John Thomas Williams
the first blacksmith at Bellingen
pioneer sugar cane grower/miller & publican
American born John Thomas Williams was the first blacksmith at the town of Bellingen situated on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, Australia. He was born about 1834 in New York State, USA, the son of bricklayer James Williams and Mary Brice, and died on 11 Sep 1903 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, NSW, Australia. When aged 26 years, on 20 Dec 1860 at Mitchell’s Island Manning River in NSW, he married Jane Shiels née O’Hara - a widow with three young children - Margaret, Anna and Susan 1.
Jane, whose parents were Joseph O'Hara and Margaret Kellett, and first husband William Shiels were cousins who married on 1 March 1855 in Billis in Killinkere Parish, County Cavan, Ireland and arrived in Sydney five months later on 28 July 1855 as assisted immigrants aboard the Mangerton. Exactly nine months after their marriage the first of their three children was born at Manning River where William initially found work as a farm servant before purchasing a 60 acre farm fronting the southern shore of Pelican Bay that was offered for sale at a governement auction held at Wingham on 27 Dec. 1858 3, 4, 15. He died on 23 August 1859 while visiting Sydney from dysentery in the Infirmary in Macquarie Street (later renamed Sydney Hospital) and was buried in Camperdown Cemetery at Newtown. If there was headstone it no longer exists as the section where he was buried was converted to parkland in the 1950s 11, 12.
From her second marriage to John Thomas Williams Jane had at least an additional thirteen children including a set of twins who did not survive 14. Of her sixteen children six were born at Manning River and ten at Bellinger River. Except for one son all have been traced, their children identified, and in some cases descendants through to the present day. For their names, history, birth years, marriages, and descendants see the links on the Family Tree web page.
It is not known for certain when John Thomas Williams arrived in Australia or at Manning River. His official death record indicates he arrived in Australia in 1859 2. However significant apparent errors in other information in that record suggest the 1859 arrival year was an estimate by the children who were the informants for the registration. It is possible he arrived earlier attracted by the gold rushes following the 1851 NSW and Victorian strikes. There is evidence he was known as "Tom" when he was the blacksmith at Fernmount in the Bellinger Valley in the 1870s, so may have been the blacksmith named "Tom" who after he was at Bungay Bungay station on the Manning River became the first blacksmith to reside in the government created town of Wingham near Taree, where "Tom's" smithy was sited where the butter factory was later erected. The first allotments in the town were sold in 1854 and "Tom" the blacksmith likely moved into the town about 1856 when the Post Office was relocated to there from Bungay Bungay station 5. From at least early 1862 to 1864 John Williams had his smithy down stream at Cundletown on the northern side of the river 6. After the passage of Lands Acts opened up the northern areas for settlement, likewise to several other early Bellinger River settlers previously at Manning River, John Williams made the move north to the Bellinger where he set up for business in that district's then main settlement of Fernmount sometime between October 1865 when the birth of his last Manning River born child was registered and May 1867 when the first child was born at Bellinger River 7.
The catalyst for the move north may well have been the devastating flood of July 1866 that rose eight feet above the 1857 flood level and was one of the greatest floods in the history of the Manning River. The islands of the lower river were almost submerged and over fifty families lost everything. Everywhere down the river was left a trail of desolation and ruin, with wharves, shipment stores, storehouses, houses, barns, crops and livestock washed away. It was followed by another flood in 1867. 5.
It was not until around the turn of the century that Bellingen, originally known as Boat Harbour, overtook Fernmount in population and became the main business and commercial center for the district. In 1866 wife Jane selected as a conditional purchase a 204 acre property, with a ¾ mile Bellinger River frontage and a double frontage to the Kempsey road, situated 1½ miles down river from Fernmount between what was the Connell and Bayldon farms. Following her 1886 death in Sydney at the age of 50 years this property was auctioned on 6 April 1889 in Baker’s Auction Rooms in Fernmount. The proceeds of the sale of the property were bequeathed by her will to her six youngest children who were aged between 5 and 16 years when she died. The property was bought in by the joint executor of her estate son-in-law John James Keogh, the husband of daughter Susan Jane Sheils, who likely leased the property from the time the family moved to Sydney. 8.
The family left the Bellinger River for Sydney in the early 1880s where they resided initially at 27-29 Regent Street, situated close to the present day site of Central Railway Station, requiring two adjoining houses to fully accommodate the then fourteen family members 9. From 1884 to 1887 John Williams was the licensee of the London Tavern, located on the corner of Elizabeth & Albion Streets in Surry Hills just north of the site of the Toohey’s Brewery that stood as an Elizabeth Street landmark for over a century until redeveloped as Centennial Plaza in the 1990s 10.
The copperplate appearance of his signature in the marriage register indicates John Thomas Williams had a formal education. Additional to being the first blacksmith at Bellinger River, he was apparently also the first unofficial school teacher, having conducted a school in his Fernmount smithy attended by local children before the village obtained its' first official school in November 1871. A legend in one line of his family is that he was the mayor. However whilst until the 20th century Fernmount was the main settlement in the Bellinger Valley his years on the river predated the formation of a municipality. He may well have been the unofficial "mayor" of Bellinger River who on behalf of his fellow citizens made written representations to the district's member of parliament and the government in Sydney re the need for roads, bridges, schools, better postal services, and steam driven punts etc.
The following mentions of John Thomas Williams were noted in published books and newspapers:
Bellinger Courier-Sun, 5 November 1954. An article by an early Bellingen blacksmith Leo McNally stated a man named Williams was the first blacksmith on the Bellinger and he had come up to Bellingen from his shop at Fernmount on 2 or 3 days a week. This article was reprinted in Pioneering in the Bellingen Valley, edited by N. Braithwaite & H. Beard (Bellinger Valley Historical Society).
Bellinger Courier-Sun, 2 June 1964 'District Pioneers - Part 1'. An article by R.J Hobson on the Tysons' of Fernmount recounts one of the older Tyson children recalling John Thomas Williams had conducted a school in his blacksmith shop attended by local children as follows - "There were so many small children in the small town, and no school teacher, that ‘Tom the Blacksmith’ decided to hold a class in the blacksmith shop. This was where the older members of the Tyson families received their early education .............‘Tom the Blacksmith’ was a well educated man and was appreciated in the community". This newspaper article is reprinted in Pioneering in the Bellingen Valley (BVHS).
Notes: Born in 1863 Annie Tyson was the first of the fourteen George & Ellen Tyson children. She would have been aged about 3 years when John Williams first setup his smithy at Fernmount about 1866/67. The blacksmith shop classes referred to would have been conducted sometime between 1867 and the establishment of the first government school at Fernmount on 1 Nov 1871).
Manning River News 9 October 1869, Macleay River (Condensed from the Local Paper) ....... "John Williams of the Bellinger has been committed for cutting and wounding one Thomas Hall. The prisoner's answer to the charge is that the act was committed in self-defence." 13
(Notes: Presumably the full report of the committal for the Hall stabbing would have appeared in the The Macleay Herald published at Kempsey - it being the local paper referred to of which no issues have survived prior to 1878. Nine months later the decision was taken not to proceed with the charge. A notice of the remand and then the decision of the Attorney General not to proceed appeared in the New South Wales Police Gazette of 18 Feb 1870 p.55 and 29 June 1870 p.171. In the New South Wales Government Gazette of 6 Oct 1869, 3 Nov 1869 were notices of his committal to trial at the next Quarter Sessions at Port Macquarie with self-bail allowed in sum of £50 and two £25 sureties. On 16 Feb 1870, 29 Jun 1870 - were the notices the Attorney General had filed a "No Bill" on the charge).
Sydney Morning Herald, 1 December 1876, p.6. re Bellinger River - "There are four successful sugar growers, each party possessing a mill of his own. Mr. Williams has six acres of cane, upon which he has commenced operations. He has just planted four acres more, and intends increasing it to twenty acres, which he considers will be quite as much as he can manage profitably, not considering it advisable to depend on hired labour. He has two South Sea Islanders employed in cutting the cane; but the remainder of the work is performed by members of the family. The mill is erected by the side of a gentle slope, part of which has been cut away to enable him to take advantage of the position, and thereby save a good deal of unprofitable labour. The cane is drawn up and delivered at the feet of the feeders, which, after it has passed through the mill, is dropped into a large drag, drawn down hill about 100 yards, and thrown out for the cattle. The crushing power being considerably elevated, the mill horses work in the shade, a luxury they no doubt appreciate. Being a machinist, he erected the mill himself, but it is his intention to supersede the present horsepower by steam which will probably be ready for next season’s crop."
Sydney Morning Herald, heading "Bellinger River", 9 May 1878, p.7 - "Sugar making is evidently an important industry here. Messrs. Williams, Jarrett and Lucas are the three principal growers, while there are two or three others who carry it on successfully on a smaller scale, Mr. Williams is preparing to plant out more cane as soon as the present crop is off. It appears to be advantageous to plant a crop of corn before the canes are put in."
Nehemiah Bartley, Australian pioneers and reminiscences, 1849-1894 (Gordon & Gotch, Brisbane, 1896) pp. 50-51. "On the Bellinger one small sugar-mill, owned by a farmer named Williams, survived till 1880. It was a curiosity in its way, made entirely by Williams himself, who was a blacksmith by trade, and a most ingenious man to boot. The rollers (a set of three, placed upright) had been cast and turned for him in Sydney; but he himself made the strong iron frames in which they were set. The clarifiers and boiling-pans he made out of half tanks, and he built the furnace, flue, and chimney. He worked the farm and mill with the help of his numerous family, and it would have been very wonderful if, under such circumstances, with the most unremitting industry, the concern had not been made to pay."
O'Hara of Cavan, Ireland
Sheils of Co. Cavan, Ireland
1 NSW Marriage Cert. #1860-2788 and the Church register record - on reel #8 Anglican Diocese of Newcastle, Manning River marriages.
2 Death Notice, Sydney Morning Herald 14 Sep. 1903, p.6. (this notice gave his age as 72 years which calculates to a ca. 1831 birth). Transcript of death record #1903-08982, provided courtesy of Gustav Schaefer of Port Macquarie, NSW, gave him as having been: "44 years in NSW", born "Durham", England", aged "75 years" - informants were listed as his children - James Williams of 12 Regent Street & Beatrice Gaffney of Winnie St., Neutral Bay. The England birth place as given is considered unreliable. A total of 13 other records, being his 1860 marriage record and the birth registrations of 12 children, for which either he or wife Jane was the informant, all gave his birth place as either New York - America, just America, or as the USA. There is a Durham township in Greene County in New York State. However no ten yearly federal census from 1790 to 1860 listed a James Williams in Greene County, nor did the State census for 1855, and no marriage record has been identified for a James Williams to a Mary Brice (or Bryce), nor has a baptism record of a John Williams been found in the published records of Durham township churches. Despite the absense of a record it is possible his New York place of birth was Durham in Greene County. It is possible the funeral director filled out the death registration and later the typist just assumed "Durham" was the one in England.
3 Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 1855 &A.O. of NSW microfilm, NSW Immigrants, persons on Bounty Ships to Sydney & Newcastle - reels #2137 & 2471
4 Manning River Presbyterian Baptisms 1856-1093-V53 - the first daughter was baptised "Margaret O’Hara". For the reason why surname was O'Hara instead of Sheils see the paragraph headed "Other Proofs" at 1855 Deception Unmasked
5 John Ramsland, The struggle against isolation : a history of the Manning Valley (N.S.W : Library of Australian History, 1987)
6 NSW Birth Cert. #1864-9597 for dau. Sarah Ann gave her father’s occupation as blacksmith at Cundletown - copy courtesy Gustav Schaefer, Port Macquarie, NSW.
7 NSW Birth Cert’s. #1865-10118 & #1867-11057 - copies courtesy Gustav Schaefer.
8 The North Coast Times,, 9 March 1889 - property sale advertisement
9 Recollections of great-grandsons James Dale & John Williams of the family history as told to them by their respective grandparents & confirmed by the 1883 compiled Sands Directory of Sydney for 1884 which listed John Williams at 27-29 Regent Street.
10 Sands Directory of Sydney for 1885 to 1887 - confirmed as to address by that given in NSW Death Cert’s. #1885-2219 for daughter Henrietta & #1886-1238 for wife Jane - copies of both courtesy Gustav Schaefer of NSW & the 2nd also from Gwenda Andersen of Golden Beach. QLD
11 V1859-7843-122 Church burial record plot #7831 P.lp. Sec. 35 Camperdown (St. Stephen's) Cemetery - C of E Parish of Camperdown, Newtown "William Shiels - father John, mother Ann buried 24/8, died 23/8 in Infirmary age 28 yrs." (burial butt courtesy Gustav Schaefer of NSW).
12 NSW Deaths - #1859-879 - informant sister-in-law Mrs. Smith - parents John Shiels and Ann O'Hara - age 27 yrs, marriage age 22. (copy courtesy of Gwenda Anderson of QLD).
13 Copies of the Manning News article, NSW Government Gazette & the Police Gazette mentions as researched by Sheri McEvoy and provided courtesy of Dawn Golding of Sydney and Gustav Schaefer of Port Macquarie, NSW.
14 There is a puzzle concering the parentage and the birth dates of the first two recorded John T Williams and Jane O'Hara children. If in fact both were their children the number of known children would increase to fourteen. However this seems unlikely. According to Newcastle Diocese C of E baptism records a boy named John Thomas was born on 14 Jan 1862 and baptised on 19 Apr 1862. According to official registration records another son Henry James had been born to the same parents just three months earlier on 25 Oct 1861. For an analyis of the apparent contradiction and a conclusion as to likely fact - view the detailed analysis on this linked web page.
15 The 23 Nov 1858 issue of the NSW Government Gazette published a Governor's proclaimation dated 22 Nov 1858 offering the 60 acre block for sale as Lot 10 at an auction to be held on Monday 27 Dec 1858 at 11 a.m. at the Wingham Police Office. The upset price for Lot 10, and the other 25 country lots offered, was £1 per acre (the 8 town lots offered had reserves of £8 per acre). For areas over 50 acres the deed fee was £1.5.0. Records show the sale date of the 60 acres was 28 Dec 1858, and it was "applied for", suggesting the block may have been passed in at auction and purchased the following day at the Court House for the £1 per acre reserve. In January 2005 the 60 acres was in the ownership of a real estate agent and had no buildings upon it - the only evidence of previous habitation being the ruins of an old brick chimney of likely later construction than the period of Sheils/Williams family occupancy.