Red Gold

Week 35 OF 52 ANCESTORS CHALLENGE

PROMPT: AT WORK

…they were splendid men, hard workers, hard drinkers and hard swearers. But they held their own life cheap if a comrade was in danger, and they would share their last pint of flour or pipe of tobacco with a clansman of the scrub”

Cornstalks, ‘SPLENDID MEN’, Northern Star, Monday 30 March 1925, p.7.

William Harris, my paternal 3x great grandfather was one of the “splendid men” referred to in “Cornstalk’s” somewhat nostalgic newspaper article about the cedar getters of northern New South Wales. [1]

By today’s standards William, his wife Rebecca and their five children lived an unbelievably difficult, isolated and “foreign” life. Work was physical and relentless. In this post I will attempt to describe the family and the work involved in their chase of the elusive Red Gold, the highly valuable red cedar found in the “Big Scrub” or Richmond River valley region of the north coast of New South Wales, Australia.

It is impossible to know exactly what William and Rebecca, both former convicts from England, thought of this exotic sub-tropical rainforest, with its large trees – Fig, Booyong, Redwood, Cedar, Teak, Beech, Bush-nut (Macadamia) & Bean, laced with lawyer vines, crows nests, elkhorns, staghorns and orchids as well as the lower canopy of fern trees & palms.

Rainforest, near Daintree Australia [A]

The family

Willliam Harris (1805-1868) was born in Birmingham, England in 1805. He was 14 years old and working as a tailor’s boy when he was found guilty of the charge of Grand Larceny at the Stafford Quarter Sessions in 1819. The boy was sentenced to transportation to Australia for a period of 7 years. After spending nearly a year on the prison hulk Leviathan, William arrived in Sydney on the Prince of Orange on 17 February, 1821. (2) (3)

His Certificate of Freedom, awarded in 1828, tells us that William was 5’4” high, with hazel eyes, light brown hair and a ruddy complexion

Prison hulks in Portsmouth Harbour [B]

Rebecca Bloxham (1808-1879), my 3x great grandmother, was born in Aylestone, a small village 2 1⁄2 miles south west of Leicester. Her family was included in the St Andrew’s parish records as far back as the mid-1500s. (4) Rebecca was sentenced to death in 1826 for the crime of Robbery On A Person. This sentence was commuted to transportation for “the period of her natural life” following petitions for clemency by Ann Bloxham, Rebecca’s widowed mother, and the rector of Aylestone parish. The petition tells of a “steady, industrious girl who, after being forced to move to Leicester to look for work, had her morals corrupted but was now penitent.” (5)

Rebecca was described in the Convict Indents as being 5′ 1⁄2″ tall, with a fair, fresh complexion, light brown hair and hazel eyes.

‘Borough Gaol,’ Leicester Chronicle, Saturday 5 May 1827, (6)
A section of the petition for clemency addressed to Sir Robert Peel, Secretary of State.

Rebecca arrived in Sydney on the Harmony on 27 September 1827 and married a fellow convict John Hooper. (7) The couple had two daughters, Amelia (1831-1852) and Sarah ( 1836-1879). John Hooper was to become one of my 5x great grandfathers but that relationship is the subject for a very different post with a very different prompt.

William Harris and Rebecca Bloxham married on 7 August 1838. Documents show that by this time William had received his Certificate of Freedom (1828) and was recorded as being a sawyer while Rebecca had her Ticket-of-Leave (1837). Despite the fact that John Hooper was still alive, Rebecca was registered under her maiden name and as a “stated spinster”. (8)

Register Of Convicts’ Applications To Marry 1826-1851, Granted 1838.

Northwards

Like many other families William, Rebecca and the two young girls left Sydney to begin the trek north, reaching the “Big Scrub” in the 1840s. Family events demonstrate that the Harris family was living and working on Tunstall Station, on the site of the current South Lismore, by the end of the 1840s. It is highly likely that William worked on the station as a sawyer.

The couple’s eldest son Henry Samuel Harris (1849-1916) was born on the station while his 14 year old half sister Sarah Hooper married the 33 years old James Barrow (1817-1894) there in 1850. (9) (10)

The young family, among the Richmond River valley’s earliest European settlers, had arrived in the Richmond in search of Red Gold.

The cedar cutters

In the early ’50’s of last century on that piece of open country a mile above Boatharbour—then covered with foxtail-and blady grass and known-as Bald Hills—was the home of 17 families, or rather five were married men with wives and children ; the others were unrelated units. These were the first pioneers of what was then known as “The Big Scrub,” the cedar getters. They were a heterogeneous crew. Some of them had drifted into the game to avoid the conventionalities of, life ; others were attracted by the prospective fortunes which lay latent in the magnificent cedar trees which grew in profusion on the,flats and ridges…

They were all physically splendid men, inured to hardships which most of the present generation would shrink from with alarm, and we offer, a special homage to the memory of the loyal, heroic, self-sacrificing .women who kept home (or rather “hut”) while their men were away for weeks at a time cutting and hauling the cedar to the creek for the flood to bring down to the navigable water, or,, as the tirnbermen called it, “the chain.”

Cornstalks, ‘SPLENDID MEN’, Northern Star, Monday 30 March 1925, p.7.

William, Rebecca and their five children made up one of the five families mentioned. By this time Rebecca’s daughters from her first marriage had both married – at age 14.

The camps

The sawyers and their families were forced to live in temporary camps because their “License to cut timber on Crown Lands beyond the Settled districts” (costing $8 a year) only gave them the right to cut and export timber on unallocated Crown land. They were not permitted to settle nor build permanent homes on the land. William received a license in 1851.[11 ].

In the early 1850s larger camps were established at Bald Hill (now Bexhill), Gundurimba. and Midgee Grass (now Eltham). The overwhelming majority of adults in these camps were former convicts such as Rebecca and William; convicts still on a ticket -of-leave, or convicts who had absconded.

William Taylor Harris (1852-1940).,William and Rebecca’s youngest son and my 2x great grandfather was born at the Midgee Grass camp in 1852. He was one of the very first white children born in the district.[12]

Family legend has it that local aboriginals helped build a raft that took Rebecca and her baby William Taylor Harris , to safety during a large flood. [13]

An early cedar getters’ tent camp [C]

The “absorbing” work

Two men in front of large cedar log, one holding axe and the other a crosscut saw. c.1880 [D]

William would have found that cutting down these giant trees was no easy task. First the vines and other entanglements in the scrub had to be cut away and then the lower buttress climbed so that springboards (planks) could be pushed into grooves cut into the sides of the trunk.

The broad lower part of the trees could not be used commercially so the axemen climbed up and stood on the springboards – usually one on either side of the tree.

When the tree was about to fall they had to jump quickly to the ground to avoid being hit by the tree or its branches. It was dangerous work. The branches then had to be removed and the tree had to be dragged from the forest to the creek or river where it was usually floated downstream.

To do this work men had to be able to rely on each other and it is easy to see how the value of “mateship’ was established.

Cedar Getters, Lake Macquarie, NSW, [E]

“Cornstalks” wrote a vivid account of the relentless work in his article:

It was absorbing work this cedar getting. Men swung their axes and drove their crosscut saws from daylight till dark for three weeks on end, Sunday included; lived under the most primitive conditions with seldom a roof to shelter them, and their only tucker black tea, salt beef and. damper. The log haulers worked their bullocks for three days in succession, chaining them up at night in their yokes to trees. On the third afternoon they were unyoked and driven to the nearest grass. There was not many grasses to choose from. Bald Hill, Midgee grass, the Little grass…The team was given three or four days’ rest, then driven back to their yokes and bows to do another three days hauling, without anything to eat in the interval. So .the work went on until both men, and beasts were exhausted. They would then down tools and make for camp at Bald Hills to recuperate.

Cornstalks, SPLENDID MEN, Northern Star, Monday 30 March 1925, p.7.

After the cedar

William Harris, the former tailor’s boy from Birmingham England died in 1868 while Rebecca drowned in 1879 in Terania Creek, the same creek that I learnt to swim in nearly a century later. (14) (15)

Cedar getters didn’t cut down whole forests; they only selectively logged for the valuable cedar. It was left to their children and grandchildren to clear the remains of these ancient forests.

William and Rebecca’s eldest son, Henry Samuel Harris selected land at Keerong while his brother William Taylor Harris developed Ivy Mount, his property at Blakebrook. In turn Herbert John Harris, my great grandfather selected land at Wadeville in 1899.

Bullock team towing cedar logs upper reaches of Tweed River, Uki. .Hector Hall in the foreground;
Jim Harper standing in the water; Bunny Rabjones on the far bank.
[F]

Endnotes

[1] ‘SPLENDID MEN’, Northern Star, Monday 30 March 1925, p.7.

(2) Certificate of Freedom for William Harris, New South Wales, Australia, Certificates of Freedom, 1827-1867, State Archives NSW., Ancestry. Accessed 25 August 2019.

(3) Convict Prison Hulks: Registers and Letter Books; Class: HO9; Piece: 8 National Archives Kew Surrey, England. Accessed 25 August 2019

(4) Jennifer Mortensen to Brian Harris, email, 3 June 2017, original held in author’s possession

(5) Criminal Register for Rebecca Bloxam,‘England & Wales, Criminal Registers, 1791-1892’, Home Office: Criminal Petitions National Archives, Kew, Surrey, England. Ancestry. Accessed 11 May 2017

(6) ‘BOROUGH GAOL’, The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agriculture Advertiser (Leicester, England), Saturday, May 05 1827; Issue 858. British Library Newspapers, Part II: 1800-1900

(7) Convict Register for John Hooper, ‘New South Wales, Australia, Convict Applications for the Publication of Banns, 1828-1830, 1838-1839’, National Archives, Kew, Surrey, England, Ancestry, Accessed 11 May 2017

(8) Convict Register for William Harris, New South Wales, Australia, Registers of Convicts’ Applications to Marry, 1826-1851, State Archives NSW. Ancestry, Accessed 26 August 2019.

(9) Birth and Baptism record for Henry Samuel Harris, Australia, Births and Baptisms, 1792-1981, NSW State Archives. Ancestry, Accessed 26 August 2019.

(10) Marriage record for Sarah Hooper and James Barrow, Australia Marriage Index, 1788-1950, Ancestry, Accessed 25 August 2019.

( 11) ‘CROWN LANDS BEYOND THE SETTLED DISTRICTS’, Northern Star, 21 August, 1852. Accessed 27 August 2019.

( 12) (13) ‘Hard work key to long living’, Northern Star, 29 December 1972, Accessed 26 August 2019.

(14) Death record for William Harris, Australia Death Index, 1787-1985, Ancestry. Accessed 28 August 2019

( 15)‘Local and General News’, Northern Star, 13 December 1879, p. 2. Accessed June 15, 2017,

Image credits

[A] Rainforest, near Daintree Australia,by Thomas Schoch – Thomas Schoch at http://www.retas.de/thomas/travel/australia2005/index.html, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=674039

[B] Prison Hulks in Portsmouth Harbour, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/13402.html. Accessed 27 August 2019

[C] An early cedar getters’ tent camp, Byron Bay Historical Society, Picture-010_WEBRES, https://byronbayhistoricalsociety.org.au/development-of-byron-bay/early-settlement/ Accessed 30 August 2019

[D] Two men in front of large cedar log, one holding axe and the other a crosscut saw. c.1880. Tweed Regional Museum Collection. TH74-08 https://museum.tweed.nsw.gov.au/Cedar Accessed 30August 2019

[E} Cedar Getters, Lake Macquarie, NSW, University of Newcastle, John Turner Collection, https://www.flickr.com/photos/uon/8017922523/ Accessed 30 August 2019

[F] Bullock team towing cedar logs upper reaches of Tweed River, Uki..Tweed Regional Museum Collection. No: TH74-03 https://museum.tweed.nsw.gov.au/Cedar Accessed 30 August 2019.