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John Byrnes – Bingara’s First Mayor

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John Byrnes: Bingara's first Mayor
John Byrnes - Bingara's First Mayor

John ByrnesBingara’s First Mayor

In the mid 1870 John Byrnes arrived in Bingara from Morpeth to try his luck in the gold diggings. Little did he know then that his legacy would remain for well over a century.

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Like many great people, his efforts were a result of a deep love for his community, an ability to accumulate resources to support his contributions and a knack of winning the public’s confidence and trust. One key ingredient of his success is clearly evident from a comment made by the late Harold Batterham in his book Random Jottings. Harold described Byrnes as, ‘A man of remarkable business insight’.

‘Niara’

While nothing remains of Byrnes’s business pursuits, ‘Niara’, an impressive symbol of his legacy, does. For the past one hundred and seventeen years it has watched over his beloved Bingara. John Byrnes, Bingara’s first mayor, has left us with ‘the house on the hill’.

‘Niara’ the House on the Hill overlooking Bingara, the legacy left by John Byrnes

Twenty-nine years of continuous service.

By 1900, about twenty-five years after arriving in Bingara, he had accumulated the resources to build Niara, which certainly would have been a most impressive structure for that time. Additionally, he had been elected mayor of the first municipal council in 1889 and his ongoing community contribution was described in the Daily Observer (Tamworth) on 19 February 1919:

‘At a special meeting of the Bingara Municipal Council, Ald. John Byrnes was elected Mayor for the year 1919. Ald. Byrnes has been a member of the Council since its incorporation, having held the Mayoral position on eleven occasions. At a special meeting of the Gwydir Shire Council held on 12th inst., Cr. John Byrnes was re-elected President for the ensuing year.’

Thus, Byrnes was leader of both the town municipal council and the surrounding rural shire at the same time, something that suggests a man of outstanding ability. Besides his eleven years as municipal mayor, he also served thirteen consecutive years as President of Gwydir Shire.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the character of John Byrnes, is to recall a chat his daughter, Millie (Houghton), had with Harold when she returned for a ‘Back-to-Bingara’ celebration. Millie told him: ‘He gave so much time and energy to the welfare of his beloved Bingara, in fact it seemed his whole life.’

First store

Byrnes passed away in October 1935 at the age of 83 and his obituary provides a brief history of his businesses:

‘About 1883 he opened his first store in Bingara, near where Mr. W. Reading’s residence now stands. The Campbell Bridge was then in the course of erection, and business was developing. In 1889, he built a new store opposite the Imperial Hotel. It was a great venture and many of the residents of that day believed that Bingara would never warrant a store of that size. About that time, he built and later improved the Bingara flour mills, which did their part in contributing to the prosperity of the town and district for many years.’

Also understanding his visionary approach is helped by Millie’s memories of the second store.

‘It was a very big concern for those days – grocery, drapery, ironmongery, boots and shoes. He started a flour mill, the only one for a hundred miles, and employed a lot of men at the store and mill. He sent flour by bullock teams to Morpeth (on the Hunter River and the nearest port to Bingara) and then by ships to the islands, bringing back sugar to sell in Bingara.’

Rum rarely arrived with its contents intact

Later, Harold reported in Random Jottings:

‘Mrs. Houghton remembers all the butter came in bulk, and was weighed up by the pound by store staff.  There was jam and fruit in tins: the label on the tins read, ‘Made expressly for John Byrnes, Bingara’. Cheese always sold in large blocks and boiled sweets in tins. No meats were supplied in tins in those early days.’

Millie also told Harold that her father had remarked that the demijohns of rum (a large wicker cased bottle) rarely arrived with their contents intact, for someone invariably sampled the rum on the long wagon journey to Bingara (from the port on the Hunter River at Morpeth).  In those days, shops opened at 6am and, according to Millie, closed at all hours of the night. She recalled that her father had brought a lot of alluvial gold. During the severe drought of 1902, her father had helped many farmers carry on and she remembered many kindnesses he rendered to people in need.

Tragedy

The most astounding and unexpected things we discovered about the life of John Byrnes were the multitude of tragic events and how he obviously rebounded to continue his work. He had married Matilda, the daughter of Mr.  & Mrs. Charles Bull of “Cooringoora” Bingara and tragedy struck in December 1890.

The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser of Saturday 27 December recorded the terrible events:

‘In last week’s issue, I reported the death of his Worship the Mayor Mr. John Byrnes’ second eldest daughter from diphtheria. In this week’s, I am grieved to have to report the death of his youngest from the same disease. On the day, the first one was buried, the other child took ill, although she had never seen her sister or even been in the house from the time she was ill. Mrs. Byrnes took her at once to Warialda for a change of air and perhaps for further medical advice. The little one seemed to have got nearly well, but took a relapse and died. She was brought down from Warialda in her coffin and buried alongside her sister. The parents are inexpressibly grieved. They had four children, of whom the youngest was about six years of age. The boy died about 18 months ago, and now the two girls have gone, and they have only the eldest one left. No fresh cases are reported.’

The First wife of John Bynes.

Electric light would lighten the darkness

Despite suffering considerable personal grief, Byrnes continued with his community and business interests and the Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser on 14th February 1891 reported on the opening of his new flour mill.

‘On Tuesday morning last, a good crowd of people wandered their way to Mr. Byrnes’s new roller mill to witness the starting of same. Miss Ethel Byrnes, the only daughter of the owner, performed the ceremony. Everything worked very well. The greatest credit is due to those who had the job of putting the machinery together. Not a stoppage of any kind was made, and everything did its work well and neatly.’

The above article also reported on Byrnes’s other innovative activities.

‘The opening of the mill did not, however; cause nearly as much interest as the news that the electric light would lighten the darkness at Mr. Byrnes’s mill and large stores in Maitland Street on Saturday night. Before the time appointed, a good crowd of people had assembled in front of and under the colonnade, and at last the light flashed forth, showing a very clear light and making objects very distinct. Mr. Byrnes has had the light fixed up in stores, colonnade, office, dwelling-house, engine room, and flourmill. The mill is situated a distance of about 300 yards from the store, and wires are carried across poles.’

The late 1800s was a period of significant growth in Bingara and Mayor Byrnes would have provided a guiding hand during these times. He presided over the meeting in October 1891 which asked the government to provide land for a council chamber and a town hall. The request was approved and the building was constructed. (Now occupied by the Bingara RSL Club)  Another major decision made by Council at its very first meeting in 1889 was to change the name of Bingera to Bingara. This was necessary to avoid confusion with “Bingera” in Queensland, as both towns had experienced very frequent mix-ups with mail and other deliveries.

1889 – A year of growth: Importantly, 1889 was a fantastic year for growth and the Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney) of Saturday 24 August 1889 provided a very useful account of the developments:

‘Railway: The valuers have concluded their duties for this year and an appeal court has been fixed for August 20. The mayor has been requested to convene a public meeting to advance the claims of the district for an extension of a line of railway from Tamworth.

Hospital: A special general meeting of contributors will be held on the 21st instant to pass the proposed rules and a tender has been accepted by the committee for the erection of the building, the amount being four hundred and forty-nine pounds. The fencing of seven acres dedicated for the hospital site is nearing completion.

Seating- Skates; The new rink, having a floor space of 70 by 45 feet was opened on the 16th by a grand carnival. The attendance was about 250, about 30 appearing in fancy dress. Skates were discarded at 11 when dancing began, and continued to the small hours. About midnight refreshments were served. The visitors from Barraba and Warialda mustered in good force, and expressed themselves pleased with the outing. The music was supplied by Mr. and Mrs. Wearne. The whole affair was a social and financial success.

Church: This building (Anglican) is beginning to raise its imposing form. About 25,000 bricks have been carted to the ground, and are being rapidly placed in position, the contractor having sent three bricklayers especially from Sydney. The dressing of timber for the structure is also in a forward state.

Mining: The manager of the All Nations Claim reports having sunk the shaft 9ft through hard country, the depth from the surface being 26ft. He expects to cut the lode in a few feet. In the alluvial Culvert Gully no new discoveries have been made.

Roman Catholic Church: A bazaar in aid of the church will be held on 12th, 13th and 14th proximo as the District Court will be held about those dates.’

Tragedy and Wedding

In July 1903, the Byrnes family celebrated the marriage of daughter Ethel, to Arthur Borthwick of Moree, with the wedding held at the family home,“Niara”. However, what was probably a very happy and prosperous period for the family was shattered when Mrs. Matilda Byrnes passed away in March 1904, at the age of fifty-five years. However Byrnes remarried three years later and the wedding was recorded in the Bundarra and Tingha Advocate, Saturday 15 December1906:

‘On Wednesday evening, Alderman John Byrnes (Mayor of Bingara) was married to Miss (Winifred) Maud Horne of Sydney, and formerly of Bingara. The ceremony was performed by Rev Father Clancy. The wedding was a very quiet one.’

But as we have seen, tragedy was never far away for John and six years later he was once again a widower. The Warialda Standard and Northern Districts’ Advertiser Monday 26 Au-gust 1912, reported on the very sad occasion.

‘We regret to record the death of Mrs John Byrnes, wife of Alderman John Byrnes (who is also President of Gwydir Shire), which sad event occurred at her residence on Wednesday evening last after a week’s illness. As a tribute of respect, nearly every business was suspended. As the sun went down on Thursday her remains were laid to rest in the Catholic portion of the cemetery, whither they were followed by one of the longest funeral processions ever seen in Bingara.

The funeral first went to the Church, where the first part of the funeral service was conducted by Rev. Father Collander, who also conducted the Burial Service at the graveside. The coffin was covered with wreaths sent by sympathising friends. The late Mrs. Byrnes had only been married about 5 years, and by her death her husband and her two little children have bereft of a devoted and affectionate wife and mother, and the community of Bingara loses an estimable lady from its residents. The deceased lady, who was the second daughter of the late Marion Horne, was born at Warialda 35 years ago, and the greater part of her life has been spent there or in Bingara. The deepest sympathy is felt throughout the district for our townsman and his little ones in their grief.”

Life goes on

Despite a host of personal setbacks, Byrnes continued to pursue his business interests and his very proactive contribution to the community. For example, in 1919 he was again elected mayor of Bingara and, at the time, had been a member of council since its incorporation in 1889. He had married a third time and on his death in October 1935, his obituary recorded some of his community work.

‘He was one of the founders of the district hospital, and served on the board till the time of his death, being, for very many years its treasurer. For 46 years, he was a Justice of the Peace. In fact, there is scarcely a public body or a committee of which he did not at some time have a place, and to which he gave capable and devoted service. About 24 years ago, he relinquished business and interested himself in pastoral affairs. A man of more than ordinary business ability and acumen, he gave himself unstintingly to the service of the town and district, and there is probably no one man who has done so much for its development. It was fitting that in later years he established himself in his fine residence ‘Niara’ on a hill overlooking the town of which he had laboured so unceasingly. He was a widely-read man, and had knowledge of men and affairs such as few men possess.’

Before we conclude our feature on John Byrnes, it is interesting to note that the family’s connection with the traditional home of ‘Niara’ did not cease on his death. Therefore, we will touch briefly on those who have been associated with ‘Niara’ and commence with his daughter, Kathleen.

Kathleen Newman Byrnes

On 9 September 1937, the Sun (Sydney) reported:

‘An exciting finale to the world tour which Kathleen Byrnes of Niara Station, Bingara, completed when she arrived in Sydney on Tuesday on the Mariposa was the announcement of her engagement yesterday to Mr. Thomas Ireland, elder son of Mr. And Mrs. James Ireland, of ‘The Lakes’, Walcha. Miss Byrnes, who is the only daughter of the late Mr. And Mrs. John Byrnes of Bingara, has been abroad for the last eight months. She was accompanied by Mrs. A.H. Borthwick, of Quilpie Queensland, and Miss. Kathleen Borthwick, who will leave London for Australia on the Ormonde September 23. The three of them bought a car in London and motored through England and then shipped it to France and toured central Europe’

It was also mentioned that following a visit home to Bingara, she returned to Sydney to complete her trousseau shopping and that the marriage would take place at St. Mary’s Cathedral on September 23.

Thomas and Kathleen returned to Bingara and remained until the 1970s. By the 1980s, Niara was in disrepair and as the Irelands had left the district, it was placed on the market. The price tag was in the eighty thousand range, probably a reasonable amount as the land was also over-run with cypress pine and weeds.

Livingstone- “Time does not matter, do it properly”

Fortunately, it was purchased by Mr. And Mrs. David Livingstone from Sydney and Niara remains in the family to this day. We say ‘fortunately’, as David and the late Eileen set about extensive renovations and applied careful resource management to restore the land.

Local builders, Walter and Wayne Galvin worked on Niara, and Wayne recently recalled the job. ‘It was certainly a bit of a mess and we worked on it for about three years, on and off. The inner walls were rendered double brick and we had to strip off all the old wallpaper, fix the render and re-paper the lot. Also, the roof needed repairs and painting – actually, we painted the whole house. Kenny McIntosh also did a bit of work there. The only advice David gave us was, ‘time doesn’t matter, just do it properly.’ He is a great bloke and over many years we often played golf together; he certainly loves Bingara and the course. Another thing, he thought highly of our butchers and often took a heap of meat back to Sydney with him.’

David is now in a nursing home and ownership of the property has passed to his son, ‘young’ David, who is currently in England. However, he remains in touch and has a local man attending to the gardens and surrounds. Before concluding, it is important to acknowledge David’s sister, Catherine, arguably Australia’s leading businesswoman. In 2009, she was the Chair of the C.S.I.R.O., later the Chair of Telstra, and the Chair of the Business Council of Australia and in January 2017, she was appointed chair of the Commonwealth Bank. Like her brother, she has visited Bingara on occasion and Wayne recalls meeting her once at Niara.

Perhaps the best note on which to conclude our series on John Byrnes, Bingara’s first mayor, is to ponder on the legacy he left us – ‘the house on the hill’ and to celebrate that some 80 years later, it remains in the safe hands of another loving owner. We are so lucky to have it looking over our valley.

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