Lake Macquarie History

Early Rathmines: Tom Farrell

Notes from an interview undertaken by Dulcie Hartley with Tom Farrell (1904-1996), at 107 Fishing Point Road, Rathmines during the latter days of December, 1987.

photo: tom farrell

Tom first came to Rathmines as a young man in 1921, with friends who were thinking of buying one of the waterfront blocks recently subdivided by real estate firm Realty Realizations. They arrived by ferry at Rathmines wharf. Rathmines was a then very remote district, with only one old home occupied by a family named perhaps Penny. On the site of the present shopping centre there were still the remains of vines which may have once belonged to the Hely or Fennell families, both who had farmed this land during the latter years of the 19th century. There were also weekenders on the flat land later to be taken over by the RAAF Base, which was established in 1939, and was to become the main flying boat base in Australia during the second World War (1939-1945). Another site of interest was an old grave yard, surrounded by an iron railing. An inscription showed that Chinese people were buried there who had died from eating toad fish caught in the lake.

Soon after his inspection, Tom bought a block of waterfront land - Lot 2, Fishing Point Road - for £125 ($250), paying £5 ($10) per month and 5% interest. Land on the other side of Fishing Point Road was £10 a block. Access by road was hazardous and time consuming involving rutted goat tracks, driving across paddocks, and dodging trees, stumps and ruts. When viewing the road ahead at Toronto - with Mount Waring looming menacingly ahead over a steep rutted pale gravel track - even the bravest often turned right towards Awaba, to eventually access the Buttaba Hills track and come back to Rathmines by that route, which was a greater distance. An earlier route was through Wakefield to meet up with the Cessnock Road at present day Ryhope, then travel via Awaba and Kilaben Road, Buttaba Hills and on to Rathmines. There were sections where driving over paddocks and around trees was necessary, and due to boggy conditions corduroy tracks were built, that is logs laid horizontally side by side to provide traction. Another early route was through Edgeworth to Wakefield and then Awaba.

Still remembering the difficulties of early driving, Tom mentioned that Jack Baddeley, Member of Parliament for Cessnock, had purchased a waterfront home at Carey Bay after which time the "Cessnock Road" was built to provide easier access, not only for Baddeley, but also to benefit the general public.

After paying off his land, Tom cut out a boat shed in Newcastle, brought it out on a truck by the Awaba route and erected it c. 1924. These boatsheds were often the nucleus of the "weekender" as they grew to accommodate increasing family members. They often evolved into one large room for meals and lounging on beds, with a later addition of a return verandah. As the weekender became more sophisticated, the return portions of the verandah were enclosed for two bedrooms, with the verandah used for overflow visitors. The boat was often relegated to an excavated section under the house. "Rally Round", however, was not to quite reach this degree of sophistication. At the time, water and electricity were not laid on, and sewerage was non-existent.

photo: rally round, rathmines

Tom married his wife Kath in 1926 and came to "Rally Round" (pictured left c1992) for their honeymoon. They travelled out in an old Chevrolet truck over Mount Waring to a little wooden bridge over Stock Yard Creek and then, dodging around trees, eventually arrived. Later they were to holiday there, with new baby Beverly born in 1928. Tom used to row across to Kilaben Bay three times a week to get fresh milk which, on his return, was boiled - the method used at the time to provide a longer life. Bread came by ferry, hawkers came around selling fresh prawns, and fish were there for the catching.

Tom spoke of the first shop he could recall in Rathmines which was conducted by Alan Marshall, most probably only open at weekends when there was sufficient custom. Alan had a son who became Dr Marshall and had a practice in Charlestown. In time there were three shops: one owned by Herbie Reid (who also had the taxi rank); another - a large shop - owned by Mr and Mrs Sydenham; and another by a man named Ross. Other families he remembered were the Hodges, Roberts and Parkers, the latter two being situated more towards Fishing Point. It was in front of the Roberts property that the residents joined in working bees to build a wharf so that the ferry could dock. There was a hall at Rathmines where many social gatherings were held, and a tennis court and swimming baths. It was Reid's shop which had the famous "Boxing Kangaroo". This was a great attraction with people coming to see the event staged in an enclosure.

photo: rathmines air base

During the war years the RAAF base at Rathmines covered water frontage land from Rathmines to Bayswater, and was classified as a Restricted Area, although residents were still able to access their homes. Water access was also restricted over a vast area of the lake due to flying boat activity. The base was securely fenced, with guard boxes at entry points. Property owners' boats were confiscated all around the lake, and one storage area for Rathmines craft was on the southern side of Bolton Point. Tom had a fellow staying at "Rally Round" who worked at the base and one night he was asleep in bed, and woke up with a kangaroo staring down at him. Fortunately the kangaroo departed without any damage. Tom mentioned that at some time, perhaps after the war, a few Dutch-Indonesian people arrived, and there was speculation as to whether they were refugees.

The name Fishing Station Point, more commonly known these days as Fishing Point, is shown on heritage maps of the lake and it is possible that this was once a government venture. There had been a home there before Tom's time, and he remembered Captain Johnson being resident. On his land there were ruins of an earlier home where sandstone rocks were scattered in abundance. Many residents salvaged these rocks for retaining walls and other uses. There were also scattered rocks in the water down from the house.

In 1946, after the war finished, residents were able to resume their former lifestyle, but there were still no services at Rathmines. However, "Rally Round" continued to provide many happy holidays over the ensuing years for the extended family.

photo: boating on cockle creek c1907

Tom recalled the days when he, with other young men and girls, would travel by train to Cockle Creek Station and then walk around to Deeprose & Rinker's boatshed on the creek - the area now behind Club Macquarie at Argenton. They would hire several boats at 5/-(50c) a day and row along Cockle Creek to the Salty Creek Recreation Area, where there was swimming in the creek, a high-diving tower opposite and picnic facilities. After a wonderful day they would all return to the boats, often to find young larrikins had pulled the plugs out. They would row back to the station, return the boats and travel home on the train. Tom had an even earlier memory of the lake when, with his parents, they boarded a steam ferry from the wharf at Cockle Creek near the station and travelled to Belmont.

Tom commenced work at age 17 and at 21 accepted an appointment at the Newcastle Abattoir, where he was to stay until his retirement. He joined the RAAF during WWII and was away for four years and upon discharge, rejoined the Newcastle Abattoir. He studied and became a qualified accountant and a Fellow of the Australian Society of Accountants and rose to manager of the Abattoir. He took an interest in the Newcastle & Hunter River Public Service Starr-Bowkett Building Cooperative Society Ltd. from 1924, eventually becomng a Director. This interest led to the formation of the Greater Newcastle Building Society. Tom and seven of his friends each put £5 ($10) into a central pool, and this modest sum was the commencement of the extremely successful society which continues today.

Although at the time of my visit Tom was 83 years old, he was still a committed environmentalist and a staunch ally in conservation campaigns. His depth of knowledge and experience was eagerly sought and he was very much revered by his contemporaries. In 1988 the University of Newcastle granted Tom an Honorary Master of Arts degree. Tom died in 1996, aged 92 years. The establishment of The Tom Farrell Institute, Faculty of Science and Information whose aim is "Regional Solutions for a Sustainable Future" is a fitting memorial for an outstanding man.

Author's Note

The interest in history was accelerating in 1987, and was to peak during 1988, our Bi-Centennial Year. I, as an amateur historian, was involved in collecting Lake Macquarie history for posterity and documentation. I met the late Tom Farrell as a fellow member of Northern Parks & Playground Movement and National Parks Association (Newcastle Branch), and we became friendly. Becoming aware of my interest, he invited me to visit his waterfront home "Rally Round" at 107 Fishing Point Road, Rathmines. Tom was 83 years old at the time and it seemed very likely that he would be a fount of knowledge, so I arranged a date. At the time of my visit in late December 1987, members of the family were visiting and Tom's wife Kath was present as well, but not enjoying good health.

This account has had a lengthy gestation due to other commitments. I have to a minor degree drawn on The Tom Farrell Institute publication "Who was Tom Farrell" attributed to Ross Edmonds and Gionni di Gravio.

Dulcie Hartley, 10 March 2015