Sunday, April 06, 2014

A Visit to Gunnedah

Recently my parents and I travelled from Port Macquarie to our hometown of Gunnedah in northwest New South Wales, Australia. The drive from Port Macquarie inland to Gunnedah is about four-and-a-half hours. It had been three years since I last visited Gunnedah.

In writing about my visit in February 2011 I noted that the town of Gunnedah is located in the Namoi River valley of north-western New South Wales, and serves as the major service centre for the farming area known as the Liverpool Plains.

The town and its surrounding area were originally inhabited by indigenous Australians who spoke the Kamilaroi (Gamilaraay) language. The area now occupied by the town was settled by Europeans in 1833. Through my maternal grandmother’s family, the Millerds, my family can trace its connection to Gunnedah back to the town’s earliest days. For more about the town’s history and my family’s connection to it, see the previous Wild Reed post, My “Bone Country”.

Above: My parents, Gordon and Margaret Bayly, with their long-time friends Malcolm and Rosemary Sinclair – Thursday, March 27, 2014. That's the Gunnedah Town Hall behind them.

Left: Gunnedah Town Hall in 1934 – three years before the addition of the building’s clock tower. For more about the history of this landmark building, click here.

My parents and I travelled to Gunnedah to attend the funeral of Keith Moore, a good friend of my parents. In the photograph above my parents are pictured with Keith and his wife Judy at the 1962 Catholic Ball in Gunnedah.

Right: Dad and Keith at Moonbi Lookout, just north of Tamworth, New South Wales. I believe this photo was taken in January of 1985.

Above: My younger brother, Tim; me; Mum; and Judy & Keith Moore at the Moonbi Lookout – January, 1985.

Above and below: Dad and I at Gunnedah's Porcupine Lookout – Wednesday, March 26, 2014. That's the Breeza Plain pictured behind Dad. As I note elsewhere at The Wild Reed, part of the 2006 film Superman Returns was filmed on the plains near the village of Breeza, 25 miles south of Gunnedah.

It rained for most of our time in Gunnedah . . . which was a very good thing as the area desperately needed rain. Noted the March 25, 2014 issue of the Namoi Valley Independent:

It's been the most promising fall of rain the district has seen since the drought first took hold, and there is more on the way according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

Gunnedah shire farmers awoke to the precious sound of soaking rain yesterday morning, with impressive falls of up to 60mm recorded in Mullaley.

Until 9am yesterday morning, Mullaley's official tally was 42mm, Gunnedah and Boggabri each received 29mm, Tambar Springs 20mm, Blackville 17mm, Breeza 25mm and Bundella and Caroona recorded 16mm.

The rain has been triggered by an inland surface trough and an upper level low which has resulted in a combination of humidity and cold air. The widespread downpour began late Sunday afternoon and continued into Monday morning. More rain is expected up until Friday, with the bureau predicting between 8-25mm for Gunnedah shire on Tuesday, between 3-9mm on Wednesday and 2-15mm on Thursday. The rain will ease by the weekend, with only possible showers forecast for Saturday and Sunday.

It's been a much-awaited welcome relief for farmers who have been battling one of the worst droughts in decades.

Above: Mum and Dad with our good friends Peter and Delores Worthington – Tuesday, March 25, 2014.

Left: Dad partnered Delores when she made her debut in 1954.

Above: For 40+ years it was a tradition for our family to visit the Worthingtons on Christmas Day morning. This picture was taken in 1985 and shows my parents with members of the Worthington family. From left: Louise, Peter, Andrew, Delores, Dad, Mark, Alison, Mum, and Jane. Absent from this photo are my two brothers and I and Sally Worthington.

Right: Long-time friends John and Heather Sills, with whom my parents and I had dinner the first night we were in Gunnedah.

Growing up in Gunnedah, my family lived next door to John and Heather and their three children – Jenny, Troy, and Jillian – who were the same age as my brothers and I. And, yes, as with the Worthingtons, a Christmas Day visit to the Sills' was also a long-standing tradition. We'd go over just after opening our presents!

Above: Dad (center) with his good friends Don Bruce (my Mum's cousin) and John Sills. Because of their close friendship (and no doubt their fresh-faced looks), an older friend, Mavis Grace, used to refer to the three young men as Huey, Dewey and Louie!

Above: A 1982 photo showing (from left) Heather, Mum, Jillian, my younger brother Tim, Jenny, and John.

Above: Mum with Heather Sills and my paternal grandmother, Belle Smith, in 1981. Don't you just love our family's funky '70s-style stereo?

Above: Mum and Dad with John and Heather Sills at my brother Tim and sister-in-law Ros' 1990 wedding in Wagga Wagga.

Above: With Aunty Ruth, my Mum's younger sister, and good friend and "girl-next-door" when growing up, Jillian (John and Heather Sills' youngest daughter) – Wednesday, March 26, 2014.

Left: Aunty Ruth, looking very glamorous in the 1960s. Ruth graduated from the Royal Women's Hospital in Paddington, Sydney, in 1968.

Above: Ruth in the early 1970s with her daughter Emily.

Above: Ruth in 2000 with her husband Rex and their children Emily and Greg. Uncle Rex died in 2006.

Above: With Abby and Noah, my cousin Greg's girlfriend's children. Abby is dressed as the White Witch from C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for a school pageant.

Right: My maternal grandmother's dove. Nanna Sparkes died in 1997, and this dove must be close to 20 years old. I'm glad it's still with us, as it's a lovely reminder of Nanna.

Above: Nanna Sparkes dancing up a storm at my older brother Chris' and sister-in-law Cathie's 1988 wedding in Melbourne. That's Nanna's youngest daughter Ruth behind her, and granddaughter Emily at right. At left is family friend Wendy Tunbridge.

Above: My maternal grandparents, Olive and Valentine Sparkes at my parents' 1959 wedding in Gunnedah.

Above: Having breakfast at Gunnedah's Bitter Suite Cafe and Wine Bar – Wednesday, March 26, 2014.

Above: Gunnedah's main thoroughfare, Conadilly Street – Tuesday, March 25, 2014.

Pictured above with my childhood friend and neighbour Jillian at the Gunnedah Services and Bowling Club on the evening of Wednesday, March 26, 2014, and below 26 years earlier in 1988.

Above: Mum with family friends Gary and Wendy Tunbridge – Wednesday, March 26, 2014.

Left: Gary and Wendy on their wedding day in the early 1970s.

Above: For many years Wendy worked as a secretary at my Dad's farm supply and grain cartage business in Gunnedah. I'm pictured with her in 1983, which was my last year of high school.

Above: Dad with Wendy and Wendy's mother Gwen Riordan – Wednesday, March 26, 2014.

As I note in a previous post, during my childhood my family and I would often spend time on the Kelvin property of Gwen and her husband Ray, about 20 kilometres outside of Gunnedah. With Gwen, her sister Barbara, and one or more of Gwen and Ray's adult daughters and their families we'd hike through the Kelvin Hills. Those adventures in the Australian bush remain very special to me.

Above: With my childhood and neighbourhood friends Dianne and Louise.

Right: Louise and her brother Gary with their mother Daphne. The photo was taken on Gary's first day of school, circa 1970.

Above: That's me next to our family's dog Deano. Behind me (from right) is Dianne, her brother David, and my younger brother Tim. We'd all been out with Dad collecting sandstone rocks for Mum's garden. I'm thinking this photo was probably taken in 1979.

Left: With Aunty Fay, my Mum's older half-sister – Wednesday, March 26, 2014.

Above: My maternal grandmother, Olive Sparkes, with two of her four daughters, Fay and Ruth, and Ruth's daughter, Emily – 1990.

Above: My maternal grandparents, Olive and Valentine Sparkes, with their four adult children, front row from right, Fay, Margaret, Ruth, and Michael; and their two son-in-laws at that time, back row, Bertie Wicks and my Dad, Gordon Bayly. This photo was taken in 1962 at the wedding of my Mum's cousin, Helen Millerd.

A number of the photos in this post were taken on March 26, 2014 at a dinner my parents and I shared with family and friends at the Gunnedah Services and Bowling Club. My paternal grandmother, Belle Smith (pictured above, second from left) worked for many years at this establishment as Catering Manager. At that time it was known as the Servicemen's Club. This picture of Nanna and her colleagues (including, at left, her good friend Dawn Weakley) was taken sometime in the 1970s.

Above: A photo from the mid-1970s showing my older brother Chris with Emily "Gran" Simmons (1892–1982). Gran was mother to Nanna Smith, grandmother to my Dad, and great-grandmother to my brothers and I.

Above: With Mum and Nanna Smith on Christmas Day, 1991.

I can't say I miss that hair, but I definitely miss that shirt!

Above: Blackjack Mountain, just outside of Gunnedah – Wednesday, March 26, 2014.

Notes Ron McLean in The Way We Were: Sesquicentenary of Gunnedah, 1856-2006:

Coal has been an integral part of the fabric of life in Gunnedah for 125 years. The first mine was a crude pit on the slopes of Blackjack Mountain with the coal hauled by dray to the railhead in the 1880s.

Coal mining has always been a tough industry with more than its fair share of tragedy. For so long, Gunnedah's miners laboured stoically, in terrible conditions, cramped and stifling, working with crude equipment. Working in pairs, they cut coal by hand, filling one-ton skips drawn to the surface by patient pit ponies. . . . They worked eight-hour shifts five days a week and six hours every alternate Saturday.

there were years of high production when Gunnedah coal was keenly sought by buyers, domestically and, later, overseas. But there were also times of despair, when the mines went into mothballs and men were cavilled out, many unable to find employment and having to ride out the tough times until the mines started up again.

And there was another recurring feature of mining -- the fatalities. Twenty men aged between 21 and 54 have lost their lives in mining-related accidents in the Gunnedah area, the first way back in 1897, the last in 1986.

As I note in a previous post about Gunnedah, my maternal grandmother’s first husband, Jack Louis, was killed in an accident in a mine workshop in nearby Werris Creek. The eldest of their two children, Eric (my Mum’s half-brother), collided with a coal truck as he rode his motor cycle to his job at the Gunnedah Mine on a very dusty road. He was only in his early twenties at the time of his tragic death. Both father and son are honoured on Gunnedah's Miners’ Memorial.

Above: A photograph taken at Blackjack Colliery in April 1917.

Above: A store front in the main street of Gunnedah that aims to disseminate information about the downside of coal seam gas.

A February 21, 2013 Namoi Valley Independent article notes the following about the issue and the opening of the storefront:

A group of local farmers are determined to tell their side of the story when it comes to concerns over coal seam gas (CSG) – and they’re doing it next door to energy giant Santos’ Gunnedah office.

The group has taken a lease on a Conadilly Street property to inform the community about what they believe are potential threats to the future of agriculture in the shire.

The idea came following “frustration” over Santos’ ongoing advertising campaign spruiking the benefits of CSG in rural communities.

The aim of the main street property is to offer people an opportunity to find out more about CSG, and provide information about the extent of development in Queensland, results of scientific research, quotes from various professors and environmentalists, concerns about impacts on water and various media clippings.

“We’ve got a whole country at risk,” said Willala farmer Alistair Donaldson.

“The (Santos) ads don’t show the full picture.

“Gunnedah needs underground water and too much evidence shows it will be affected to some degree.”

Farmers fear that NSW will follow in the footsteps of Queensland where there is mass CSG development and infrastructure.

In Queensland alone up to 40,000 wells are expected to be drilled by 2030, leaving landholders fearing for their livelihoods and our nation’s food bowl.

“Santos advertisements aim to create a perception in people’s mind that this is a safe industry, that there will be plenty of jobs and that the process of recovering CSG from coal seams will not pose any threat to underground water,” Mullaley farmer Robyn King said.

Ms King also questioned the direct benefits to local communities.

“If we need the energy, why are we exporting it?”

Santos has always maintained it is confident that responsible CSG development and production provides a safe, clean solution for the state’s energy needs and one that can be delivered in a timely fashion.

Mr Donaldson and Mrs King thanked the Vernados family for their generosity when it came to leasing the main street premises.

They also believe the local campaign against CSG is gaining momentum.

It follows a recent survey carried out by Mullaley farmers where 98.5 per cent of 297 people in the shire supported a no-go CSG zone in the area.

Above: The Kelvin Hills, shrouded in rain.
For a view of them on a clear day, click here.

Two Gunnedah portraits of me . . . At left at age five . . .

. . . and at right in 2014, just a couple of years away from turning 50!

Above and below: Returning from Gunnedah to Port Macquarie on Thursday, March 27, Mum & Dad and I stopped in Tamworth to visit my cousin Emily. She and her husband Matt have just had their first child, Lewis Rex.

Above: Little Lewis Rex!

Left: With Emily and Matt's dog.

Above: Mum and Dad – Thursday, March 27, 2014.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Journey to Gunnedah (2011)
This Corner of the Earth (2010)
An Afternoon at the Gunnedah Convent of Mercy (2010)
My "Bone Country" (2009)
The White Rooster
Remembering Nanna Smith
One of These Boys is Not Like the Others
Gunnedah (Part 1)
Gunnedah (Part 2)
Gunnedah (Part 3)
Gunnedah (Part 4)


Unknown said...

Read the whole thing and looked at all the wonderful photos of your family and friends. You are still tied to the land. A land so different from Minnesota, where you have come to roost in recent years. Writers talk a lot about connection to the land, how important it is, how it shapes who we are. Thanks for sharing your trip. Especially liked seeing your Mum and Dad doing so well in the photos.

Rita Quigley said...

So great to be able to juxtapose pix then and now. It seems a lovely pilgrimage to your roots and the strong bonds that hold you firm in your identity even though you've journeyed far. RQ

Bill Critch said...

Nice piece, mate. I too consider Gunnedah my home. Check out my Gunnedah story (and others) at

Anonymous said...

Good story, mate. I too am a Gunnedah bloke but far removed since 1954. Friend of Peter Worthington, too