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The suburb of Agnes Banks is located across the northwest corner of the City of Penrith and the southwest corner of Hawkesbury City local government areas. It is a rural district of both Penrith and Hawkesbury, with a rich indigenous and European heritage. The village of Agnes Banks is located within Hawkesbury City. The Nepean River runs north along its western boundary and, at the village, the Grose River converges with the Nepean to form the Hawkesbury River. This suburb has a generally flat to low undulating alluvial topography. Alluvial farmlands along the river contrast with natural woodlands and sandy deposits on a rise to the east. Although the high quality fine sand deposits at Agnes Banks have been subject to extractive industry operations since the 1950s, Agnes Banks has kept its intrinsic agricultural value and rural lifestyle since European settlement.
A long narrow freshwater lagoon runs parallel with the Nepean River at Agnes Banks. It dissects alluvial land which was probably once part of the Hawkesbury-Nepean River. One of the first sightings of a platypus by Europeans was in 1797 when Governor John Hunter observed a Dharug man spear a platypus in Yarramundi Lagoon. This lagoon is named after Aboriginal leader, Yellow-Mundee who used the Grose Valley and Grose Wold region as his tribal lands. He was the elder of the Richmond or Boorooberongal clan and was one of the first Dharug to have contact with the settlers on the Hawkesbury River. Colbee (or Colebee), Yellow-Mundee's son, accompanied William Cox when he built the road over the Blue Mountains and in appreciation was given a land grant by Governor Macquarie. Colbee's sister Maria, who married First Fleet convict Robert Lock, lived on this grant at Blacktown. Yarramundi is the name given to the Hawkesbury suburb on the western side of the Hawkesbury-Nepean River.
Early land grants
The first European land grants in the Penrith area were issued near Agnes Banks in 1803. Land was granted along the alluvial river flats. Charles Palmer received the first grant and he and his family experienced frontier life to the fullest extent when they were not only robbed and beaten by strangers, but also by their convict servants. The most influential grantee was Andrew Thompson, who in 1804 received 78 acres (31.5 hectares) between the Nepean River and Yarramundi (Yello-mundee) Lagoon. He named it Agnes Bank, after his mother . Thompson had arrived as a convict in 1792 and was well known in the Windsor area. In his usual style, he immediately developed the land and purchased adjoining land granted to discharged soldiers William Baxter and Joseph Bayliss. Floods quickly sorted out who were ready to tough it out and farm the rich, but deadly, Nepean River flats.
James Badgery, a well-educated farmer from Devon, received land grants of 139 acres (56.2 hectares) in the area. On his land, Swilly Farm, he built up a productive farm without government assistance and endured the 1806 flood without much financial loss. By 1806, part of this farm was leased to the well-known First Fleeters Anthony and Elizabeth Rope.
Agnes Bank was sold in 1815 to John Campbell, Governor Macquarie's secretary and administrator. At least two farmhouses were built there in the 1820s. One remaining homestead, known now as Osborne, is located close to the river. Agnes Bank was purchased by Robert and Charlotte (nee Eather) Williams in 1838. Their family retained ownership well into the twentieth century. In 1862, George Williams – the owner of the homestead block – rented it to William Freeman, his brother-in-law. The farm was constantly being flooded, and in 1867 Freeman decided not to move out of the house when it flooded. This flood was the biggest in recorded history, and Freeman was rescued from the top of his house.
By the 1850s, Castlereagh and Agnes Banks were mixed grazing and agricultural districts. Agnes Banks was a centre for large orchards of fine quality fruit, including peaches and oranges. As the towns of Penrith and Richmond developed, Agnes Banks remained essentially a rural outpost of both districts. Wool and wheat were initially popular, but by the 1880s had all but disappeared with orchards, dairying, market gardens and turf farms developing along the broad rich river flats. Dairying had become more popular by the beginning of the twentieth century, and wood-carting continued as a viable industry until recent times.
Wellington Freeman was an owner and lessee of farmland at Agnes Banks. On his farm he had a wooden house, presumably slab with a shingled roof. The farm was laid out in pastures, with an orangery, piggery and poultry farm. According to the Aldine Centennial History in 1888 Freeman 'rightly enjoys the fruits of his labours'. Freeman was typical of the land use patterns in the area. Another farmer was James Mortimer. He was born at Yarramundi, went droving in his younger days and in 1873 returned to Agnes Banks and purchased a two-acre (.8-hectare) block. He erected a slab cottage and lived there with his wife and nine children. Mortimer also rented a 20-acre (8-hectare) property on which he cultivated fruit trees and corn.
Building a community
Government services began to filter into this small community and became more formalised by the 1870s. Although there is evidence of an earlier school at Agnes Banks, application for the first government school in the area was made in 1874. It was named Yarramundi until it closed in 1908. The school reopened as Agnes Banks Public School in 1923, but finally closed in 1970. A post office operated from 1900 to 1966, providing a vital link to the main centres of Richmond and Penrith.
St Paul's Church of England was built in 1893 on land donated by Robert Farlow. It became the centre for social engagement for over 50 years. Concerts and harvest festivals were annual events on the social calendar. After the church closed, the building was relocated in 1991 to the University of Western Sydney Hawkesbury Campus and reinvented as the Owen Carter Memorial Chapel.
In 1895, the residents of Castlereagh, Berkshire Park, Agnes Banks, Cranebrook and Llandilo successfully petitioned the government to form a municipality under the name of Castlereagh. In 1895 there were 31 properties assessed for rates in Agnes Banks. Of these 27 had houses on them and they were generally farms or orchards.
In 1906, a quirky article appeared in the Windsor Gazette stating Castlereagh Council district demonstrated 'an air of serenity and tranquillity unparalleled in any other municipal sphere'. The article went on to state the area had no hotel, police station, court house or bailiff, doctor or chemist. The Mayor had informed the Justice Department that there had not been a public house in the municipality for at least 40 years and there was not the remotest possibility of there ever being one in the future! The reporter concluded that the monthly council meetings are 'marked by complete harmony'. In 1910 there were about 1,000 people living in the municipality in fewer than 200 houses. The council's annual income was just £250. In 1949, this small rural municipality amalgamated with Penrith, St Marys, and part of Nepean Shire to form Penrith Municipal Council.
Continuity with the past
The number of families who lived at Agnes Banks has changed little since its settlement in the early 1800s. Many descendants of these families still live on or near the land of their forebears. Local family names were Clemson, Devlin, Farlow, Freeman, Gavin, Pearce, Timmins and Williams.
In 1982 National Parks and Wildlife Service, in consultation with the Penrith City Council, established a nature reserve near Rickards Road to protect the unusual sand deposits in the district. It contains most of the remaining unaltered sand deposits, providing a benchmark for scientific and educational use, especially on ecological change and research into threatened species.
B Hardy, Early Hawkesbury Settlers, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst NSW, 1985
Robert Murray, and Kate White, Dharug & Dungaree: The History of Penrith and St Marys to 1860, Penrith City Council, Penrith NSW, 1988
Nepean District Historical Archaeology Group In Search of the Early Nepean Pioneers, A Post Settlement History Celebrating the Bicentenary of the 1803 Land Grants, Penrith, 2003
Nepean Family History Society, Municipality of Castlereagh Land Valuations 1895-1926, (CD-ROM), Emu Plains, 2007
NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service Castlereagh, Agnes Banks and Windsor Downs Nature Reserves Plan of Management , March 1999
Penrith City Library, Local Subject File, Agnes Banks
Lorraine Stacker, Pictorial history: Penrith & St Marys, Kingsclear Books, Sydney, 2002
C Stickley, The Old Charm of Penrith, 2nd edition, the author, Glenbrook NSW, 1984
'The Sub-division of Agnes Bank', Eather Family Newsletter, April 1989