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John Thomas Williams

first blacksmith at Bellingen

pioneer sugar cane grower/miller & publican

        American born John Thomas Williams was the first blacksmith at the town of Bellingen on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, Australia. He was born in New York State about 1834, the son of bricklayer James Williams and Mary Brice, and died on 11 Sep 1903 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, NSW. On 20 December 1860, at Mitchell’s Island, Manning River, NSW, he married Jane Sheils née O’Hara - a widow with three young children 1.
        Jane and her first husband William Sheils had arrived in Sydney as assisted immigrants from Killinkere Parish, County Cavan, Ireland on 28 July 1855 aboard the Mangerton. The first of their three children was born on 1 Dec. 1855 at Manning River where William initially found work as a farm servant before in December 1858 purchasing a 60 acre farm fronting Pelican Bay 3, 4. Whilst visiting Sydney he died in the Infirmary in Macquarie Street (later renamed Sydney Hospital) on 23 August 1859 from dysentery, and was buried in a part of Camperdown Cemetery at Newtown which was converted to parkland in the 1950s 11, 12.
         From her second marriage late the following year to John Thomas Williams, Jane had an additional thirteen children, including a set of twins who did not survive. Of her sixteen children six were born at Manning River and ten at Bellinger River. Except for one son all have been traced and their children identified, and in some cases their descendants through to the present day.
        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 errors apparent in other information in this record suggest the 1859 arrival year may have been an estimate. Thus it is possible he could have arrived earlier attracted by the gold rushes which followed the 1851 NSW and Victorian strikes. He may have been the blacksmith named "Tom" who was at Bungay Bungay station, who 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 Wingham were sold in 1854. "Tom" the blacksmith likely moved into the town about 1856 when the P.O. was relocated there from Bungay Bungay 5. In 1864 John Williams had his smithy at Cundletown on the northern side of Taree 6. Likewise to several other early Bellinger River settlers previously at Manning River, after passage of Lands Acts which opened up the northern areas for settlement, John Williams made the move north to the Bellinger where he set up for business in the district's then main settlement village of Fernmount, sometime between October 1865 when the birth of his last Manning born child was registered and May 1867 when his first child was born at Bellinger River 7. 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 double frontage to the Kempsey road, situated 1½ miles down river from Fernmount between 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 her joint executor and son-in-law John James Keogh, husband of daughter Susan Jane Sheils, who likely had leased the property after the family moved to Sydney. 8.
        The family left the Bellinger River for Sydney in the early 1880s. They resided intitally at 27-29 Regent Street, situated close to the present day site of Central Railway Station, requiring two 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 then site of the Toohey’s Brewery which stood as an Elizabeth Street landmark for over a century until redeveloped in the 1990s as Centennial Plaza 10.
         The neatness of his handwriting, as noted from his signature in the marriage register, indicates John Williams had a formal education. Apart from being the Bellinger River’s first blacksmith he was apparently its first unofficial school teacher, having conducted a school in his Fernmount smithy attended by local children before the town obtained its first official school in November 1871. A legend in one line of his family is that he was the mayor of the Bellinger. However whilst Fernmount until the 20th century was the main settlement, his years on the river predated the formation of a municipality. He may well have been the unofficial "mayor" who made the written representations on behalf of his fellow citizens to the member of parliament and the government in Sydney re the need for roads, bridges, schools, better postal services, steam driven punts etc.

For a page with links to pages for each of Jane O'Hara's 16 children etc.  GOTO

         The following are mentions of John Thomas Williams 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 that he had come up to Bellingen from his shop at Fernmount on 2 or 3 days a week.This article is 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 had recalled John Williams had conducted a school in his blacksmith shop attended by local children as follows - quote: "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).

(Compiler note:  Annie Tyson born in 1863 was the first of the fourteen George & Ellen Tyson children. She would have been aged about 3 years when John Williams set up his smithy at Fernmount about 1866/67. Thus the 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 (Condensedfrom 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

(Compiler note:  The full report of the committal for stabbing Hall would have appeared in the The Macleay Argus published at Kempsey. Nine months later the decision was taken not to proceed with the charge. A notice of remand, and 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, and in the New South Wales Government Gazette of 6 Oct 1869, 3 Nov 1869 - a notice of his committal to trial at next Quarter Sessions at Port Macquarie with self bail allowed in sum of £50 and two £25 sureties, 16 Feb 1870, 29 Jun 1870 - notice the Attorney General had filed a "No Bill").

Sydney Morning Herald, 1 December 1876, p.6
"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."

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 given is considered unreliable as 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 informant, all gave his birth place as either New York, America, or just as 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 of 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.
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 - daughter was baptised as "Margaret O’Hara". For the reason why surname was O'Hara instead of Sheils see para headed "Other Proofs" at 1855 Deception Unmasked.
  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, 29 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  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.

Researched and compiled by J.G. Raymond, Brisbane, Australia - 2000