Two new local history books will be launched at the Shoalhaven Family, Local and Cultural History Fair. As ROBERT CRAWFORD discovered, they both offer unique insights into past.
First-time author Bill Hancock has used years of research to produce The Shoalhaven Catholic Quarter, the story of the early part of the development of the Nowra township including the creation of a Catholic church in the area.
A passionate fighter for Australia’s first dedicated park, Nowra Park, Mr Hancock came across most of the information for his book while researching the park’s long history.
What he discovered was an amazing story.
The first government sponsored survey of the Shoalhaven River was conducted by James Meehan (Jimmy Means) in 1805 in the ship Ann.
In the survey he reported there was “cedar here” on the southern bank of the river at Paringa.
The first officially recognised ship to come up the river and return with a load of cedar was the Speedwell in 1811.
During 1812 a total of 13 officially recorded ship loads of cedar were taken from the river, while in 1813, which was recorded as a drought year, 18 officially reported loads left the region.
The majority of the cedar cutters were former convicts and a high percentage of them were Catholic.
With no settlement at Nowra at the time they worked, often in teams of up to 30 at a time, they sheltered in the caves along Nowra Creek as it was the only source of fresh water along the river.
Working the river also meant a life of isolation, far from the arm of the law.
Alexander Berry, who would be later given his land grant of 10,000 acres at Coolangatta, establishing the South Coast’s first European settlement, explored the area in February 1822 with Lieutenant Johnston and Hamilton Hume in the ship Snapper.
Berry returned in May to establish his settlement.
It appears in 1826 that a large Crown reserve was surveyed, probably by John Oxley, enclosing Nowra Creek and land well to the south.
A village reserve appears to have been surveyed at the same time, and took in a huge area of land stretching across the Nowra Creek to the area known as The Depot.
Father Rigney, from the Wollongong chapel, came to the area in the 1830s and noted that there was no building for the Catholics to worship in and they were using the caves which are now part of Ben’s Walk, for congregational masses.
The area was all part of the Crown land and the nearest freehold land was Ratnett’s farm, which took in all of Bridge Road through to Shoalhaven Street down North Street to the Shoalhaven River.
A temporary chapel (its location unknown) was built between 1839 and the building of the second chapel in 1846.
That was constructed on land adjacent to where the current church (1877) stands today, close to where the playground equipment is located.
Suggestions were that a village should be established on the western side of Nowra Creek but further surveying deemed that land unsuitable and the site was moved to Nowra’s present location.
“It has been fascinating to find out all this information,” Mr Hancock said.
“Of course I am passionate about the whole Nowra Park area which is now being used for the expansion of the hospital and the cancer care centre.”
Over the years, the park area has seen a range of local historical events, including the first annual exhibition of the Shoalhaven Agricultural Society in 1878.
A well was established in 1882 to improve Nowra’s water supply, the first cricket game was held on the ground on Good Friday 1883 and a Sydney XI was captained by Dave Gregory who had the distinction of being Australia’s first captain, with the local team taking the win, while in January 1885 an All England XI played a game against a local team of 22.
These and many more fascinating accounts feature in Mr Hancock’s book.