ship went first to New Zealand but it sustained considerable damage while there went on the rocks. It took five months to find another passage from New Zealand to England. During the trip across the southern Indian Ocean at 53 degrees south latitude, a violent gale and heavy seas hit them and it was feared that the ship would not survive. In a very battered condition they finally struggled into Plymouth on 8 October 1834, eleven months after his first ship had foundered in New Zealand.
It is no wonder that George cleared Customs quickly and hurried to Bedruthan at St Columb, to find that Jane was at his father’s house. They were married there on 3 March 1835. They departed for Sydney on the Florentine on 4 April 1835, having a very pleasant trip and arriving on 4 August. George observed that there were bush fires burning and he knew this meant drought was on the land and this condition lasted until May 1839. For us with our deeply seared knowledge of Australia, we know the meaning of five years or more of drought. What a contrast for Jane from the green fields of Cornwall! So bad was it by then, that the Government appointed a day of fasting and prayer – but this had been pre-empted by families at Cornish Settlement setting their day for the same purpose a week before that of the Government. George wrote in the letter to his nephew, “… we carried it out, and it may be thought a strange circumstance that on that very day, a most delightful rain fell on us, but it did not extend beyond seven miles in any direction.” General rain fell after the public fast, signalling the break-up of the drought. He added, “Who will presume to say that God does not hear and answer the prayers of his people when they humble themselves, and ask favours of Him.” Thus was it seen that these Cornish folk were not only good and reliable husbandmen but strong in their Wesleyan faith.
Before going to Cornwall, George Hawke was convinced that horticulture was going to have a future in the Western District from his observation of the country, its soil and the location of their Cornish Settlement. To this end, he purchased over two thousand trees and plants which were suitably packaged for their trip to Australia. The long sea journey followed by delay at the wharf and six weeks going by dray to Pendarves reduced the cuttings to almost dried up sticks. The few that seemed to still have sap in them all died too. He had also brought a cask full of haws so that he could introduce the Hawthorn fence extensively. Like the trees, they all died, too. He imported some from Tasmania and they did grow – as miles of ‘fencing’ – and still do. He says he sold many thousands of plants at 10 pounds per 1000 – and that is believable when one sees them abundant in the local area.
Three years elapsed before he was able to buy twenty apple trees having one year’s growth, plus a lot of apple, cherry and plum suckers. In a few years, he saw his first two apples, then twenty six the next, and so on until, as he wrote, “the return from my fruit garden was very considerable. The most I ever made was sold for 620 pounds 10 shillings.” By that time, there were several large and productive fruit gardens in the district and almost every settler had some fruit trees, many selling fruit.
By 1872 when he was writing his letter, much more was coming from Tasmania by steamship to Sydney and by railroads into the country. Nevertheless, he was still able to say that he had the best selection of fruits of anyone in the Western District, having imported some from England, some from Tasmania and good plants from other parts of the Colony. That sort of foresight now sees the Blue Mountains and western slopes with beautiful apple and cherry orchards and with peaches, apricots and other fruit. A wonderful legacy to us in our present day!
The story is far from complete yet. There was copper in the hills around these Cornish folk. And there was gold. Yes, they were involved in that find also. But underlying all their community activities was their firm religious faith, based on strict Wesleyan Methodist principles, encouraged by the work of ‘Pastor’ William Tom as their local lay-preacher. His first services were held on a rock outcrop at the top of a ridge overlooking Woolwash Creek, known as Bethel Rock.
Note that these Cornish people unlike many we hear about were not rich but not poor either, coming from the lesser property owning ‘class’ and families such as the Lanes, Toms, Hawkes, and Glassons came with some amount of capital, even if very small by today’s standards.
”]So it was he who then held services of worship in his house once it was completed, until a small Wesleyan Chapel was constructed and opened in 1842, the first west of Bathurst (the site can still be seen). The present day fine Chapel was erected in 1872 and dedicated in 1873. There is more to tell of this place, down to the present day when the Cornish Association of New South Wales undertook to assist in its repair and upkeep from time to time.
George Hawke and his descendants are buried in Byng Cemetery, and indeed descendents still live in the beautifully restored Pendarves, and at Bookanon. Many other descendents of the valley’s early settlers are scattered around NSW, including members of the Cornish Association of NSW.
The roads are still lined with Hawthorn bushes. There is little left of the mining era, or of the lesser dwellings, but the Cornish still live there and farm and the Cornish still visit to marry in the chapel, to be buried in the cemetery, or mainly to see the heritage.
Pat Lay in her book, ‘One and All, The Cornish in NSW’ (writing in 1998) makes the point that (quote) “Cornish immigrants to New South Wales last century established and maintained recognisable and cohesive groups”. “There were several factors causing them to do this: their sense of Cornish identity (and their feelings of being different from English and Irish settlers), chain migration and intermarriage within the Cornish community in NSW, the shared job skills of farming, mining, and trades (and in some cases because of specific recruitment), bonding on the long voyage by sailing ship, and their involvement in certain community activities such as religion, trade unions, lodges and friendly societies, and in politics”.
The Cornish Settlement in the valley at Byng is possibly unique in Australia among Cornish clusters in that it was settled so early, the 1820’s, and retains its Cornish ‘memory’ to this day, some 180+ years later. This is probably because it started as an isolated farming community, with its clannishness enhanced by the Methodism and the church as the valley’s focus, and then by chain migration. It later serviced goldfields to the north and it became a copper mining centre for 80 years but reverted to pastoral lands after the 1930’s.
Many Cornish descended families had Cornish settlement related people marry into their line and so the memory of those times persisted. In 1960 there was a Back to Byng gathering with magazine spreads, but then the modern world almost forgot Byng.
In 1975 members of the newly formed Cornish Association of Sydney (now Cornish Association if NSW) were contacted by the Byng community and started a long association that led to the 1986-87 restoration of the Chapel through a Commonwealth Government 1788-1988 Australian Bi-Centennial Grant and lots of local hard work. Since then the Church has been in use for monthly services and an increasing number of weddings, given its restoration and surroundings.
By the time of Federation the Cornish Settlement had been renamed Byng, and its excess population had moved outward to Molong, Eugowra, Cudal, Millthorpe, Carcoar, and of course the major centres of Orange and Bathurst. A trip from Orange around Mt Canobolas for example today reveals Cornish names of properties and Cornish names of owners in high proportion.
The copper mining mini-boom of the 1840’s drew many more people, including those directly from Cornwall into the area; to Byng and to the west and south of Byng. Discovery of payable quantities of Gold at Ophir by one of the Tom’s boy’s, William from Byng, and an Irishman Lister drew tens of thousands from many lands to the area but passed Cornish Settlement largely by.
Those are other stories …..
Thanks to writers and researchers the late Pat (Lay) McCooey, Dr John Symonds, and the late John Rule. I am merely the compiler of this piece.
Based on a talk given by Chris Dunkerley (Kevenor) at 2nd Cornish Cultural Celebration, Nowra, NSW on Saturday 8 November, 2008
For more on the Cornish Association of NSW:
Loaded for www.Cornwall24.net e-magazine by Kevrenor on 17 December, 2011