By MICK ROBERTS ©
OFTEN referred to as the “Father of Bulli”, Henry Strange Fry can be credited with laying the foundations of a farming community that grew into a city.
The largely unsung pioneer, who tirelessly battled to improve the quality of life for those who called the northern Illawarra home, was born in Bath, England in 1829 before arriving in Sydney as a free settler in 1854 on board the Bangalore, with his aunt, Rhoda Wilmot Fry.
Twenty something, and ready to begin a new and exciting life in the young colony of New South Wales, he obtained work with the government as a carpenter and joiner, building railway stations between Sydney and Parramatta, supplementing his wage crafting elaborate show cases for Sydney jewellers.
Coal had been discovered in the Illawarra when another aunt, Emma Wood Lorking, persuaded Henry to join her in the Illawarra to open a general store to cater for a rapidly increasing population.
Thomas Hale opened the Bellambi Coal Mine in 1857, three quarters of a mile up the escarpment, from where coal was conveyed on a tramline to Bellambi Harbour. His aunt was living by the harbour and witnessed first hand the wealth the new industry brought to the region. She knew that a window of opportunity had opened.
Acting on her advice, Henry set-up a general store in 1858 and the following year, he opened the district’s first post office in his shop on today’s Prince’s Highway opposite Pendlebury Park at Woonona.
Henry’s sureties came from mine owner, Thomas Hale, and his uncle, Alfred Lorking. Lorking also recognised the commercial benefits of establishing a business in the area, and later opened a pub at Bellambi Harbour in 1861.
Located on the present northern corner of the Prince’s Highway and Woodland Avenue, Henry’s general store and post office sold everything imaginable, from groceries and produce, to haberdashery and clothing. It became the central meeting place for the scattered farming communities and the miners arriving in their droves looking for employment.
At the time the area did not have a designated European name, and the post office was officially designated “Wonona”, after the Aboriginal mountain nearby. The town of Woonona was born.
Until this time, the whole area from Stanwell Park to Bellambi had been known as Bulli. About the same time as becoming Woonona’s first businessman, Fry met Elizabeth Jones, the daughter of a local farmer, who he later married in Sydney in 1862.
The newly weds knuckled down to supplying the grocery and shopping needs of a rapidly growing mining community, as Woonona became the most important commercial centre in the region. The village, clustered on the hill-top, just to the north of where the colliery’s tramline crossed the main-road, to Bellambi Harbour, boasted a pub, church, school of arts and Fry’s general store and post office. A branch of the government bank was opened in his store during 1871.
A trade depression caused the closure of the Woonona coal mine in the early 1860s, resulting in a population drift to nearby Bulli where another mine had opened in 1862. Woonona suffered as a result, as the Bulli colliery had triggered the birth of a another commercial centre near today’s Bulli Public School and an enterprising Henry Fry, along with the majority of the population, followed.
Henry opened another general store (on the present site of the brick shop opposite Hobart Street) in the late 1870s, where he would establish himself as Bulli’s most respected citizen.
One of the pioneering storekeeper’s first notable community roles was as church warden for St Augustine’s Church of England, in the early 1880s, where he later took the role of superintendent of the Sunday school. He supervised the building of the Bulli Oddfellows’ Hall (Today’s Masonic Lodge) in 1886, chaired the Bulli Progress Committee for three decades and was a founding instigator for a Bulli municipality.
Henry Fry was a staunch supporter of local government, embarking on a crusade for incorporation for over 20 years.
Forty years of tireless community work was acknowledged in 1898 when the community presented Henry with a testimonial and a purse of sovereigns.
His fruitful life ended on May 30 1907 at the age of 77, 12 months after the proclamation of the Bulli Shire Council and he was laid to rest in St Augustine’s church yard at Bulli.
Henry Strange Fry’s honorary work contributed largely towards the establishment of the Bulli Hospital, Bulli Court House, Woonona Bulli School of Arts, Bulli Park, and improvements to local roads. He served as a Justice of the Peace and a local magistrate at both Bulli and Wollongong Court Houses, with his final swan-song in 1906 – the incorporation of local government for the district he treasured so dearly.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2014