By MICK ROBERTS ©
A POST office was established at Wollongong in 1832 enabling the people of the Illawarra for the first time to have communication with the outside world.
Delivering the all important mail between Wollongong and Sydney is a tale of romance, bushrangers, floods, and fires.
The bush mailmen were a tough breed, and many earned legendary status.
Benjamin Rixon is one of these men. Said to have been the best white tracker in Australia, Rixon explored and trekked the escarpment, delivering the mail between the Illawarra and Campbelltown, for over 20 years.
Born at Parramatta in 1806, Benjamin and James Rixon were two survivors of Australia’s first white triplets, The Sydney Gazette recorded at the time.
“On the night of last Sunday fe’nnight’ Amelia Rixon, the wife of a private in the NSW Corps, was safely delivered of three infants, two of whom are living, and have a very promising appearance”.
Their father James arrived in Sydney aboard the “Barwell” as a convict in 1798 (his name was recorded as James Hickson) and later was in a relationship with Amelia Goodwin. Amelia never actually married James and was a convict herself, arriving in Sydney in 1800 aboard the “Speedy”.
James and Amelia had six children, all boys. James and Amelia moved to Airds near Campbletown on 40 acres of land.
James Junior married Elizabeth Hoare in 1833, living at Airds, Taylors Flat, Eden and Bega until his death at age 67. James and Elizabeth had 12 children, six of whom were born in Eden where they hosted the Crown and Anchor Inn from 1845 until 1868.
Meanwhile his brother, Ben became a police constable in the Campbelltown area where he met and married Margaret Finnamore in 1829.
As early as 1838, Benjamin held the job of delivering the mail by horseback between Wollongong and Campbelltown, negotiating the only land route via a rugged bridle track over Mt Keira, before continuing the treacherous journey to Broughton Pass over Cataract River and reaching one of the two inns at Appin and eventually Campbelltown – where another mail contractor was in the waiting to continue the mail delivery onto Sydney.
Ben also farmed a property south of Appin before settling at American Creek, near Mt Kembla in 1839. By the 1840s, as well as the Royal mail, Rixon was carrying passengers a couple of times a week between Campbelltown and Wollongong according to The Australian newspaper.
Although his “mail coach” was likely a cart or dray, pulled by a couple of horses, it was the beginning of regular coaching in the Illawarra.
In 1848 Ben Rixon received the contract of £255 for carrying the mail on horseback between Wollongong and Campbelltown and also between Dapto and Shoalhaven twice a week along the route via Broughton’s Pass and down Mt Keira into Wollongong.
Ben’s expert tracking skills allowed him to map and create a shorter route in 1847 – a 14 mile (12.5km) mountain pass and coach road from Woonona to Appin. Although no longer a through road, and partly flooded by the Cataract Dam, the lower section of the mountain pass bears his name to this day.
From settlement the only way overland in and out of Wollongong to Sydney was via a mountain pass at Mt Keira. This was an inconvenience for people in the growing population areas north of Wollongong, such as Fairy Meadow, Woonona and Bulli.
Ben collected subscriptions to build a seven feet wide road over the escarpment at Woonona, which opened in 1848 and was first used by the “post boy”. Rixon’s Pass had a gradient of one in two and a half, compared to Mt Keira which was one in five, and it eventually became the preferred route of the mail coach until replaced by the more convenient and less steep Bulli Pass in the 1860s.
Although Ben Rixon is probably best remembered for his mountain pass, it was his skills as a tracker that made him famous during his life time. He became skilled in many fields of work including constable, farmer, shipbuilder, coach driver, mail contractor, road builder and dairy farmer, but his most distinguished achievement was his ability to track people who had become lost in the bush. He was so good at tracking and finding lost men and cattle that his services were in constant demand.
Ben’s most famous rescue was of Charles Quin, whom he tracked for over a week before finding him, near death. He was presented at a public meeting in Wollongong in 1857 with a purse of one hundred sovereigns for his deeds.
Ben also was credited with opening up Macquarie Pass when he cleared the Aboriginal track in 1863. The pass was eventually opened to wheeled traffic in 1898. Benjamin Rixon died aged 80 years on the July 20 1886 at the Bulli home of his son James, and is buried in an unmarked grave at St Augustine’s Anglican Church, Bulli.
The late Mr. Benjamin Rixon. — Who in this colony has not heard of the celebrated ‘Ben Rixon,’ who for well nigh half a century was the most famous and successful tracker in Australia ? In the course of the active portions of his long life, he tracked many a man over hill and dale, alike in the interests of humanity and law and order, but now at last, he himself has crossed the bourne from which no traveller returns.
After a protracted illness of two or three years, he died on Tuesday last; at the residence of his son, Mr. James Rixon, of Bulli. In the course of his life he rendered much valuable service to the country, in a public sense as well as privately, to persons requiring his aid as a tracker. Many a person was rescued from the wilderness by Mr. Rixon.
As a tracker, he was superior to any of the quick eyed aboriginals of the country. And his unequalled power in that respect caused him to be sought after far and wide when any persons were lost in the bush, or the Government required the whereabouts of some desperado to be ascertained by the police. He was a native of Parramatta, being one of a triplet birth. After living in that locality, and the Campbelltown district, for a time, he settled at American Creek, near this town, on the farm now owned and occupied by Mr. Deighton Taylor. There he reared a some what large and very respectable family, but about 15 years ago the land passed out of his hands. Since then he has resided with members of his family, and occasionally with Mr. P. R. Cole, the Customs officer of this port, who at all times treated the old man most hospitably.
Never was any man treated more unfairly by his country than was the deceased. So many and so great were the services he rendered to the Government and his fellow men, that in justice to him he should have been in the receipt of a liberal pension, during the last 30 years of his life at least. But although the Government of the country failed so much in doing their duty to Benjamin Rixon; it is to be hoped that the people of this district will do honour to his memory in some suitable manner. He was 80 years old.
–Illawarra Mercury Thursday 22 July 1886
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2015
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