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Bullock teams were once a common sight in the Hunter

TEAMS of bullocks in pioneering days played a major role in opening up the Hunter Valley.Yoked together in teams of 10 to 18 animals, they hauled heavy freight and pulled long logs from almost inaccessible sites in narrow, wooded gullies.Yet, today the big horned bovines are almost forgotten. Hardly anyone remembers them, or how important they were to the first settlers to work and survive.
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SNAPSHOT: Gary O’Donnell and mother Dot O’Donnell, of Wangi Wangi, with their rare family pictures of bullock teams, possibly from 1890. Picture: Marina Neil

VANISHED: A Bulahdelah bullock team and its driver near the since demolished Zaara St power station in Newcastle’s East End, probably in the mid-1970s.

South of Wollombi, for example, down on a branch of the Hawkesbury River, lies remote St Albans with its historic stone inn, The Settler’s Arms. This was once the head of navigation of the Macdonald River in the 1830s and a backdoor to the Hunter forests.The original name of St Albans though was Bullock’s Wharf.

Closer to home, teams of bullocks urged on by their bullocky masters cracking long braided whips and yelling profanely, worked valleys around Cessnock and West Wallsend (‘Westy’) for decades.Teams of bullocks even hauled cargo to Newcastle waterfront and a huge bed of sand outside the former Newcastle post office, on the corner of Hunter and Bolton streets, was used to ‘turn’ bullock teams around in 1857.

Bullock teams were later photographed carting long timber piles to be hammered down into swamp as foundations for the blast furnace at the unpromising Newcastle Steelworks site in 1914.In the early 1920s, up to 12 bullock teams a day hauling timber would daily pass along Congewai Road. While the 1929 Great Depression dealt the timber industry a heavy blow, it revived briefly in World War II before trucks then replaced bullock teams forever.

So, imagine my surprise when I was contacted recently by Gary O’Donnell, of Wangi Wangi, and his mother Dot O’Donnell, now 86 years, with two historic family photographs, circa 1890, of bullock drivers at work, presumably around Mount Sugarloaf.

For who hasn’t heard at one time or another of O’Donnelltown? The small ‘town’ once of 13 family homes no long exists at the foot of Mount Sugarloaf, near ‘Westy’. It’s long disappeared, like the early mining shanty settlements of Ladysmith and Mafeking which commemorated the Boer War in 1900.O’Donnelltown Rd at ‘Westy’, near the MI motorway to Sydney, however, still exists.

“There’s nothing really there now, but mum kept these old pictures for years which I’ve recently had enlarged to hang on the wall,” Gary O’Donnell said.

“You couldn’t see much detail as they were, but by enlarging them we managed to see a lot more of these men with their bullock teams,” he said.“The men are hauling timber poles which may have been used to put up telegraph lines on Mount Sugarloaf, but we don’t know for sure.

“I think our family was involved in the bullock trade hauling things around the Westy district for perhaps 80 years all up,” O’Donnell said.“My grandfather and my great-grandfather were especially involved. Of course, they weren’t the only ones. There were other well-known bullockies, like members of the Leggett and Sidebottom families all with teams working around the forests.“I’ve also still got some tools from the old days used to make harnesses for the bullocks, or to have a tooth pulled out,” he smiled.The two O’Donnell photographs themselves have lost some of their clarity with age but are still fascinating to view, to catch a rare glimpse into another age, perhaps 120 years ago.Both feature bullock drivers posing beside their stationary animals in bush and have always been in the O’Donnell family.

“I first thought they were family pictures handed down, but as we don’t have any negatives they may have been taken by (roaming 19th century) photographer Ralph Snowball. The men look posed and I’ve been told the pictures may be in a book,” O’Donnell said.

“I think my great grandfather William John O’Donnell is at left in one of our photographs, while the other picture shows a bunch of logs in a cart pulled by bullocks. There’s also what seems to be a chuck [food]wagon and the back of some man wearing what seems to be a bowler hat, so he may have been the photographer’s assistant trying to quickly get out of the shot.

“Grandfather used to deliver bush timber to Seaham No. I Colliery (for use as tunnel pit props). Both photographs were probably taken early last century, judging by the dress of the bullock drivers and the fact there was a big sawmill in West Wallsend, but it closed in 1936,” he said.

“Our family line started when Richard and Bridget O’Donnell settled on a 60-acre block of land below Mount Sugarloaf in May 1863. They’d earlier come out from Ireland in the New Zealand clipper Matoaka,” O’Donnell said.Richard and his sons worked the Mount Sugarloaf forests supplying pit timber for the colleries and logs to sawmills. The mother and father had subdivided their land into six lots of 10 acres each where houses were built and the hamlet soon became known as O’Donnelltown and was popular for its horse racing, cricket and soccer matches.

West Wallsend probably reached its peak about 1900 when there were four coalmines operating locally and 6000 people lived there. The last mine apparently closed in 1945.Gary O’Donnell said his forebears, like many others, were enterprising, even once physically moving one of the O’Donnell houses from the family hamlet into West Wallsend itself – without using any machinery, just towing it behind bullocks.“Now that’s a real feat in itself,” he said.“Mum remembers more, but you’ll have to speak up. She’s deaf and a little hard of hearing,” he joked.Today around Mount Sugarloaf local landmarks like gullies, knobs and spurs are often named after old timber cutters and bullockies who once lived here; names like O’Donnell’s Brush, Lester’s Brush, Bourke’s Brush and Johnson’s Farm.Bullock teams have now passed into Hunter Valley history. Possibly the last time a working team was seen in Newcastle was about 40 years ago.A bullock team from Bulahdelah with its driver Howard Rumbel were probably here as a novelty to take part in the annual Mattara Festival.

Whatever the occasion, the highly unusual picture of bullock team and driver was then taken in Newcastle’s East End against the backdrop of the since demolished Zaara St power station, now a grassy amphitheatre near Nobbys Beach.

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