Remembering the Past Australia

Reminiscences of Early Penrith Going Back to the 1830s

Originally published in the
Nepean Times, 23 May 1914.

Lapstone Hill near Penrith c. 1852-53

Lapstone Hill near Penrith; Sketches of Australian scenes, 1852-1853 / J. G. Sawkins. State Library of New South Wales.

The recollections of old Australian pioneers of the (eighteen) thirties and forties, like the stamps of the Plantagenet era, and the code Napoleon have an historic interest; but, unlike the out-of-date stamp, and the annals of the “Little Corporal,” the pioneer’s recollections have a vivid relation to the present. That is to say, our (Australian) present of which the “good grey pioneers”—some of whom are with us still, laid the foundations in what an early writer called the “ragged, ragged years” of our history. Recently our (“Nepean Times”) representative had an entertaining chat with some of the notable old pioneers of Penrith, and from those trusty and genial elders of our country gleaned a sheaf or two of the immortal memories of the past.

For instance, Mrs Robbins senr., remarkably bright, hale and hearty, in her 83rd year, and a very interesting raconteur to boot, hied back to the days when Australian civilisation was in its “swaddling clothes” so to speak; when railways, telegraph lines, even steamships — not to speak of phones, motor cars and aeroplanes —were yet in the womb of time. Mrs Robbins spoke reminiscently of the flint and steel and tinder-box of her girlhood — “no one ever dreamt of such a thing as lucifer matches in the forties” — she pleasantly remarked, “and as for progress committees and municipal councils, every one was his own council and committee.”

But this sort of freedom from civic rates and taxes had a reverse side as Mrs. Robbins remembered, in the early days. For it was still the penal period, and Mrs Robbins waxed indignant as she recounted some annals of the “system” which cast its baleful shadow over the energies of growth and progress at that faraway time.

She remembers, for instance, the convicts — bodies of them — going to work in their striped yellow and black prison uniform, sometimes guarded by soldiers or police with fixed bayonets, some of the poor fellows being leg-ironed two and two, going and coming from their work. It was the “hey-dey, too, of the cato’-nine-tails,” said Mrs Robbins, “and I used to shudder as a girl, as I was then, to hear the screams of some of the wretched prisoners, getting their 50, or sometimes 100 lashes, as the case might be.” The Government flogger (known as “Jack the Flogger”) was, as may well be imagined, afraid to venture out during the daytime, and remained strictly within bounds — he lived at the house of the Chief Constable (Mr Proctor), who used to drive him to the “triangles” (flogging quarters in the prison) and back. In passing, it is said that a good many of the early penal floggers met with a tragic death — one or two in the Western District were found, for instance, riddled with bullet-holes — the vengeance of escaped convicts.

But passing on to pleasanter themes, Mrs Robbins spoke of the old racing days, when Sir John Jamieson was “Lord of the Manor,” (“and a good one,too.” remarked the old lady), and provided refreshments wholesale for all and sundry who turned up to see the Penrith races. She remembered seeing Higgerson riding Tarragon; and Johnny Cutts, Driscoll, Dunn, Martineer, and other famous horsemen of that era; and wondered why there were such short races nowadays. Though, of course, Mrs Robbins had no interest in the art of pugilism she recalled the excitement over the battle between Huff and Haddi-gaddi at “Windmill Hill” in ’48, which Huff won. Huff, by the way, later met “Black Parry” — the “Dublin Nigger” — and met his Waterloo.

Those were the wild Bohemian times that came ” before the flood.” That is to say, before the gold era, that roseate time of the 50’s and 60’s. But not before the old-time floods of the Nepean District. Oh, no; then as now, the flood was sure to make an annual “mess” of the landscape. This was also vouched for as regards old times by another splendid type of old pioneer, viz., Mrs Dowling, of Castlereagh Street. Mrs Dowling, with Mrs Robbins, was a sufferer through the great flood of ’67, when the Government grainaries were submerged, and the whole country, to quote Mrs Dowling’s words, “Nothing but a sea of water everywhere.” Nine families were drowned in Castlereagh Street, and it was a touch and go with others. It was a common sight to see calves and sheep and poultry taking a compulsory free ride on haystacks floating down the river.

They had no fear of a rise in train fares. Mrs Dowling recollects the almost aboriginal days of Penrith, when the only shops were those of Coulter and Burns; Smeaton’s boot-shop, in High Street; and W Matthew’s store, corner of High and Castlereagh Streets. These were the only two houses in High Street, and perhaps three or four dwellings in all Penrith besides the shops,” said Mrs Dowling, “when I saw it first.” Mrs Barlow (nee Frost) is another, of the grand old Hawkesbury natives, whose splendid vigor and alertness in her 85th year is, surely, a grand testimonial to the salubrity of the Nepean and Hawkesbury Districts.

Mrs Barlow’s memories take us back to the thirties, when, as she says, “the blacks were in droves, and held corroborees on the banks of the Nepean.” Mrs Barlow said she witnessed several corrobborees, and the blacks had a ‘bora ‘ (or sacred ground) on, or near “Wilson’s Flat,” hard by the river. There the youths of the tribes were “transformed” into full-fledged braves by knocking out of one of the front teeth, etc. The most remarkable of those aborigines were “Woolloboi,” “Black Stevey” and “Nellie” — a muscular “lubra” (woman), a photo of whom was shown to our scribe by Mrs Barlow. Mrs B. says that Dr Shand (now living in Sydney) has an oil-painting of “Nellie” “which he would not part with for any money.”

Mrs Barlow recalls other vivid memories of old times, such as the roasting of bullocks whole; one to celebrate the holding of Penrith races in 1843, which was a time of vast rejoicing. The carcass of the bullock was hung up over a “tremendous” fire hot enough to roast an elephant, and “under-done roast beef” — and plenty of it — was soon the order of the night. Penrith, in Mrs Barlow’s childhood, consisted of just two houses — the one her people (Frosts) inhabited, and the other a place on the river bank (also noted by Mrs Robbins) which was later a public house kept by Mr Wilson.

Mr Frost (Mrs Barlow’s father) was a constable in the early days, and for his tracker and assistant had “Woolloboi,” a very intelligent blackfellow. One afternoon while Mr Frost and “Woolloboi” were scouring the bush — it was all open bush then — looking for bushrangers, five or these gentry called at the house. Only Mrs Frost and her daughter (Mrs Barlow) were at home. “But,” said Mrs Barlow, “My mother was a woman of nerve, and she persuaded the bushrangers — there were 5 of them — to surrender to her, and she stacked their guns in a corner of the house.” So when the constable and “Woolloboi,” came in they had nothing to do but march the prisoners to the lockup.

Later Gardiner, Ben Hall, and Gilbert and Co. made bushranging history; “but they were not the sort to surrender quietly to a woman,” said Mrs Barlow. “The Flying Pieman,” as Mrs Barlow remembers, was a very fleet customer in those days, and ran a race against the coach from Parra (Parramatta) to Sydney. Another of Mrs B’s recollections was seeing the steamer “Emu” run its first or second trip from Sydney to Parramatta; and she had a word to say about “Billy Blue” — the Harbor Master of Sydney in the 40’s and 50’s; and musing thus, she related — The rows in the pleasure boats round by Goat Island With Ricketty Dick O’, and old “Billy Blue,” And the trips by “the Emu” to see P’matta When we pulled the ripe plums off the trees as they grew.

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