Place of Many Crows (Part 9)

By Eric Irvin  

24 August 1953 Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga)

A brief history of the foundation of Wagga Wagga

This is the ninth of a series of articles, to appear daily, tracing the history of the foundation and early growth of the town of Wagga Wagga. The complete history will be published in book form later.

From 1847 right up to the early 'seventies the Wagga Court House was the centre of the town's social, religious, recreational and legal life. 

Even in the early years, when it was no more than a crude slab structure with a bark roof, it was the natural centre of the life in that area.

For many years it remained that centre, being used to house church services of all denominations, travelling theatrical Shows, music recitals, political meetings, bazaars, magic-lantern showings and the many meetings held to discuss the town's public affairs. 

The 1847 building could not have been much longer than 20 feet, and was divided into two rough rooms.

At first, one room was the lockup, complete with heavy log to which prisoners were chained; and the other was the court room and office for the Clerk of Petty Sessions. 

On March 6, 1849 Peter and Macleay wrote to the Colonial Secretary:

"The shingling of the Court House, which we have suggested in the 'Return of Buildings,' we beg most respectfully may be sanctioned by His Excellency, as the roof of bark with which it is at present covered is wholly in sufficient to exclude the weather, and so frail that it is constantly falling into disrepair; and although erected with a view to economy is, we believe, eventually more expensive than a roof of shingles." 

On August 30, 1849 the Legislative Council voted £15 "to Wagga Wagga for repairs to police buildings."

On March 8, 1850, vouchers "for the payment to William Brown of North Wagga of the sum of £15" for materials and workmanship in connection with the roofing of the Court House were forwarded from Wagga to the Auditor-General.

Possibly the roof was not actually shingled until 1850. 

Twelve months later this slab and shingle building was plastered and whitewashed, and thus stood for a further five years, when the first brick Court House was completed. 

The original buildings were inundated in the flood of June 1852, and in January 1853 the Colonial Architect was instructed to prepare plans for a proposed Court House and lockup at Wagga.

In the same year, at the request of the Wagga Bench, the police reserve was changed, from the site of the original Court House on the river bank between Gurwood and Klncaid Streets to the present site of the Court House and police buildings. 

In the meantime, two more floods ravaged Wagga, and for two months the timber building was rendered untenable. P. A. Tompson conducted his clerk's business from his home (where he continued to work until 1856) and no Wagga court was held from July 1 to August 31.

These floods were on July 1 and July 13, 1853. By October 1855 the Wagga Bench were able to report that, the new Court House was nearing completion, and by   December 1856 that the building was completed except for the ceiling, and "that we occupy it regularly for despatch of police business.

“Fearful drought a year after Wagga was proclaimed a town, F. A. Tompson wrote, in a letter to the Agent for Immigration dated November 21, 1850, drawing attention to the fact that "wages have risen in this district since the final settlement of the convict question." 

This year also saw the beginning of the 1850-1851 drought, when flour rose to £ 100 per ton. 

On March 10, 1851, a letter signed by two of the magistrates (John Church and John Gordon) was sent to the Colonial Secretary, apologising for the fact that a census had not yet been taken.

In the course of this letter it was stated: "We fear, however, that some delay will occur, and from circumstances over which we can exercise no control.

Words are inadequate to describe the fearful condition of our generally beautiful district, which presents in every direction the cheerless aspect of a parched and thirsty desert.

When we state that one person has had 8500 sheep perish from thirst, and that on most large establishments they are dying by hundreds from starvation, and that in the back country water has on very many stations become so precious it is doled out in fixed quantities by day to the occupants, and at night has to be watched, that the famishing stock may not break in upon it and consume the precious element, some idea may be formed of our distressed condition." 

On April 1 the required census return was furnished to the Colonial Secretary, in which it was revealed that North Wagga had a population of 61, and South Wagga (located then in the area beween the Murrumbidgee River and the Wollundry Lagoon) 168.

“This return is considerably less than it would have been”

(It was stated in the covering letter) "but for the unprecedented drought which has driven (temporarily) from our district many large stock holders with their flocks and herds, which has had the effect of lessening our population by at least two hundred, and this is exclusive of many small settlers who by the fearful state of the country have been forced permanently from the district."

Furore for gold 

By April 1852 the effect of the gold finds had added further worries to the men who wished to see Wagga grow. 

On April 9 a letter signed by John Peter referred to "the furore for gold digging which pervades our community, and which has completely checked the advancement of the village and put a stop to all trading speculations." 

P. A. Tompson went into more detail on this subject when he wrote, on May 4, that since the opening of the gold fields “no less than nineteen married couples, with seventy-two children, have left this young township, and in addition thirty persons without families (but many of whom are married) making in all no less than one hundred and forty souls, or more than half the population of the town when the census was taken twelve months since." 

Drought - the discovery of gold - and then floods: these were the three obstacles which stood squarely in the path of early Wagga's development.

However, the town managed to survive them all, and in 1856, when another census was taken.

It was revealed that North Wagga then had a population of 125 males and 68 females, while South Wagga had 174 males and 93 females. 

In 1857, ten years after the Court House which was ultimately responsible for the establishment of the town had been built, the following description of Wagga appeared in the Yass newspaper: "Wagga Wagga police district has ten public houses, of which five are in the town, stores on a large and small scale are scattered everywhere, the town has five, four of which are registered spirit stores." (1).

 At this time, eight magistrates were available for the conduct of legal business in Wagga, and here is a list of the Justices ordinarily resident in the district and the sittings which they attended over a four-year period - 1853 to 1856 inclusive. 

William Macleay (19). 

John Peter (33).

John George Church (53). 

John Gordon (52). 

Robert J. Alleyne (11). 

Walter Clarke (4). 

Alex. D. Macleay (3). 

Donald Mackellar (3). 


(1) The Yass Courier and General Advertiser tor the Southern Districts of N.S.W. July 4. 1857.