Presented at the Makings of a City History Conference
Foundations of a Settlement
Presented by Penrith City Council and Library – Saturday 27 March 2004
Sue Sewter – Local historian and Penrith Library volunteer
We are very fortunate here in Penrith to have access to a local paper of the calibre of the old Nepean Times. As this is a gathering of people interested in local history I have no doubt that many of you have already had occasion to delve into its pages in search of information.
My first systematic search into the paper was in 1984, and I became fascinated by the wealth of information and delighted by the style of reporting. After spending a couple of hours immersed in the goings on in 1889, or whichever year I had been researching, I used to walk out of the Library into the 20th century and so evocative had been the reporting that I’d feel as though I had been in a time warp. Being something of a bower bird I started to note down not only what I was actually looking for but all sort of other random items of interest and I thought then how marvellous it would be to have it all indexed. About 15 years later I was given the opportunity to assist with the indexing and I find it a real delight and a unique privilege.
Today, I have been asked to share with you some of the gems to be found on the page of the old Nepean Times. In the short time at our disposal these must necessarily be brief and my choice somewhat arbitrary. If it will encourage you to explore the paper further, good!
Alfred Colless, the first editor, was born in 1851, in Emu Plains. Starting work at the age of 14, he had experience in local business, both as an employee and proprietor. He was elected as alderman on the Penrith Municipal Council in 1876, and subsequently served 3 terms as mayor from 1880-1883. Mr Colless was very involved in the community, in fact, his obituary states that there was scarcely any public movement in the district with which he was not actively associated.
He started the paper in 1882, and somewhat tentatively as a new venture, he reports facts and gives space to local businesses. But his personal involvement in public affairs provides the editor with a good insight into local issues and as a much respected member of the community he is able to direct attention to those matter which he sees as requiring redress. That he was acknowledged by his contemporaries to exert considerable influence on local affairs is born out by a letter which is printed in the John Price Diaries, published by the Nepean Family History Society. The letter is written by John’s nephew, Arthur, and I quote, “the Nepean Times has great influence over a large number of the intelligent persons acquainted with the work being done.” So it is evident that the paper was seen at the time as important in the local sphere.
Gradually, more and more local comment creeps in, sometimes in an editorial column but more often as a gentle comment on the topic under review. Occasionally, the comment is not so gentle, particularly when he admonishes those who take advantage of their fellow citizens. As when the struggling Progress Association arranged a series of Saturday afternoon sports on the ground which they had just leased in Hornseywood. In reporting the results, it was stated that the admission was one shilling but some ‘ very mean’ young lads were found jumping the fence to avoid payment, worse still, the more affluent were sitting on their horses or in their buggies outside the fence to watch the races without paying. He later states that it is well known who these people are and they had better watch out in the future!
By 1890 the number of pages has settled to 8 pages an issue. His reporting does not always meet with the approval of the local aldermen, Alderman Long complained that some of Mr Waldron’s remarks (“which were uncalled for”) had not appeared in print, the editor replied that neither did all of Mr Long’s, as they could not manage to print more than 8 pages weekly.
On another matter in 1890, it is stated that the “hitherto impartiality of the Nepean Times on all questions social or political is sufficient guarantee that the parties will have fair play. Both sides will be permitted to freely ventilate their views.”
Mr Colless had great pride in Penrith which shines through constantly. Space is given to the efforts of school and their pupils and to the successes gained by young people at work or sports is noted.
But this does not prevent the editor from pointing out deficiencies where he sees or smells them. Sanitation is a topic which in the days before a proper system was laid, gave rise to frequent comment. In fact, the scene conjured up of Penrith in those days is neither sweet nor inviting. He says, “There is a large noisome pothole at the junction of Woodriff and High Street.” The creek running behind the public school in Henry Street is a receptacle for anything and everything people wish to be rid of which, after an outbreak of disease in the school, earned it the sobriquet Typhoid Creek.
Riley Street, which was the route the cattle were taken to the railway yard, is described as the worst street in town, the smell “being fit to knock the teeth out of a cast iron Chinaman”. But the paper’s campaign for improvements results in the appointment of an Inspector of Nuisances in 1890. Just how different standards were may be realised when one reads that ‘it is not recommended to send butter to market wrapped in the torn off sleeve of a man’s shirt’.
Of course, disease was rife and people died of typhoid and diphtheria, scarlet fever and so on, and in days before Social Services and Medicare, widows were left destitute and children orphaned. It is heart warming to read of the way the community responds to these circumstances. Notices appear in the columns that a collection will be taken up for a widow, or there will be an amateur concert to raise funds etc. and these are well supported.
The Penrith Amateur Minstrels was a group of young men who banded together in 1886, to give entertainments for charitable purposes. Alfred Colless gives good space to advertise the coming events and a full report of the concerts naming each participant with an account of how well they performed. Though he did remark that one singer sounded as though he had a bad cold! I like the line describing a concert held in October 1886, (remember, political correctness was not yet invented). I quote, “Maloney’s Fenian Cat, was only fairly recited by Mr Pepps; why he impersonated a nigger for a truly Irish character we are at a loss to imagine.”
With a small population of a few thousand it was possible to know nearly everyone and their business. Privacy as we have come to accept it was not an issue and if you went to hospital then your progress was often reported. I wondered at the statement about one poor soul with typhoid who was admitted into the temporary hospital in High Street. There was no isolation ward in the hospital at the time, the report stated that she was being nursed in the ‘deadhouse’. Which probably referred to a shed at the back used as the mortuary. As I read that I just hoped that she had been too ill that week to read the paper. But the editor knew his readers and the publicity spurred on the provision of an isolation facility for future patients.
Recreation and social activities took up a fair amount of space, the river was often the venue for races, picnic trips and swimming. Mr Colless recognised the beauty of the Nepean River and promoted its potential. He calls it ‘our river’.
Dances and balls were well reported and every woman who attended had her dress described in detail, although, after a while, a note of caution creeps in. For after attending the Buffalo Ball he states that he “will not pick out a belle or say who was the best dressed etc., as this world is not so bad after all and we’ve made up our mind to remain here as long as we can. We are not going to risk being brained in our own office by some disaffected Adonis”.
Advertisements provide some intriguing entries. The chemist advertises teeth extractions. Sometimes one wonders just what was behind a remark. For example, W. Garner, butcher at St Mary’s, in 1890, on the bottom of his normal advertisements states “Book Agents beware, a sausage machine kept here”. Who were the book agents and what had they done??
Penrith was the second county town to have electricity and when the lights were turned on in Penrith there was great excitement. The paper devoted 6 columns to describe the procession, speeches, banquets etc and deemed it a “Great Success”. The local storekeepers decorated their windows using the new lighting and were duly acknowledged for their efforts each on getting a mention. Though, I think some were a little carried away by the occasion for their advertisement that week, Noble & Co stated their store was “unsurpassed by anything of its size in this or any other part of the world”. But sadly, then as today, someone had to spoil the part. Under the title “Mischievous” it was reported that “someone with catapults has broken two or more of the electric street laps”. And for what he elsewhere terms “scoundrelism” a warning is issued to the men or youths who have wantonly and wilfully destroyed the newly planted tress in town.
In those early days of the Nepean times there are few by-lines and it seems that Alfred Colless himself attended and reported on many of the events. Attending the courthouse alerted the editor to the problems associated with the old building and the conditions which the police had to cope with, in particular, the sergeant’s quarters and the lockup. An editorial states, “We wonder when some move will be made towards the alteration of existing police quarters and lock-up at Penrith”. He ran a long campaign against the location and state of the police lock-up and in a report of a person who had been arrested and put into the lock-up at St Marys and who then began to beat the door down he commented that if the “prisoner had been in the Penrith lock-up there might have been nothing left but debris to show where the cell had once stood”. But, he mused, “there was a great advantage in the cells being in close proximity to the public footpath as someone would be bound to hear the commotion and raise the alarm!”
Attendance at the local District Court and the faithful reporting of cases brought before the magistrates week after week must have become very boring; drunkenness was stated to be a great problem in Penrith at that time. Every week there is the same routine, arrests for drunkenness and the use of foul language, often the same perpetrators reappearing.
I need to state here that the attitude towards alcoholism in his day was very different to that held today and I therefore present this reporting as an example of his fascination with words. Whether is was just to relieve the monotony of the accounts or whether he felt an attitude of gentle satire would act as a deterrent to others is not known. The style certainly resembles that of Mr Colless who in another context telling dairymen to watch out for the new Dairies Inspector, he refers to the dairymen as “O ye vendors of the lacteal yieldance of the ruminating quadruped”
Whoever the wordsmith at the police court was, he starts to introduce variety into his reporting. So we find that the defendants are at first, described as being “in a state of intoxication” or “inebriety” then “over alcoholism” and “overthirstyness” are introduced. These descriptions evolve to “thirstyness of too pronounced a nature” and its counterpart, “over satisfied dryness” and on another occasion “over irrigation”. The elderly drunkard is a “senior intoxicant” and the young one “an amateur alcoholist” or “an apprentice tippler”. Warming to his task, the reporter widens his descriptive talents so that “evidence of thirst supplied” could result in being “slightly out of the perpendicular” or, there was “an unevenness in Park Street due to top heaviness”
Putting together his metonyms we find that “imbibing too freely” of the “inflammatory fluid” or “bitter beverage” or taking “a greater quantity of wet whistle than he could control” the “soakative” would be “obligated from the path of sobriety” and join the “hazy headed department”.
“Drinking like a real fish” or “dream persuaders” the “bibulous” could be found “sailing not according to the log” in an “unlawfully librated state”. “Getting on the tank” the “inebriate” later suffered for “tasting it” with a disease known as “tonic head”.
Turning to the second common charge, that of obscene language, we find that in most cases the offender “in allowing his bacchanalian instincts to overcome his equilibrium” also produced some “injudicious dictum” these “overproof sentiments” were variously described as “profane”, “indecent”, “crooked”, “luminary”, and “superabundant”. He likes to refer to the obscenist as “a professor of languages”, “profanum vulgus” and the “putrid vocabulary” becomes “translucent” with “phosphorescent paleology” or “jargon”.
Heated words are described as “conflagratory” and “phosphorescent conversation” with “electric” or “luminous phraseology” in the “sultry vernacular” with “dynamite expression”. This what he terms, “Sydney back-block vernacular” brings all this “overproof crackjawism” in “questionable observations” to “ too affluent an acquaintance with resurrected aphorisms”.
As for the excuses advance for “obscenest linguistics” one defendant “didn’t suppose he used such language once a twelvemonth” but whose anniversary had, according to Constable Miller evidently come round. Another charged with “overdraught phosphorescent dialect, the defendant explained that he remarks were not addressed to the general public but to a cigar which in an unguarded moment he had stick in his mouth the wrong way causing great tribulation and igniting the powder of his wrath that the cuss words found easy vent.”
Alfred Colless’ love of the district and his style of reporting must have had an influence on his readers and no doubt helped to maintain that loyalty to the district which one encounters even today, in many long term residents who declare that they would not want to live anywhere else.
If anyone here has been buying or selling real estate lately the following announcement will be of interest. It is an inducement to the creation of a superior class of residence on the mountains or at Penrith, “the following by-law has been passed by the Railway Commissioners to come into full operation the first proximo. Any person who shall build after the 1st Nov. 1890, a residence of the value of ₤1000 between Penrith and Mt. Victoria inclusive, on the western line, may be allowed a 1st class pass between Sydney and such residence for a period of five years, the value of the building to be certified by the department’s architect.”
I expect it has been repealed, but it might be worth applying.
If you have ever wondered what the people of Penrith were really like 100 years ago there is no better place to find out than in the copies of the old Nepean Times.
Following the weekly news over a period of time one may build up a comprehensive picture of the townspeople, what interests they had, which church, club, pub, they each attended what sport they played and for which team; what talents they may have had in music, singing, public speaking or writing letters to the editor. Who and when they marry and the children they raise. So that, after a while the characters come to life, they become as people we have known personally. Then, as one walks through the Penrith district, the street names take on a new significance and one starts to appreciate the makings of this city.
I hope that this brief look at some of the lighter moments from the old Nepean Times will encourage more of you to enjoy a hour or two with some of the long gone residents of old Penrith.
local historian and Penrith Library volunteer