St Albans Common

 

The St Albans Common

Nearly 200 years of NSW history

The Hawkesbury River was one of the earliest areas to be settled after Port Botany.  One article found stated that as Botany Bay and Sydney Town was being settled, Governor Phillip requested that his herdsmen seek out a safe breeding area out of the settlement where they could take the settlements cattle in case of mutiny in the settlement.

It did not take the herdsmen long to find a safe area now known as the MacDonald Valley.  Breeding Stock belonging to the Government was then transported to the MacDonald valley.  Each year selected stock would be returned to Sydney Town for sale and slaughter.  

It was not long before new settlers and emancipated convicts (those who had served their time and were released), realised the potential of the Hawkesbury and MacDonald River for farming.  This was due to the rich soils and easy access by sailing boats for transporting their crops back to the settlement.

Free settlers were usually entitled to large selections for farming the larger the family the larger the selection.  However the emancipated convicts were usually only given small holding of less than 20 acres.  When times were hard the ex-convicts were not permitted to graze their stock on any government land which included road edges or crown lands unlike the free settlers.

As more people were settling in the area Upper MacDonald area, the farms were not able to continually sustain the animals all year round.  As such a group of locals started a petition to have land set aside in the MacDonald Valley for them to use as a common.

 

On 16 March 1824, after receiving a Petition from the settlers and inhabitants of the St Albans area, Governor Brisbane authorized the Surveyor General to survey and reserve Common Land on behalf of the settlers and inhabitants in the upper part of the Macdonald River.

In January 1842 even though the Common had already been in continuous use since 1824, it was discovered that Governor Brisbane had not issued the Title Deeds and no Trustees had been appointed to manage the common.  This was a result of one of the Bailey’s submitting a claim to 100 acres of land at the northern end of the land set aside to be the then named Wallambine Common.

 

On 4 March 1853, the St Albans Common comprising of 2567 acres, was granted by Queen Victoria for the use and benefit of the settlers, cultivators and other inhabitants of the district known as the Lower Branch of the Hawkesbury or the MacDonald River.  The grant was in perpetuity (unlike most common grants). 

 

The original grant stated that only beasts of the plough or such that manure the ground may be placed on the common.

In 1906 the then Trustees of the St Albans Common drew up the first set of St Albans Common Rules which governed the use of the Common by the Commoners. These were then gazetted and published on the 7 November 1906, by the then Lands Department. The Trustees were Joseph Walker, William Morris, Joseph Jurd, W. T. Sternbeck and W. E. Thompson. These rules included fines for Commoners who moved stock on or off the Common without prior notification to the Trustees. The only exception was for lactating cows.

 

The first Commons Regulations were published in 1928, by the then Lands Department.  These regulations instructed that each Common was to establish a Common Roll.  The Regulations set out the form the Common Roll was to take (which has not changed to this date). The Regulations also set out the form which was to be completed by persons wanting to become Commoners.  The form which we use today is almost identical to the one set out in the 1928 Regulations.

The 1928 Regulations stated that on receipt of the an application to become a commoner the Secretary was to display the application on the police station notice board for two weeks to allow for objections on the grounds of bad character, or the failure to meet the requirements of a natural person, etc.

 

In 1928 permits were issued to several locals to cut eucalyptus and wattles from Common land. The permits stipulated that the tree trunk had to be to be no wider than 6 inches in diameter, measured six inches from the ground and that all parts of the tree had to be removed from Common land. The eucalyptus leaves were used to extract eucalyptus oil. The wattles bark was removed and soaked in tubs of water to extract the tannin and later used for tanning hides. (A shed on the Brand property currently has numerous wattle trunks, which were left over from the process.).

Back in the 40’s the majority of cattle on the Common were dairy breeds with very few beef cattle grazed on the Common. This reflects the large number of dairy farms in the MacDonald Valley at the time.

There was also a large number of horses regularly grazed on the Common. This was a result of horses being the main form of transport during these times.

In the 1940’s and 50’s the Herdsman’s book contained a separate page that listed the calves in the weaning paddock. The remnants of a post and rail fence and small wooden stock yards remains today and can be seen half way through the Common on the right hand side as you travel towards Wollombi, off to the side of Chris O’Grady’s entrance.

The Herdsman’s book also had a page which listed the names of those licensed to fall and remove live timber from the Common. A record was made beside each person’s name of how much timber they removed and then a fee was paid to the Common Trust for the timber.  This timber was being used as Pit Props in various mines.

 

Several tanneries operated on local properties in the area.  One of these was located on the old Bran Property at the end of Perry’s Road.  Wattle trees under 6 inches in diameter were regularly cut down and cut into shot lengths.  These were then soaked in water to release the tannins and then hides were soaked in the tannin filled water to preserve the hides.

Remnants of the old tannery were still in existence up until several years ago before old Les Bran died. 

 

The original herdsman’s house was located at the northern end of the common, where there was a store and post office.  The old slab herdsman’s house burnt down; however the stone footings remain and can be seen on the hill behind the northern yards.

The common was the site of original race track for St Albans before the Jurd property was used.  The race track was in what is now known as the grave yard paddock.  It was a straight race course.  Photos of the track in use are hanging in Phylis and Linda Sternbeck home still today.  Gymkhanas were also held there.  

 

In 1952 the Lands Department confirmed that Trustees were to be voted in by the Commoners however the Secretary could only be appointed by the Trustees but could not be a Trustee.  This was later changed allowing the Secretary to be one of the Trustees.

Also in 1952 the then Herdsman L. T Walter wrote a letter to the then Trustees stating that his duties, 2 days a week cattle work and three days a week scrubbing had become too much as he was unable to maintain control of the thistles on the common.  The Herdsman paid one pound rent for his house and two pounds for the herdsman’s paddocks.  He stated in one of his letters that he thought the house rent was too expensive.

 

On 16th November 1984 a new set of rules were made for the St Albans Common.  These included a $50 joining fee and set out the qualifications to be a common.  The fee for a cow was 35 cents per week horses 75 cents.  The Trust imposed a fine of $20 for anyone not abiding by the rules.  One rule was that the owners of stock agisted on the common were responsible to ensure they did not wander off the common.

Over the years it appears there was a lot of concern over whether the Common had to be fenced to contain the stock agisted on it or whether adjoining farms had to be fenced to keep the stock off their land.  It appears from correspondence found that legal opinion was sought about whose responsibility it was to fence land.

One extract highlighted and on record stated “There was at common law normally no obligation to prevent cattle straying from common land.  Indeed there was and still is often an obligation for the adjoining occupier to fence against the common, Thus in Barber v Whitley (case law) this is justified by Cockburn C.J who said:

“The purpose of enclosing lands is that they may be used as cultivated land and since such use of them beneficial to the person who is permitted, makes it more necessary that the lands not be open indifferently to grazing animals it is more likely that the obligation of preventing such trespass on the occupier rather than the tenants of the manor….”

Over the years there has been several court casing relating to St Albans Common, one being who is entitled to be a commoner, this resulted in only those who inhabit or reside on the MacDonald River or its tributaries.  The other resulted in an administrator being appointed as the then Trustees wanted to improve the common for grazing.  Other commoners objected.

The correspondence relating to this issue is held at Windsor library and makes very interesting reading….

 

The common has remained in continued use as a common for grazing stock.  Those of you who are commoners should be proud.

By Sherri McMahon

 

Droving on the common

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