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Mount Wilson

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Mount Wilson

[media]Mount Wilson is a basalt-capped eminence to the north of Bells Line of Road, in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. The basalt soils which cover much of the mountain top are nutritious and support richer vegetation than the sandstone-derived soils all around. Its rainforest trees and understorey of ferns and tree-ferns were familiar to Aboriginal people for thousands of years and made a powerful impression on the first Europeans to come there.

On missing Mount Wilson

Up to 1868, the area north of Bells Line of Road was little explored by Europeans. The main traffic across the mountains had continued to be Surveyor-General Mitchell's version of Cox's Road which ran to the south of the Grose Valley gorge, and became the present Great Western Highway. Bells Line, first surveyed in 1823 by Archibald Bell, ran along ridges to the north of the Grose Valley, from North Richmond through Kurrajong to the Darling Causeway, and presented travellers with the perils of crossing Mount Tomah.

The awesome bulk of Mount Tomah defeated wheeled vehicles until the 1870s and as a result Bells Line remained basically a drove-road for cattle and sheep throughout the nineteenth century. [1] Bilpin and Berambing remained lightly populated and their daunting hinterland was not much explored after William Govett made an initial survey of the area for Mitchell in 1832. The critical change came when George Bartley Bowen, who, like his grandmother, held land at Mount Tomah, found his way in 1867 to the rich basalt outcrops of Mount Wilson by crossing the Bowens Creek gorge (named after his father George Meares Countess Bowen) and emerging near Waterfall Creek (where Syd and Albert Kirk later had their sawmill). The elder Bowen contacted the Deputy Surveyor-General, PF Adams, who, after consulting Govett's 1833 map, realised that the hazards of Bowens Creek could be avoided by following what is now Mount Wilson Road along a spur running north-east from Bells Line of Road. Accordingly in 1868 Adams sent surveyor Edward Wyndham out to confirm the promise of Mount Wilson. [2]

Zigzagging to Mount Wilson

The railway across the Blue Mountains was far advanced by 1868 and the decision to build the Great Zigzag down into Lithgow Valley via Mount Victoria and the Darling Causeway meant that Mount Wilson suddenly became a less remote location. The government from the outset intended to sell residential subdivisions on the rich basaltic land. As a result, the Mount Wilson reserve gazetted in 1868 was promptly revoked in 1869 and in 1870 lithographs of Wyndham's plan were distributed, showing 62 portions available for purchase from the crown via an agent in Windsor. There was, however, no immediate interest in purchasing the land: one portion was sold late in 1870 but there were no further sales until 1875. The flurry of sales in 1875 coincided with the opening of Mount Wilson railway station, near the present village of Bell.[3]

Only 54 of the portions lay within the area now familiar as the core village of Mount Wilson: Wyndham's portions 55 to 62 lay further out on the Mount Irvine road, accessed by what are now Farrer Road East and Farrer Road West. [4] It is in this area, right on the western boundary of portion 55, that the only known survivor of the trees marked by Wyndham in 1868 precariously survives today.

When Wyndham surveyed Mount Wilson in 1868 it was still untouched by white settlers or timber-getters and the Aboriginal context was largely ignored. The surveyor later recalled that it was:

very difficult to make any progress owing to the immense timber and thick undergrowth. All the time I was there I never saw the least sign that any human being had been there before, either axe marks or any other sign. [5]

Access to Mount Wilson along the north-east spur was still arduous – not preposterous like the route down and up the gorge of Bowens Creek but arduous enough. The final approach to what became known as The Avenue was very steep and a zigzag section of road is still necessary today – the present zigzag is a 1950s improvement to the track. Wyndham cut his own zigzag, which, although now bypassed, is still quite visible, with the bend some 200 metres north-east of the present bend, and he opened a bluestone quarry right on the bend to supply road metal. [6] The zigzag is short and trifling compared to the railway's great series of zigzags nearby which involved the building of tunnels and viaducts from Clarence down into Lithgow Valley. The Mount Wilson zigzag is also small compared to the surviving series of zigzags which had brought Bells Line down from Kurrajong Heights in the 1820s. But the old Mount Wilson zigzag is a significant section of the road by which would-be purchasers or their agents came to view the new subdivisions in the 1870s.

Early visions

The portions offered for sale were in the main between 7 and 12 acres (3 to 5 hectares), although some of the outlying portions were as large as 40 or even 56 acres (16 or 22 hectares). There were only 34 purchasers for the 62 portions. As a result, the land controlled by individuals, such as Richard Wynne from Burwood or the speculative Riverina squatter William Hay, was often quite substantial. Public servants who knew something of the potential of Mount Wilson were prominent from the start. No fewer than six of the first purchasers were members of the Surveyor-General's Office, including Adams himself who had ordered the survey, and two more were Treasury officials. [7] They were soon joined by another draftsman from Adams's department, Eccleston du Faur, a widely cultured man, who bought part of what is now Breenhold, built a wooden hut there and encouraged the admiration of the sublime. [8]

Although du Faur did not continue to live at Mount Wilson after about 1888, his influence was considerable: Du Faurs Rocks commemorate him today. In particular he encouraged a friend, Lewis Thompson, to become a permanent resident, caretaking the new settlement on behalf of the new absentee landowners. [9]

Thompson was the first of an essential category of Mount Wilson residents, the caretakers and gardeners, who gave the continuity which the peculiar nature of the settlement required. The most prominent of these were members of the Kirk family who are still influential in Mount Wilson today. [10] None of the early purchasers sought to live primarily in this remote place: Mount Wilson was the ultimate Australian hill-station, on the Indian model, where the well-to-do of the plains could retreat in summer. Only a small proportion of the 34 initial purchasers actually built houses at all. Some, like William Hay, were speculators and sold quite rapidly. Sydney lawyer Thomas Salter, and Judge Sir Alfred Stephen and three of his lawyer sons, all bought early, but only Matthew Stephen built a house, called Campanella, in 1878. Charles Brownrigg, former superintendent of the Australian Agricultural Company, based near Newcastle, bought what is now Silva Plana reserve and sold it in 1876 to a succeeding superintendent, Edward Merewether, who was about to retire. In turn Merewether enthused about the place to his own successor, Jesse Gregson, who bought a portion in 1877. As a result, Merewether built Dennarque in 1879 and Gregson built Yengo in 1878–80. [11]

Mount Wilson's foundation houses

The earliest of the summer retreats erected in this first period of Mount Wilson was the work of Richard Wynne, who had made his fortune in building materials in Sydney and was the inaugural mayor of Burwood in 1874. His first purchases from the crown in Mount Wilson in 1875 totalled 93 acres (38 hectares) in six portions and by 1882 he held some 300 acres (121 hectares). In 1875 he built the two-roomed cottage which is the earliest building surviving in the village and before his death in 1895 he had constructed two more substantial cottages, a remarkable Turkish Bath, crenellated stables and a hexagonal gatehouse. The stone mansion Wynstay, built in 1922–23 for Richard Wynne's grandson, brought the estate to full maturity. [12]

The northerly aspect of the 1922–23 Wynstay house, built to take advantage of the best of Mount Wilson's views from its verandah, was not paralleled by the earlier Wynne houses nor by any other of the eight major houses in nineteenth-century Mount Wilson. These foundation houses were: Hay's Nooroo (for most of the twentieth century in the hands of the Valders); Merewether's Dennarque; Gregson's Yengo; Matthew Stephen's Campanella; Bebeah, built by Edward Cox of Fernhill in the Mulgoa valley; Beowang (now Withycombe), built by his cousin, George Henry Cox of Burrundulla near Mudgee; a cottage (later a billiard room to Sefton Hall) and Balangra (now Sefton Cottage), built by George Cox's brother James; and Wynstay/Yarrawa itself. [13]

The supporting cast

The attention which has been paid by historians and architects to these foundation houses (of which all but Campanella survive in some form or other) and to their wealthy owners has obscured the rest of the Mount Wilson population. In the 1870s the area was busy with timber-getters, cutting sleepers for the railway to the west as far as Orange: the tangible evidence of their activity still lies on the floor of the earliest cottage at Wynstay. [14] The initial roadworks created a camp of workmen near Robert Kirk's hut just south of the zigzag and the building works created a camp for men employed by the contractor Nutman closer to the village. Mrs Olive rented Lewis Thompson's former hut from Eccleston du Faur and opened a general store in the mid-1870s. [15] Caretakers and gardeners (such as Smith at Yengo and Sharp at Beowang) were needed to look after the initial houses and develop the gardens which were being created from the rainforest: they occupied cottages built on the estates. By 1891 the census shows that there were 14 families other than the Merewethers, Gregsons and Wynnes in Mount Wilson on census day. Those actually in residence that day totalled 57, including children. [16]

As a result a provisional school was built in 1891. The patronage of the wealthy absentee owners was an essential element. George Cox, Edward Merewether and Matthew Stephen had successfully petitioned the government for a school and George Cox supplied the timber: the schoolhouse was built on a small piece of crown land which not been offered for sale. [17] The Department of Education noted that Mount Wilson was 'a peculiar case':

The school was built and furnished in a handsome manner by Cox, Judge Stephen, Merewether and Wynne specially for children of their caretakers … It would be unjust and injudicious to close the school so long as a dozen children attend. [18]

The school maintained critically low numbers and closed periodically for short periods. Colonel Wynne, part of the next generation at Wynstay, opened his own school around 1930 for the Gregsons of Yengo, the Valders of Nooroo and his own three children, with a governess installed in the 1880 cottage now known as Old Wynstay, but when the public school reopened in 1936 Helen Gregson and Peter Valder were among the pupils, along with the caretakers' children. [19] Mount Wilson was indeed 'a peculiar case'.

An exceptional summer retreat

The village is exceptional because of its relative remoteness. Comparison with other summer retreats in the mountains is instructive. Most of the mountain retreats built by coastal people of substance lay close to the railway line from Lapstone to Mount Victoria and were designed for occasional but not infrequent occupancy. At Faulconbridge, for example, Sir James Martin, his friend Sir Alfred Stephen and another friend, Professor Charles Badham of the University of Sydney (who, like Stephen, bought but did not build at Mount Wilson) had country estates close to the private rail halt called Numantia. These three visited their country estates frequently throughout the year, often at weekends. Their neighbour, Sir Henry Parkes, commuted from his parliamentary business and his lodgings in town from 1878 to 1882, and his sick wife and two daughters were in semi-permanent residence. Faulconbridge was very much an extension of normal life in all seasons and an escape from tensions, certainly for Stephen and Martin, whereas Mount Wilson was seasonal. Almost all of Edward Merewether's letters from Mount Wilson in the 1870s are dated in the months of December or January. They refer enthusiastically to 'the abode of health and happiness', but the abode was occupied only in the summer months. [20]

At Kurrajong Heights, there was more of the hill-station atmosphere. But Kurrajong Heights was easily accessible from the Cumberland Plain by the best part of Bells Line of Road and attracted orchardists in the late nineteenth century, so that the hill-station aspect was substantially moderated by commerce. [21] Later in the twentieth century, Mount Wilson developed its own nurseries and its own tourism based on the tree-ferns which had given Yarrawa, Dennarque and Beowang their original Aboriginal names and on the exotic gardens created out of the felled forest. But the basic character of Mount Wilson remained and remains, despite many changes in individual properties and in social mores, a hill-station which is unique in the state.

The commercial activity which made Mount Wilson possible, the quarries for building stone and road-metal, the timber for housing and fencing cut at the sawmills of Tom, Syd and Albert Kirk, the propagation of plants for the private gardens in conjunction with the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, is an intrinsic part of the hill-station origin, whereas it is an intrusion at Kurrajong Heights: the independent orchardists there were different from the caretakers and gardeners who were enmeshed in the Mount Wilson system. The children of orchardists and landowners attended the same Kurrajong schools, just as ultimately the children of caretakers, gardeners and landowners attended Mount Wilson public school, but they arrived by very different routes.

Paternal largesse

The development of Mount Wilson during the twentieth century owed much to a nineteenth-century sort of paternalism among the leading families. Old owners, such as the Wynnes of Wynstay and their descendants the Smarts, and new owners, notably Marcus Clark and his family at Sefton Hall (on the site of Cox's Balangra), gave generously of their spare land for community use. The Anglican church, an outstandingly successful design in asbestos cement on land given by Owen Wynne, was built in 1916 by the Clark children as a memorial to their father three years after his death. [22] The Village Hall, so vital a resource for such a community, was built in 1952 on land donated by Mrs Sloan of Bebeah, while Miss Helen Gregson of Yengo left a bequest which was used for the building and the Wynne family organised a campaign to build and fund the hall. [23] The provision of electricity to the village came in 1940 primarily through the influence of Charles Jefferson, a high-powered American electrical engineer who was also the father-in-law of Edward Gregson of Wyndham, formerly of Yengo. [24] But there was also a strong element of self-help and cooperation which spread throughout the entire community, led by the many members of the Kirk family who have been the custodians of a collective memory going back to the 1870s. [25]

Helen Warliker, born Helen Gregson in 1924, the daughter of Edward Gregson who built Wyndham in Wyndham Avenue when the family sold Yengo, wrote her reminiscences called A Mount Wilson Childhood in 1960. In her foreword, Mrs Warliker recalled that in the 1920s and 1930s:

Life was not idyllic but I think we were privileged to have been brought up in this unique environment, not only because of the beauty of its gardens and seemingly endless expanses of bushland which were our playground, but because of the diversity of people who formed the community. Long after my family had become fragmented and I and other contemporaries had moved away, there was still the feeling of an extended family and a strong emotional link remains to this day. [26]

A special kind of isolation

The diversity of the community is a key factor. In the twenty-first century, Mount Wilson is a still more diverse community, and larger because of further subdivision, but it retains the special character of isolation. In some ways, ironically, it is more isolated, with fewer facilities than in the past. There is no Mrs Olive selling 'bread of a sort' as Merewether grumbled in 1878; there is no longer a post office, either at Silva Plana or at Beowang/Withycombe or at 77 The Avenue; no refreshment-room can be relied upon to be open for the casual visitor. But public reserves and public toilets are liberally provided throughout the village and the tree-ferns and the gardens, whether Victorian, created between the wars or, like the splendours of Breenhold, created in the 1960s, attract people from all over the world. And among the newer homes, there is the Simpson-Lee house off Wynnes Rocks Road, completed in 1988 by Glenn Murcutt: it is a remarkable example of interplay in design and environmental setting between highly sophisticated, educated clients and a great architect. [27] Mount Wilson is the richer for this late addition. The village remains an exceptionally special place.



[1] M Hungerford, Bilpin the Apple Country: a Local History, the author with assistance from the Bilpin District Women's Association, Bilpin 1995, pp 66–7, 96

[2] CH Currey, Mount Wilson, New South Wales: Its Location, Settlement and Development, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1968, pp 9–29

[3] CH Currey, Mount Wilson, New South Wales: Its Location, Settlement and Development, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1968, pp 31–34

[4] State Records NSW, Map 10570

[5] CH Currey, Mount Wilson, New South Wales: Its Location, Settlement and Development, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1968, pp 27

[6] CH Currey, Mount Wilson, New South Wales: Its Location, Settlement and Development, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1968, pp 27–28

[7] Notebook of Eccleston du Faur, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, A 1629

[8] CH Currey, Mount Wilson, New South Wales: Its Location, Settlement and Development, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1968, pp 51–52

[9] CH Currey, Mount Wilson, New South Wales: Its Location, Settlement and Development, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1968, pp 51–2, photograph of slab hut, after p 53

[10] L Wynne, Seven Good Men, Mount Wilson Historical Society, Mount Wilson, 2000

[11] H Fraser, B James and A Mack, 'The Settlement of Mount Wilson', BArch thesis, University of New South Wales, 1969

[12] Ian Jack, Blue Mountains Heritage Inventory Form 1170575 for Wynstay, Blue Mountains City Council 2005, based on information supplied by Mary Reynolds and other members of the Mount Wilson and Mont Irvine Historical Society

[13] G Hughes, The Story of Mount Wilson in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Mount Wilson Progress Association, Mount Wilson, revised edition 1974, pp 7, 18

[14] Letter from E Merewether 1876, Newcastle Public Library, Merewether Collection, Box A/A/1876–1880

[15] Du Faur's notebook, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library, A 1629

[16] 1891 Census sub South Kurrajong, State Records NSW, Reel 2517

[17] CH Currey, Mount Wilson, New South Wales: Its Location, Settlement and Development, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1968, p 79

[18] State Records NSW, School files, Mount Wilson, 5/16975.3

[19] H Warliker, A Mount Wilson Childhood, the author, Killcare NSW, 1990, pp 48–50; Mount Wilson Public School roll, in private hands

[20] Newcastle Public Library, Merewether Collection, Box A/A/1876–1880

[21] V Webb, Kurrajong: A Early History, the author, Sydney 1980, pp 75–85, 116

[22] CH Currey, Mount Wilson, New South Wales: Its Location, Settlement and Development, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1968, p 93

[23] CH Currey, Mount Wilson, New South Wales: Its Location, Settlement and Development, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1968, p 100

[24] CH Currey, Mount Wilson, New South Wales: Its Location, Settlement and Development, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1968, p 99; H Warliker, A Mount Wilson Childhood, the author, Killcare NSW, 1990, pp 5, 12–16

[25] L Wynne, Seven Good Men, Mount Wilson Historical Society, Mount Wilson, 2000

[26] H Warliker, A Mount Wilson Childhood, the author, Killcare NSW, 1990, p i

[27] F Fromonot, Glenn Murcutt: Buildings and Projects, 1962–2003, Thames & Hudson, London, 2003