From Redfern to Tanilba Bay

From Redfern to Tanilba Bay



How a city dweller became a bushie and started a community.


My grandfather by marriage, Foster James Brown answered an advertisement in a Sydney Newspaper in the late 1920's or early 1930's. The advertisement was placed by Mr. Halloran for a handy man to do repairs to a convict built house that had fallen into disrepair. The house had been build on part of land granted to William Caswell in 1931. At the time the house was built, the area was know as The Tillagilly Peninsula as was inhabited by indigenous people. In the 1930's not many people knew the place existed and I doubt there would have been many replies to Mr. Halloran's advertisement. Grandfather and his son James travelled by train from Redfern in inner city Sydney by train and boat to Newcastlle and then by ferry across the Hunter river to Tanilba Bay in Port Stephens. The only dwelling in Tanilba was the big house. Grandfather and young James tracked through the bush to the old stone building and eventually did such a good job of the restoration that they were invited to stay on as maintenance staff. A cook/housekeeper was also required and so grandfather sent for grandmother and she soon arrived with their daughter to take up her position and assist in the smooth running of the household.
To induce grandfather to stay he was offered a portion of land to lease, which he took up, building a boat house to live in. He also built wooden boats, one for fishing and others to rent. He also cleared the surrounding bush creating a camping ground. By placing advertisements in Newcastle, he soon had people coming to Tanilba for picnics and for camping holidays. There were no amenities such as toilets, town water or electricity. All food and supplies had to be brought by boat from Newcastle and further afield. Grandfather cleared more land and began a market garden that fed his family, he also built a shop that sold everything the campers required. Including home grown vegetables and fresh caught fish. There was often a sign on the shop door that said "Gone Fishing".
Two young lady campers, were met on the track by James, who carried their luggage, one of those young ladies was Clara Wiggins, a milliner from Hamilton. It was love at first sight, and soon Clara and James married. There were miners at Cessnock who came from all over Australia, they heard about the camp site and often visited at week ends. They built the newly married couple a house from scrap materials left over from the mines. The house was completed not long after Alan, their first child was born. Alan became my husband. Alan was followed by Pamela two years later. The population of Tanilba had grown to three families. Clara used to do her washing in a kerosene can over a camp fire, that was also the cooking fire. After the house was built, she had an inside fuel stove, and a bath with a chip heater to heat the water from the rainwater tank. There were also a few residents in the neighbouring hamlets of Salt Ash and Lemon tree passage. There was an old hall at Salt Ash and they would meet once a month for a bush dance.
When Alan commenced school he did so by correspondence, it wasn't until electricity, the telephone and town water were connected and of course a few more families that a one room school was provided. This school was built at Lemon Tree passage and a teacher arrived. Unfortunately, the powers that be did not provided accommodation for the teacher and so he lodged with Alan's family. The teacher drove a car, and Alan recalls that even in heavy rain, he and Pamela had to ride their bush bikes through the bush to school, the teacher never offered them a lift. Eventually a school bus arrived to take the children to school. Grandfather built a bush bus shelter across from the temple, an ornamental building leading to the big house. It is still standing, although it has had supports added.
Soldiers from Singleton Army base also arrived at Tanilba at weekends for entertainment and brought the children candy and gum. Clara played the piano and James an accordion for dances and sing-alongs. The entrance to Tanilba Bay has an archway, known as the gates. The lettering on the gates tells you where you have been when you leave the area, rather than when you enter it.
When Alan left school in 1958, he first helped his grandfather in the shop, whilst his father continued to fish and farm.
There were still kangaroos around and one orphaned Joey was hand reared and became a pet until he got big and strong and returned to the bush. Koalas also came down into the gardens at night and could be heard scuffling. They came to the shelter of the house during bush fires, as did lizards and snakes.
Time went by and the grandparents passes away, the boat house and old boats were burnt, and the copper nails were collected and sold. James was given a 100 year lease on the land and he continued to farm until he retired. He closed the shop and turned it into a seniors club. Alan now went to work in Newcastle for PMG as a telegram boy. By the time Pamela was ready for work, Alan had an Hillman Husky car and gave a lift to his sister any anyone else who happened to going that way, there was still no bus service, even though the population of Tanilba was growing. They took the car ferry that took them on a forty five minute trip to Darks Ice factory wharf in Newcastle. There were now enough people at Tanilba to build there own Progress Hall, that is still in use for parties.
Alan and Pamela eventually married and moved from Tanilba. James died of a heart attack in 1974 but Clara, or Kitty has she was now know remained at Tanilba. When James died Kitty relinquished much of the land, retaining only a ordinary house block, on which the old house still stood. The old shop was demolished but the land was used to build a senior citizens hall. The hall was opened in 1983 and called "The James Brown Memorial Hall, it is still in use to this day and Alan and I were made very welcome when we visited a couple of years ago.
Clara or Kitty was known as the unofficial Lady Mayoress of Tanilba. She lived in the old house until 2003 when she died at the age of 91years. Following Clara's death the old house was demolished.
Tanilba today is a very different place, with beautiful waterfront homes. Footpaths meander through natural bush the habitat of bush creature and flora unique to the area. There is also an educational center when people may learn of the area.
Tanilba House still stands, it is a private residence but part of it is open to the public on Sundays and has displays of costumes and furniture from the early days of the colony.
Helen the present owner of the house and her mother often gave afternoon tea to Clara and the two old ladies visited together. I recall one such occasion when Helen shared with us a story of her school days, her parents had gone to a parent teacher night at the school and left the children on their own. A storm blew up, so fierce that the French Windows blew open. There were many stories of ghosts connected to the house. The children managed to close the doors but were even more terrified when they heard heavy footsteps and rattling chains on the veranda, the doors blew open again and in came the horse, who had broken his tether, coming to the house to seek reassurance. I also recall having afternoon tea on the veranda and another horse popping his head in the window to see what treats he could cajole from friendly visitors.
The convict quarters still have iron rings set in the wall were the convicts were chained at night. There was a sign telling trespassers to beware because the property is patrolled by a ghost.
Most of the old people have gone now but I wonder what they and Grandfather would think of Tanilba now.



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