The last of the mountain men

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West Hapgood on the escarpment top above South Bulli Colliery in 1991.

Westy Hapgood of Rixon’s Pass

By MICK ROBERTS ©

WESTY panted and puffed, as he pushed his way through lantana bushes, pointing towards a boulder, from near the ‘elbow’ on Rixon’s Pass: “The bullock yoke should be behind that rock, there,” he said.

Unsteady on his feet and showing signs of his 77 years, he was determined to prove his memory right: “I put it there about 30 years ago.”

Sure enough, covered in weeds, there lay his bullock yoke he had placed behind the large rock for safe keeping three decades earlier.

That was typical of Westbury Richard Hapgood’s memory – known to all as Westy. He was the guest of honour on one of his last trips to his beloved mountain in 1991,when a convoy of four-wheel-drives ascended the steep mountain pass, known as Rixon’s, with myself, and about half a dozen interested historians. We were on a fact finding mission. Westy was on a trip down memory lane.

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West Hapgood (sitting with hat second from right) on his last trip to his beloved ‘Bulli Mountain’ in 1991

West revealed some of the fascinating secrets of the mountain on that day. He was a fair dinkum Bulli pioneer; the last of the mountain men; a gentleman with an eye for detail and a remarkable memory for local history.

He lived for most of his years in a neat little weatherboard cottage on the lower end of Rixon’s Pass, dwarfed by neigbouring modern brick housing, until his deteriorating health forced him into a nursing home for the aged.

West died at the aged of 86 in 1999, ending an era in the Bulli district. He was the last living employee of the Sassafras Sawmill, which operated on Bulli Mountain in the 1920s and 30s, and was probably the only remaining timber-getter, who with their trusty bullock teams, penetrated deep into the escarpment forests for days on end in search for trees for local mills.

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West Hapgood on the old coach road on the escarpment top. The road continued from the top of Rixon’s Pass on to Appin. A large part of the road is now over-grown and a large section submerged after the construction of the Cataract Dam.

West was born on November 15 1913 to Alexander and Alvena Hapgood on Coobyar Farm, Milton, on the New South Wales South Coast.

“When the 1914 war started, and the young men enlisted, it became difficult for dad to procure labour for his dairy farm,” West recalled.

I interviewed Westy at his kitchen table in his cottage on Rixon’s Pass in 1994. His health was already failing, although his mind was strong.

As result of the Great War, the Hapgood family moved from Milton to Woonona in 1916. At the time Woonona was a small, but bustling semi-rural township in the heart of a thriving coal mining region. Young Westy soon was put to work with his dad collecting the much sought after ‘Bulli Soil’ for top dressing cricket pitches and sporting grounds.

“I used to give dad a hand filling 15 ton railway trucks with Bulli Soil,” he said.

“The soil in those days was on South Bulli (colliery) land, but todays is mostly covered with a government housing estate.”

The soil was used on some of the world’s most famous sporting grounds, including the Sydney Cricket Ground, the Melbourne Cricket Ground and the sacred Lords in London.

The work collecting the soil was hard, and the contractor’s labourers had to remove all the turf with pick and shovel before digging and throwing the clay-like soil into trucks. In later years, as demand grew, and profits climbed, a plough and draught horse were used, West told me over tea and biscuits.

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West Hapgood explains to Wollongong City Council heritage officer, Steve Dillon how the seeds of the spotted gum (Corymbia maculata), which are not native to the area, were sewn by him and other men on the escarpment top near Bellambi Creek to provide hardwood timber for pit props at the South Bulli Colliery. The mature trees can be seen in the background.

 

The young bushman’s first paid job though was delivering milk by horse and cart around Woonona and Bulli in the early 1920s. But, like most northern Illawarra boys, his future lay underground in the coal pits.

“I began work at South Bulli Colliery at the age of 15 in 1929 as a token boy and recieved five shillings and tuppence (52 cents) a day.”

Over the years he climbed the ladder of seniority, becoming a ‘trapper’ (opening and closing ventilation doors), and later a ‘wheeler’ (leading coal skips or wagons in and out of the workings).

“Every time you went up a peg, you got a six penny (pay) rise,” he said.

Like many other miners during the Great Depression, West was ‘laid-off’ in 1936.

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Not much is left of the old Sassafras Sawmill at the summit of Rixon’s Pass in 1991. This is the old boiler that powered the saw at the mill.

Times were tough, and the memories were not all good. However, 1936 was not entirely a bad year for West, as it was also the year he married his sweet-heart, Alice Ridley of Mount Kembla. The couple brought-up three girls during their long and happy marriage.

With many others who endured the Great Depression years, West struggled to support his family, receiving the dole and supplementing the meager government welfare payment with any work he could find. One such job was at the Sassafras Sawmill at the summit of Rixon’s Pass. Those cherished memories remained with him, and he often recalled with pleasure his time working at the sawmill until his death.

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A barefooted Westy Hapgood (right) at the Sassafras Sawmill’s flying fox, which took timber down the escarpment from near the summit of Rixon’s Pass, to the coast below.

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Widening the South Bulli Colliery skip encline in 1920. Pictured in the front row from left to right is Westy Hapgood’s father, Alex, with the bullock whip resting on his shoulder, Arthur Kimberley, next four not known, with hand on white bullock, Michael Burns and Stan Head, both from Woonona. Behind them is pictured sitting on the horse, Bob Cram junior, Fred Harris, Hector Oberg, Reg Aberly with hands on hips, Bob Cram senior. This description was hand written by Westy on the back of the photo.

Westy geniunely loved the bush, and would never miss an opportunity of telling the yarns and tales of the characters who lived and worked on the mountain. Bullock drivers such as Fred Woods, and Maurice Boland were always a favourite topic of conversation for West.

“We used to go bush for a week, cutting timber behind Mount Keira and South Bulli pit.

“We had a long jinker and carted timber back to Bellambi where we’d spend the next week in the mill cutting…”

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The Sassafras Sawmill, at the summit of Rixon’s Pass 1919. From left is pictured Claude Cram, Albert Partridre, unknown, and Hector Oberg.

During World War II, West helped make rifle butts from ‘Leather Jacket’ that was milled at Cram’s Sawmill at Bellambi.

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Westy Hapgood, shortly before his death.

The Woonona bushman returned to surface work at South Bulli Colliery in 1946 and after various jobs, including gardening at the mine manager’s residence, retired in 1972.

The lure of the escarpment regualrly drew West back to his treasured timber country and I was honoured and privileged to have accompanied him on a number of occasions.

West Hapgood’s passing probably marked the end of the last of the true mountain men, who worked cutting timber on the Illawarra escarpment around Bulli. Fortunately though he leaves some revealing and detailed accounts of life on the escarpment in his book, “Deep Valleys, Tall Trees, Tough Men and Women – Pioneers of Bulli Mountain”, published in 1992. But with him goes many secrets of Bulli Mountain, and a geniune gentleman.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2016

 

 

 

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