Tuesday, 25 February 2014

A Tale from the Burragorang

My grandmother, Eda Elecia Elizabeth Shoobridge, was born in the Burragorang Valley in the early part of the 20th Century. The Burragorang Valley was up in the Blue Mountains. I say “was” because it is now the site of the Warragamba Dam. All the farmers and other inhabitants were moved out and their homes flooded so that Sydney could have a secure water supply, a supply which is now under threat from mining.

My grandmother's family weren't the first to settle in the Burragorang, but they were among the first. Her great grandfather, George Pearce, came to the Valley in the 1830s, having worked off his convict sentence (I am working on a Matter of Conviction post for George, but his brother is complicating matters). He worked first as a cattle duffer (that's a cattle rustler, for those who were wondering) and then selected and cleared some land and began farming around 1836.

So, alright, not a super long tradition of being there, but after 70 years of her family being farmers in the area, it is safe to say that Eda was a Valley girl through and through. As I have stated in early posts, she didn't like talking about the past, but one thing she did talk about was her childhood in the Burragorang. Eda clearly loved the place and greatly missed it when her family moved up the mountains to Wentworth Falls when she was 13.

One of Eda's favourite tales of Valley life was one of our favourites too. We never tired of hearing it and it was frequently the requested topic of conversation. I shall do my best to recount it, but shall not do it justice.

My great grandfather, George Shoobridge, was a farmer on the Cox's River in the Burragorang Valley and my great grandmother, Hannah Maria Amelia ni Pearce, was a farmer's wife (read unpaid farm hand), mother and assistant to the local midwife (she later became a respected midwife in her own right).
George and Hannah in Wentworth Falls taken in Wentworth Falls in the late 1940s. Photo in private collection

Houses in those days were simple. There were few rooms, sometimes only one, and I don't mean bedrooms, I mean rooms. My grandmother remembered her home as being unlined wooden walls but neat as a pin. She and her sisters, Sarah and Isabella Ruth (known as Ruth), shared a room and all slept in the same bed. I don't know where their brother, Oliver George (known as George) slept. There had been a third sister, Sylvia, Ruth's twin, but she had died as an infant.

Farming was tough. Everything came from the farm that possibly could, and make do and mend was the motto to live by. But some essentials couldn't be provided and had to be bought in. When money was tight you did without. It wasn't poverty. My grandmother couldn't remember having to go hungry, and Hannah always made sure her children were neatly clothed, although running around on a farm and in the bush meant they didn't come home in the state they went out.

"Eda Shoobridge and friend" taken about 1910-12 in the Burragorang Valley. Any clues as to who the "friend" may be? Photo in private collection
Eda's memories were of a happy and peaceful existence, with one exception.

Every so often George Shoobridge would have to travel up out of the Valley to Wentworth Falls to buy the things they couldn't produce for themselves. The Burragorang was not an easy place to access1, this was not a quick trip down to the shops.

There was a local gang, Nanna called them bushrangers, led by an aboriginal man who fashioned himself King Billy. Whether he really was a leader warranting the title or just someone big-noting himself I can't say. Either is possible. This group, made up of Aboriginal and European ne'er-do-wells, kept an eye on the farmers in their area, watched their comings and goings. They knew that when George set out on his horse heading up to Wentworth Falls that he would be gone for several days and that Hannah and the children would be home alone. They duly turned up outside the house. A shot or two would be fired as a sort of hello and King Billy would come up and knock on the door. On hearing the shots, Hannah immediately ordered her children to hide under her bed and be absolutely quiet. Then, on the knock, she would answer the door. Billy always asked nicely for the same thing – tea and damper for him and his men. Hannah had little choice, but she never panicked or showed any fear. She put the kettle on, got out mugs and started making damper. The gang would sit outside and smoke and talk, sometimes fighting amongst themselves, sometimes singing or joking. Under the bed the four children lay quietly and listened to everything that was going on, not daring to make a sound.

Finally the gang would be ready to leave. King Billy always thanked my great grandmother most politely, priding himself on being a gentleman, but there was never any suggestion of paying for the food and tea they had had. Sometimes there was a parting shot as they left, just as a reminder of how things stood.

The children crept out from under the bed and helped wash up. The yard was tidy, Billy saw to that, part of his gentlemanly charade.

One day King Billy and his gang stopped showing up. It must have been a relief to Hannah, but the children wondered what had happened. Had he died? If he and the gang had been caught surely it would have been big news. Had they just moved on to pastures new? Eda never found out, but even as an old lady she would smile as she told us of her brush with bushrangers and the quiet courage of her mother.
1  See Owen Pearce's “Rabbit Hot Rabbit Cold” for a good description of the precarious roads and paths that farmers and visitors had to use.


  1. Interesting read, I was wondering if your George Shoobridge was related to my William Shoobridge from Burragorang Valley? He is my Great great grandfather. My Grandmother was Rachel Johnson from the Valley who married Percy Kenny.

  2. They may well be brothers. Feel free to contact me by email and we can swap info. I think the whole Valley was pretty much all related :)