Ku-ring-gai. All in the family

1Many, many years ago I grew up in Gordon where I attended the Infants and Public Schools through grades K to 6. The classroom for 6A in the year 1955 is currently where the Ku-ring-gai Historical Society has its office and library. Clearly still a place of learning.  Our family lived on Mt. William St., where Stony Creek ran through the backyard providing concealed access for young boys to the deep lush valley under the old wooden pedestrian suspension bridge at the end of the road. Does this photo bring back memories?

My mother was born, raised, and married in Lindfield. Her childhood home was in Middle Harbour Rd. and St. David’s Presbyterian up on the highway was the marriage church. For our family this part of the North Shore was where we belonged. Our home was here, our relatives were here, our schools, church and shops were here. This was the fiefdom of our secure little world.

A big part of life at home involved gardening. We had a big back yard providing lots of space for Mum and Dad’s passion. Among all the flowers, carnations and dahlias were the ones I remember best. They were planted in a special area near the shade of a large, wonderfully smelling mock-orange tree whose scent still permeates my memories.

After the three sons finished High School our parents moved to a flat in Roseville for a while before retiring to the Blue Mountains. Their home there became a showplace for hundreds of azaleas, rhododendrons, and maiden hair ferns. With her green thumb, mother could solve anyone’s gardening problems, and was consulted by many with shrub and flower problems.

So why am I telling you this? Because in pursuing my hobby of genealogical research I recently came across an ancestor who had a similar love of gardens. This particular Ku-ring-gai resident was quite conspicuous in his times, and very public in his commitments. The irony was that no-one in our modern family appreciated his work while he was alive.

I’d flown across the Pacific from my home in Seattle with the intention of tracing my great great grandfather’s career as a teacher in the NSW countryside. Joseph Taylor and his wife Emma had arrived in Sydney from London as free settlers in 1846. Taylor is my father’s mother’s maiden name. Joseph had transitioned well from his city-boy background to rural teacher. With successful stints behind him at the new National schools in Camden, and Gosforth, his next appointment was as schoolmaster in Mulbring, where I was now anxious to learn more.

Gosforth, north of Maitland, once was a thriving community, but thanks to repeated flooding of the Hunter River, it exists these days only as a rural outpost.   And Mulbring, a village south of Maitland, is hardly much larger now than it was 150 years ago. Originally, in the late 19th century, it was a stopping place for travellers going to and from Sydney to the Maitland and Newcastle areas. Today, as then, the town lies peacefully in the shadow of Mt. Sugarloaf.

It was a Sunday when I managed to reach the little public school nestled among a grove of ancient Eucalypts. I wandered through the rear playgrounds to the main building wondering what I’d find. No-one was around but I peered in every window trying to get a flavour of long ago. Lo and behold, at the front of the administration building, a hallway ran past the main window, and almost directly opposite was a board with multiple columns recording in historical order the names of ‘Teachers in Charge’ and ‘School Captains’. 2

There, right in front of me, third from the top, was Joseph Taylor’s name and the dates he was headmaster – June 1855 to November 1862!

What an amazing find, and what an incredible thrill, to see his name pop up ‘in lights’ so to speak. It was a shock, completely unexpected, but…, at the same time, wonderfully welcome.

In an instant I was transformed into a pupil there one hundred and sixty years earlier, nervously trudging up to the principal’s office to enroll for school. I could imagine the floorboards creaking and the stern look on the master’s face as he asked where I was from and how old I was. My feelings were real, as I suddenly realized I was in touch with my great great grandfather. I was mesmerized to think I now trod where he had trodden and that his name was recorded for posterity. Thousands of pupils over the years had read the name of my ancestor. How awesome was that!

Further research revealed that the previous head teacher, John Oakes, had been dismissed for incompetence, and it had taken nearly a year to find Joseph as his replacement. Oakes, angry and resentful, made life miserable for Joseph and his family, so they eventually left. But not before Emma had brought two more sons into the world, Eugene in October 1858, and Victor in May 1861, children numbered six and seven in the Taylor brood.

Joseph moved on to teaching assignments in Bendolba, and Seaham, from where he eventually retired. The whole family, save for a daughter who married in Seaham, moved to Ashfield in Sydney. The Taylor boys had always been fascinated by the railways, and both Victor and Eugene eventually found jobs with them. Eugene married in 1896, living first in Newtown close to the city hub. At headquarters he worked hard, progressing steadily up through the ranks.  3

His first major corporate commitment and personal family sacrifice came when he was offered the position of stationmaster at Berry. Berry was 87 miles south of the Sydney home and relatives, and Eugene’s wife Louisa was pregnant with their second child. Berry was the second last stop before Bomaderry, near Nowra, on the Illawarra line. One major benefit was the existence of a stationmaster’s weatherboard residence with a simple brick chimney servicing the kitchen. It stood in a pretty setting behind the station1.

As expected, Eugene did well in his position. So well in fact that in 1903 he was awarded the prestigious post of stationmaster at Killara, an emerging, highly desirable Sydney suburb. Killara was an Aboriginal word meaning “Permanent” or “Always there”. Ten years earlier the train line from Hornsby to St. Leonards had been extended all the way to Milson’s Point at the harbour’s edge. Train passenger numbers were increasing weekly with an average of 103 passengers boarding the 8:10am fast train from Killara by 19052.   It traveled non-stop to the end of the line where its arrival coordinated with the departure of the steam ferry crossing to Dawes Point. The ferry transported horse-drawn vehicles as well as foot passengers. Trams met passengers on the south shore whisking them to their office desks between 8:45am and 9:30am in the city proper.

With only a single train track operating on the North Shore line, passengers south of Killara, to their chagrin, had to travel on earlier or later morning services. In those days Milson’s Point station was actually located approximately where one of the Harbour Bridge pylons sits today. When construction started on the bridge in 1924 the station was moved to Lavender Bay, just north of Luna Park.

There was no stationmaster’s residence at Killara of course but Eugene and his family lived in Marian St. on the Lindfield-Killara border until 1910.

Several unusual incidents occurred during Eugene’s reign. In May 1904 a passenger on the 5:52pm stepped out of the train on the wrong side. Perhaps a tough day at the office and liquid refreshments had taken their toll? In any event a lookout was kept on the next train to Milson’s Point, and a man was discovered lying by the line. He was treated at North Sydney Hospital for injuries to one of his shoulders3.

Much later, in March 1909, about 50 caddies congregated at the station as members of the prestigious Killara Golf Club arrived on their way to the links.   The caddies were on strike ! They’d gathered to tell the members that they would have to carry their own clubs unless the caddies’ allowance was raised 50% from a shilling to eighteen pence per round4. One can only imagine the mayhem that would result were one of today’s unions to ask for a 50% increase in pay !

The clearing of land was a constant need as residential demand for space grew and the North Shore became increasingly attractive as a place to live. Train stations were often surrounded by shopping centres but even if not so, they tended to become community havens, providing the primary source of transportation before motor cars became more prevalent.  Every resident in a suburb knew the shortest route between his house and the train station.

It was no surprise that common space at the stations could be used for public displays. Even of vulgar machinery.   In June 1908 such a demonstration took place when a Mr. Hinds showed how his incredible invention, the ‘improved’ Bunyip5, could efficiently remove stumps left by fallen trees.   Good for clearing forests apparently, if not for finding the mythical Australian creature after which the machine was named. It’s not known how many machines Mr. Hinds sold that day.4

An indication of the prosperity, social consciousness, and innovative interests of the high level society patrons living at Killara was evidenced when the local Progress Association decided to beautify the station premises. Residents donated ornamental trees and shrubs including rose trees, camellias, azaleas, and hibiscus to plant in a prepared space6. Eugene helped manage an array of gardeners sent by the local patrons to organize the beautification project.

Years later under Eugene’s care the station won second prize in the station garden competition, beaten by Teralba in the Newcastle region7, but ahead of Wingello down south.

So clearly, over decades across disparate branches of the extended family tree, gardening was a common interest. How little I knew about my Ku-ring-gai relatives at the time I was growing up in the district. But how glad I am to learn even at this late date of shared interests.

It’s amazing what a little research can reveal…

In this case, it warms my heart to have learned that a distant relative served the local community, and helped start a program of beauty that to this day still makes Killara one of my favorite stations.

Well done Eugene !

Unfortunately, Eugene died in 1923. But from 1949 to 1958 we lived in Gordon and father caught the train daily past Killara station to Town Hall. He worked at Angus & Robertson as a bookseller in the heyday of the firm. My turn to travel past Eugene’s work place came when I went to North Sydney Boys’ High School.

One thing my parents and Eugene had in common however was a love of gardening. In fact mother ended up appointed as a lifetime member of the Wentworth Falls Garden Club when she and father retired up the Mountains. Maybe Eugene’s influence rubbed off somehow anyway.



  1. http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/heritageapp/ViewHeritageItemDetails.aspx?ID=4801132
  2. The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 17 October, 1905, p4.
  3. The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 17 May, 1904, p2.
  4. The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 30 March, 1909, p6.
  5. Sunday Times, Sunday 21 June, 1908, p2.
  6. The Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 14 August, 1905, p1.
  7. Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate, Tuesday 10 November, 1908, p4.

My mother would have been 100 today


Mum – Elizabeth Margaret Stewart Lawrence, born June 8, 1916,

Willoughby, NSW, Australia. Fondly known as Bet or Betty.

Mum would have been 100 today, June 8, 2016

Warren Dent

A Remembrance

When Betty Lawrence was only 6 months old, her mother, Nellie, started acting strangely. Nellie spent a lot of time reading books by the popular English author, Mary Corelli, who wrote morbid and dark stories about desperate human affairs, horrific murders, super natural beings, reincarnation, and perceived fallacies of love and Christianity. Markedly influenced by the author’s stories, Nellie become obsessed with her own past sins, claiming God would punish her unless she atoned. Sadly, her mind deteriorated as time progressed and eventually she was committed to an insane asylum. Betty was only 13 months old at the time her mother was taken away. Worse, Nellie never recovered from her illness, and died in hospital April 1918, 22 months after Betty had been born.

One wonders how Betty fared in the second 6 months of her life and beyond as Nellie’s mind wove its tormented path to self-destruction, and her eventual death. Who taught Betty to walk, who heard her first words? Her father? Perhaps. But more likely her elder sister and brother and the various housekeepers who were hired to keep up home and appearances in Nellie’s absence.

Betty’s father, David, was a busy entrepreneur with a highly successful engraving business in the heart of Sydney. His spare time was heavily devoted to the hobby of golf, for he was a founding player member of the prestigious club in the suburb of Killara, where he won many tournaments.

For the four years following her mother’s death, Betty grew torturously under the guidance of a little-caring father and a score of nannies. There were no relatives locally to help out, for David and Nellie had emigrated from Scotland in 1910. The home, newly bought in Lindfield, was markedly absent of family love.

Twice, before she was 4 years old, David tried to have Betty adopted. When that failed he sent her away to boarding school. Looking after children was not something of interest to him. When he remarried in 1922 he saddled his new wife with the charge of mothering the three children so he could spend all his free time at his golf game. Poor Ruth, the second wife, previously divorced, had no experience raising young children.

The family became exemplarily dysfunctional.

*           *           *

Given the background of her early childhood, it’s no wonder that Mum grew into a woman with a resolution to maximize what life offered her. She developed an intense drive to succeed, bettering herself at every opportunity.  At the same time, hidden deep in her soul was a highly understandable burning need to be loved.

Leaving school at age 14 she helped her father as errand-girl in his city business, then became an assistant in a gift shop where she learned marketing skills and the ins and outs of the retail industry. Her father taught her golf, at which she became quite adept. Her athleticism matched that of the man she chose to marry, Ron Dent, as for four years of courtship they would go hiking and camping together in the Blue Mountains and the south coast. They both had matching loves for the bush and the seaside. In later years those interests would dominate their selection of family vacation spots. Austinmer and Blackheath became places we three boys loved to visit in school holidays.

Ron and Betty were a happy pair of young newly-weds. Dad was on the short side, denied the option to join fighting forces in WWII. However, he had strong organizational skills, managing 400 women in the supplies division at Mascot airport, helping build Beaufort bombers there.

Where Mum was naturally gregarious and out-going, Dad was conservative and relatively reserved, but had a great sense of humour. Both were good-looking, and well appreciated as a couple by the friends they made. After the war, Dad worked at a bookmaker company for nearly thirty years, rising to lead one of the operational divisions. He had accounting skills, but turned down chances to have greater leadership roles, preferring to support the creative streak in Betty who pursued different opportunities in the retail sector, culminating in her own highly successful gift shop half-a-block from Circular Quay.

Mum’s gift shop was her pride and joy. She worked hard to build her clientele, and by any measure the shop was amazingly successful. The income generated allowed her and Ron to buy their first house at Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains. A goal well achieved, for the pair had paid rent for 30 years. We boys were thrilled that they finally had a home of their own.

*           *           *

Given her birthdate, Mum exhibited many of the characteristics often assigned to those born under the Gemini sign of the Zodiac. She was independent, incredibly energetic, loved to talk, learned quickly, focused on relationships, and could be gentle and affectionate. At the same time, as a Gemini twin, on odd occasions she could behave in unexpected ways. Change was not a problem for Mum. She handled it with aplomb. But it could surprise the rest of us. Perhaps, having learnt implicitly from her father, she could be a downright snob. Many times when I was a youngster she exhorted me to “be a cut above the others.” It was like a mantra for survival. Yet, contrarily, she was the only woman on our street who would empathize and visit for hours with a neighbour whose husband was in jail for embezzlement. For years I had trouble reconciling the two seemingly contrary facets of her make-up.

Her need for love and recognition was revealed in many different ways. There were times when she was making a point to a friend that she seemed to manipulate the conversation to ensure she’d be thanked at the end. Her advice wasn’t always appropriate but she thought it was. Humility was not a strong trait. When someone she cared for didn’t reciprocate, she became terrier-like, stressed, tugging at possible sources of discord, relentless in pursuit of what went wrong. Late in life when asked how she enjoyed Christmas, her initial response was to tell me how many cards she’d received, rather than information on any gifts.

Both Mum and Dad were keen gardeners. In retirement they joined the Wentworth Falls Garden Club, and to Mum’s great delight she was appointed as a Life Member. She was the person members sought for advice on how to solve their specific plant problems. At club meetings she was in high demand, but again when asked how she enjoyed a particular meeting she would reply with the number of queries she had solved. The problems themselves weren’t of interest, the number of them was.

*           *           *

We all have our foibles, and many of Mum’s clearly were the result of the dysfunctional upbringing in her infant years. It’s amazing to me how well she turned out. I give her enormous credit for her survival and self-improvement instincts. She pulled herself up by her bootstraps and turned into a beautiful, loving, caring mother and wife. She was my biggest confidant, always there in the few times of uncertainty or self-doubt. Even as an adult I would sit by her feet and she’d massage my scalp. It was a unique characteristic of our special relationship.

Mum lived to the ripe old age of 92. In her early 80s she happily flew to the United States to visit with my family here. Always interested in new experiences, the fun-loving little girl in her would come out as she eagerly flew in small float planes, explored massive supermarkets and nurseries, or went on the rides at DisneyWorld. This was a woman who lived life to its fullest. Her aches and pains were simply there to be overcome.

I adored my Mum, loved her unconditionally. When I first moved to the United States from Australia, I missed her more than anyone else.

I still do 50 years later.


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