Tag Archives: Hawkesbury

John Tebbutt – southern stargazer

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NOTING TEBBUTT John Tebbutt (1834-1916) on Australia’s first one-hundred-dollar note.

A Writer’s encounter with a scientist’s story.

I’D already seen the mysterious Tebbutt’s Observatory from a horse-drawn carriage tour of Windsor, in NSW’s Hawkesbury region. The combination of the rhythm of my ride, and the mist rising off local fields on a warm spring morning, gave this encounter a magical feel, as the low-set, Grecian-style string of buildings that comprise Tebbutt’s workplace appeared, dominating the Colonial landscape of this part of the Hawkesbury without needing to try at all.

As soon as I had the opportunity, I went to have a look for myself, and encountered the descendants of astronomer John Tebbutt (1834-1916) in their ongoing custodianship of his life’s work. This article was published in Blue Mountains Life (Aug-Sept 2010).

TEBBUTT'S TELESCOPE John Tebbutt (1834-1916) and the telescope which he used to chart the return of Halley's Comet in 1986.
TEBBUTT’S TELESCOPE John Tebbutt (1834-1916) and the telescope used to chart the return of Halley’s Comet in 1986.

Southern stargazer

Inside the Hawkesbury observatory of John Tebbutt.

As a Windsor school boy who showed a flair for astronomy, John Tebbutt also had the good fortune to grow up in a home with excellent views of the southern sky at night – Peninsula House.

Completed c.1845 and set on a low hill overlooking the major bend in the Hawkesbury, to the present day the property (and the three observatories Tebbutt designed and built) have commanding views towards all points of the compass.

For the lad who went on to discover two comets and create a critical mass of astronomy in the southern hemisphere, early stargazing took place on the verandah of Peninsula House, which is still in the Tebbutt family today.

“It’s well known my great-grandfather set up his first marine telescope on the verandah of the main house,” current owner John Tebbutt outlines, “but the only remaining verandah faces due north, whereas the southern sky was his domain. When you come to think of it, he must have set-up on the southern side of the house which has long since changed.”

Peninsula House and the two remaining observatories emerge from the mist of a typical Hawkesbury winter morning, as John Tebbutt and daughter Angela lead the way into the workplace in which their ancestor spent thousands of hours making accurate celestial observations and recordings.

COMET COMING The Great Comet of 1861, on Tebbutt's radar in Windsor.
COMET COMING The ‘Great Comet’ of 1861, on Tebbutt’s radar in Windsor.

Tebbutt’s achievements in astronomy are well-documented.

Just shy of his twenty-seventh birthday, before acquiring complex telescopic equipment or building a designated observatory, Tebbutt discovered the ‘Great Comet’ of 1861 and accurately predicted that the Earth would pass through the visible tail, news which created a wave of mild hysteria in June of the same year.

The discovery led to the building of his first weatherboard observatory in 1864 (demolished in the 1930s), and, by 1879, the beautiful brick observatory which still stands.

Although Tebbutt never left Australia, “he would have read about designs from overseas,” the current John Tebbutt outlines as we stand before the two neo-classical porticos of his grandfather’s 1879 observatory.

Reminiscent of the Royal Observatory in London (hotbed of all things astronomical and timekeeper of the western world), Tebbutt’s Observatory served a similar purpose.

“For many years he provided a time service for Windsor,” John says, “and many believe he wanted to create the equivalent of Greenwich for the southern hemisphere.”

That’s easy to believe looking through the beautifully designed brick buildings, appearing like Greek temples in the distance as you approach the property.

“There were many more statues,” Angela Tebbutt explains, “but this one of Atlas is the last one we have.”

Accessed through two heavy iron doors is Tebbutt’s library.

“We found the doors below inches of dirt in a shed,” John explains, “and for a while we weren’t sure what they were, then we realised they fit these door frames exactly. They were for security, because he housed quite a collection of books and instruments here, spending hours making his observations, and would often have to leave the instruments for a period of time. For the accuracy of recordings, things needed some protection.”

“He also had seven children,” Angela laughs, “and we think he liked to keep things safe from them.”

Heavy iron doors seem like overkill when protecting recordings from little fingers, and when I inquire as to whether any significant event might have made Tebbutt wary, both John and Angela immediately talk of the fire which destroyed the property’s granary, thought to have started in an outdoor oven. The full-brick walls and iron doors of Tebbutt’s library speak of someone who knew the consequences of losing irreplaceable work.

GRECIAN-STYLE Tebbutt's Osvervatory (Photo: http://convictstock.wordpress.com/
GRECIAN-STYLE Neo-classical facades of Tebbutt’s Observatory (Photo: convictstock).

Between the two main structures of the 1879 observatory is Tebbutt’s transit room, aligned like everything else on a true north-south axis.

This leads through to a room in which a large pier is the central feature.

“We rebuilt that,” John remembers, “because it had been removed for the tenants. It sits below where the large telescope was on the top floor, but it’s not particularly weight-bearing. It’s more for preventing too much vibration in the building when taking readings through the telescope.”

The current John Tebbutt inherited the property from an uncle in the 1960s, and set about restoring the observatories during the astronomical renaissance prior to the return of Halley’s Comet.

“He came out of retirement for Halley’s in 1910” John explains, “and worked on predicting the path for its return in 1986. By then he’d appeared on Australia’s first one hundred dollar note, and there was interest from the local council in restoring his place in our history before the Bicentenary.”

John regales the story of finding his grandfather’s Irish ‘Grubb’ equatorial telescope, which was sold after Tebbutt’s death in 1916 and ended up at an observatory in New Zealand.

“Councillor Rex Stubbs had a lot to do with getting it back here,” John remembers, “they organised to have it flown back by the RAAF in a training exercise, then trucked from Richmond Air Base out here. Exactly a century since my grandfather set the telescope up here in Windsor, it was returned.”

Tebbutt’s 8-inch equatorial refractor is now housed in his third observatory, a more primitive structure now half hidden by greenery, speaking less of Greenwich-like aspirations and more about the sheer hard work observing and recording Tebbutt completed once he was able to see further into the universe (in all directions) than he had before.

“I think we came pretty close,” John says when I ask if he achieved what he set out to do with restoring the setting of his great grandfather’s life’s work.

“People who used to live here have come back for weddings or other events, and they can’t believe what it now looks like,” Angela adds.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Margaret Betts – tree planter

SHE-OAK Hawkesbury cattle farmer Margaret Betts (Photo
SHE-OAK Hawkesbury cattle farmer Margaret Betts (Photo: Hawkesbury Gazette).

A Writer’s encounter with a rural rebel.

MY two decades of research on the descendants of Mary Pitt eventually led me to the Hawkesbury Valley, where many of Australia’s first settlers were granted land for the purposes of contributing to the survival of the fledgling colony by farming.

With their indelible link to their benefactor Lord Nelson, the two Pitt family farms were named, at different times, ‘Nelson’ and ‘Trafalgar’, in the wake of Nelson’s great 1805 maritime victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Finding these original land grants took time.

Nelson Farm had gone by another name for many years, but, as I was to discover, it was still under the stewardship of an indefatigable woman. This feature was published in Blue Mountains Life in June-July 2010.

Out on a Limb

How Margaret Betts reforested an original Hawkesbury farm.

On Nelson Farm near Agnes Banks stands a house known as Bronte, with uninterrupted views of the Blue Mountains.

Even before this region became the cradle of modern Australian agriculture, the fertile river flats yielded food for generations of Aboriginal people.

The house is positioned on an 1802 hundred-acre grant of land to Thomas Pitt. Originally called Nelson Farm, the property was amalgamated with adjacent land granted to Thomas’ mother Mary Pitt and renamed Bronte.

This name remembers British naval hero (and Mary’s benefactor) Lord Horatio Nelson, first Duke of Bronte.

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HAWKESBURY HOUSE Bronte on Nelson Farm (Photo: Mary Matcham Pitt family history website).

Mary Pitt’s land grant was eventually sold off, although Bronte remained in the family until 1919.

The impressive mid-Victorian building is not the original, but from Castlereagh Road, the giveaway stands of hoop pine (Araucaria cunninghamii) and bunya trees (Araucaria bidwillii) reveal traces of the original settlers’ use of the land.

Many Hawkesbury heritage properties are open to the public or have become public places, but Bronte on Nelson Farm has always been in private hands, and a working farm since 1802.

The current owner, Margaret Betts, has lived there since 1998, and her parents William and Mary farmed the land since 1955.

“Dad did the hard work and Mum did the reading,” Margaret says, recalling her parents’ years as dairy farmers at Bronte. “They were both from logging country, so they were both what you’d call ‘old school’ farmers,” Margaret relates. “Trees, to them, were just something that sapped-up the goodness out of the soil.”

Mary Betts’ wariness about trees on dairy country became particularly pertinent in 1998, when an enormous oak tree came down in the westerly wind the night after she died, an event which made the local news.

Margaret recalls many such nights taking their toll on the few trees left on the property, and she realised “that if we didn’t do something about it, there’d be nothing left.”

Margaret knew the farm’s history, including the years when her father leased acreage to vegetable farmers with a strict stipulation to leave the stands of Casuarina running down the spine of the property towards the river. “They killed the lot,” Margaret remembers, “and they were original trees on the property.”

For someone who spent her career teaching music and in school administration, continuing her parents’ work at Bronte seems like a totally new angle for Margaret, but I get the feeling she sees farming as something in her genes, and that common sense counts for more than experience.

Margaret had a plan to develop beef production at Bronte, with very different needs to dairy farming, and certainly requiring a lot more shade than vegetable fields provided.

“I could have counted the remaining trees on one hand,” she recalls, “and I needed to do my research,” Margaret stresses.

“This region is part of the Cumberland Plain, in terms of its vegetation. If I was going to plant a large amount of trees I needed to know they were going to be viable.

BUNYA PINE Araucaria bidwillii (Photo: Bidgee)
BUNYA PINE Araucaria bidwillii (Photo: Bidgee)

“We’ve had hoop pine and bunya growing here for well over a hundred years. The settlers planted those, and even though they’re not native to this region, they’ve done well.

“At one stage the bunyas at Bronte were described as the largest stand in the western suburbs, but they’ve very much diminished in recent decades.

“I propagated seedlings from ours and they came up no problem.

“Hoop pines need shelter to get established, but the bunya trees just take off. There were also a few Kurrajong trees (Brachychiton populneus), and quite a few local gum trees which I assumed would do well.”

“But I also remembered the Casuarinas, which are local,” Margaret says. “In my research I found they were one of the only trees which soak up pesticides.”

With high use of pesticides on all sides of her property, Margaret had stumbled on a natural solution to an age-old problem.

The planting of trees did nothing for relations with her neighbours, particularly the vegetable farmers. “They thought I was destroying good farming land,” Margaret says, “so I got a lot of abuse. I still do, only last week one of them was shouting at me over the fence. I just wave back,” she laughs.

“I taught many of them, so they know what I’m like,” she hastens to add, illustrating how her resolve to reforest Bronte has never wavered.

After failed attempts to establish Landcare groups in the area, Margaret realised that if she was going to succeed then she needed to take action on her own. She also discovered that the tree problem was not just apparent above ground – the local water table was severely degraded.

After generations of development, the original reservoirs and lagoons of the Agnes Banks region had become choked with weeds (including water hyacinth and alligator weed), and polluted with litter and sewerage.

Insufficient drainage and water retention from nearby farms meant the water supply for Bronte was contaminated, and that affected Margaret’s cattle with outbreaks of salmonella.

The water problem only seemed to sharpen Margaret’s resolve. “At one stage I was planting around thirty trees a day, I must’ve planted thousands of them over twelve years,” she recalls.

“If you looked out here in 1998,” she says, throwing an arm out to the vista above the nearby Hawkesbury River and distant Yarramundi Lane, which is her western border, “there were only these trees close to the house and little else.”

Now, in a great green belt below Bronte is a reforested barrier of green, mainly Casuarina (river she oak, and swamp she oak), looking more like the glimpses of natural bush at the foot of the Mountains across the river. Twelve years seems like barely enough time for this result.

“The cows love the shade, they’re up here under the trees by seven o’clock on a hot day. The trees have also brought the birds back,” Margaret adds, which surely must annoy the vegetable farmers, I suggest.

“Birds are a natural pesticide,” Margaret replies.

“The water table has been improved so much with those trees,” she indicates, and indeed there are shallow lakes at intervals along the lowest points of the property.

“It’s made me more conscious of water,” Margaret says, “but we need clean water,” she adds, explaining that drainage problems caused by the use of poultry litter as fertiliser on higher-set nearby farms, combined with ineffective Council drainage along the road, contributes to the continual pollution of Bronte’s water table.

The solution was to drill a bore. “Dad was an excellent water diviner,” Margaret recalls. “He found the old wells on the property that way,” illustrating how Bronte’s past has once again become a part of its future.

The Department of Environment and Climate Change Cumberland Plain Recovery Plan draft document of November 2009 suggests private land holders like Margaret are on the right track: “Conservation of the rich biodiversity of the Cumberland Plain in western Sydney is one of the most challenging issues facing natural resources management in New South Wales,” the introduction states.

“Extensive loss and fragmentation of vegetation has occurred, land values are high, and competing land uses are placing extraordinary pressures on the remaining areas of bushland in the region.”

PLUCK COVER copy“You’ve really got to take care of your patch, and keep at it,” Margaret says. “I won’t see most of what I’ve planted come to anything, but others will,” she adds, indicating the hoop pine saplings she propagated and planted, trees which will stand long after their parents have fallen.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded