By MICK ROBERTS ©
THE boom years of the 1880s brought their fair share of entrepreneurs jostling to make their fortune in the Illawarra.
One such businessman left a lasting legacy to the township of Bulli that has endured as a monument to his money-making skills and the wealth that blossomed with the opening of the government railway to the Illawarra – his name was George Croft.
The flourishing coal industry and the impending construction of the railway from Sydney to Wollongong contributed to the success of George Croft during the early 1880s.
The shrewd capitalist hastily purchased property surrounding the site of the proposed Bulli Railway Station, eventually becoming the majority title-holder of prime real estate between Park and Farrell Roads.
He knew this area would supersede the old village centre that had evolved with the opening of the Bulli Colliery in the 1860s near Bulli Public School. He predicted the new railway station, located to the south of what would later be known as Old Bulli, would trigger the birth of a new shopping centre at Hungry Hill and wisely acquired the best sites.
Croft built himself a magnificent brick grocery store – the first in the present Bulli shopping centre – on property fronting the main road by 72 feet, with a depth of 316 feet immediately opposite the planned site of the railway station in the early 1880s. Miners were arriving from everywhere seeking employment in the collieries, and Croft, with his large land holdings, built many cottages to accommodate the new comers.
His good fortune continued during the 1890s when large tracts of his land were purchased by the NSW Colonial Government for Bulli Park and Bulli Cemetery.
He decided to sell his grocery store to Thomas Reeves of Campbelltown for £8, 14 shillings per foot in 1884, relying on his income from his property investments for income.
Croft’s lasting legacy to Bulli came after a trip to the Taralga district in NSW during May 1888. While hunting for wallabies with his sons and relatives at Ruby Creek between Oberon and Taralga, one of his boys was attracted by sparkling metals in the water of a creek. On closer inspection, the Bulli entrepreneur discovered a seven feet thick seam bearing silver and gold.
The Illawarra Mercury reported in August 1888 that the seam possessed ”a mine of wealth”, with metals of a rate of two ounces 9wts of gold and one ounce 15 wts 6 of silver!
Croft returned to Bulli and began plans to build a grand monument to his new found wealth on property he had purchased at Hungry Hill in 1884. He engaged celebrated architect, William Kenwood, from the firm Kenwood and Kerle, who had worked on developing the seaside resorts of Brighton-le-sands and Lady Robinson Beach earlier that decade.
Kenwood had proven himself locally, recently designing the nearby Bellambi Hotel for South Bulli Colliery Manager, William Wilson, and later maintained an association with the district, establishing a branch office, managed by George Osborne, in Crown Street Wollongong in 1889. The firm also designed the Bulli Cottage Hospital in 1892.
Croft was granted a conditional hotel license on October 16 1888 and called for tenders in November to build the “Railway Family Hotel” at Bulli. Crofts fine hotel, the Illawarra Mercury reported, would be quite an acquisition to the town of Bulli. When completed “it is to be of three stories, with an attic, and will be a very imposing edifice”.
The Gothic architecture of the Bulli Family Hotel was completed at a cost of £3,078 and opened for business in September 1889. As Croft predicted, the new township of Bulli grew-up around the imposing pub on Hungry Hill that has endured as the shopping centres largest commercial building.
A visit to the watering hole, today known as The Heritage Hotel, will find Croft’s name carved into a large sandstone block on the verandah, while in the bar hangs his portrait, along with other early images of Bulli.
George Croft died in March 1911 aged 74 and his marble grave stone can be found in Saint Augustines Memorial Gardens in Park Road Bulli.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2014
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