Remembering the Past Australia

Early History of the Murrumbidgee - Wagga Wagga

Written by James J. Baylis
of ”Goonigul,” Wagga
for the “Wagga Wagga Express”
4th and 11th 1914

The Bridge over the Murrumbidgee at Wagga Wagga

The Bridge over the Murrumbidgee at Wagga Wagga. Illustrated Sydney News, 16 September 1864.



Wagga Wagga, or Wahga Wahga, as it should have been spelt, means “crows.” The aboriginals, or blacks, generally doubled their words for the plural, such as Grong Grong, Nap Nap, Cowl Cowl, and many others. Wahga is really the cry of the crow, and many of the names of the birds in the aboriginal language are taken from their cries. For instance, “Cooradook,” the name of the native companion, is really the cry of the bird. I have heard it stated that “gunyah gunyah bogie,” or as I have seen it printed, “gunna gunna bogie,” was tbe original name for Wagga. The first means gunyah, or a camp at a bathing place or big waterhole, or, as the blacks called it, bogie. I have taken a great interest in the aboriginal language for many years, and have collected thousands of names, with their meanings, and find that gunna or goona means a snake; gunna gunna, snakes; and bogie, a water hole, perhaps a lagoon; therefore, gunna gunna bogie means snakes in a waterhole. While on the aboriginal names, I may mention that away in the west, near Hay, the word wargam means a crow, and one comes across the word gumble bogie. Gumble means a wild turkey or bustard, and gumble bogie, a turkey in a water hole. Gobbagumbalin means a turkey egg; gobba, an egg, and gumbalin a turkey. Wollundry means a place of stones or rocks. Wollun, or wallan, rock or stone; and dry or dri, a place, evidently the granite hill on which the Church of England stands close to the effluence of the Wollundry lagoon with the Murrumbldgee river. Murrum means a flood or great expanse of water, and bidgee, plenty. ‘Big one water,’ as the blacks used to express it.

The Murrumbidgee River, which runs through the town of Wagga Wagga (now commonly shortened to Wagga was first discovered by Captain Currie and Major Ovens, on June 1st, 1823, and in the years 1829-30, Captain Charles Sturt, with young George Macleay (afterwards Sir George) and six men, explored the river down to Lake Alexandrina, passing over what is now the site of North Wagga. They found the blacks very hostile in places. Sir George Macleay was afterwards the first member of Parliament for the Murrumbidgee.

In 1832 the first settlement in the Wagga district took place, when the Tompson family took up Oura and Eunonyhareenyha, and R. H. Best the Wagga Station, while the Jenkins family took up Tooyal and Buckingbong. “Oura” means a cockatoo. The second place was originally known as Eunanoreena, and I have always understood that it was Mr. F. A. Tompson who was responsible for the present spelling. Tooyal was first known as “Toyeo,” which means the jag of a spear, and Buckingbong as ‘Boganbong’ — “bogan,” rushes; and “bong,”dry (dry rushes, there are plenty of them in the big swamp near Buckingbong homestead).

Other settlements gradually followed, and in the thirties and forties the following places were taken up: — Tarcutta, by T. H. Mate; Kyeamba, by J. Smith; Gumly Gumly, by Mrs. Burke; Ganmain, by James Devlin; Pomingalarna, by E. New; Collingully, by W. Beaver (hence the name of Beaver’s Island); Cunningdroo, by R. Guise; Borambola, by Alexander Macleay; Berry Jerry, by John Bray; Waginberemby, by J. Rudd; Hanging Rock, by P. Supple; Tootool, by W. Mitcham; Mittagong, by W. Vincent; Mundawaddera, by C. Edghill and D. O’Neill; Junee, by L De Salis. Sandy Creek became the back station of Wagga, and it is said to have been once sold for a pound of tobacco and two gallons of rum. Marshall’s Creek, which runs into the river near the waterworks, was named after Anthony Marshall, who was an overseer of Best’s, and lived in a hut near the creek. Marshall’s Point was also named after him. Gobbagumbalin was taken up by G. Thorne. Best built his house on the bank of the river about one mile west of Wagga, but the floods hunted him out, and he had to build a new homestead on the higher ground at Flowerdale, in the year 1852.

Nearly all the old pioneers are gone, and it is hard to find anyone who can remember the early days of the forties and fifties; but still there are a few, amongst them the Hon. Jas. Gormly, M.L.C., who resides in Wagga, and has a wonderful memory, also a great collection of useful information of those times. He tells how he rode over the flats where Wagga now stands, in the years 1845 and 1846. There was no sign of Wagga then. A. Davidson, of Bullenbong, is another. His father took up Bullenbong in the year 1844, and the family still own the property, and reside on it. When they first went there they had to ride to Tarcutta (a distance of 60 miles) to get their mails. Frank Jenkins, of Buckingbong, has often told me of how wild and hostile the blacks were in those early days, and he and other settlers had many encounters with them. On one occasion, when they had been very troublesome spearing cattle, the settlers on both sides of the river chased them on to an island in the river just below Bucking bong homestead, where several were shot. The Island is known as the “Murdering Island” to this day. He also told me how they came across his cart wheel tracks, and followed them for miles, but seeing them get no closer to one another, and not being able to solve the mystery bolted in a great fright— debbil debbil.

The first building of the town of Wagga Wagga was started in the year 1847. My father, in the year 1849-1850, travelled, from Wallerawang to Adelaide with a mob of over 300 horses, and passing through Wagga found that his old friend, J. J. Roberts (always known as ‘Ginger’ Roberts) was keeping the hotel. They had been law clerks together in Sydney some years before. Of that journey he has often told me of many incidents. After leaving Narandera (Flood’s Station, as it was then known), a lot of the horses were stolen, and, sending on the mob a day’s journey, with instructions to the men to camp until he overtook them, he hunted round and found the horses planted in a deep bend of the river, near Hulong, just opposite to where the Tubbo homestead now stands. The last white man he saw on the river until he reached the settlement at Adelaide was at Lang’s Crossing, now known as Hay. Until he reached the settlement at Adelaide he met with nothing but blacks, and they were very plentiful along the river, but were not in any ways hostile. When crossing the Darling River, which happened to be in flood, some of the horses commenced ringing in the middle of the stream, and nine of them were drowned. One night the camp was awakened by a cry in the river. The blacks, camped close by, were very frightened, and said it was the bunyip. Many years afterwards, when visiting Cooper and Bailey’s circus, he heard tho same cry, and came to the conclusion that the bunyip was a seal. Cooper and Bailey had seals in their menagerie.

In the year 1858 my father was appointed the first Police Magistrate of Wagga, a position he held for nearly 40 years. He commenced his duties in January, and the following June my mother and I travelled across country from Hartley, in the Bathurst district, in a spring cart. There were no buggies or sulkies in those days. Wagga was only a very small place then; there was no Newtown, where it now is was all wild bush. There were no made roads; the track going down the river went across the racecourse, which was an open plain (“Goonigul” means a plain), then through Warby’s Island and past Best’s old station, hugging the river all the way, except where it cut off deep bends. The old track can still be seen across the racecourse. The road up the river went by way of Tarcutta-street. There were no bridges, but there was a punt, kept by W. Brown (known as “Tinker” Brown), who also owned a circus, and afterwards owned the Hanging Rock Station. This punt crossed the river about half a mile below the present bridge, and the old gangway is still to be seen. Associated with “Tinker” Brown were Harry Moxham and Johnny Hely, the former as clown and the latter as ringmaster. Both afterwards became prominent citizens.

When we arrived in Wagga there were only two stores, kept by G. Forsyth and F. A. Tompson, both of whom had much to do with the development of the town and district. The former was the first Mayor of Wagga, and the latter the first Town Clerk. John Gordon was at Borambola, John Peter at Gumly Gumly, J. G. Church at Pomingalarna (Church’s Plain and Church’s Gap were called after him), D. Thorn was at Gobbagumbalin, John Leitch at Berry Jerry, and T. W. Hammond at Junee. There was no resident doctor or clergyman. Dr. A. B. Morgan and the Rev. R. Young came afterwards.

The first portion of the town to be surveyed was that north of the Wollundry Lagoon. Mr. Surveyor Townsend, acting under instructions from Sir Thomas Mitchell, the then Surveyor-General, carried out the work. I believe Mr. Townsend first camped on the river bank near the Tarcutta road, about three or four miles out, where the highland comes right to the river, intending to lay out the township there; but that was on the Gumly Gumly run, then owned by John Peter, known as “Big” Peter, who had married Mrs. Burke, and who pursuaded Mr. Townsend to lay out the town in its present position, on his neighbour’s (R. H. Best) run. Sir Thomas was an old army officer, and it is most probable that he was responsible for the naming of the streets, as they are mostly called after Peninsular and Waterloo veterans, such as Fitzmaurice, Gurwood, Kincaid, Johnston, Simmons, Beckwith, Travers, Frere, etc. Newtown was afterwards surveyed, in the year 1858, by P. F. Adams, who later on became Surveyor-General of New South Wales, assisted by C. F. Bolton, who was afterwards first District Surveyor for the Wagga Wagga district, which then extended to the South Australian border. Mr. Bolton stills resides in Wagga. Mr. Adams called the names of the streets after the then prominent residents. “Big” Peter was the first Justice of the Peace for the district, and when the lock-up was erected on the bank of the river hear Fitzmaurice-street, he had stocks made, but I believe they were only used on one occasion. The first lock-up keeper was Michael Norton.

The river used to get very low in those early days, and I have heard Frank Jenkins giving evidence before the Local Land Board, when he stated that there was a period of 12 years during which the river was not high enough to run into the Yanco and Colombo creeks and that during that period trees grew up in the dry beds of the creeks and lagoons showing that there must have been a long dry period for them to have grown to such a size, and that they were killed when the creeks and lagoons were again filled with water. I have seen people crossing the river dryshod, stepping from stone to stone, at the eastern end of Kincaid-street. The sandhills of Wagga were the burial grounds of the blacks, who were very numerous. I can remember on one occasion seeing 300 blacks collected on the flat below the bridge, where they had a great corroboroe. Where the Commercial and Criterion Hotels now stand was a shallow waterhole, known as Todhunter’s lagoon. The water was drained into the river, the hollow filled up, and the hotels built on the site. Another old resident I have lately come across is Basil B. Bennett. His stepfather was Anthony Marshall, already mentioned. He tells me he came to Wagga in the year 1840, and lived for some years at Best’s homestead on the river. The first wheat grown in the Wagga district was in the year 1846, when Anthony Marshall sowed a small area on the clear sandhill about a quarter of a mile from where Pomingalarna homestead now stands. It was ploughed by the old wooden single furrow plough, drawn by four bullocks.

In the year 1858 the first newspaper , was started in Wagga, the “Wagga Wagga Express,” and it is still going strong. It is very much to be regretted that some of the early files were destroyed by fire, as they contained much valuable information. The first proprietor was James T. Brown, who only owned it for a few months, and then sold out to Fowler Boyd Price.

The Bridge over the Murrumbidgee 2

The Bridge over the Murrumbidgee. Australian Town and Country Journal, 6 July 1872.



In my article on the “Early History of the Murrimbidgee,” published in the “Wagga Wagga Express,” of 4th July, I dealt only with incidents prior to the year 1860. I will now endeavor to give a few doings of the town and district, during the sixties, when I was a small boy attending the Public School, or, as it was then called, the National School. It consisted of one room built in the year 1860, near the eastern end of Gurwood street and the same is now used as the reading room of the Riverine Club. A small classroom was afterwards built, and then a room for girls only. At first boys and girls were taught together. W. Robinson was the first schoolmaster, and he opened the school in 1861. Prior to this school there was only a private one, of which E. H. Tompson was the master. It was down on the flat below the bridge, and some of the bricks of the floor can still be seen there. This school was established in the year 1849. Mr. Tompson afterwards became Clerk of Petty Sessions and Crown Lands Agent in Wagga. There were no waterbags or tanks in these days, or if there were any we never saw them at the school, as we had to go the river for the drinking water.

The bridge over the lagoon was built in the year 1860, thereby connecting Fitzmaurice and Baylis streets. The streets were gradually improved and I have often seen the prisoners who bad been sentenced to hard labour grubbing out the trees and stumps, with the police on guard. In the year 1861 the Wagga Wagga Bridge Company was formed. The Government gave them a liberal charter, and the Company’s bridge was erected on a site alongside of where the present Hampden bridge now

stands. It was opened for traffic in October, 1862. Prior to that the only way to cross the river was by fording it or by punts. There were two sites used for the latter, one being at the end of Gurwood-street and one about a mile further down the river. This last one I can remember quite well. It was in this year also that the Robertson Land Act came into force, whereby free selection became the law of the land. In the years following the district received a great influx of free selectors, and consequently there was great friction between them and the runholders.

The pound was greatly patronised, and when it was on the sandhill in Dobbs-street, near the lagoon, where the drill hall is now erected, I saw hundreds of horses and cattle impounded there. In looking over old files of the newspapers, one cannot help being struck with the numerous advertisements of “rewards” offered for horses or cattle “stolen or strayed,” and also the very long lists of impoundings. It is interesting to note that after the Free Selection Act came into force, on the first and second days appointed for receiving applications there wasn’t one made at the Wagga Land Office, and only one

at Albury and one at Tumut. Horses were very cheap then, and I know of young stock selling at one shilling each. I myself bought two colts out of the pound for eighteen pence each, and one of them turned out a very valuable horse.

During those years, Wagga made great progress as a town. Numerous places of business were erected, mainly in Fitzmaurice-street, such as the present building belonging to the Australian Bank of Commerce and the Commercial and Criterion Hotels. This bank was first known as the Australian Joint Stock Bank, and a branch of it was opened on the 3rd January, 1859 by J. F. Skinner as manager, and the premises used were close to Forsyth’s store near the corner of Fitzmaurice and Kincaid streets. The Post Office was alongside, and the postmaster was P. S. Murray. The next bank to open a branch In Wegga was the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney, under the management of W. H. Mackenzie. The premises used are now a part of the Club House Hotel. This branch was closed after a few months, and then came the Bank of New South Wales, in 1865, which opened in a cottage at the corner opposite to Forsyth’s store, where the present Home Hotel now stands. A. J. Hooke was the first manager. Prior to 1859, and for some years afterwards, F. A. Tompson, one of the leading storekeepers, acted as agent for the Commercial Bank.

Some of the stations in the immediate vicinity changed hands; some of them several times, amongst them being Pomingalarna, Gobbagumbalin, Gumly Gumly, and Eunonyhareenyha. A flour mill was erected by Mr. Robert Nixon, who owned all the land bounded by Fitzmaurice, Johnston, Tarcutta, and Short streets and the lagoon. The mill was erected on the land, and also his residence.

On looking up the official returns for the year 1862, in the Wagga Wagga Police District, I find that there were altogether 1261 acres under cultivation, of which 810 were growing wheat, which yielded 11,877 bushels of grain and 75 tons of hay; 234 acres were growing oats, which yielded 1634 bushels of grain and 355 tons of hay. Besides these, there were 43 ½ acres growing maize, and 23 ½ growing barley.

Bushranging was rife all through the country, and the residents were kept in a state of terror. The papers of the day gave columns of information and the “Wagga Wagga Express” ran a column headed, “Bushranging for the Week.” The Gardiner gang, Gilbert, Hall, O’Meally, Lowry, Dunn, Peisley, and many others ranged over a very large extent of country to the north and east of Wagga, while Dan Morgan held up the country south and west from Narandera to Albury. He was undoubtedly the most bloodthirsty of all the bushrangers. In August, 1863, my father, who was Police Magistrate at Wagga, and had to make monthly visits to Urana and Narandera to hold courts there, was riding along the road between Brookong and Bullenbong, when he was stuck up by two armed men, Morgan and his mate, Flash Clark. After he got away he went on to Uraua, and telegraphed for the Wagga police to meet him on the road near about where he was stuck up, which they did, and after two days hunting they came upon Mogan’s camp in the scrub, somewhere near a place now known as “The Gum Holes,” in the Lockhart district.

In an encounter which they had during the night, my father was dangerously wounded, and so was “Flash”Clark. It was a very dark night, and the bushrangers got away. They went straight to a shepherd’s hut, and shot the shepherd, Haley, accusing him of having given information to the police. They, however, didn’t kill him. Haley said that “Flash” Clark was wounded, and wanted to go back and give himself up to the police, but Morgan wouldn’t let him. They were seen two days after by a stockman on Mahonga Station, when Clark was in a bad way. He was never seen alive afterwards, and Morgan, when he burned down the Mittagong woolshed and store, said that he had been shot by that ——— Police Magistrate, and that he had died in the scrub. Some three years afterwards the remains of a man answering the description of Clark were found in the scrub on Mahonga.

Morgan stuck up A. Burt, the manager of Tubbo Station, and stole his horse and gold watch; twice bailed up Yarrabee Station, and on one occasion had the brands in the fire, intending to brand the manager and overseer, which, however, he did not do. He on many occasions bailed up and robbed the mail, and also many stations, amongst them being Walla Walla, Piney Range and Wallandool. He shot John Heriot in the leg at Round Hill Station, and then shot J. McLean dead. He shot dead Sergeants McGinnity and Smith, also a chinaman, and committed many other depredations and crimes. It was not until the year 1865 that he was shot at Peechelba station, near Wangaratta in Victoria, by a man named Quinlan.

In the early sixties several members of the legal profession took up their residence in Wagga, prior to which solicitors used to attend the courts, coming from Gundagii and Tumut. There were also several resident doctors. The old Roman Catholic Chapel and the Church of England were erected in 1859 but the other churches were built afterwards.

In the year 1864, Wagga sported a Champion Race of 1000 sovs., which was won by P. J. Keighran’s Mormon. Time, 6 min. 38 sec., which was the slowest time on record for a Champion Race, and in the year 1868 the celebrated Ten Mile Race took place. It was won by H. J. Bowler’s Australian, ridden by W. Yeomans; R. Grosvenors’ Comet was second, and W. J. Bowen’s Riverina third, both of them being ridden by their respective owners. There were 12 starters, and the time was 23 min. 35 sec. That was the first and last Ten Mile Race.

In the year 1865 the Murrumbidgee Pastoral and Agricultural Association was formed, and held its first show on the racecourse in November that year. The first President was W. O. Windeyer, of Wantabadgery, and the Vice-presidents were John Leitch, of Berry Jerry, and T. W. Hammond, of Junee. These, with 17 others, formed a committee of 20, out of which there are only two at present living, viz., W. Rand and R. B. Wilkinson. Owing to some of the old files of the ‘Express’ having been destroyed, I have not been able to get the results of the first show, but I have seen those of the second show, held in 1866, when there were 80 entries all told, which included 11 thoroughbred horses, 4 draughts, 21 cattle, 24 sheep 18 were Tarns for sale, all belonging to the one owner; and 20 miscellaneous exhibits, which comprised fat cattle, fat sheep, four hacks, one pair of buggy horses, and one single harness horse. In 1868 there were only 69 entries. In after years the name was changed to the Murrumbidgee Pastoral and Agricultural Association, and this year, when the Jubilee Show will be held, it is expected that the exhibits will exceed 4000. and it is hoped that the members’ roll will exceed 1000.

Wagga received world-wide notoriety in 1868, when the butcher, Tom Castro claimed to be Sir Roger Tichborne the heir to the Tichborne Estates in England. He with his wife and child, went to England to enforce his claim. This was one of the most extraordinary cases on record, and it was not until the year 1874 that he was proved to be Arthur Orton, and was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment for perjury. He confessed his guilt before he died.

The Tichborne Claimant in Wagga Wagga

The Tichborne Claimant in Wagga Wagga. Illustrated Sydney News, 17 March 1883.
Inset left: The Tichbourne Claimant – Insert Right: Castro’s Residence in Tompson Street – Bottom: Castro’s Butcher Shop in Gastro Street

The first Circuit Court was held on 23rd April, 1866, when Mr. Justice Faucett presided, and he was presented with an address. The Quarter Sessions had been held for several years previous to that date. There was no telegraph to Wagga until after 1860, and then it was only obtained by public subscription.

I have seen a list of the subscribers, who gave over £700 to defray half the cost of erecting the line from Tarcutta to Wagga Wagga. John Peter, of Gumly Gumly, headed the list with £100. Wllliam Macleay represented the district in Parliament all those years. Afterwards he was appointed to the Legislative Council, and before he died was Knighted.

The progress made in the growth of the town and district warranted another newspaper, and in the year 1868 A G. Jones started the “Wagga Wagga Advertiser,” which is now a daily paper, published under the title of the “Daily Advertiser.”

It was not until 1870, the year of the big flood, that Wagga was incorporated, and became a municipality, when, as I have before mentioned, G. Forsyth was the first Mayor, and F. A Tompson the first Town Clerk.

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