A few mysteries about Rylstone Railway have bothered me since I began researching the Wallerawang to Mudgee branch line. How did Rylstone get the railway? Why was the station built in timber? Did Henry Lawson’s father build it and did Henry help him? Why the delay in opening Rylstone railway? You could say I’ve been as hungry as a dog scrabbling for a bone.
At the first mention of a railway to Mudgee, Rylstone had a sense of entitlement. In October 1875 their correspondent wrote to the Australian Town and Country Journal ‘It is hoped [the government] will see the advisability of bringing it in this direction, indeed we demand it as a right.’ Rylstone was in sync with Mudgee Railway League who continued to activate. Several government surveys were made, including one via Rylstone. However, in early 1877 it was obvious that the route via Cherry Tree Hill, Keen’s Swamp (Ilford) and Bocoble was gaining favour. Rylstone held a public meeting to inaugurate a railway league under the name Mudgee and Rylstone Railway League and to ensure that the government chose the Rylstone route. They formed a committee, established a fund and appointed canvassers. Couldn’t everyone see, the benefits would be widespread, not just for Rylstone district, but for the wide and fertile districts of Bylong, Wollar, Lue, Barragan, Capertee, Widden and the Goulburn River.
Ilford too formed a railway league and wrote to Mudgee Railway League for support, but they ‘had no wish to interfere’. There is no doubt Rylstone had a stronger case than Ilford. As a town of over 300, they were the largest settlement between Wallerawang and Mudgee. They had a stronger voice in Parliament (The Honorable E K Cox was a member of the Legislative Council; MLA Rouse was member for Mudgee and gave his support to Rylstone). They had influential pastoralists along the route including Fitzgerald, Dowling, Bayley and of course E K Cox.
Ilford’s consolation prize was a brick station complex, with a newly surveyed township of over 400 acres, eight or so miles from the village itself. At the time the station was described as ‘too pretentious for the likely public requirements’ and the station master’s residence more suitable for someone on £1000 per annum than someone on £100pa. Another journalist wrote, ‘there is no prospect of settlement in the immediate neighbourhood…as the country is very rough and barren’. Ilford wasn’t consoled and it didn’t move (after all it was on the main Mudgee road) though it went into decline, and after two further name changes in two decades, Ilford Railway Station became Clandulla. (Dungaree and Lue faced a similar situation though it was the new village of Lue which eventually thrived.)
A timber railway station at Rylstone is a conundrum. All other stations on the line, large and small, were brick: Piper’s Flat, Ben Bullen, Capertee, Clandulla, Lue, Wallerawang and Mudgee. Most of the public buildings in Rylstone were built of stone, including the Post and Telegraph Office, Court House, Catholic Church and Wesleyan Chapel. The station master’s cottage was brick. Indeed brick or stone, if available, was the medium of choice by the railway department, for durability.
There is no doubt the community was disappointed. In October 1884 the Australian Town & Country Journal reported ‘the railway station, although a neat building, is merely a weatherboard structure, and the complaint is very justly made that this is neither in keeping with the importance of the district nor with the substantial character of the other public buildings in the town.’ It should be said the plans were on public exhibition for two or three weeks to allow objection. There were also eight other ‘5-room standard roadside stations’ built in timber in the early 1880s, so Rylstone wasn’t alone.
The choice though was in the hands of chief engineer John Whitton and we can only surmise his reasons. Stuart Sharp* who has made a study of NSW railways over many years, explained that Whitton was not above ‘departmental revenge’, sometimes at the direction of the Minister for Works. He added that Whitton could justify his design with its ‘extra features, such as the porched entry and centre transverse gables and twin pavilions, which travellers would know carried the message that Rylstone was a town with above normal social status’.**
So now we turn to Henry Lawson and his father Peter/Nields Lawson. In 1984 the Rylstone Railway Centenary booklet recorded that ‘the station building has the fame that Henry Lawson worked on it with his father who was the builder’. That didn’t align with my searches in Trove. According to the Government Gazette (12/6/1883) White and Coghill won the tender to erect ‘passenger station, goods warehouse, station master’s house etc’ at Rylstone. In February 1884 the Daily Telegraph reported a commodious passenger station, goods shed and trucking yards were ‘all being pretty well completed’ and the contractors were White and Coghill. The retired Archives Officer of State Rail Authority, John Forsyth contradicts that information on p81 of Stations of the New South Wales System – Composition, Contractors and Name Changes (an unpublished document, 2004) where he has written that Nields Lawson was the contractor, with the date of 1884, but unfortunately gives no source. Another enigma.
According to Stuart Sharp, White and Coghill appear on the railway plans as the head contractors. Lawson does not. He adds, ‘if Henry and his father were involved in the construction, it was as a subcontractor’.
We can certainly establish that Henry Lawson was in Rylstone with his parents. In August 1899 the Rylstone Express(25/8/1899) published a poem by Henry Lawson called ‘Out Back’ (see below) and wrote: ‘Many residents of Rylstone remember when Mr Peter Lawson and his family resided here, and although Mrs Lawson was recognised as a brainy woman, few amongst us could foretell that the slight, rather delicate and retiring schoolboy, Henry Lawson, would make his name famous by his writings’. This muddies the water even more. If he was a schoolboy, would he also have been working with his father? No pupil records are available at State Archives.
In his draft autobiography (A Fragment of Autobiography Vols 1 and 2, NSW State Library Digital Collection) Lawson gives a beguiling account of his early life. He went to school at Eurunderee, Pipeclay and a Catholic boys school in Mudgee run by Father O’Donovan. When he left school he accompanied his father doing building work. On p16 Lawson writes, rather awkwardly: ‘I went to Rylstone to work with father on small building contracts, the rest of the family went to Sydney, and the railway was going on to Mudgee to see what I could do…until Father had only enough work to keep himself going and I was wanted in Sydney.’ The Australian Dictionary of Biography records ‘In 1883 he joined his mother in Sydney’. We can probably assume Henry and his father were in Rylstone at the time the station complex was being built, and they might have worked on the station, but we can’t say they built the station.
The opening of any railway was an opportunity to party. In August 1883 news was out that Rylstone railway would open soon – 9th November they were told (it wasn’t unusual to have an opening before the station buildings were complete). A ‘large and enthusiastic meeting’ was called. Celebrations would be on a grand scale. The ladies would organise a fancy dress ball. They ordered silks and satins and began stitching. But November passed…then December…early January was announced…then March…‘not before May’…What! The 10th July?
Local member A G Taylor took up the cudgel in Parliament. Promises promises! ‘The Rylstone people are indignant and rightly so…would probably burn the Minister in effigy.’ He accused the Minister: Was there a delay to feed the profits of the road carriers? The Minister for Works stood firm: it would be when the railway to Mudgee was completed. Rylstone held indignation meetings. The Minister backed down (probably because the Mudgee section was delayed). Rylstone railway opened on 10th June but the government declared ‘there will be no official demonstration on the occasion’. Rylstone was still peeved in October: ‘the fact remains that Rylstone for some time past has not had its share of Government favours.’
But at least Rylstone had their train. ‘Amid the cheers of a large crowd’ locals on the first train left Rylstone at 10.30pm, arrived at Wallerawang at 12.55am, changed to the Western train at 1.28am, had a quick refreshment at 2.55am, during the 15 minute stop at Mt Victoria, and arrived in Sydney at 6.45am. Eight and a quarter hours. A rollicking trip compared to Cobb & Co coach and train.
* The Railway Stations of NSW 1855-1980, Stuart Alan Sharp, August 1982, thesis for Master of Economics, Sydney University.
** Architectural Period Quasi-NSW Design 1880 to 1889, Stuart Sharp
*** J H Forsyth, Stations of the NSW System – Composition, Contractors and Name Changes, unpublished document, 2004, p81
In a letter to his aunt, during his stint out west, Henry Lawson wrote, ‘You can have no idea of the horrors of the country out here. Men tramp and beg and live like dogs.’
‘Out Back’ is Henry Lawson’s poem which appeared in the Rylstone Express.
The old year went, and the new returned, in the withering weeks of drought,
The cheque was spent that the shearer earned, and the sheds were all cut out;
The publican’s words were short and few, and the publican’s looks were black–
And the time had come, as the shearer knew, to carry his swag Out Back.
For time means tucker, and tramp you must, where the scrubs and plains are wide,
With seldom a track that a man can trust, or a mountain peak to guide.
All day long in the dust and heat– when summer is on the track–
With stinted stomachs and blistered feed, they carry their swags Out Back.
He tramped away from the shanty there, when the days were long and hot,
With never a soul to know or care if he died on the track or not.
The poor in the city have friends in woe, no matter how much they lack,
But only God and the swagmen know how a poor man fares Out Back.
He begged his way on the parched Paroo and the Warrego tracks once more,
And lived like a dog, as the swagmen do, till the Western stations shore;
But men were many, and sheds were full, for work in the town was slack–
The traveller never got hands in wool, though he tramped for a year Out Back.
In stifling noons when his back was wrung by its load, and the air seemed dead,
And the water warmed in the bag that hung to his aching arm like lead,
Or in times of flood, when plains were seas, and the scrubs were cold and black,
He ploughed in mud to his trembling knees, and paid for his sins Out Back.
He blamed himself in the year “Too Late”– in the heaviest hours of life–
’Twas little he dreamed that a shearing-mate had care of his home and wife;
There are times when wrongs from your kindred come, and treacherous tongues attack–
When a man is better away from home, and dead to the world, Out Back.
And dirty and careless and old he wore, as his lamp of hope grew dim;
He tramped for years till the swag he bore seemed part of himself to him.
As a bullock drags in the sandy ruts, he followed the dreary track,
With never a thought but to reach the huts when the sun went down Out Back.
It chanced one day, when the north wind blew in his face like a furnace breath,
He left the track for a tank he knew – ’twas a short-cut to his death;
For the bed of the tank was hard and dry, and crossed with many a crack,
And, oh! it’s a terrible thing to die of thirst in the scrub Out Back.
A drover came, but the fringe of law was eastward many a mile;
He never reported the thing he saw, for it was not worth his while.
The tanks are full and the grass is high in the mulga off the track,
Where the bleaching bones of a white man lie by his mouldering swag Out Back.
For time means tucker, and tramp they must, where the plains and scrubs are wide,
With seldom a track that a man can trust, or a mountain peak to guide;
All day long in the flies and heat the men of the outside track
With stinted stomachs and blistered feet must carry their swags Out Back.