Friday, November 29, 2013

Memories of a Nelligen childhood - by Bill Simpson (as published in the CANBERRA TIMES of 19 February 1983)

'The tiny township of Nelligen could soon be one of the major tourist attractions of the South Coast ... By this time next year Nelligen will be a big tourist town', I read.

I scarcely noticed as THE CANBERRA TIMES of December 29 slipped to my lap - my mind was already back in the Nelligen that I'd known so well, more than 60 years ago, during those impressionable years that I'd lived there with my parents, when I - and the world - was young.

My father had been appointed as the local schoolteacher and so we moved from the dusty plains of the Riverina to the rambling old residence on the hill overlooking the town of Nelligen on the Clyde.

For the next five years, until I was nine years old, Nelligen was the centre of my wonderful world and the images and impressions and the events of those years are still etched vividly and clearly in my mind - not in any chronological sequence but rather as a rich kaleidoscope of exciting never-to-be-forgotten experiences and impressions.

Be it a weakness, it deserves some praise.
We love the play-place of our early days

In 1922, the year after our arrival, the old school residence was demolished - another year or two and it would have fallen down of its own accord - and a new school and residence was built. The "new" school has long since been transported elsewhere, but the residence still stands on the hill above the town and when I saw it last, several years ago, it had become The Old Schoolhouse Pottery, conducted by Len and Lilli Bathgate. My wife and I were made very welcome by Lilli Bathgate; for me it was a most nostalgic experience to wander through the rooms I remembered so well - so familiar but now strangely modernised and oh, so different.

However, we were delighted with the wonderful range of pottery, much of it made from Nelligen clays, and of course we purchased several lovely pieces as a memento of our return to "Yesterday".

As I stood that day on the verandah, looking down over the village and trying to superimpose what I was actually seeing on to the picture I'd held in my mind's eye for so many years, I thought of that winter's night in 1924 when my father had woken me in the middle of the night and carried me out on to the verandah to watch the original Steampacket Hotel burn to the ground.

This first of the three Steampacket Hotels had been a two-storey timber building, owned and conducted by one James Neate. As far as I can recall, the cause of the fire was never determined, but the old "pub" certainly made a great spectacle as the flames lit up the school residence and the surroundings.

Next day I remember going down with my parents to view the still-smouldering ruin and collecting "glassies" - the glass marble stoppers used to seal lemonade bottles. They'd been blown out somehow by the heat and provided us kids with marbles by the dozen.

One story was that one of the permanent boarders at the hotel, an elderly retired timber worker who acted as "general useful", kept his life savings (1000 pounds was the amount spoken of) in an old tin trunk in his room.

As soon as the smoking ruins had cooled sufficiently, the old fellow located and finally opened the trunk, and was greatly relieved to see his bundles of pound notes still intact - but alas, as soon as he touched them, they crumbled away to powder! It was a good story, anyhow, and one that caught my childish imagination. I've often wondered if it were really true.

In their first year or two at Nelligen my parents had no transport of any kind, although most of the local residents owned a horse and gig or buggy.

However, our lives were changed quite dramatically when Dad, after much perusal of brochures and manuals, purchased a brand-new Harley-Davidson motorcycle and sidecar, complete with a "dicky-seat" in the nose of the sidecar for me.

It came from Sydney by coastal steamer and created much interest in Nelligen - the first bike and sidecar in the village, although there were several others in the district. The Andersons, who lived at the foot of the Clyde Mountain, had one, and the policeman at Batemans Bay - I think his name was Hoole - also had one, but ours was the first in the village.

It was a powerful 7.9 h.p. machine and we were the kings of the road, it seemed to me. I was allowed to "blow" the horn, a mechanical contraption of cogs that was bolted on to the bar attaching the sidecar to the bike. It was operated by a lever that was pushed up and down to produce a raucous noise reminiscent of a dehydrated sheep trying to baa and, together with the noise of the engine, was guaranteed to make the most docile horse rear up and shy as we roared past in a cloud of dust.

In the early 1920s there was a great deal of interest in motor bikes. I well remember my father and I getting up very early one morning, in the dark, to position ourselves on the edge of a cutting overlooking the old road behind the police station to watch 50 to 60 bikes roar past in a national reliability trial on their way to tackle the Clyde Mountain.

As it became lighter we were able to identify the different machines - the Red Indians, the Nortons, the Douglases, the Rudge Whitworths and, of course, our chosen favourites, the Harley-Davidsons. It was a sight and an experience for a seven-year-old to savour and remember!

The old hand-operated punt that carried all traffic across the river resembled a scarcely floating collection of flotsam, with an alarming list to starboard. It was operated by Sydney Harkess, a large man of few words. His wife was the postmistress for many years.

It was said that he had taught his own children to swim - and many others of the village besides - by tying a rope around their middle and throwing them off the punt into the river, then towing them across as he wound the old punt to the other side.

The fact that sharks were sometimes seen in the Clyde no doubt spurred the kids on to regain the punt as quickly as possible and provided the necessary motivation. Presumably no child was ever molested, but I do remember a dog being taken by a shark not far from the punt.

Syd had a bunk inside the galvanised iron "shack" that hung precariously from the side of the punt, and at night he'd sleep "on board" in order to provide a 24-hour service to nocturnal travellers.

On the opposite side of the river was a cow bell fastened to a post and I can recall that on many occasions, when returning from Moruya or Batemans Bay late at night, Dad would ring the cow bell and some 15 minutes later the punt would appear out of the gloom for Syd to wind us across to the Nelligen side, to the accompaniment of grunts and an audible commentary on inconsiderate people who insisted on being abroad at such unreasonable hours.

Even today I have only to close my eyes to see again the countless jellyfish moving slowly beneath the smooth surface of the clear green water and to hear once again the low vibrant thrum of the cables on the pulleys and the sharp change of note and the sudden clang as a cable jumped from one pulley to the one above it, as Syd would us across the Clyde, much as old Charon must have ferried departed souls across the Styx in the Hades of Greek mythology.

All the products of the district - Ben McCawley's home-made cheeses, the bundles of wattle bark, the railway sleepers, the timber - were transported by the coastal steamers that visited Nelligen regularly. The Bergalia, the Eden, the Bermagui, well all well-known and welcome visitors to the Nelligen wharf and the sheds of the South Coast and Illawarra Navigation Company, and on their return voyages brought much merchandise from Sydney.

My parents regularly received boxes of goods despatched from both Anthony Horderns and McIlwraiths, usually foodstuffs from the latter. My clearest memory of these is of the huge blocks of drinking chocolate that were always included. My surreptitious visits to the old sideboard where the "drinking" chocolate was kept ensured that a large part of i was doomed never to be drunk, but rather to be secretly devoured, piecemeal, behind the door.

There were, of course, a number of shops in the village: Middleton's General Store ("Old Midds" we called it), which, in my eyes, was only slightly less impressive than Anthony Horderns itself. Directly opposite was Thorpe's General Store and, later on, a butcher's shop was opened by one "Ginger" Ryan. I still remember my excitement when the first sausages were available, made on the premises by "Ginger" himself, with his own fair hand. What a red-letter day that was.

Next to Thorpe's store elderly Miss Maggie Whyte conducted a confectionary shop. We also got our supply of milk from her shop and it was my job to go down each day and get the milk in a billy can. How I used to eye-off the musk sticks and bullseyes displayed in the big glass jars on the counter while I waited for her to fill the billy with milk.

Miss Whyte always slipped me a lolly or two until, I confess, I came to expect - and one day, even to demand - my ration of lollies from the kind old soul.

Perhaps there were other children present, perhaps I was rude in my asking (more likely, I fear) but, whatever the reason, on one memorable occasion Miss Whyte declined to provide the usual hand-out and I ran out of the shop in childish pique and indignation.

My method of "pay-back" was simple and immediate, if unwise. I gathered up a handful of horse manure from the street and returned to hurl it through the open door into Miss Whyte's immaculate premises, at the same time shouting my considered opinion of old ladies who reneged on their obligation to provide lollies for needy children, before I fled up the hill to safety - or so I thought!

The consequences of that intemperate act of violence are best forgotten. I received a sound belting from my father and was then required to return to the scene of the crime and apologise to Miss Whyte. She, poor soul, was so overcome with remorse that she plied me with lollies as we cried quietly together. God bless you, Miss Whyte - you figure clearly in my fondest memories of 60-year-ago Nelligen.

A number of unusual industries were developed around Nelligen during the years that we lived there.

The Webber family conducted a very successful spokes factory for many years, some three miles out of town, where they produced wooden spokes for the wheels of every type of waggon, sulky, cart and buggy, all made from local timbers.

I remember Mr Webber, sen., as a very impressive old gentleman, driving into town in his gleaming buggy, dressed in a cream suit of tussah silk and looking for al the world like a twin brother of Colonel Sanders.

The Webbers, more as a community service, I suspect, than as a commercial enterprise, also acted as the local undertakers and the same buggy was used as the hearse on those sad occasions when it was needed.

I remember my mother making wreaths from the meagre supply of flowers and leaves available to her to honour some deceased resident about to be laid to rest in the old cemetery behind the township. People and communities seemed to be closer in those days.

A most interesting industry was developed further up the Clyde, above Shallow Crossing, when a starch factory was established by a Sydney firm to manufacture starch from the "nuts" of the burrawang palms that grow in countless thousands in the area.

The manager was an industrial chemist named Robinson and starch was indeed produced in commercial quantities. The coastal steamers were able to steam beyond Nelligen to the company's own wharf, where the starch was loaded and transported to Sydney. I cannot remember the brand-name under which it was marketed.

My father and Mr Robinson became good friends and I remember the latter giving my father a sample of raw whisky to taste. it had been distilled, as an experiment, from the burrawang palm. I xan't remember my father's actual response, but I gathered he didn't consider the new product any great threat to Scotland's main export, and it was never developed further, as far as I know.

Yet another thriving project during my years at Nelligen was the quarrying of granite for the pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The quarry was situated on the right-hand side of the road as one approaches Nelligen after descending the Clyde Mountain, and was some six or eight miles from the township. The huge blocks of granite were transported to the wharf at Nelligen and thence to Sydney by steamer for delivery to the contractors, Dorman Long and Co.

Next door to the school was the police station, residence and the old Court House. The resident policeman during our time was Mounted Constable Charles Beck; he and Dad spent many pleasant hours fishing from the police boat on the Clyde.

The Court House, even in those days 60 years ago, was a relic from the past - from the days when bushrangers roamed the district and gold was mined in the many shafts that dotted the hills across the river from the town.

I remember Constable Beck showing us a set of leg-irons and a genuine cat-o'-nine-tails then held at the police station. I wonder if they're still there?

We children played in the police yard, of course, and even in the old lock-up, which was always open, but we were never allowed inside the Court House, which was then still being used occasionally - although being kids, we did sneak in on several occasions, only to be overawed by the furnishings, the general atmosphere and our own temerity, and speaking in whispers as we tip-toed around.

To me, Constable Beck was a truly romantic figure in his uniform: polished leather leggings and white canvas helmet, and mounted on a big chestnut horse that shone almost as much as the leather of the saddle and bridle.

One of the Beck children was named Mervyn; he was several years my junior and as one of the "little kids" was somewhat lower down in the "pecking order". Apparently, however, this did not inhibit him in later years, as he recently retired from the NSW Police as Superintendent Merv. Beck, he who received much favourable publicity for his work as the tough chief of the vice squad in Sydney. I wonder if he remembers the day he jumped out of the bath when he heard my Dad start up the Harley and raced in to our place, next door, in his birthday suit, to get his usual ride from the garage to the front gate?

I have many more memories of the exciting years I spent at Nelligen - of great mobs of cattle swimming across the river, urged on by the drovers taking them to pastures new; of the great flood that spread across the lower sections of the town and flooded the sheds at the wharf, so that men rowed their boats directly into the sheds from the land side; of the bullock teams that hauled the cumbersome log-jinkers to the wharf; of the consternation in the village when one old-timer, "fishing" with dynamite from a boat, misjudged the fuse and had his hand blown off. Thereafter he had a metal hook in place of a hand and I regarded him with much the same awe I would have reserved for Long John Silver himself.

I remember going for a communal picnic far out into the hills to Bolaro before we acquired the Harley-Davidson. My father had borrowed a horse and gig and we followed the other sulkies along the side of a mountain, along a narrow ledge of track, so close to the edge that my poor mother, physically ill from nervous exhaustion, had only to lean out from the jolting gig to be sick for 1,000 feet down the mountainside.

But of that trip, I remember most of all the glorious scenery, and especially the magnificent rock-orchids and rock-lillies that had been the main reason for our journeying to such an inaccessible spot.

I also remember the big loquat tree that had been planted many years previously alongside the old school residence, with its clusters of yellow fruit that brought hundreds of flying foxes from their "camps" deep in the forest some miles up river.

I recal very clearly the day that a timber worker, Clyde Heycox by name, was brought into town unconscious after a limb of a tree had fallen on his head. Dad had the only motor-vehicle available so he closed the school for the remainder of the day. The injured man, covered in blood and roughly bandaged, was placed in the sidecar and they set off for BAtemans Bay to rendezvous with the doctor coming to meet them from Moruya.

This story had a happy ending, as Clyde made a good recovery and returned in due course to his wife Edie and to the rambling old house, known irreverently among the locals as The Ark, that was their home in what is now known as Braidwood Street.

Alas, The Ark has vanished long ago. I believe it was originally a boarding house in the days when Nelligen was a bustling mining town, with cedar-getting on the side, but that was long before my day. Now very few of the old landmarks are left, but at least the memories remain.

There are moments of life that we never forget,
Which brighten and brighten as time steals away.

Now, it seems, the "old" Nelligen - the Camelot, the Treasure Island of my distant childhood, is to be transformed into a "major tourist attraction".

It is satisfying to hear that the Nelligen Development Concept Plan aims "to preserve the historical-interest flavour of the township". I wish the planners well in their project and I note that a number of historical buildings have already been renovated. I really must make the effort to go down and see it all again - soon.