By MICK ROBERTS ©
THE legendary story of how Samuel Clout drove ‘Her Majesty’s Royal Mail Coach’ across a flooded Bulli roadway has become part of local folklore.
Samuel Clout was just 22 years of age when, despite atrocious weather and flooded roadways, he managed to deliver the mail from Campbelltown to Wollongong. Renowned for his horsemanship, Sam had been driving coaches for mail contractor James Waterworth for two years prior to that fateful June night in 1879.
Waterworth had been delivering mail between Wollongong and Sydney since 1865 when the main thoroughfare was via Bulli Pass, Appin, and Campbelltown. The railway linking Sydney and Wollongong was yet to be built, and mail, along with passengers, would travel to Campbelltown where they would continue their journey onto Sydney by rail.
Sam Clout had the driving shift to meet the train at Campbelltown Railway Station that afternoon, but heavy rain had caused a wash-out of the track and the train did not arrive to well after dark.
Sam told his story in the Illawarra Mercury during the 1920s revealing a fascinating glimpse into the heroic feats of coachmen of that era. He boldly told his boss he would complete the trip that night only if he could use Waterworth’s best horses.
“We made a fine show leaving the Campbelltown Post Office with Waterworth’s two splendid chestnuts,” Sam wrote.
He had never been late delivering the mail. The previous summer Sam had gone through five kilometres of blazing forest, with burning trees falling across the road, delivering the mail on time, and despite being told he should wait till morning, Sam was determined to go that night.
“I told my advisers that neither fire nor flood would stop me, and with a flick of the whip the spirited horses were away on their long journey to Wollongong.”
Not only did Sam have the responsibility of safely bringing the mail to Wollongong, he also had two passengers with him on the journey – James Farraher of Woonona, and a “jockey boy” going to Wollongong under engagement to a horse trainer.
“All the mountain streams were running across the road, and at the top of the mountain the water was running down the middle of the road. I knew we were in for trouble, but there was no turning back, and so into the rain we went. The wind was also blowing with hurricane force from the south, and the horses, with heads turned to the wind and restless with the incessant beating of the wind-swept rain, plunged down the mountain. I was very game in those days, and I was young and strong, but I can tell you that I felt a great fear take hold of me as the horses plunged on their way down the (Bulli) Pass. The night was fearfully dark, and the coach lamps, with the glasses smeared with rain, showed a very poor light.”
Sam reached the bottom of the Pass safely, and successfully delivered the mail to Bulli Post Office, located at the time on the corner of Hobart St near Bulli Public School.
Leaving the post office Sam was told that “the flat” was in flood between Bulli and Woonona.
“I was advised not to try to go through, but I was determined to get to Wollongong and besides, I felt I had come the worst of the journey,” he recalled.
Descending the hill near where today’s Princes Highway meets Slacky Creek a “great sea of water” greeted Sam.
“The horses became terrified; down the hill they plunged out of control. The coach skidded sideways down the hill, and the next moment we were in the water and the horses swimming. Even today, I tremble when I think of that terrible night. How I thank my stars for the difference which occurred between Mr Waterworth and myself, and which meant the exchange of the old horses for the two beautiful animals which were in the coach. Both horses were well used to water, and it was this which enabled me to get through. In the struggle of getting through, both my passengers were washed out of the coach, but both Mr Farraher and the boy were able to swim to safety. A mail bag, the largest of the bags, was washed out and lost.”
Sam completed his journey that night, crossing a flooded Cabbage Tree Creek at Fairy Meadow, before reaching his destination – The Harp Hotel in Wollongong.
The following day the thick canvas mailbag was found wedged between rocks on Bulli Beach. With the exception of some papers the mail was not damaged. When James Waterworth was notified of the incident, he is reported to have said, “That the young scamp said that he would get through to Wollongong even if he had to drown the horses, and by God he nearly did.”
After that day the hollow between Point Street and Park Road, near today’s former Bulli Bowling Club, became known as Mailbag Hollow, until another flood in the 1890s prompted a name change.
Hundreds of tonnes of coal slack (waste) were washed into the gully from the Bulli Colliery and locals began referring to the area as Slacky Flat.
Today the park opposite the old bowling club at Bulli is named Mailbag Hollow in memory of the incident.
Sam retired as a coach driver in 1880 becoming a barman at The Harp Hotel in Wollongong and eventually he managed several pubs in Wollongong before retiring to Haberfield. He died in 1932 aged 75 and was buried at Rookwood Cemetery. He never married.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2014