By MICK ROBERTS ©
Coal dust was said to be in James Cram’s blood.
The larger than life pioneer was more than qualified to hold the title of Father of Balgownie – a village established on coal.
From a humble immigrant coal miner, Cram became one of the Illawarra’s most powerful men – a civic leader, businessman, colliery under manager, property developer and landlord.
Born in Newcastle-on-Tyne, Northumberland, England in 1826, Cram entered the coal mines at the tender age of 10. He worked in the coal mines of Cramlington, Northumberland through his 20s until he decided to immigrate to the colony of NSW with his wife Sarah and three young boys in the late 1850s.
Cram first made his way to the northern coalfields in Newcastle – he was 34 – and by the end of the decade had set up home in Balgownie where he had purchased property. His farm – on the north side of Lang Street, Balgownie – helped feed his large family, while he continued working under the nearby escarpment in the coal pits. He was one of the first employees of the newly re-opened Mt Keira Colliery in 1859. Originally opened in 1849, Mt Keira Colliery was the Illawarra’s first coal mine, but closed a few years later.
Cram was employed by the new owners to open up a new tunnel in the days when coal was conveyed from the pit by bullock drays to Wollongong Harbour. His leadership qualities soon seen him put in charge of other workers and with the opening of the Mt Pleasant in 1861, he was employed by the owners as an under manger.
Tragedy struck the Cram family in 1866 when James’ wife Sarah and infant died during childbirth. Her death left James with five children – all under the age of 12 – to care for. As expected, within a year Cram had remarried.
His new wife Alice Frost of Wollongong would bore him another 11 children.
James Cram was employed at the Mt Pleasant Colliery for 28 years where “he held the respect of all the employees, and was always spoken of as being the best of bosses”; it was reported in his newspaper obituary.
Cram was said to have a booming voice. At the time Mt Pleasant Colliery had no locomotive whistle to notify the men when work was available, so Cram would perch himself atop of a coal slack heap and give an almighty ‘coo-ee’, that echoed across the escarpment foothills.
By the 1880s Cram had become on of the region’s most powerful men. He was a government official, a local councillor, landlord and storekeeper. He had the contract to issue food and rations to Aborigines at Lake Illawarra and had become good friends with indigenous leaders King Billy and Queen Rosie.
The first Balgownie housing division can be credited to Cram when he built timber cottages for the miners on land in the vicinity of Hunter Street. The small settlement became known as Cramsville – a community where he reigned supreme.
While the miners were at work, Cram was their boss; he was their landlord in their homes, their village storekeeper and their civic leader. You could almost say he ruled the village of Balgownie.
To top it all off, he even tried to become their local publican. In 1889, Cram applied for a publican’s license for the proposed Cramsville Hotel to contain 12 rooms. The Cramsville correspondent to the Illawarra Mercury wrote in 1889 that their local storekeeper intended “to use his utmost endevours to supply us the real tanglefoot and streaked lightning according to law and act”. However, the village had a strong anti-liquor movement, known as the Good Templars Lodge, who lobbied strongly against a pub for Cramsville, and the application was refused.
The following year Cram had another attempt at becoming a publican and applied for a hotel license for land he owned in Wollongong on the corner of Atchison and Crown Streets. The application was refused on the grounds the proposed pub would not contain “26 rooms up to the returned standard of 1200 cubic feet air space, as required by the Act”.
Cram was reputed to be a hard man and miners and their families were sometimes evicted for late rent, with tenants’ belongings removed and left on the roadside. Despite this, in his obituary he was described as “honest to the core” and that he was always overly generous to charities.
His empire grew further in the early 1890s when he established Cram and Sons general store at Wollongong on the site where he previously tried to license a hotel in Crown Street. The store was run by his sons for decades.
When James Cram died in 1919 aged 93 he had well and truly left his mark on the Illawarra.
“By his death there is removed from our midst a grand old man, and one whose name will be long remembered,” the Mercury reported. Cram was survived by five children from his first marriage and 10 from the second, as well as 30 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren. He was buried in the Wollongong Methodist Cemetery.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2015
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