Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Born on the Hill End Gold Fields Albert Ellwood Howard

Continuing my occasional reviews of first hand accounts of Australia, I prepared an index of the book Born on the Hill End Gold Fields by Albert Ellwood Howard for the Hill End & Tambaroora Gathering Group. In doing so, I also prepared a preamble to the index to explain the background of the book. 

Born on the Hill End Gold Fields
Albert Ellwood Howard

Albert Ellwood Howard was born at Hill End in 1896, the son of Albert Peel Howard (1857-1922) and Nancy J Ellwood (1872-1937). Albert grew up in Hill End ; his father worked in various gold mines and his mother worked to raise their numerous children. The Howard family were engaged with the community around them, and his father served as both Alderman and Mayor for Hill End.

Albert was born into Hill End after it had passed the period of the gold rushes. Yet Hill End was not dead, nor was it an isolated town, and gold mining was still an integral part of the local economy. Like all communities, Hill End was one constantly in flux. This memoir reinforces this, describing the arrival and departure of residents, and constant interactions with nearby towns through dances, recreation and sporting matches.

A.E. Howard clearly had a sound memory and a knack for story-telling, and he maintained a life-long connection with the town of his birth. His school years are described at great length, along with the associated activities children partook of. These tales are intermingled with tales he probably heard as a child (many of which bring a smile), and his experiences hunting, fishing and gathering food to provide for the family in the surrounding districts give one a sense of the way people lived and survived.

Albert confides that school was not to his liking, and so at a relatively young age his father gained permission for Albert to spend time off school working at the mines. This experience perhaps provides the central theme of the book (as the title suggests). Albert describes his time blacksmithing, feeding boilers, and working in a number of mines in the Turon Valley. Great detail is given on gold mining techniques, and the hardships endured.

Ill-health, suffered from a number of mining experiences, forced Albert to seek work above-ground. There were few opportunities for him (and mining was soon to cease anyway), and as a result, Albert left Hill End in 1918 to work first in Wellington then farther afield. By necessity then, the book captures describes the town through the eyes of a child and young man, up to and during he final burst of commercial gold mining activity (1896-1918). Remarkably, Howard guides the reader up and down the streets of his youth describing the families who lived there, the professions they plied, and what became of them.

When Albert’s father died in 1922 from a lung condition related to his mining occupation, Albert moved his mother and siblings to Montefiores, Wellington where they slowly built a new home. Little emotion or detail is conveyed in such important aspects of his earlier years and the basis of their decision to move is not given, but it is made clear that for the family to survive it needed to leave Hill End. NSW BDM records indicate that a brother, Arthur, died in 1914 when Albert was 18 but this presumably traumatic episode (or even his brothers name) is not mentioned.

Among the reflections on various schoolmates, mining colleagues, residents and their families, the author deposits information on their ultimate fate, making it clear that the Hill End diaspora maintained connections long after they moved on. Howard ultimately married Minnie Price, who he met on the coach from Hill End to Bathurst, and after a number of jobs settled into construction in Sydney’s northern suburbs where they lived at Killara till the death of his wife. This ultimately prompted his move to the ‘Bowden Brae’ retirement village at Normanhurst. The final component of Albert’s story is a poignant return to Hill End and surrounds on a bus tour he organized for his fellow retirement village residents. The home Albert grew up in still stood, and finally some emotion is permitted as he sits on the verandah of his childhood home reflecting on all those who he knew and have now preceded him in finding the answer to the ‘great mystery’.

It appears that book was written over a long period from the late 1970’s till when it was published privately in 1987 (when Albert was 90), after encouragement from friends and family (he had no issue), and the National Parks and Wildlife Service who had begun restoration of the Hill End area. The book in large parts seems to be a collection of separately written chapters that were compiled in the final stages of publication. As a result the chronology in the book is poor, and few dates are given (the death of his parents and his departure from Hill End stand out as exceptions). The reader therefore returns several times to the same time and place (school days are regularly re-visited through the book). While this may initially sound cumbersome, and it was probably unintentional, it allows greater reflection and yields new names each time. The book includes a number of photographs, of the family and the author in Hill End, but the text gives the suggestion that many more were intended to have been included. It is not known how many copies of the book were published. Touchingly, the author’s forward seeks to highlight that the family’s reliable horse Toby receives due credit.

There is a sense throughout the book that an era is coming to an end. The writer clearly recognized his own mortality and the unique opportunity he had to record life as a gold miner in Hill End – probably the last chance that existed. In this context, the book is a spectacular success, and contains a wealth of names, both from Hill End and from farther a field. Combined with other primary sources this memoir highlights the vibrant community that existed in Hill End.

On a personal note, I was excited to read that the author worked with my great great great grandfather Thomas Trevithick, when the author was a teenager and Thomas was in his early seventies:

"As I was not learning much and not interested in school my father got permission from Mr Harvey for me to be absent from school for periods of up to three weeks, during which time I got a job feeding the battery at my father's mine. My mate at the battery was Tom Trevidick, a grand old man over seventy years of age, I think he was nearer seventy five. It was pretty hard work for me but with his help we used to do a good day's work with enough energy left to climb the mountain at night. We were known to everybody about the district as 'the old man and the boy'."

Albert Ellwood Howard died on the 6th of July 1991, aged 94 years. While 72 years of that life were lived outside Hill End, Hill End lived with him every one of those days.