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From Hardwoods to Soft Cottons
This exhibition highlights the differing experiences of work for men and women in the early days of European settlement of the Coffs Coast region. While timber was one of our foundation industries, the domestic work of women also built our community.
From the 1860s, men laboured in the rainforest, cutting timber to sell and use for construction, then cleared the land for agriculture. Women took part in these activities too, planting crops and tending gardens, while also creating homes with whatever materials were at hand or that could occasionally be bought. Clothing and domestic items were usually handmade and repaired constantly to last as long as possible. These tools of the timber trade and hand-crafted, household textiles from the museum’s collection recall the earliest efforts made to establish settlement in the district.
“Brave and determined”
Timber was Coffs Harbour’s first industry. Timber-getters arrived here from the mid to late 1860s, seeking cedar (Toona ciliate) – “red gold” – a tree of the mahogany family highly prized for its rich red appearance, warm grain and workability. It grew plentifully in the subtropical rainforests of New South Wales and from the 1820s cedar-getters moved up and down the coast, hauling it out of remote gullies, making rafts of logs and floating them to the coast. It was an opportunistic pursuit requiring little more than an axe, some bullocks and kit - and a great deal of muscle. Fortunes could be made if the conditions were right but given the remoteness of the Coffs Coast from major settlements, it was a tough way to make a living.
There were no roads – just rough bush tracks and the ocean beach – and the only communication with the outside world was via ships that stopped at river heads to collect the cedar, bringing supplies with them. Many of the cedar-getters were itinerant single men, moving from district to district, denuding the forest of its riches. Others came with their families looking for a place to settle. A common pattern was for a selector to arrive first as a timber-getter and then as their selection was progressively cleared, the land was turned over to farming.
Timber-getting was dangerous work but it wasn’t easy for women on the frontier either. In The Romantic and Veracious Adventures of John Henry Pendlebury, and the “Boss” to Coffs Harbour and Nana Glen in the Clarence and Richmond Examiner in 1883, the author declared:
"I must say a word in honour of the ladies. Those brave and determined ones who go with their husbands out to the bush, to be left alone from daylight to dark, and sometimes for days together … all honour to the ladies and may their reward be in proportion to their toils and suffering.”
The man recognised as the area’s first European resident was a cedar-getter. Walter Harvie arrived around 1865-66 and first logged Bongil (Bonville) Creek, setting up camp in what is now Sawtell Reserve. Gumbaynggirr people then directed him to Coffs Creek and the wealth of timber there and he set up his second camp on the north side of the creek near the present-day showground. From there he worked up Coffs Creek to the Red Hill area. Harvie logged cedar in Coffs Harbour for six to seven years. Bullock teams hauled the cut logs down to the campsite where they were squared and cut into seven-foot lengths, which was useful for joinery and furniture. From the camp, the logs were floated down to the mouth of the creek and conveyed by bullock team across the beach. Ships waited at anchor near North Coff (Muttonbird) Island and the logs were winched out and loaded onto the ship using a derrick.
The forest of the Coffs Coast region was extraordinarily luxuriant, rich with species useful to both settlers and speculators. In 1845, Colonial Government Surveyor Clement Hodgkinson vividly described what he called “brush” (and we now call rainforest), in his published observations:
"It grows on the richest alluvial land, and consists of trees of almost endless variety, and very large dimensions, totally differing in appearance from the ordinary Eucalypti and Casuarinae, which grow on the common, open forests of Australia, for the brush trees in general possess a rich umbrageous foliage of bright shining green.
The popular names of the most remarkable brush trees are as follows: Red Cedar, White Cedar, Mahogany, Tulipwood, Rosewood … But the peculiar appearance of the brush is principally caused by the countless species of creepers, wild vines, and parasitical plants of singular conformation, which, interlaced and entwined in inextricable confusion, bind and weave together the trees almost to their summits, and hang in rich and elegant flowing festoons from the highest branches.
The reaches of the rivers are … flanked on both sides by huge walls of the dense brush, generally half a mile or a mile wide and are backed by extensive swamps … of high waving reeds and sedge … away to the base of the distant forest ranges. The ranges rise in smooth, round cones, and their sloping sides. Covered with bright green verdure, contrast strongly with the dark, glistening green of the brush vegetation which occasionally invades some of the hills."
The Bradley Family
Timber-getters and their families had neither the time nor the resources to reflect upon their lives and written accounts of their experiences are rare. William Bradley and his family moved from the Nambucca River to the Upper Orara in 1879 after being offered the opportunity to harvest cedar. He later recorded his recollections “Sixty Years Ago” in the Nambucca and Bellinger News in 1927.
Bradley described the district as “a very wild and inconvenient place” but “the cedar was the best I have ever seen … some of the trees were from 50 to 100 feet long and sound and about 10 feet girth”. Before buying the cedar, he consulted his wife Catherine:
"I told my wife the cedar was about 30 miles from Bellingen and 40 miles from Grafton, no roads, and in a very out-of-the-way place, and that we had to travel mostly along the beach. My wife said: “I do not want to spoil your speculations; you will require men to work the cedar, and if you can get one with a wife and children they will be company for me.” So I bought the cedar from Mr Frisby and we left the Nambucca River with seven men, one with a wife and three children."
Together they carved out a home and a living:
"We had no house, so we camped in tents, but we soon built a house. I had good bushmen with me, some of them sawyers, so we soon made a pit, put a cedar log on it, and sawed it up for flooring boards. Some of the men split slabs, others stripped bark for the roof, and we soon had a house, very like a barn or a big hall. The women with the children lived in one end and we lived in the other part … The land was good, so we felled some of the brush and grew corn and vegetables. The men were mostly in the bush working, and the women and children remained at home. Mrs. Channells was a good shot with the gun, and she would fire it sometimes to warn the Blacks, who would come and ask for rations and think they were entitled to them. We did not ill-use them, but kept good chums with them. They would fetch us things such as honey, fish, wild pigeons, wild turkeys and turkeys’ eggs, in return for rations."
William Small, another timber-getter who also undertook much of the early surveying in the region, later remembered that “returning to Bradley’s Camp, when we came upon it, we were more than delighted, as it appeared to us like an Oasis in the Scrub”.
Friendship and hospitality on the frontier
Catherine Bradley’s obituary in the Macleay Chronicle in 1938, described her as “the first white woman to enter the Orara scrub country.” The Bradleys came to the district in 1879. A year later, another Catherine – with her husband James Marles – was the first white woman to take up a selection in Coffs Harbour. Peter Moller was the only other selector here at that time.
Thos. Adams described their home in an article titled “A Trip to the Clarence River” published in the Clarence and Richmond Examiner in 1881:
"On Coff’s Harbour Creek I found two selectors clearing the scrub and ringbarking the king trees of the forest. One of them, named James Marles, an engineer by trade, invited me to dine with him and his comely wife. Their domicile was a calico tent, and their household goods and chattels few in number, but if ever I saw cheerfulness and contentment, combined with extreme hope as to the future, it was under their humble roof."
Catherine had eight children and another four who died. Two are buried in the historic cemetery at Coffs Harbour and two died before there was even a cemetery here. Frontier life was tough. A reporter writing in the Clarence and Richmond Examiner in 1898 was moved to declare that despite the construction of the jetty in 1892:
"Since the beginnings of settlements on this coast, the endeavours of progress remind us of a badly broken-in bullock team, as soon as one part of the beasts set in with a vengeance, the other part falls back, and as soon as one part stops exhausted, the other part commences again."
In 1906, James Marles decided to move his family to Canada. In April, the whole town packed the School of Arts to farewell Catherine and her family (James had already left). Catherine was given a “handsome silver teapot” by the residents and an album of views of the district by the Sunday school children.
Under the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902, women gained a vote for the first time and women in Coffs Harbour appeared on the Electoral Roll in 1903 as a result. Of the 126 people entitled to vote, 45 were women and all listed their occupation as “domestic duties”. Although these women lived from Bonville to Korora and Karangi, it is likely that they knew each other. We glimpse the importance of friendship from the obituary of Catherine Marles’ neighbour Elizabeth Fuller in 1898, “leaving a sorrowing husband, four sons and a large circle of friends to mourn their loss.”
In the 19th century, domestic sewing was strongly associated with femininity and was a primary duty for women in maintaining their family’s welfare, as well as a recreational pursuit for many. Class was a factor, with working class women doing “plain needlework” and utilitarian tasks, while middle and upper class women spent their time on fine embroidery and fancywork. These types of households were rare in Coffs Harbour; most women in the early days were living in tents or rudimentary huts, with few creature comforts.
Although sewing machines were readily available in Australia from the 1860s, it is likely that most women here made clothes for themselves and their families by hand until at least the turn of the 20th century. Clothing supplies were sparse and took months to arrive. The few local stores stocked just basic fabrics such as cottons, calico and canvas, so women depended on hawkers who came by intermittently to buy haberdashery and drapery. The first professional dressmaker, Miss Manns began advertising in 1907, promising not only reasonable prices but a “perfect fit and style guaranteed”. Bray’s Cash Exchange Store opened on High Street in 1908, stocking “general groceries, crockery, boots and shoes, haberdashery and superior presents for Wedding-day, birthday and holiday”.
Women not only made clothing but were constantly repairing and altering it as children grew and money ran short. Sewing reflected their love and dedication to their families, with decorative details and careful needlework enhancing and beautifying everyday life.