Early History of the Murrumbidgee – Wagga Wagga

PART I
WAGGA WAGGA BEFORE 1860
FIRST SETTLEMENT IN 1832
MEMORIES OF OLD PIONEERS

(Written by James J. Baylis, of ”Goonigul,” Wagga, for the “Wagga Wagga Express” in 1914.)

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.

Bridge over the Murrumbidgee at Wagga Wagga

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.

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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. 

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