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In 1813 a party of seven men, four horses and five dogs set out to find a way across the barrier to Sydney's western expansion now called the Blue Mountains. History has recorded only three names, Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth and early accounts also failed to record that, far from going into a vast uninhabited region, they were moving into the lands of the Darug and Gundungurra people, which had been a centre of human activity for at least 25,000 years.
A swamp, a hollow and an inn
However whatever else has been omitted from the records, there is no lack of early mention of the swampy nature of the place that was to become Lawson, a small Blue Mountains township 120 kilometres from Sydney. Blaxland described three acres (1.2 hectares) of rushy coarse grass with water running through it, while in 1817 John Oxley, the Surveyor General, officially put Christmas Swamp on the map. The origin of the name is lost in time but one reasonable guess suggests that it came from the Christmas Bell flowers that at one time flourished in the area.
Sydney officialdom had no time for such fanciful namings so, by the 1830s, in keeping with the practice of the times, the area was referred to as 24 Mile Hollow, the distance calculated from Emu Ford on the Nepean River.
Although a road built under the supervision of William Cox was completed from Sydney to Bathurst by January 1815, Sydney was a prison and movement across the mountains was officially strictly controlled. Means of travel were slow, cumbersome and uncomfortable so a series of permanent stopping places along the road came into existence. By the 1820s Christmas Swamp had acquired a hut built by a certain Pembroke in what is now an archaeological area in the Lawson Public School playground. This hut in all likelihood existed mainly to serve rough grog to passing travellers both official and unofficial.
In the 1840s, the road across the mountains was improved and the volume of passing trade in both directions increased. Heavy oxcarts carrying supplies, and stock being driven to market, used 24 Mile Hollow as a resting place. Henry Wilson purchased 100 acres (40.4 hectares) of land and built the first Blue Mountain Inn, on the site of Pembroke's hut, in 1845. He had to replace it very soon, after it burnt down. The name survived a third rebuilding of the inn, and soon it became the name of the whole area. Blue Mountain was on the map. Recent ground-penetrating radar surveys have revealed a complex archaeological site with many as yet unexplained features.
Meanwhile, the original builder of the hut, Pembroke, became the builder and original licensee of the Woodman Inn at Twenty Mile Hollow, now Woodford Academy. While the actual date of construction of the Woodman Inn is uncertain, Pembroke appears in the records as having a hut on the site by 1833 and is listed as the licensee of the Woodman Inn, Bathurst Road, for the years 1834 and 1835.
Steam trains and a divided village
With the opening in 1867 of a single track railway line from Penrith to Weatherboard (Wentworth Falls) the whole nature of the township changed. From being just one of a string of stopping places on the Sydney-Bathurst Road, it now began to grow into an important township. Blue Mountain Railway Station and Mount Victoria Station shared the status of listed permanent stations, rather than mere stopping places or platforms moveable at the whim of a wealthy man or commercial interests. A plentiful supply of water was probably the reason for this decision. It was pumped up from the valley on the north of the railway line (now the site of Wilson Park and the Lawson Olympic Pool) and stored in a wooden, later stone, reservoir in what is now the parking area for the Lawson Bowling Club.
However one result of the opening of the railway line was to draw official attention to the name Blue Mountain, which was stated to be causing confusion with 'Blue Mountains'. In 1879 in a general government move to tidy up placenames in the mountains, the name Blue Mountain was replaced with Lawson in honour of the explorer.
The railway line had a major impact on the structure of Lawson. The early retail centre of Lawson, and its post office, had been to the north in the Staples Cheap Cash Stores, part of a group of buildings still in use as an antique centre. After 1891, however, business moved to the southern side and the Post Office Stores were opened beside the Blue Mountains Hotel on what is now Douglass Square. From this beginning, the township of Lawson spread.
North Lawson remained an important precinct in its own right. The council chambers of the Blue Mountain Shire, covering the area from Emu Plains to Mount Victoria with the exception of Katoomba, were set up in the Lawson Mechanics' Institute in 1906. Until 1947 the council was housed in the building that is still in use as the Lawson Library. This northern precinct was also the site of the San Jose Sanatorium, later the Coffee Palace and then the Stratford School for Girls, a grand building that burnt down in 1980. This is now an archaeological site with its tower still standing to show the grandeur of the original building.
With an increasing need for water that the uncertain supply from the small railway dam could not meet, the railways built a dam at Wentworth Falls, and by 1903 water was being brought through to a large circular concrete reservoir on the north side of Lawson. After the electrification of the line in 1957 this reservoir was purchased by the Lawson Bowling Club for $300 in 1970 and it is still in use as its clubhouse. The original railway dam was also recycled. Always used by the braver members of the community as a swimming hole – local names such as 'Frog Hollow' and 'Snakey Gully' indicate the conditions – it was not until 1930 that the Shire Council, under the leadership of the Shire President Percy Wilson, gained full control of the whole site from the state government and embarked on a policy of redevelopment. The depression of the 1930s was used to good effect, with relief workers employed at road building, scrub clearing and cleaning out of the baths. The swimming baths thus created remained a major social centre. In 1968 the present Olympic Pool complex was built on this site.
One of the most desirable places on the mountains
As the quote from the 1918 Wilson Directory indicates, by the end of World War I Lawson had grown into one of the important tourist destinations in the Blue Mountains. At its height, Lawson could boast two major hotels on opposite corners of the present Douglass Square – the Blue Mountain Hotel (the fourth Wilson inn) and the Alameda Hotel built in 1887. The Alameda became The Grand Hotel in 1895 and was a most imposing building. There were also up to 27 guest and boarding houses in operation.
Signs of general community prosperity were also increasing. In 1885 postal services had moved from a receiving office on the railway station to the office connected with Staples Cheap Cash Stores north of the railway line. A permanent post office was established in 1892 in the Post Office Stores in what is now Douglass Square. A telephone exchange was added in 1910, with five subscribers, and in 1925 the existing post office and exchange premises were opened.
Electrical power reached Lawson in 1918, though at first it only provided for street lighting and residents near street lighting mains. Initially, the supply was limited to the hours between sunset and sunrise and not on moonlit nights. This power was provided by the Katoomba Electric Company which ran the generating plant at the rear of the Carrington Hotel. It was not until July 1931 that full electrical power reached Lawson from the transmission line from Lithgow via Blackheath. A gala day was reported for Lawson.
World War I left deep scars on Lawson, as on most small towns in Australia. The response to the tragedy was the creation in the township of an imposing memorial complex, an Honour Gardens and War Memorial, together with a major street renamed Honour Avenue. During and after World War I many such memorial gardens were planted, but few still remain in anything approaching their original form. The memorial gardens created by Sir John Sulman in Lawson in honour of his son killed in the war retain their original form, and are considered to be of national, not merely local, significance. A wooden archway was erected at the entry to Honour Avenue in 1920, and moved to the entry of Bellevue Park when the completed War Memorial was unveiled by the Governor Sir Walter Davidson in April 1923.
In 1896 a Literary and Debating Society had been established meeting first at the Old Farm (the second Blue Mountain Inn) and then in the Coffee Palace (later Stratford School for Girls). In 1899 the site now occupied by the Old Community Hall at the entrance to Lawson on the Great Western Highway was set aside by the colonial government under the School of Arts Act as the site for a Mechanics' Institute. The Literary Society built a temporary wooden building in 1899, and in 1903 a substantial masonry building was erected using recycled stone from the original Lawson and Mount Victoria railway stations.
Until its closure in 2004 this building became the heart of social and community life in Lawson. It served as the first home of the Blue Mountains Shire Council in 1906. Skating was a feature from 1912 and it was the site of Lawson's social evenings. In 1931 electricity was laid on and it became the town cinema although the first film night had been given by a travelling show way back in 1909. In 1990 it became the Mid-Mountains Youth Centre with the building of a new Community Centre elsewhere in Lawson.
On 19 September 1947 an era closed when the Blue Mountains Shire, with its headquarters in Lawson, was united with the City of Katoomba to form the Blue Mountains City Council.
Further changes were now facing Lawson. The motor car became available to an increasing population after World War II, and with the advent of comparatively cheap air travel to overseas holiday destinations the Blue Mountains became less of a tourist attraction. Lawson saw a steady decline in numbers of boarding houses and other tourist accommodation. The Grand Hotel, which had burnt down in 1932, was never rebuilt. In 2010 there is only one bed and breakfast establishment, with the Blue Mountain Hotel the sole survivor of that earlier era.
Once again Lawson is facing a new chapter in its history. With the planned widening of the Great Western Highway much of the historic township is threatened with demolition and reconstruction. What these changes will mean for Lawson only the future will show.
SJ Bentley, Christmas Swamp: A History of Lawson, Springwood Historical Society, Springwood NSW, 1986
The Nepean Times, 1882–1962
Heather Mollenhauer, A Historical Tour of Lawson, privately printed, revised edition, 2008
Gwen Silvey, Happy Days: Blue Mountains Guest Houses Remembered, Kingsclear Books, Crows Nest NSW, 1996, pp 86–88; 96–123
Allan E Searle, Historic Woodford and Linden, Springwood Historical Society, Springwood NSW, 1980