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“I foolishly gave it all away…


Herbert John Harris


In 1919 my paternal great grandfather Herbert John Harris made what he considered to be the biggest mistake of his life. He exchanged life as a farmer on his property at Wadeville, in the far north coast region of New South Wales for that of a businessman, as the owner of the Orient Coffee Palace, a boarding house and tearooms in the heart of Byron Bay. (1) (2)

He was to say much later

I foolishly gave it all away…

Anon,. ‘Hard Work key to long living’, Northern Star, December 1972 p.3 (3)

I disagree. Selfishly, I think that the biggest mistake my great grandfather made is that he let that business fall out of family hands.

The former Orient Coffee Palace is now a heritage listed building, sitting prominently in Byron Bay’s streetscape, is worth many millions and the current business The Balcony Bar & Oyster Co. is incredibly popular AND serves amazing margaritas!

The Orient Coffee Palace was one of a large number of Coffee Palaces or temperance hotels built in Australia in the 1880s and promoted as family-friendly places to stay, away from the evil influences of alcohol. (4)

In 1899 Herbert ot Herb as he was always known, selected a property out of Crown land at Wadeville. He was eighteen at the time. The cedar had all been felled before Herb selected the property, however it yielded pine and fed beef cattle. (5)

Herb married Mary Isabel Browning (1885-1972) in 1905 and the couple had three children; two sons – my grandfather William Henry Allan Harris (1906-1985 ), and Herbert Errol Harris (1908-1996) – and a daughter Iris Edna Harris (1910-1998). (6)

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.


In an interview on his 92nd birthday my great grandfather reminisced on his early life at Wadeville, remembering

Hard work, with months of loneliness clearing… nobody of the present generation knows what true loneliness really is, as neighbours were often six or seven miles away, often through thick scrubland

Herbert John Harris, Northern Star, 29 December 1972 p.3 (8)

This isolation would have been a factor in my great grandparents decision to move to Byron Bay. In contrast to Wadeville, Byron Bay was a thriving community by the end of World War 1. The North Coast Fresh Food & Cold Storage Co-operative Company Ltd (NORCO) had established a large butter factory where, by 1905, one-fifth of the state’s butter was manufactured. NORCO had also established a bacon curing factory, the piggery, in the town. There was also a beef abattoir. The job prospects these industries offered would have been attractive, particularly to the parents of two boys.(9)

Butter being loaded from the first jetty

Another likely reason was the difficulties in providing ongoing education to the three children, particularly as Wadeville’s first school didn’t open until 1917. Early records of Blakebrook Public School, 40 kilometres (25 miles) east of Wadeville, show that Allan and Erroll Harris were enrolled there under the guardianship of their maternal great grandparents Joseph and Eliza Browning.(10)

In contrast Byron Bay Public School had an enrolment of 220 pupils by 1915 and in 1916 the first request was made for an Intermediate High School (a school for both primary and secondary students). (11)

Instead of the isolation of the bush, Byron Bay was connected to the outside world by sea and rail. The town was an important port on the east seaboard and steamers operated by the Northern Coast Steam Navigation Company sailed to Sydney regularly. The North Coast Mail Line was carrying passengers by rail north to Murwillumbah or south to Grafton by 1905.(12)

Why did Herb regret the decision? Perhaps a reason is hidden in an article from the Northern Star

BALLINA nonagenarian, Mr. Herbert John Harris, reminisced of his early life in the Richmond at Wadesville when for many years, he had the prolific birdlife of the area as his main companions.

He still remembers pigeons of many varieties, brown satins, riflemen, bush thrush, curlews, plovers and even lyre birds in large numbers – to say nothing of the countless wrens and wagtails and white and black cockatoos “whose noise was almost unbearable at times.” “They were great company” said Mr. Harris. “It is a pity so few of the varieties are left today.”

Herbert John Harris, Northern Star, December 1972.(13)

I think the Herb Harris was a bushman at heart, not a businessman. In his own words

a permanent love of the bush and the out-of-doors living, is the main reason for long life…Except for a few operations on my eyes, I can honestly say I have never been sick in all my life…I put it down to plenty of open air and a darn lot of hard work

Herbert John Harris, Northern Star, 29 December 1972 p.3 (14)
One of the ‘spacious verandahs’ today – a long way from being part of a temperance hotel. Perhaps my great grandmother served her guests afternoon tea here.
A Google map shows the proximity of the Coffee Palace (bottom left) to the jetty (now demolished)



(1) Anon,. “Hard Work key to long living’, Northern Star, 29 December 1972, p.3.

(2) Anon,. ‘LOCAL AND GENERAL’, Byron Bay Record, Saturday 11 January 1919, page 8.

(3) Anon,. “Hard Work key to long living’, Northern Star, p.3.

(4)Australian food industry timeline, ‘1878 Coffee Palace hotel Company formed’,, Accessed 14 September 2019.

(5) Anon,. “Hard Work key to long living’, Northern Star, p.3.

(6) Death certificate of Herbert John Harris, Died 3 December 1977, Registrar of Births Deaths and Marriages NSW, /1977.

(7) 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 Accessed 30August 2019(6)

(8) Anon,. “Hard Work key to long living’, Northern Star, p.3

(9) Byron Bay Historical Society, ‘Industry’,, Accessed 14 September 2019.

(10) Esme Smith, ‘The Browning Story: Tracings from the past‘, Lismore, The Xerox Shop. 2001. p.229.

(11) Reg. Wright, ‘Byron Bay Public School 1892-1992 School Centenary‘, Byron Bay, Wright Press, p.27.

(12) Byron Bay Historical Society, “Infrastructure’,, Accessed 14 September 2019.

(13) Anon, Northern Star, 1972.

(14) Anon,. “Hard Work key to long living’, Northern Star, p.3

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