Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The Blue Mountains and the Ashes

The Ashes urn and the 1883 embroidered bag

The cricket season now drawing to a close has marked for cricket fans the 100 year point since the legendary "Ashes" were created amid the excitement and enthusiasm of those "golden years" of cricket at the end of the nineteenth century.

It is perhaps of some interest for those of us who live in the Blue Mountains to know that our region has had some connection with a number of the people who helped shape the early contours of the story a century ago.

When, on that sultry and overcast August day, in 1882, players came onto The Oval at 12 noon, probably none of the 20,000 spectators expected the events they were about to witness.

The strong Australian bowling combination was not anticipated and, led by "The Demon" Spofforth, proceeded to wreak havoc on the English batsmen.

The colonials' victory by seven runs was the first Test win on English soil and the humiliation was widely felt.

The famous mock obituary appearing in print shortly after the match announced the death and cremation of English cricket with the imaginary ashes to be taken to Australia.

T. W. Garrett as a young man

Part of that famous bowling combination was a young right-arm medium pace bowler named Thomas William Garrett who, five years before, had played in the very first Test in Melbourne at the age of 18.

Garrett had a distinguished cricket career, touring England three times and playing in 19 Tests for Australia.

As well as bowling, he was a fine cover fieldsman and also had some success with the bat, scoring several first class centuries for NSW.

During the 1890s he was a successful cap­tain of NSW leading his team to victory in the Sheffield Shield on two occasions.

Off the field, he was a solicitor and civil servant and in the early years of this century, following his retirement from competitive cricket, Garrett and his family moved out of Sydney to the Blue Mountains where he became a resident of Springwood,

He lived comfortably in "Braemar" and was an active member of the Springwood Progress Association.

His continued contribution to the admin­istration of cricket and his encouragement of young players like Victor Trumper made him something of a legend in cricketing circles by the time of his death in 1943.

Cricketer T.W. Garrett, of Sydney, who played in the
first Test match between England and Australia.
SMH Picture by STAFF

Following the defeat of 1882 a team of English cricketers, captained by the aristo­crat Ivo Bligh (Lord Darnley), set out to retrieve the mythical "Ashes" so unceremon­iously transported by the upstart colonials.

It was nothing less than a crusade to "resurrect" the honour of English cricket.

It was during this Test series, played in the Australian summer of 1882-1883, that the real Ashes came into existence.

Again, persons at one time associated with the Mountains played a not insignificant part.

Australia won the first Test in Melbourne and it looked as if the currency lads were going to do a proper job of trampling on English pride.

Even the London "Times" could not bring itself to record the defeat and reversed the result in its report. But the England team rallied and won the next two matches and hence the series. Honour was restored.

Following the British victory and before the tourists returned home, their captain was presented with three things that have become sacred relics in the folklore of Anglo-Australian cricket and are protected with almost religious zeal by the MCC.

These were, some ashes supposedly of one of the Third Test bails, a small pottery urn and an embroidered red velvet bag.

Of the three it is the red velvet bag that is of interest to us for its story is linked with one of the prominent families of early Katoomba.

Anne Fletcher

The bag was the gift of Mrs. Ann Fletcher whose husband, John W. Fletcher, was man­aging a school in the Sydney suburb of Woollahra at the time of the Test series.

A year later, in 1884, the Fletchers were to move to Katoomba where they opened The Katoomba College, a boarding school for boys, in the building that was later to become the Royal Coffee Palace and then the headquarters of the Blue Mountains City Council.

John W. Fletcher

The Fletchers were active in Katoomba life and affairs throughout the 1880s until the depression of the early 1890s forced the school's closure in 1893.

The name of the building was changed to The Priory and Mrs. Fletcher ran it as a boarding house until 1896 when the family returned to Sydney.

The Royal Coffee Palace, Katoomba 

Sport was a strong interest in the Fletcher family.

Mr. Fletcher played most games well, and in the case of soccer and golf, was prominent in establishing these sports in Australia.

The Fletchers' eldest son, John William, played cricket for Paddington with Victor Trumper and later represented Queensland in 1909-10.

A close friend of the family was the Yorkshire born watercolourist William Blamire Young.

It is quite possible that he was the designer of the embroidery that decorates the velvet bag as he often created designs for Mrs. Fletcher to work upon. He, too, was a resident of Katoomba in the 1880s being appointed assistant master at The Katoomba College in 1885.

A letter from Ivo Bligh thanking Mrs. Fletcher for her gift is housed with the other relics at Lords.

Before the tourists set sail with their reco­vered treasure they played a further match against a full strength Australian team in Sydney during February 1883.

Tom Garrett, who had taken only three wickets and scored only 16 runs (three ducks) in the previous three Tests, was dropped and into the team came Edwin Evans, an accurate round arm spin bowler from NSW.

In 1877 he had starred for NSW taking 5 for 94 against James Lillywhite's English professionals.

He also had the reputation of being an above average tail-end batsmen and he later toured England with the Australians in 1886.

Evans is the final link between these events surrounding the creation of the Ashes and the Mountains.

His father, James Evans, was the first licensee of the Pilgrim Inn at Blaxland (1830).

After first leasing the property, he pur­chased it in 1833 and then re-sold it toward the end of the decade.

Moving into farming on the Nepean the large family became well known and respected in the district.

The Australians were successful in this last match but, with the Ashes safely in their keeping, Bligh's team set sail again for England.

Despite Australia's many victories since, the Ashes themselves have never returned. Such is life.


Author: John Low, first published Blue Mountains Gazette 16 Feb 1983

Editor: John Merriman, Local Studies Librarian  

Images from the Local Studies collection unless otherwise stated




Monday, September 21, 2020

Death of a horse-breaker at Medlow Bath - Alfred Hermann FISCHER (c.1896-1917)


Alfred Fischer, Internment Camp photo 
National Archives of Australia (NAA D3507 1507)

It is the early hours of Saturday 1st December 1917, the overnight passenger train from the Central West township of Orange is steaming through the night on its way to Sydney. On board two men sit silently in a locked third class compartment. One man wearing civilian clothing lies back on the hard seat trying to sleep amid the constant rocking and clattering of wheels on the iron rails. On his wrists he wears a pair of steel handcuffs. The other man, his guard and escort, wears a khaki military uniform with a corporal’s single chevron, and also dozes fitfully. The guard's name is Brown. The man in the handcuffs is Alfred Hermann Fischer, who along with many of his countrymen and women had immigrated from Germany seeking a new life and new opportunities, dreams now cut short by the momentous events in far-away Europe, where men fight and die over a foot of mud.

By 1914 over 100,000 Germans were living in Australia, comprising around 2% of the population of five million. They were a well-established and generally well-liked community. However with the rising tension between the British and German Empires this began to change and German-Australian communities throughout the country found themselves the subject of suspicion and animosity. When war broke out in August 1914 that changed to outright hostility. Australia was rife with war fever and ordinary citizens were keen for ways to get involved, to ‘do their bit’. The sinking of the German light Cruiser SMS Emden by the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney in the Cocos Islands was one of Australia’s first actions of the war and excited the nation. The event created hysteria about possible German naval attack, immediately establishing cultural and national divisions within the community.

Within a week of the declaration of war, German and Austro-Hungarian residents of Australia were forced to register with the police. A fear of possible German-Australian 'conflicted loyalties' led to several regulations under the War Precautions Act 1914, such as forbidding German-Australians to leave Australia or send money overseas. These immigrants, naturalised subjects and German-speaking Australian-born, rapidly moved in the Australian consciousness from 'our Germans' to 'enemy aliens'.

It is now 3.00 am by the platform clock as the train pulls out of Mt Victoria station at the top of the Blue Mountains range west of Sydney. Alfred Fischer quietly sits up, opens his eyes and checks the station name. He massages his wrists where the handcuffs have dug into the flesh, not long now. At 22 years of age he is a small, quiet man, just 5’6” in height with brown hair, now dishevelled, and calm grey eyes. Beneath his shirt, his arms and chest are covered in tattoos that celebrate his life as a sailor,  horse breaker and stockman. On his right forearm appears a girl's head above a horseshoe, on his left forearm a bucking horse in a stockyard, on his chest a cowboy with a stockwhip and another bucking bronco. On his face a heavy scar runs down the left side where it cuts deep into the cheek bone: a memento of the stockyards and the wild bush horses.

Fischer had left his old life as a sailor and drifted up into Queensland looking for work, where he met up with a fellow German, Ernst Kuhlmann who was only a year older than himself. Both men soon gained the skills of stockman and station hands, well known for their horse breaking among the outback cattlemen and horse breeders. They were sober and industrious, they saved money and things were looking good for the future. Until that fateful day the police called and rounded them up with other German nationals, to be sent down south where they joined over 5,000 of their countrymen in the sprawling, crowded internment camp at Holsworthy military base, near Liverpool in south-western Sydney.

As the Great War progressed and propaganda about the ‘Hun’ German continued, the pressures on German-Australians increased. Many lost their jobs or found their communities no longer safe. Internment without charge or trial was implemented around the Country. By 1918 nearly 7,000 men, women and children had been interned in concentration camps by the Federal Government. 

Police Gazette notice, 21 November 1917 (Ancestry)

It was from Holsworthy, while assigned to a work party outside the camp, that Fischer and Kuhlmann had made a daring bid for freedom two weeks earlier. They made their way over 240 km to the country town of Orange where they hoped to find work on local farms and escape notice from the authorities. But Alfred could not stay hidden for long and was soon victim of an informer. Out of desperation he offered his gold signet ring to Constable Frazer the arresting officer, to let him go free. But the copper stood firm, Fischer was a prize and promotion could follow.

Alfred leans forward in his seat and clears his throat, it is time. “Kaporal, sir, I am needing the lavatory, most urgent, please you help me, yes?” Brown comes fully awake and curses quietly, “Alright now, I suppose you’ll be wantin’ the cuffs off, but mind you, I’ll be waitin’ outside, no tricks d’you hear me?” He quickly releases Alfred’s handcuffs, then unlocks the door of the compartment and the pair shuffle down the darkened corridor to the Gents at the end of the rocking carriage.

The minutes tick by as the train speeds downhill towards the small village of Medlow Bath, dominated by the new grand hotel Hydro Majestic established by society notable, yachtsman and department store owner Mark Foy. Then come the sounds of rising panic in the corridor, Brown is shouting and swearing and banging on the toilet door, whistles blow, heavy boots thump through the carriage; all to be drowned out by the roar of the passing west-bound goods train, rattling and buffeting the carriage windows in the night.

In the light of early dawn a group of railway fettlers find the broken body of a man lying on the rails just outside Medlow Bath station. The police and the undertaker are summoned from the nearby township of Katoomba and the plain wooden coffin is conveyed by cart to the police lockup at the courthouse, where the local G.P., Dr Alex Allen makes his examination.

The coroner brings down a verdict of ‘shock the result of injuries accidentally received through jumping from a train whilst endeavouring to escape from military custody’.

The burial at Katoomba cemetery on Monday 3rd December is a simple affair with no minister present. The undertaker records the place of death as ‘Killed on Railway Medlow Bath NSW’ and the informant as ‘Katoomba Police’. In December 1918, the authorities in Berlin issue an official German death certificate, on it the words ‘Medlow in Australier’ and the death date ‘1 Dez 1917’ can be read. The informant was his mother who reported that her son, a sailor and bachelor, 21 years of age of unknown religion, a resident of Dresden, was found dead in the region near Medlow Bath in Australia, hour of death unknown. 

German death certificate (Ancestry)

And there he lay as the decades passed, the moss-covered grave unmarked and soon forgotten in the bushland cemetery, out past the site where the foundation stone for the Blue Mountains District ANZAC Memorial Hospital would be laid in October 1925, under the shade of flowering gum trees, while above the chattering of parrots and the early morning warbling of magpies.

Graves Registration Certificate (Ancestry)

Following the cessation of hostilities at the end of WWII, the Commonwealth  War Graves Commission realised the need to consolidate the graves of enemy combatants and internees who had died in Australia and its territories in both World Wars. A site was identified near the Victorian town of Tatura where there had been a large WWII concentration camp for enemy aliens and POWs. A fine, new, purpose built German Military  Cemetery was established, which is now under the care of the Office of Australian War Graves. This cemetery contains the graves of 1 Turkish civilian,  190 German civilian internees of the 1914-1918 War and 60 German Army, German Air Force and German civilian internees of the 1939-1945 War.

Alfred Hermann Fischer
Tatura German Military Cemetery

In April 1961 the remains of Alfred Hermann Fischer were exhumed from Katoomba cemetery and re-interred in the Tatura German Military Cemetery, in a simple grave marked with a brass plaque, set in a wide, green lawn. Though far from his native land, the horse-breaker had regained his identity and could rest in peace.

Ernst Christian Kuhlmann, Internment Camp photo 
National Archives of Australia (NAA D3507 1509)

Alfred's companion and fellow escapee, Ernst Christian Kuhlmann was rearrested on the night of Saturday 29th January 1918 at Clermont near Summer Hill Creek outside Orange, where he had been working for a Mr Gazzard, an orchardist, he had enjoyed 43 days of liberty. Along with the other surviving internees, he was deported to Germany following the end of WWI.


John Merriman, Local Studies Librarian



Sue Schmitke at Tatura Irrigation and Wartime Camps Museum assisted with the death certificate translation

Shane at Find a



Coroner’s Reports,

National Archives of Australia:  D3597:Album of identification photographs of enemy aliens (civilian and prisoner of war) interned at Liverpool Camp, NSW during World War I (with index) see:

Wood Coffill (Katoomba) Burial Index 1916 to 1945, Blue Mountains Family History Society.

Newspapers on Trove

Escaped Prisoners of War. (1917, November 21). New South Wales Police Gazette and Weekly Record of Crime (Sydney : 1860 - 1930), p. 502. Retrieved September 8, 2020, from

GERMAN ESCAPEE RECAPTURED. (1917, December 31). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 5. Retrieved September 8, 2020, from

GERMAN REARRESTED. (1917, December 31). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), p. 6. Retrieved September 8, 2020, from

Apprehensions. (1918, January 16). New South Wales Police Gazette and Weekly Record of Crime (Sydney : 1860 - 1930), p. 34. Retrieved September 8, 2020, from  

HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE (1918, January 4). The Albury Banner and Wodonga Express (NSW : 1871 - 1938), p. 19. Retrieved September 8, 2020, from

ESCAPED INTERNEE ARRESTED. (1917, November 30). Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga, NSW : 1911 - 1954), p. 3. Retrieved September 8, 2020, from


Other Websites

The Office of Australian War Graves

AWM War graves

Tatura War Cemetery on Find a Grave



Tuesday, June 16, 2020

“We polished everything” Osborne Ladies College, Blackheath

From the 1925 Prospectus

Many would recall the story of Miss Appleyard and her College for Young Ladies depicted in the film “Picnic at Hanging Rock”. Located at Macedon in Victoria this story could just as easily have played itself out in the dramatic scenery of the Blue Mountains where, in the late 19th and first half of the 20th Centuries, many private-venture schools run by idiosyncratic, sometimes eccentric, educators were established. One such school was the Osborne Ladies College, which moved to Blackheath from the Sydney suburb of Epping in 1923.

The 1925 Prospectus

The college established itself in a large, three-storey building that had originally been intended as a hotel. The property looked out over the Kanimbla and Megalong Valleys and had access to a variety of popular walking tracks. The college prospectus proclaimed the virtues of its setting “amidst scenery unequalled the world over and in a climate which defies disease”. To the people of Blackheath its location was known as ‘Paradise Hill’.

In pursuing her aim to produce refined, public spirited young ladies the headmistress, Violet Gibbons, drew upon her own patriotic passion for Britain and the British Navy. In the words of a former student, this became her “magnificent obsession”. Not only did her school take its name from the Royal Naval Training College on the Isle of Wight, but naval jargon, procedure and tradition permeated all aspects of school life.

From the 1925 Prospectus
The school’s dormitories, classrooms, dining and assembly rooms and even the bathroom became ‘ships’ and sailed the educational seas under such famous names as Sirius, Sydney, Revenge, Rodney, Pelican, Neptune and Nelson. The system of authority within the school paralleled a naval structure of command, the younger students beginning as midshipmen, or ‘middies’, attaining the rank of lieutenant or captain in their senior years. Teachers were commanders and the headmistress the Admiral who addressed her crew from the quarterdeck or bridge.

The School Library
Discipline was strict and order and Spartan comfort characterized the daily routine. Some former students were grateful for this, feeling it strengthened and matured them, though a number found it harsh and not to their liking. Morning inspection parades ensured, according to the college prospectus, “that the general appearance of the pupils is up to the standard of the R.N. in cleanliness and smartness. “We polished everything”, recalled one student, “our shoes, our buttons and our gum boots. Lots of spit and polish.”

A Class Room
Uniforms were designed along naval lines with jackets sporting six brass buttons and marching was a regular feature of college life. The girls marched in formal fashion to welcome important guests at the school gates on patriotic occasions like Anzac Day and a long, silent crocodile marched down to the post office to collect the mail. In the early mornings, whatever the weather, they marched to warm up and get their circulation going. “It didn’t matter how cold it was or whether it was snowing, we all went under the house where we kept our gum boots – cold, cold gum boots – put on rain coats and marched up and down the drive in all kinds of weather and then came back, put our gum boots back on their ledges and our rain coats back on their hooks and had porridge.”

From the 1925 Prospectus
At its peak Osborne accommodated 50-75 students drawn mainly from country areas in NSW but also from inter-state and even beyond Australia. They came from a cross-section of economic backgrounds and were prepared for Intermediate, Leaving Certificate and Matriculation examinations in subjects ranging from English, History, Geography, French, Latin, Mathematics and Science to Art, Music, Elocution and Dancing. Commercial and Domestic Science subjects were also included along with Physical Culture (including Eurythmics).

Osborne’s best years were the 1920s and 1930s. It struggled on after World War II and eventually closed its doors following the death of Miss Gibbons in 1958. The old building was burnt to the ground in the 1980s.

What are we to make of such a school today? Its notions of the qualities required to be a ‘lady’ now seem ‘old fashioned’ and some of its educational methods probably appear eccentric, antiquated or even mistaken. Yet, the range of experiences in learning and physical activity offered was broad and, if one goes by published exam results, prizes won by pupils and the recollections of ex-students, the quality of its education seems to have been of a generally high standard. Headmistresses like Miss Gibbons were independent and admirable women at a time when the opportunities for females to pursue professional careers were, to say the least, few. Their schools, while certainly ‘of their time’, filled an important social and educational niche.


Author: John Low, former Local Studies Librarian, Blue Mountains Library

Editor: John Merriman, Local Studies Librarian, Blue Mountains Library

All images from the Local Studies collection

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

A Church on Pulpit Hill - Unlocking a Blue Mountains Mystery

Edgar Church's headstone (photo by John Merriman)  
It has long been popularly held that a number of convicts who died while working on road gangs in the Blue Mountains were buried at Pulpit Hill, just west of Katoomba.  There are also folk traditions that free ‘pioneers’ were interred there.  However, when it comes to verifying these traditions, there are few accurate sources.  In the years after the Western Road to Bathurst was opened to traffic in 1815, Pulpit Hill became a recognised resting place for travellers and stock. In the 1830s there appears to have been a stockade in the vicinity and, in 1835, the ‘Shepherd & His Flock Inn’ opened for business.  There was also a police lock-up established there in the early 1860s.  

Until now, the only nineteenth-century reference to graves in the vicinity came from the account of the French surgeon, René Primevère Lesson (1794–1849), who travelled over the Blue Mountains to Bathurst in early 1824.  In his journal, an extract of which was translated by Olive and Ward Havard and published in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Lesson wrote:

‘. . . we climbed a high eminence where the road formerly passed, for to-day it winds on the mountain side taking an easy grade. M. d’Urville and I climbed this old road with difficulty and we enjoyed the view of enormous precipices, deep chasms, in short the ruins of nature, which impressed us deeply. On this wind-beaten height stand rocks of various shapes. One of them bore the epitaph of a young man who died there in 1822, and whose still fresh grave will make me call this mount Mount Sepulchre.’[1]

Cox's Road of 1815 ascending Pulpit Hill (photo by John Merriman)
The burial traditions received virtually no mention in the early tourist guides. Perhaps this was a symptom of the social attitude referred to by local museum curator Melbourne Ward who found that, even in the 1940s, ‘it is not usual to mention the Convict, it is a subject to be hastily skimmed over or not mentioned at all.’ While convict relics were featured in his museums at Medlow Bath and Katoomba, he remained aware that to ‘many Australians the relics of those times are barbarous and should be forgotten.’[2]  An exception appears to be the Blue Mountains Railway Tourist Guide, published c. 1902. While there is no mention of the graves in the text, a map is included with the words ‘old cemetery’ located behind the Explorers’ Tree.  This map (printed originally by the Department of Lands, Sydney, in 1894) was re-used some years later by Harry Phillips in his The Blue Mountains & Jenolan Caves Illustrated Tourist Guide (c. 1914).  

In the debate over the authenticity of the Explorers’ Tree which was conducted in the letter columns of The Sydney Morning Herald in August-September 1905 there was, it would appear, no reference made to the graves at all (unlike the later debate in the columns of The Blue Mountains Echo in June 1983). There are, however, several interesting later references which also raise the question of just how many graves are supposed to be on Pulpit Hill.

In 1921 Mr G. Elliott, a resident of Katoomba, told ‘of how, over 60 years ago, he first saw these graves. At that time there were only three, and that long after the convicts had left the Mountains. Now these primitive memorials have been added to. By whom?’[3] The Sydney Morning Herald in March 1933 reported that: ‘Some twenty-two graves may be clearly discerned to-day, but the majority would seem to be the work of vandals and hoaxers. Twenty years ago, when Mrs Taylor, the wife of a rector of Katoomba, visited the spot there were only five, and, according to a Mr Peckman, an 84-year-old Katoomba resident . . . interviewed two or three years ago, there were originally only three. If Mr Peckman’s recollection is correct, it would seem that only three convicts were buried on Pulpit Hill.’[4]
In the 1930s a visitor from Britain commented: ‘On a local map is marked “Convict Graves” behind the Explorers’ Tree on the Bathurst Road. I visited these graves, and, to my surprise, found they consisted of sixteen heaps of rough stones, representing sixteen graves. At the foot of one grave is a stone, on which is roughly carved the name “Picot”, the remainder are nameless. As Picot is a common French name, this convict was probably French, or of French descent. I spoke to a local resident, who remembered when a wooden cross giving the name was on each grave, but they were all destroyed in a bushfire, and never replaced.’[5]
In 1960 Mr L. G. Bogus of Merriwa Street, Katoomba, a resident of the town for seventy years, wrote: ‘On the hill above the Explorers’ Tree there were seven mounds of earth and stones, which were said to be convicts’ graves . . . As a lad, we often visited these “graves”, and someone seems to have cared for them, for we would often find fresh wild flowers and ferns on the mounds, and all dead leaves and rubbish had been brushed away.’  Mr Bogus went on to suggest another theory about the occupants of the graves: ‘We were told that people from Katoomba and Megalong Valley had cared for these “graves”, some being aborigines [sic] who lived in Megalong Valley and in camps in the bush near where Catalina Park is now.’[6]
An unidentified grave on Pulpit Hill (photo by John Merriman)
During the debate about the Explorers’ Tree and the ‘graves’ in 1983, local naturalist and historian Isobel Bowden stated in a letter to the Mayor of the City of Blue Mountains that: ‘Sixty-five years ago the site [Pulpit Hill] was regarded as a genuine burial ground where several graves existed. More recently the area has been interfered with and the stones moved and scattered . . .’ As a child, she added, she had been taken up to see the graves.[7] Furthermore, a Mr. Edward Thompson, who wrote to The Blue Mountains Echo from Adelaide, was reported to have ‘visited the Tree in 1903 at the age of 10 and claims at that time there were three graves which belonged to a convict and two children - all of whom died of diphtheria. When [he] returned seven years later with friends, there were several more mounds of stone and the small ones had been lengthened.’[8]

Despite this conflicting evidence of multiple graves, when the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) of New South Wales employed consultants to conduct a Ground Penetrating Radar study in 2000, they determined that ‘there appears to be only one potential grave site in the investigated area’. They qualified this conclusion, however, by saying that if burials were shallow ‘the natural processes of weathering and the acidic nature of the soil’ might have erased all trace.[9]

If there is only one grave at Pulpit Hill, it is now possible to say with certainty who is buried in it.  It will be recalled that in the earliest known reference to a grave in the area, the French surgeon René Lesson referred to his travelling companion M. d’Urville.  This was Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d’Urville (1790—1842), second in command of the Coquille, on which Lesson arrived in New South Wales in January 1824. He was later a significant Pacific and Antarctic explorer in his own right and also an important naturalist and ethnographer in our region.  Jules Verne, mentioned him in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and he is sometimes called ‘The French Captain Cook’.  Despite this, he is absent from the Australian Dictionary of Biography, just one example of how anglocentric our history still is!  The Mitchell Library has preserved a transcript of d’Urville’s shipboard journal during the voyage of the Coquille.  The original is held by the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris.  However, this account is little more than a navigational summary.  Far more interesting is what survives of d’Urville’s personal journal for this voyage, which Edward Duyker located in a bank vault in the explorer’s birthplace, Condé-sur-Noireau, Normandy, in 2007.   The preservation of the journal is all the more remarkable, because in the three months after the D-Day landings in 1944, the town was bombed 26 times by the Allies and 94% of its buildings were destroyed.

Despite d’Urville’s truly forbidding handwriting, in his journal we can read that he described the view from Pulpit Hill as that of an ‘immense diorama’. And that unlike Lesson–who makes no actual mention of Pulpit Hill and wrote cryptically of ‘Mount Sepulchre’ because of the ‘still fresh grave’ of a young man who died there in 1822–d’Urville, actually recorded, in English, what was written on the tomb.  Thus his journal now provides us with an opportunity to reinstate the long lost inscription: ‘Sacred to the Memory of Edgard [sic] Church who has departed this life, the 20 Juny [sic] 1822, aged 27 years’.[10] He also guessed, correctly, that this young man was ‘an unfortunate convict’[11] who died during road construction.  Edgar Church received a sentence of 7 year’s transportation at the Old Bailey, on 4 December 1816, for grand larceny: stealing, on the 9th of November, one trunk, value 16s., the property of Henry Bott and Wm. Payne [trunk makers in Leadenhall street,  London]’.[12] He was one of 220 convicts transported on the 566-ton Batavia (Capt. William Lamb) which departed Plymouth in October 1817 and arrived at Sydney, via Madeira, on 30 April 1818.[13] The Colonial Secretary’s Papers indicate that he was sent to Parramatta on arrival.[14] There is some discrepancy in his age cited by Dumont d’Urville on the grave inscription and his age given at the Old Bailey in December 1816 when he was said to have been 19 years old.  He was therefore born in either 1795 or 1797. 

The members of road gangs tended to be fitter, yet more trusted convicts, because of the greater opportunities such work offered to abscond and to turn to bushranging.  Despite the initial road constructed under the direction of William Cox, realignment, widening, new cuttings and repairs continued–indeed they still continue. Convict road workers were at risk of accidents from falling rocks and trees.  The accounts of early travellers on the road frequently record the difficulties horses, wagons and carts had on its steep gradients and loose surfaces.  Such conditions also presented numerous possibilities for fatal accidents.  However, Edgar Church’s life was not cut short by such an accident.

We know something of the actual circumstances of Church’s death from two depositions sworn before William Lawson, Justice of the Peace, at Bathurst on 23 June 1822.[15] Charles Connells an illiterate crown prisoner, declared that ‘on or about the 10th [sic] of June last 1822 he came to the road mens Huts on the Mountain Road about 9 o’clock at Night and was in one of the Huts lying down’ when two men from the road party came in from another hut, crying, and stated ‘Edgar Church was dead’.  Two men from Connells’ hut then went to investigate and returned saying that it was true and that ‘they supposed that it was the rum that [Superintendent and overseer of the New Road] Mr [Richard] Lewis had given him and one of his hands being in his mouth which had occasioned his Death’.[16] The other deponent was John Atkins, also illiterate, the driver of the government mountain cart.  He, too, declared that Edgar Church, like all the other men, had been given spirits by Mr Lewis and that ‘an Hour before his death the man appeared quite well but went and laid down in one corner of the hutt with his hands clasped together and laid with his mouth down towards the ground, and one of the men shortly after went to remove him to his Bed and said that he was dead’.  Atkins added, that ‘on examining the man they found him a corpse’.[17]

Superintendent Lewis probably gave his convicts rum as a reward for their work, but given the need to keep them fit for more labour, it seems unlikely that he would have given them an excessive quantity (by the standards of the day) on that winter’s night in the mountains, in 1822.   The rum is unlikely to have been adulterated, since none of the other convicts appears to have been adversely affected.  Of course, Edgar Church could have had another illness exacerbated, with fatal consequences, by alcohol.  This might have included mental health issues associated with poverty, the shame associated with criminal conviction and the ill-effects of an alcohol-based reward system. If Edgar Church drank all his ration in a very short period of time, he might simply have died from alcoholic poisoning which is known to have a severe effect on the respiratory system.  His ability to breath, while unconscious, could also have been hindered by his posture in the corner of the hut and the position of his hands near his face and mouth. 

Edgar Church’s sad death, nearly two centuries ago, highlights a debate in Australia about safe levels of alcohol consumption which is still with us to this day. And now that we know who he was, we should put a name to his nameless grave.  May he rest in peace, but no longer in anonymity.


Authors: Edward Duyker and John Low

Edward Duyker (Hon. Sen. Lecturer, Department of French Studies, University of Sydney), his book on Dumont d'Urville was published by Otago University Press in 2014 with the title "Dumont d'Urville, Explorer & Polymath"  

John Low is the former Local Studies Librarian at Blue Mountains City Library.

Editor: John Merriman, Local Studies Librarian, Blue Mountains Library

Note: this article originally appeared in the journal Doryanthes in 2009.

[1] Lesson, R. P., Journal, in Havard, O. and Havard, W. L. (trans.), ‘Some early French
 visitors to the Blue Mountains and Bathurst’, Royal Australian Historical Society
Journal and Proceedings, 1938, vol. xxiv, part iv, pp. 245–290 [part ii, Lesson’s
journal, pp. 260–90].
[2] From Ward’s notes quoted in Mauldon, Verena, Melbourne Ward’s Gallery of Natural History and Native Art, unpublished thesis, Sydney University,
1989, p. 39.
[3] The Blue Mountain Echo, 4 March 1921.
[4] The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 March 1933.
[5] Undated clipping from The Sydney Morning Herald, probably early 1930s, held in Local Studies Section, Blue Mountains City Library.
[6] The Blue Mountains Courier, 21 April, 1960.
[7] Letter dated 25 June, 1983, copy held in Local Studies Section, Blue Mountains City Library.
[8] The Blue Mountains Echo, 29 June 1983.
[9] Williams, S. ‘Pulpit Hill, Great Western Highway, Katoomba, NSW: Subsurface Investigation Using Ground Penetrating Radar To Identify Possible Grave Locations in a Cemetery on Pulpit Hill’, Egis Consulting Australia Pty Ltd for RTA [Roads and Traffic Authority] Technical Services, December 2000. Report No. CG1219 [copy held in the Local Studies Section, Blue Mountains City Library, Springwood].
[10] Dumont d’Urville, Ms journal de la Coquille 1823–4, Municipalité de Condé-sur-
Noireau, Ms 11, 1 février 1824, f. 130.  Whether d’Urville recorded the inscription in situ or at the end of his day’s travel is unknown.  It is possible he unconsciously recorded the common French spelling ‘Edgard’ and perhaps wrote ‘Juny’ because he could not discern (or remember) clearly whether Church died in June or July and therefore fudged the two months.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Proceedings of the Old Bailey, t18161204-14.
[13] See Australian Joint Copying Project, microfilm roll 88, Class and Piece Number HO11/2, Page Number 388 and Bateson, C., The Convict Ships, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1983, pp. 342–3.
[14] Colonial Secretary’s Papers, 4/3498, p. 151.
[15] ‘Depositions of John Connells and John Atkins respecting the  Death of Edgar Church one of the Mountain Road Party’, Colonial Secretary’s Papers, 4/1798, pp. 141–2, State Record Office of New South Wales, microfilm reel 6065.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.

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