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How the mysteries of a pretty picture from yesteryear allows you to peel back the layers of the past

As I was scanning through my Facebook Newsfeed this morning I came across a pretty little picture that jumped out at me.

The image had been posted on the Lost Wollongong and Yesterday Stories Facebook page and also appeared on its Instagram and Tumbler social media.

The image attracted a host of likes and shares and comments like Phil HallWhat a delightful photo’ and Christine Mcmanus ‘It’s very charming’.

What is the appeal of the picture?

The picture has an aesthetic quality partly produced from the soft sepia tones of the image, and partly from the subject, which together gives the photograph a dreamy quality.  The ethereal presence of the image is hard to describe in words and the camera is kind to the subjects, who are well-positioned in a nicely balanced frame.

Wollongong WCL Couple on Mount Pleasant Railway early 20th century near Stuart Park
A couple relaxing on the Mount Pleasant Colliery railway at Stuart Park, North Wollongong in the early 1900s (Lost Wollongong Facebook page, 3 July 2016) The Royal Australian Historical Society caption says: ‘Photographer Aileen Ryan Lynch taking a photograph of M. Carey at Stuart Park Wollongong, March 1919’ (J Scott/RAHS)

The viewer of the picture is a time traveler into another world based on the New South Wales South Coast and is given a snapshot of a moment frozen in time. The observer has a glimpse of a world after the First World World in the present. For the viewer it as a form of nostalgia, where they create a romanticised version of the past accompanied by feelings that the present is not quite as good as an earlier period.

The world in the picture, a mixture of pleasure and for others despair, apparently moved at a slower pace, yet in its own way no less complex than the present. The picture speaks to those who choose to listen and tells a nuanced, multi-layered story about another time and place. It was 1919 in the coastal mining town of Wollongong.

The viewer is told a story about a setting that is full of meaning and emotional symbolism wrapped up in the post-First World Years. The picture grabs the viewers who pressed a Like on their Facebook pages. These social media participants found familiarity and comfort in the past that is an escape from the complicated present.

The picture provides an entry to a world that was apparently more authentic than the present.  As Harriet Richards from the University of Melbourne writes:

In response to today’s COVID-19 crisis, we are turning to old movies, letter writing and vintage fashion trends more than ever. Nostalgia is a defence mechanism against upheaval.

Escaping the Spanish flu pandemic?

The image is full of contrasts and unanswered questions. Why are the young couple in Wollongong? Why did they decide on Stuart Park for a photo-shoot? Are they escaping the outbreak of Spanish influenza at Randwick in January 1919? Does the NSW South Coast provide the safety of remoteness away from the evils of the pandemic in Sydney?

The female photographer is a city-girl and her male companion is a worldly reader of international news. They contrast with the semi-rural location in a coal mining area with its workman’s cottages and their dirt floors, and the hard-scrabble dairying represented by the post-and-rail fence in the distance.

The railway is a metaphor for the rest of a world outside Wollongong. The colliery railway is a link to the global transnational industrial complex of the British Empire at Wollongong Harbour where railway trucks disgorge their raw material.  On the other hand, the female photographer’s stylish outfit provides an entry into a global fashion world of women’s magazines, movies and newspapers.

The elegantly dressed couple in their on-trend fashion contrast with the poverty of the working class mining villages of the Illawarra coast. Photographer Aileen is described by local historian Leone Flay as ‘dressed for town’, contrasts with the post-and-rail fence on the railway boundary projects the hard-graft of its construction in a landscape of marginal dairy farming.

The remnants of the Illawarra Rainforest that border the railway point to the environmental destruction brought by British imperial policy and its industrial machinery. This contrasts with a past where the Dharawal Indigenous people managed the lush coastal forests that once covered the area along the banks of the nearby Fairy Creek.

Peeling back the layers of past within the picture reveals several parts to the story:  the photographer Aileen Ryan; the coastal location of Stuart Park; and the commercial world of the Mount Pleasant Colliery Railway, and ecology of the Illawarra Rainforest.

 

Aileen Ryan, photographer

The young female photographer in the picture is Aileen Ryan, a 21-year old city-girl, who spent time in and around the Wollongong area in February and March 1919. Aileen was born in Waverley, Sydney, and was educated at St Clare’s Convent.

At 19 years of age, Aileen gained paid work when most women were restricted to domestic duties. She joined the New South Wales Public Service in 1917 as a typist and shorthand writer. As an independent young working woman, she was worldly-wise and expressed herself through her ability to fund her relatively-expensive hobby of photography. The young Aileen’s hand-held bellows camera hints her grasp of the latest technology.

In 1927 she marries FW Lynch at Clovelly and in 1942 during the Second World War she was seconded to the Directorate of Manpower. She was appointed superintendent of the New South Wales division of the Australian Women’s Land Army, which was disbanded in 1945. She died childless at Waverton in 1983.

Stuart Park, the location

The site of the photo-shoot was located on the colliery railway which skirted the southern boundary of Stuart Park. The park, which was declared in 1885 under the Public Parks Act 1884 (NSW), lies between the railway, Fairy Creek to the north and  North Wollongong Beach to the east. The area was originally purchased from James Anderson and is an area of 22.27 hectares.

The park was named after colonial politician and Scotsman Sir Alexander Stuart who was the Member for Illawarra in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly at the time. The park was run by a trust until 1920 when control passed to the Municipality of Wollongong.

The popularity of Stuart Park, including many families from Camden, owed much to the presence near North Wollongong Beach, which was popular for swimming and surfing from the 1920s. The caravan park was unfortunately closed in 1964, but re-opened in 1966, due to public pressure. It eventually closed permanently in 1970. The park now has a sports oval, had a kiosk dating from the 1940s and was popular with day-trippers.

 

Illawarra Rainforest, the ecology

The site location of the photograph next to the railway was once completely covered by Illawarra Rainforest, remnants of which can be seen along the railway line.

The rainforest type is a rich ecological community characterised by bloodwoods, stinging trees, figs, flame trees, beech, cedar, and other species. The more complex rainforest communities were located along the creek boundaries and on the southern face of escarpment gorges protected the from the prevailing north-easterly winds.

J Bywater from University of Wollongong describes the rainforest community as:

the most complex (species rich) forest type in the Illawarra. A broad definition of this forest is a “Dense community of moisture loving trees, mainly evergreen, broadleaved species, usually with the trees arranged in several layers, and containing vines, epiphytes, buttressed stems, stranglers, and other Iifeforms” (Saur, 1973, p.l.).

Wollongong Illawarra Rainforest Sublime Point Walking Track Bulli 2000 NCubbin
Illawarra Rainforest on the Sublime Point Walking Track below Bulli Tops lookout 2000 (N Cubbin)

 

The Illawarra Rainforest extended along the coastal and up into the escarpment from the northern parts of the Illawarra south to Kiama, the Shoalhaven River and west to Kangaroo Valley.

The primary threats to the rainforest ecology have been clearing for farming, mining, urban development, and related activities.

 

Mount Pleasant Colliery Railway, a conduit to the globe

The Mount Pleasant Colliery was opened by Patrick Lahiff in 1861 and was very successful. Two years later the company built a horse tramway with two inclines down the escarpment from the mine to Wollongong Harbour. They eventually upgraded the tramway to steel railway in the 1880s and to convert to standard gauge.

Wollongong Mount Kiera Mine Incline 1880 (WCL & IHS)
The Mount Pleasant Colliery Inclines were similar to the adjacent Mount Kiera Mine Incline of 1880 shown in this image (WCL & IHS)  The picture shows the remnant rainforest that was part of the ecology of the Illawarra escarpment.

 

The construction of the tramway raised the hackles of the locals and was only built after the state parliament passed the Mount Pleasant Tramroad Act 1862 (NSW).  The mining company went bankrupt in 1934 and the mine was taken over by Broken Hill Pty Ltd in 1937 and renamed the Kiera Pleasant Tunnels.

Wollongong Mount Pleasant Colliery Railway Workshop 1904 IHT
The locomotive shed at Mt Pleasant Colliery, 1904. Note the engine on the right, built-in Sydney that year. (Courtesy of JLN Southern Collection & Illawarra Heritage Trail)

 

The coal mine eventually closed in 1955.

Wollongong Mount Pleasant Colliery Railway Belmore Basin 1900s WCL&IHS
Mount Pleasant Colliery Railway near Brighton Beach approaching Belmore Basin in Wollongong NSW 1900s (WCL & IHS) Mount Kiera is shown in the background behind the mining town of Wollongong.

 

The tramway was closed in 1954.

Wollongong Mount Pleasant Colliery Railway below cliff line 1900s WCL&IHS lowres

 

In 2017 the Mount Pleasant Tramway walk was upgraded and the seawall rebuilt and renamed the Blue Mile Tramway Pathway.

Wollongong Mural Wollongong Harbour Blue Mile Walk 2020 ICW (2) lowres
A mural illustrating the history of the Blue Mile Tramway walk showing the village of Wollongong, coal handling port facilities at Belmore Basin and Brighton Beach adjacent to it with Wollongong Lighthouse on the harbour breakwater. The Mount Pleasant Tramway is clearly seen going off to the north along the coastline. (I Willis 2020)

 

The Blue Mile Pathway and other attractions of the Wollongong coast have proved popular with Camden families. They have been going to Wollongong and the South Coast for beach holidays for generations.

Updated 17 April 2020,  originally posted on 1 April 2020.

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The seaside holiday

The Seaside holiday for Camden families

Lighthouse Wollongong[1a]
Wollongong Lighthouse is located on the breakwater at Wollongong Harbour which has a popular spot called Brighton Beach.

Local folk from the Camden district have been going to Wollongong and the South Coast for beach holidays for generations. It is a time to relax, chill out, slow down, drop out, and generally escape the hum drum of daily existence of home and work.

The seaside holiday has been more than that. The development of the beach holiday owes much to the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s and the shorter working week and increased wages of ordinary workers. Australian’s copied the English Victorians and their interest in health and well-being and particularly cold-water bathing. The scourge of diseases like tuberculosis (or consumption as it was known) were constant threats to health and well-being of people. The inter-war period (1919-1939) saw the added influence of modernism, consumerism, movies and tourism on the mobility and spending patterns of people. All these contributed to the attraction of the beach.

Camden aquatic sports and swimming

Camden folk were influenced by all these social and cultural trends. Swimming had become popular before the First World War as Peter Mylrea found in his history of swimming (Camden History, March 2006). The Camden Aquatic Sports were held in the Nepean River in 1909 and the foundation of the Camden Swimming Club in the 1920s. But for young people the beach provided the lure of the exotic when compared to swimming in the Nepean River.

The beach attracted the attention of Camden families particularly during the Inter-war period. Local marriages were consummated with a honeymoon to Manly Beach for the weekend. Manly was accessible by steam train and ferry, and was far enough away to seem like another world for a newly wed farm labourer and his sweet-heart. The railway also provided easy access to Wollongong beaches, particularly localities like Kiama. The motor car provided mobility and the South Coast provided an escape to stay in a boarding house or camp.

Motoring

After the Second World War the boom in the motor car travel meant that Camden families could drive further for a beach holiday. One ever popular location was Kiama. Other beach localities started to draw the attention of Camden families, particularly Jervis Bay and St George’s Basin.

Wollongong Beach[1a]
Stuart Park is behind North Beach Wollongong which is lined with Norfolk Pines like many other beaches in New South Wales

Stuart Park Wollongong

Geoff McAleer reported that in his youth in the 1940s and 1950s on the annual Christmas holiday at the beach in Wollongong. The beach was Wollongong’s North Beach and the McAleers holidayed at Stuart Park Caravan Park. The McAleers were joined on the Christmas beach holidays by the Holyoakes, Dunks, Williams and the Cliftons. It was a popular location with Camden families because, according to Geoff, ‘it was close to Camden, only a 40 minute drive and it was good body surfing spot.’ There were no surf boards then according to Geoff. That would come in the 1960s. On occasions Geoff and his Dad, Hubert, would have a boys weekend away at Stuart Park. Geoff took his sweetheart, later to be his wife, Olive there for Christmas holidays with the family in 1949. The popularity of Stuart Park owed much to the presence near North Beach Wollongong. The beach was popular for swimming and surfing from the 1920s. Unfortunately for patrons the caravan park was closed in 1964 but under public pressure was re-opened in an adjacent location in 1966. It was eventually closed permanently in 1970. The park had a kiosk as well as a camping area and was popular with day-trippers for picnics.

Cheryl’s seaside holiday at Bulli Beach

Wollongong beach-side caravan parks have come under pressure to be closed and caravans evicted in recent decades. One spot where Camden families still have a beach caravan holiday is Bulli Beach camping reserve. Cheryl, who has a caravan at Bulli Beach, along with a number of other Camden families enjoy the escape it provides from ‘the rat race’. She says that a number families have had permanent vans at the park, which have been passed down between the generations. They all escape Camden on Christmas holidays and long weekends. It is a great spot for all sorts of recreation.

Steve’s holidays at Erowal Bay

Steve recalls as a child fond memories

Like our family holidays to Killarney, Erowal Bay on St Georges Basin in the 1950s. Before we had our own car Mum and Dad and six kids used to travel there in and on the back of Uncle Mel Peats work truck and stay in his house right on the water with its own jetty, boat house and row boat. Whitemans and Rickets were a couple of other Camden families I can remember who had houses there also. What great holidays they were. Might even be able to find a couple of photos.

John and Julie recall Gerroa holidays

John and Julie fondly remember seaside holidays at Gerroa on the South Coast.

In the late 1960s John and I went for holidays at Gerroa. We stayed at a simple beach cottage which had been built by hand in the 1950s by our parents’ friends. The cottage had no fridge, just an icebox, but it had great views of 7 Mile Beach and you could walk to the beach for a swim. The cottage has long gone and been replaced by a brick home.

For many years from the 1970s the painter Alan D Baker spent family holidays at Gerroa. We have a painting that Alan’s son, Gary Baker, did of Gerroa Point, which reminds us of holidays at Gerroa 40 years ago.

Where do you go to the beach?

Beach holidays have always been important for Camden district families. Do you have memories of holidays at Wollongong,  Kiama, Gerroa, Shoalhaven and the South Coast. Has your family had a beach holiday in the same spot for generations? When you go to the beach? What did you do? Where did you go? How did you fill in your time? What was your favourite spot?

Facebook Replies

Peter Hammond Camden 9 January 2016 For all my primary school days we had 2 or 3 weeks at Thirroul in January, the only dampener were the back to school sales.

Karen Burgess All along the coast. Fave spot. You can’t beat the beautiful Gerringong.  (30 January 2016)