By MICK ROBERTS ©
IN his twilight years, a stalwart of local business sat in his invalid chair on a verandah of his home, set back from the main road, watching the world go by, and cheerfully waving to friends as they passed. His name was Thomas Ball, an Englishman who made quite a name for himself making cordials and running the Woonona pub.
The year was 1925 and in his early 70s he had retired to his daughter’s grand home, The Villa, located on the present site of Magnolia Green housing estate, where Bulli meets Woonona. He had witnessed the district grow from sleepy villages, when horses ruled the roads, into a bustling industrial and tourist centre, and sat, an old man, peering at the occasional motor vehicle as it passed his home.
The Villa, with its beautiful and expansive gardens, sat behind a Magnolia tree, from which the present housing estate derives its name, on the Princes Highway opposite the former Bulli Police Station. The Villa would be where this enterprising businessman breathed his last.
Thomas Ball was born in Lawley England in 1852, immigrating to Australia from Plymouth with his wife Hannah in 1878 as an energetic 26-year-old ready to tackle a new life in a young country. Hannah was in her early 20s, the 1880s were about to dawn, and Thomas gained work in the Illawarra’s coal mines, later going into business for himself in road contracts.
The innovative Englishman later tried his hand as a general carrier in the early 1880s, tucking enough money away to buy a parcel of land beside a creek at Woonona, he considered would be an ideal spot to brew cordials. Ball’s cordials, with their famous bull’s head logos, would become celebrated throughout the state after he began the “Bulli Steam Cordial Factory” on the present western side of the Princes Highway where a supermarket and video store trades today.
By the late 1880s Thomas had seven children under the age of 10 to feed and his cordial business was paying well.
Just three years after he participated in the rescue operations of the 1887 Bulli Colliery explosion, which claimed 81 lives, tragedy struck a little closer to home for Tom.
An explosion in his cordial factory tragically killed his one-year-old twins, Walter and Violet in 1893.
Thomas became a foundation member of the Woonona Bowling Club the following year and in 1895 he tackled a new business venture.
The Queens Hotel at Market Square Wollongong came up for lease and Thomas entered the role of publican while Hannah took the reins of the Woonona cordial factory.
The enterprising couple, now with 16 children, decided to take a well earned break in the late 1890s and toured America and Britain visiting relatives and friends.
On his return he embarked on his biggest business venture, buying an old timber coaching inn at Woonona known as the Bulli Royal Hotel.
In 1901, at the age of 46, he purchased the inn and sports paddock from the Ziem’s estate at a Sydney auction for £2,750 after some fierce competition from a Sydney brewery.
He had grand plans for the site and in 1903 he built a new brick two storey 11 bedroom pub on the site, as well as upgrading the sports paddock.
Ball’s Paddock would become famous in the sporting community, hosting a variety of sporting fixtures, including greyhound racing, wrestling, boxing, rugby league and international soccer matches, until the ground was sold by the brewery, Toothy and Company for housing in the 1980s.
The new Royal Hotel also became a landmark in the district for the following 80 years before it was demolished and replaced with a McDonald’s restaurant in 1983.
Thomas Ball leased the premises, while manufacturing cordials at Woonona, finally hosting the popular miners’ pub himself in 1908. Besides thirsty coalminers, tourism played a major role in the success of the Royal Hotel and Thomas was an active member of the South Coast Tourist Union. He was part of a deputation securing Sunday trains to the Illawarra to improve tourism to the South Coast.
Hannah again took the role as manager at the cordial factory while Thomas hosted the pub before she fell ill in 1913. Thomas gave-up selling the hard drinks and returned to the soft drinks the same year.
Hannah died in 1914 aged 60 and was buried in St Augustine’s Anglican cemetery at Bulli, with Tom, now in his early 50s, retiring the following year and putting his son Sidney in charge of the cordial factory.
In his final years old Tom lived with his daughter Lillian Lansdowne at The Villa before his death on May 13 1928 aged 75. He was laid to rest, at one of the largest funerals witnessed in the district, beside his wife.
He left 12 children, 35 grandchildren and six great grandchildren to mourn his loss.
© Copyright 2014 Mick Roberts