Sunday, 21 September 2014

Convicts, Gold Diggers and Naughty Schoolboys... Woodford Academy, Blue Mountains, New South Wales

Two hundred years ago, between 1814 and 1815, the first road linking Sydney with the Blue Mountains was built by British convict labourers under the supervision of William Cox from Dorset. Today's small town of Woodford was then called Twenty Mile Hollow, being twenty miles from Penrith, and inns were established at intervals of a day's journey by dray cart through lawless and difficult terrain - hot in summer, freezing cold in winter.
Twenty Mile Hollow, at 2300 feet above sea level, had a good supply of water from an underground spring, feeding a reserve for livestock and garden - always green, even in the drought. The Europeans, understanding nothing in those days of the Aboriginal peoples who had lived here many thousands of years, built a dry-stone vaulted cistern to cover the spring which had been an important meeting-place and part of an ancient system of songlines.

An illegal grog shop beside the road was replaced in 1834 first by The Woodman Inn, built from local sandstone around the time when Charles Darwin visited the area, then renamed The King's Arms, benefiting from the patronage of the soldiers at nearby Bull's Camp. Then William Buss, a former farm labourer convicted of horse stealing and transported to New South Wales, bought it at the height of the Gold Rush in 1855. The place became well known as Buss's Inn - even the nearby railway stop was called Buss's Platform - and prospered from hopeful gold diggers as well as soldiers tasked with escorting the gold to Sydney. The popular publican expanded the property, even providing a parlour where travelling ladies could relax without being troubled by gentlemen in the bar. Buss, in his red vest, is now one of the 'essences' seen haunting the house at times.
Part of the original inn where once the gold was stored
- see partially revealed stone walls and plaster and lath ceiling
- later a boys' washroom 
Buss died in 1867, and a year later the property was purchased by Sydney merchant Alfred Fairfax, who named it Woodford House after a village in Essex. This was when the railway was coming through the mountains and the colonials began to develop the area as a hill retreat with its forests and waterfalls, away from the heat and bustle of Sydney. Fairfax lost money in mining ventures, however, and after running his home as a guest house, sold up.
It was not the only former grand estate in the mountains that became a private boarding school around this time. Woodford Academy educated 300 students over the years between 1907 and 1925. Classics scholar John Fraser McManamey, who had also learned Modern Greek from a Greek doctor in Wellington and wrote poetry, encouraged the boys to engrave their names in the wood, believing they would also 'make their mark' in history. The Woodford Academy Punishment Book from 1908 to 1910 listed among the misdemeanours punishable by detention 'Lack of seriousness at lessons', 'Idling at prep' and 'Bringing a live bird in pocket to breakfast and letting same free'.

So the boys left their mark as did the convict labourers who chipped away at these stones.

The old Great Western Road passes by the house where we're staying this week - near the home of artist Michael Herron, who was exhibiting his paintings inspired by Woodford Academy when I visited. Woodford Academy is now the oldest surviving building in the Blue Mountains, and a fascinating little museum. A busy highway now runs beside it, separating it from the railway; but the sound of a freight train coming through conjures images of its colourful history.