If you feel like walking out of Lismore without experiencing a lot of traffic, you have two options. One is to continue down the southern end of Keen Street, past the baseball courts to Gundurimba and beyond. The other is to follow Molesworth Street north towards Woodlawn and Numulgi, and be sure to avoid the school rush hour. The road runs along close to the railway embankment, with the occasional trestle bridge visible off to the left or right. At one location, the railway descends to ground level, and one side turning has a level crossing that has served no practical purpose since the 2004 railway closure.
Visible a little distance from the Lismore-Numulgi road is an old historic brick cottage that is largely intact but has seen better days. Close to Woodlawn College, it is one of the first buildings on Savins Road, a dirt track that runs for about a kilometre. About an hour after I first spotted this former dwelling, synchronistically a discussion about it was started on the Good Old Days Around Lismore N.S.W. Facebook group. A little of the building’s past came to light at the time.
What makes the cottage more interesting is that its past is bound up with that of a historic brickworks that was situated very close by, on the same three-acre block of land.
Through this Facebook thread I was able to contact the present owners, who provided some key facts and leads. One thing led to another. With a moderate amount of persistence I was able to build up a much fuller picture, albeit not a complete one, and temporarily threw out of the window my resolution in these posts not to take on the role of a history buff. Indeed, the sheer addictive nature of local history and genealogy research made it hard to stop.
A lot of useful details came from Trove, the national online resource that includes newspaper archives. Unfortunately it is not infallible, as it relies on the use of optical character recognition (OCR) technology. When working as desired, it produces a faithful digital rendering of the adjacent newspaper text, but the result may equally appear as a jumble of nonsense. This represents a potentially significant limitation for search results, as only the digitally converted text is searchable. And running searches is the only way to look for newspaper content on Trove, other than browsing through the issues.
I was also fortunate to make contact with Jill Owen, a Goonellabah local who was crowned Miss North Coast in 1958. She helpfully shared her own personal memories of the place in its heyday, in addition to providing details from a privately published family history of the Black family who occupied the building for most of its active life.
Her link with the house is through being the great-granddaughter of John J. Johnson (nicknamed ‘Brickie Johnson’.) Born in the UK at Dovercourt, on the Essex coast, he migrated to Australia around the age of twenty, and briefly settled in Clarence region before moving to the Lismore area. (1) His family had earlier been involved with brickmaking.
The first known reference to John Johnson’s business activities within the region are a March 1885 advert announcing the opening of a brickyard at Goolmangar Crossing, where he lived. Offered to the public were ‘first-class spotted or white bricks’, with samples available at the Lismore Northern Star office. (2) This business was short-lived; the last advert connected to this location appears less than a year later in January 1886 (3), and a few months later he had opened at the Woodlawn location.
Due to a mention in the Northern Star, it is possible to trace the start of the brick business exactly to September 11th 1886. A short piece a week earlier states:
‘Mr. J. Johnson has made a good sample of a hard spotted brick near Geraghty’s Imperial Hotel, North Lismore. After the Old School Site, Geraghty’s Corner, &e, are sold on the 11th instant, a steady demand for bricks will follow, consequent on the erection of new buildings.’ (4)
In the late 19th century, Geraghty’s Imperial Hotel stood at Woodlawn, in a cutting, and was run by James and Ellen Geraghty, with Trove records stretching between 1885-1897. The school being referred to was the then-closed Provisional School, with this news coverage indicating that it must have been located close to both Geraghty’s and the new enterprise.
The same date saw the first Northern Star advert from the new location. In full, it reads:
‘Bricks. Bricks. FOR SALE, 26,000 good spotted hard Bricks, at 2 pounds 5s per thousand at the kiln, or 3 pounds delivered on job. J JOHNSON, near Geraghty’s Imperial Hote [sic]‘ (5)
In those low-tech days, providing the address, or even the district was obviously considered unnecessary when the landmark was a pub around the corner whose patrons could point you in the right direction.
Almost certainly the cottage’s first residents were John, his wife Mary Anne, and the start of a new family. It is plausible that construction of the cottage would have taken place shortly after the brickworks opened, or in the following year, giving a range of 1886-1887. As a rare brick building, it would have been constructed from bricks made on the property. In the 1950s or 1960s, one of the present owners spoke to John’s daughter Elizabeth, who recounted a clear recollection of living there during the construction of the Lismore-Murwillumbah railway in the early 1890s prior to its opening in 1894.
The brickworks on this site was the first in the close vicinity of Lismore, although one earlier enterprise did predate John’s Goolmangar Crossing business. This ran at Blakebrook, was known as Tirrannia Brick-Works, and was managed by a T. Atkin. (Both ‘Tirrannia’ and ‘Terrania’ were widely used at the time as alternate spellings for ‘Terania.’) Blakebrook at the time lay within the Parish of Terania, and Terania Creek runs through the Blakebrook district. River transport was critical to such an industry, with the Tirrannia kilns having their own transport wharf and boat. (6)(7) This facility advertised the availability of bricks, drainpipe, drains, and tiles in the Northern Star, with searchable records starting in 1881 (8) and finishing in 1887 (9).
From 1886 (5) to 1907 (10), John ran numerous brick adverts in Wednesday and Saturday issues of the Northern Star. Among the changes through the years, in 1888 he first referred to Woodlawn as his location. In 1905, an ad mentioned the options of ‘delivered on wharf or loaded on punt, two miles above Lismore, deep water.’ (11) One wharf at Woodlawn, perhaps the only one in the district, was known as Taylor’s Wharf. The last ad shows that 21 years’ worth of inflation had caused the price of his burnt bricks to rise only from 2 pounds 5 shillings per thousand to 2 pounds 10 shillings. (10) The business probably stopped running in 1908. (1)
In 1888, the Northern Star reported that it was impressed with brick samples he had dropped into the offices. Their short write-up mentioned a ‘bed of pure pipeclay now being worked’, and expressed an interest in viewing a sample of the soil or gravel above this bed to see whether it was gold-bearing. (12) In 1895, he followed this up by showing them a sample of a type of drainpipe that was two inches wide and twelve inches long, ‘burnt very hard’ and which would be made available for 1d each. (13) It seems unlikely that the pipe industry took off, given that nothing more was heard about it. Jill is fairly confident that no pipes to speak of were manufactured there.
Lismore experienced a building boom in the 1890s, and it is known that Woodlawn bricks were used in the construction of the Australian Joint Stock Bank on the corner of Woodlark Street and Molesworth Street. (14) Despite the 1876 date on the side of this building, the present construction dates from 1891. The Star also mentoned that his bricks had been used for machine foundation work in its offices. (14)
Other news and advertising linked to John Johnson and the brickworks offers an insight into life at the time, and gives an idea of his business dealings. In 1905 he advertised that he was selling a ‘splendid’ brickyard at Bexhill, with brick samples available for viewing. (15) Bexhill later went on develop a significant brickmaking industry associated with today’s toxic blue copper sulfate lake. A year later, his businesses were referred to by the Northern Star as operating at both Woodlawn and Bexhill. (14)
In 1900, John advertised for sale a four-bedroom cottage, bordering the gasworks on its southern edge (16) (17), with frontage onto Keen Street and the river, with a brick kitchen and plastered rooms, on two securely fenced acres, with easy terms. Optimistically, he also claimed that it was flood-free. (18) He must have changed his mind about the sale quickly, because a similar ad published three days later indicated that he was interested in letting it instead. It looks as though he become very keen to sell some time in 1912, possibly as a result of ill-health, with a series of adverts that also offered a complete wood-cutting plant. (19) In 1907, he offered for sale two allotments in the Lodge estate subdivision that appears to have been located along Union Street, South Lismore. One came with a ‘Comfortable cottage with double brick chimney.’ (20)
At the Lismore Show, he won second place for making bricks (21), and at another time his bricks were shown there as a non-competitive exhibit. (22) There was a call for tenders for transporting 16-20 cords (a cord being about 3.6 cubic metres) of firewood from Numulgi to the brickyards (23), and an ad indicated that he had a young foal, five or six months old, in his possession with his other horses and was hoping to track down the owner. (24) A successful application was made to the council to buy old culvert decking for 2s 6d (25), and on a hot and windy February day a stack of firewood caught fire but was fortunately extinguished. (26)
In that era, the dirt roads and drainage were frequently in a poor condition, and John was active in alerting the council to places that needed attention, generally the stretch in the vicinity of the brickworks which appears to have been a local blackspot. There are records of correspondence between 1890-1897, that would generally be forwarded on to the Improvement Committee so that further action would hopefully be taken. (27) (28) (29) (30) (31) At one stage, he even offered to perform the roadworks himself, for two pounds. (32)
A final interesting road-related aside is that in 1905, a track was completed that ran alongside the edge of John Johnson’s property. It connected Woodlawn, close to the Savins Road junction, with modern-day Tullera, running up a ridge. It was reported as being impassable to vehicles, and in the press coverage a hope was expressed that it could be upgraded with the help of a grant. The top stretch of the track still exists as the access to a rural property. (33)
Operating as a cottage industry using handmade techniques (34), the brickworks must have faced growing competition from industrial-scale operations at the Bexhill site he had just sold (starting in 1906), and would have been even more economically challenged had it been running in 1912, when the large plant at Coombell, south of Casino, started operations. Before these scaled-up facilities came into being, bricks were unaffordable for the average Lismore resident, with most houses made from wood.
John’s later years appear to have been marked by itchy feet. He left the Woodlawn address, relocating to a site close to the Knowles timber yards, probably on Market Street, followed by another move to the Keen Street gasworks cottage. Around 1910, he was involved in a brick business at Casino for twelve months, followed by a stint at farming at a rural property on Dunoon Road, North Lismore, which turned out to be his last residence. (1)
He died on August 5th 1913, and his passing was accompanied by a short obituary that provided some details not uncovered elsewhere. He had been receiving medical care since late 1912, and died suddenly, from heart failure. (1)
On a cloudy day, but fortunately not a rainy one, I lined up a visit with the property’s owner who was generous enough to show me around. From Woodlawn Road, you go under a wooden railway bridge (35) and park on a verge. A gate into the property has a sign reading ‘Old Jack’s.’
A short distance away is the cottage. Outside there are some weeds around the perimeter, and a couple of areas of green vegetation are growing on the rusted tin roof. Brickwork at the front is painted white. On the left side are probably the remains of the old wooden garage, now largely a pile of iron roofing, and on the right a largely intact wooden structure is probably one of the several chook pens.
Inside, at first sight there are four rooms, two in the front and two at the back. Much of the walls have retained their white paint. It is in an obvious state of disrepair, with no remaining doors, a large hole in one side wall, and the roof of a back room caving in. Much of the floor planking is missing, and a few boards are missing from the ceiling. At the rear is a back doorway.
For a house that is about the size of a modern unit designed for a childless couple, it is remarkable that John and Mary raised at least eight children here, including Elizabeth Rose Johnson (apparently also known as Betsy.) Born on September 18th 1885, she later married a William Black, raised seven children (36), and remained living in the house for four fifths of her life. After about twenty years of marriage, William started living a double life, setting up a home with another woman in South Casino, under the guise of working away from home, and spending the occasional night in Woodlawn. (37)
To help support herself, Elizabeth sold dressed poultry to a butcher’s shop called Frith Bros, in Lismore on the corner of Keen and Magellan Streets. She was also knowledgeable about natural remedies and tended to avoid unnecessary visits to the doctor. Her twelve collie dogs were housed in kennels on the property. Jill remembers her referring to a small wooden building up the slope as being the old schoolhouse, but if this is the case, nothing is readily visible now.
Just two sons from Elizabeth’s seven progeny stayed in the local area. Bill became Jill’s father, while Jack occupied the cottage with Elizabeth, remaining a bachelor, and working at the Lismore ambulance station. The name ‘Old Jack’s’ on the gate most likely refers to him. The extended family had a weekly ritual of large Sunday lunches, with everyone coming over to eat at a large oval table in the kitchen/dining room. Looking at the rooms today, it seems remarkable that such a table could have fit into one of them. From around the age of three or four, about 1940 onwards until she was in her teens, Jill attended these gatherings.
A line of bunya trees ran along the driveway up to the house. Opposite the kitchen/dining room was the lounge, and at the back were three bedrooms. At the front was a privet hedge, and a grapevine grew on a square trellis, a small portion of which still remains. It was positioned so that anybody could stand on the front verandah, and pick grapes. Today the verandah roof still remains, held up by posts.
Apparently the 1954 flood reached the top of the windows, and undoubtedly this traumatic experience contributed to a decision around the mid-1950s for Elizabeth and Jack to move. Bill was involved in the construction of a larger house very close by, on higher ground, which became their new home. Elizabeth died at an advanced age on January 23rd 1972. The cottage has stood here ever since, suffering some unfortunate vandalism in 2003 that has made it harder to repair.
Less than a hundred metres away, further beyond the house, are the remains of the brickworks. They are unrecognisable as such except by an observer with a trained eye. A short stretch of brick wall has two round arches with space underneath, indicating the old wood-fired kilns.
A closer inspection shows a few piles of bricks behind, marking out what looks like a small rectangular structure. At the time of Jill’s visits, a brick path led from the house to an outside dunny somewhere close to the brickworks site.
A short distance to the north is a fairly steep ten-metre drop, marking the place where clay for the brickworks was dug out, leading down towards an unnamed creek. Today this activity would be hard to guess at. Yet there are traces of the industrial past to be uncovered in some unlikely locations, if you know where to look.
1) Northern Star, August 6th 1913, p4
2) Northern Star, March 21st 1885, p2 & p3
3) Northern Star, January 27th 1886, p3
4) Northern Star, September 4th 1886, p3
5) Northern Star, September 11th 1886, p4
6) Northern Star, May 19th 1883, p3
7) Northern Star, October 24th 1883, p2
8) Northern Star, July 2nd 1881, p3
9) Northern Star, June 29th 1887, p1
10) Northern Star, March 6th 1907, p7
11) Northern Star, November 22nd 1905, p8
12) Northern Star, November 17th 1888, p2
13) Northern Star, July 24th 1895, p2
14) Northern Star, January 3rd 1906, p5
15) Northern Star, January 9th 1905, p1
16) Northern Star, April 23rd 1912, p5
17) Since putting out this piece, I received contact from the owner of the land where the cottage was located, at 303 Keen Street. It was demolished in the 2013 as a result of being in a poor condition, and due to issues relating to the levee bank that was built very close by.
18) Northern Star, October 10th 1900, p1
19) Northern Star, July 17th 1912, p1
20) Northern Star, October 1st 1907, p3
21) Northern Star, June 29th 1887, p4
22) Northern Star, March 20th 1901, p4
23) Northern Star, May 14th 1898, p7
24) Northern Star, July 7th 1900, p1
25) Northern Star, August 30th 1902, p5
26) Northern Star, February 13th 1904, p4
27) Northern Star, May 7th 1890, p4
28) Northern Star, August 2nd 1890, p4
29) Northern Star, March 14th 1891, p5
30) Northern Star, March 11th 1893, p4
31) Northern Star, June 26th 1897, p2
32) Northern Star, August 29th, 1903, p4
33) Northern Star, January 14th 1905, p5
34) Northern Star, October 2nd 1895, p3
35) In the few weeks between visiting and finalising this post, this railway bridge was demolished without advance notice or consultation by John Holland, on behalf of the NSW Government.
36) Northern Star, March 9th 1949, p4
37) Northern Star, October 13th 1949, p3