The Beginnings of Beecroft, Cheltenham History Group


The present Beecroft Cheltenham History Group was assembled at least ten years before the publication of its first book. Ian McLeod, one of the first members recalls that he was inspired to suggest such a group after hearing Helen Barker give a talk to the Beecroft Civic Trust about the notable houses of the Hornsby Shire. Helen had published a book on her research into domestic dwellings of the shire.

Ian contacted people whom he thought would be interested in contributing their skills and so it was born.

Amongst the first were Carol Liston a history professional both academic and also in holding the president’s position of the Royal Australian Historical Society. Heather Garnsey another professional,

Ralph Hawkins a born historian who without formal training had researched the Pennant hills Convict Timber establishment and collecting convict made bricks and tools(recognisable to sharp eyes as they have an arrow on them)Ralph’s expertise was recognised when the Museum of Sydney was opened and he was offered a position there.

Alan Tierney and his wife Judith were very able in collating maps, photographs and editing, Heather Thomas who had better computer skills that any of us for which we were to be very grateful.

Enid Slade an unsung heroine of the group her passion for Australian history prompted her to commit to travelling to Parramatta Public Library one day each week to consult the copies of very early regional newspapers covering the Hawkesbury area in particular. That is where Pennant Hills and Beecroft news, such as it was, was published. Doing it all by public transport and long hand transcriptions, this provided the meat on the bones of the other rudimentary records available. Enid ,once home each week, would type out several pages of her research and then a copy would be given to each member. These proved invaluable when wanting to collate information about local events ,particularly music groups, garden clubs,l  ocal progress association. together with  births, deaths and marriages of local folk.

Trevor MacCaskill was to prove a guiding hand to the group with his years of experience as headmaster of a large private school he was more than capable of coping with any and every situation which arose along the way. And at the end of each meeting he would review what each member had said they would follow up and with this record he would start the next months meeting-bit like being back at school but he kept us rolling on and meeting deadlines.

Catherine Bartho was also part of the group having finished a midlife degree in Australian History at Macquarie University was fresh with new thinking in the university world  of womens history and indigenous history.Several in the group had published books and ther experience was invaluable.As Carol Liston advised at the beginning iy would take several years before the local people felt a confidence in the group to share their family photographs of life here.People need to know that there would be a certain respect for their stories.

And so the very rewarding work of the group began. We had also been alerted to the cost of doing thorough research. Libraries such as the Mitchell Library charged a fee for copies of road maps, photos and documents in their care. Reams and reams of paper were consumed in providing copies of Enid’s research. These small costs were nothing as to the cost of actually publishing which would require a book designer, proof readerand publisher. So a separate committee called the social committee was formed to raise funds for a publishing account.

There was gratifying support from the local community who supported dinners at Cheltenham Recreation Club, sale table in Beecroft Arcade of tea towels with local designs. The group taught themselves to screen-print under the guidance of Heather Smallbone and in her garage. Members became adept at tea towels and then hessian when the idea came to make hessian shopping bags with the message ’I’ m an Old Bag from Beecroft’ These sold like hot cakes and became collectors items as each bag had a number on it ‘s tag.

A local identity who also showed support for the group was the well known actress Ruth Cracknell who lived locally as Mrs Phillips and wanted to be one of the community. In order to help the publishing fund Ruth offered to do a n evening of Shakespearean odes. Looking back the social committee knew they could have charged much more for the tickets which sold almost before they were printed and which people still say to one another’ were you there ‘.It was such a memorable occasion. The hall of St. Johns Anglican church was transformed into an Edwardian drawing room with suitable lighting and some furniture lent from local homes. Beautiful flower arrangements filled up the barren spaces and a mellow atmosphere was created with soft music .

See Ruth Cracknell  under People  on this Website.

Prior to the Shakespearean evening, the group had invited Ruth to be its patron and when she accepted it was arranged with Hornsby Council to have a suitable native tree planted on the Village Green to mark the forthcoming book. The tree flourished during the writing and polishing years and when the launch date arrived ,the tree blew over in a storm. It has never been replaced.

The monthly meetings of the group were held in one anothers homes. Several members of the group brought their expertise and in one case pocket book. Ross Barwick was very active for some time. It was during his years that an old sign which had been located in the Byles Reserve was retrieved in a much damaged state. Thanks to the generosity of Ross and his family the old sign was not put in the bush to be vandalised again but entrusted to the care of the Beecroft Public School. It seems it was stored away somewhere and subsequent headmasters and mistresses had no idea what it was. Maybe one day it will turn up again just as the lovely stained glass windows which are now in the foyer of Cheltenham Girls High School were retrieved.

During the writing years, often differing opinions had to be reconciled always amicably I might add. Would mention be made of the early population of fruit growers, timber and dairy owners being on the whole protestant. Would it be pointed out that there was no pub and also no Catholic Church although many residents would say that the area had voted in the referendum against havingretail liquor outlets. At the end of the nineteenth century the inner city of Sydney was a place of open drains, horse drawn vehicles and a typhus epidemic. Many people who came out to the Beecroft Cheltenham area were looking for a healthier environment for their families. A morning and evening train service would take city workers to and from work, One story told was of the commuter who took with him to work a homing pigeon. When he left the office, the pigeon was released and would arrive back to tell the family it was time for dinner to be cooked. Lovely local stories but are they history? Can you write history when there is negative evidence? Questions historians ponder.

In keeping with the realisation permeating the world of Australian history was the fact that our history did not start at 1788 but there was a much longer unwritten account of the human habitation prior to white settlement.Indigenous history was now being taught at Macquarie University one of the first tertiary institutions to regard its importance. Marcia Langton was one of the first indigenous lecturers, If our local history was to be accurate we would have to find what we did not know. We were very ably assisted by Prof Jim Cohen from Macquarie University to be able to have the first chapters acknowledging the presence and lives of the Dharug people.IN the past thirty years since publication, more has come to light of first impact of these people on the land with remnants of their tools, weapons, use of fire.

With the main body of the book having been completes,the process of editing was undertaker by an inner core of members ably assisted by Alan and Judith Tierney.Help with photographs and maps also required some expertise aand Helen Barker offered to compile an index.

With the end of the project in sight some thought had to be given to the book launch.Who where and when.The School of Arts having been the centre of the social life of the community was the obvious place,the date was set in cooperation with the printer giving a reasonable margin for unforseen holdups and of course our patron had to be consulted as to her availability.

All hands were on deck for the preselling of the book.and it was very gratifying that people ordered multiple copies and were willing to pay without seeing the final product. A very comfortable place to be for the committee to have money coming in as the ‘Swiss bank account ‘started some years before already had sufficient funds to cover costs, Most committee members had agreed to be distributors of the volumes after the launch.

And so it was on a Saturday afternoon in the presence of all the local dignitaries RuthCracknell with her fine sense of occasion welcomed the arrival of the bookand she was presented with a copy of the book, some flowers—–and a bag of oranges. This bringing howls of laughter, both from Ruth and the audience, as her famous role in Mother and Son had shown her on the way to a funeral stopping to buy oranges.