The escarpment swaggies: ‘Bandy’ Sam, ‘Dumby’ Henderson, and Bernard the German

“Home Sweet Home”. Shanties or humpies like this published in the Western Mail on December 25 1923 numbered in their hundreds at Slacky Flat, Bulli in the 1920s and 30s.

NOT even a reigning monarch could shift old Bandy Sam from his bush humpy at Slacky Flat, Bulli.

Although authorities were eventually successful in clearing the shanty town of unemployed men and low income families from the blackberry and weed infested flat named after the coal waste that had been progressively washed down from the nearby Bulli colliery, some refused to leave and moved into the nearby foothills of the Illawarra escarpment.

The coal depression of the 1920s resulted in much unemployment in the northern Illawarra. As a result, over 100 adults and their children developed what became a makeshift village on the area now known as Slacky Flat or Bulli Showground.

The village, sometime called ‘Happy Valley’ consisted of shacks, made chiefly of corrugated iron sheeting, springing up as families struggled to find affordable accommodation.

Owned by the Bulli Colliery at the time, the inhabitants of this community were in the majority moved-on in the late 1930s and 1940s after the land was sold to Bulli Shire Council for recreation purposes and eventually became the Bulli Showgrounds and trotting track.

The late Jack Devitt, of Hospital Road Bulli, recalled a few of Bulli and Woonona’s “depression characters” in his regular Bulli Times’ newspaper series, ‘Down Memory Lane’ in the 1990s.

One of those characters was a bloke by the name of Bernard Andrich, known locally as Bernard the German, who often called into the Woonona and Bulli pubs with his “bag of tricks”.

BULLI, like many small towns, had its ‘characters’, especially when the population was static and transport rather limited.
People like Tom Serack – who was Dr Palmer’s gardener, “Digger Round” – Bernard the German, Bandy Sam and Billy and Sam Gahan to mention a few.
Very few people knew the surname of Bernard the German, who was a tinsmith by trade, but did most odd jobs around town.
He lived alone in his neat little cabin on the creek bank in a gulch in the mountain behind where Corries Park Estate now stands.
He grew his own vegetables, had a few fruit trees and only needed the basics to supply his needs.
His hobby was collecting snakes, some of which he often carried about in the sugar bag he invariably had slung over his shoulder – his general carry-all.
Rather a morose character, he liked his pint of beer, which he drank alone at the Woonona pub, then went on his way minding his own business.
Some of the young blokes often chided him, but he generally took little notice until one day he most likely had had enough, so he upended the sugar bag and a couple of “wrigglers” emptied the bar.
It was reported that grown men fought one another to get to the door. They left Bernard in peace from then on.
– Jack Devitt.

The earliest reference I can find of ‘Bernard the German’ living in Bulli is in 1913 when he was fined 10 shillings or a few days in the lock-up for being drunk and disorderly. Over the following decades he was fined or spent time in the Bulli lock-up several times for excessively hitting the grog.

Jack Devitt’s memories of Bernard’s fascination with snakes is confirmed in the following story, which appeared in newspapers nationally and as far north as Mackay in north Queensland. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Tuesday 19 January 1932:

GERMAN’S HOBBY.
Making Pets of Snakes.
BULLI. Monday.
Bernard Andrich, 51 years, a German, narrowly escaped death as a result of a snake bite. Andrich, who has a hobby for making pets of snakes, claimed that he was immune from poison.
To test his opinion he took a black snake out of a box in his hut and placed it round his neck. He began to form a bow tie of it, but the reptile became vicious and struck out inflicting two incisions on his right hand. Sometime elapsed and no ill effect resulted. However, a third incision was made on the left hand, which in a very short time began to swell. Andrich became ill, and was hurried to Dr. Crossle, who after treatment, ordered him to hospital for further observation. Andrich ultimately was discharged. The snake, which was five feet, long, was destroyed.

Another ‘character’ who called Slacky Flat home from at least 1924 was Samuel ‘Bandy’ Cowey. The paths of Bandy Sam and Bernard the German, who had lived in a humpy from at least 1914, undoubtedly crossed as both enjoyed a beer at either the Woonona Royal Hotel, or the nearby Bulli Family Hotel. Both carried their trademark sugar bags over their shoulders.

My mum, 80-year-old Rita Roberts, tells me that as child growing-up in Bulli, Bandy Sam was a familiar sight walking to the shops with his hessian bag slung over his shoulder. Mum was warned by her father, Jim Orvad, to steer clear of old Bandy because “he carried young children in that bag”.

As mentioned earlier, Both Bandy and Bernard enjoyed their glass and as a consequence often they were summoned to the Bulli Court House to answer charges of drunkenness. The pair were ordered to the court house on the same day in 1929 for over-imbibing. Bandy didn’t appear to answer his charge and was ordered to forfeit his bail of £2, while Bernard pleaded guilty.

Constable Neaves said he had ordered Bernard home, but he refused to go, and as a consequence he was fined 20 shillings or 14 days in the Bulli lock-up. “You will find it much cheaper to go home when told to do so,” the magistrate remarked.

The end came for Bernard the German in 1941 when he died alone in his Woonona humpy at the age of 70. The Illawarra Mercury reported on Friday July 25 1941:

MAN FOUND DEAD

Bernard J. F. C. Andrich, old age pensioner, aged about 70, was found dead in his hut at Rixon’s Pass, Woonona, on Sunday.

A neighbour, Mr. Hall, advised Bulli police on Sunday morning that he had not seen Andrich about since Friday. When they arrived at the hut the police found the door locked, and they had to break it down to get in. They found Andrich lying on his side in bed, dead.

Deceased had been receiving medical attention for some time, and a medical certificate of death being due to natural causes was issued.

Andrich had resided in the Woonona district for many years, and was well known. He was a native of Germany.

Humpies like this were dotted around Slacky Flat from the depression years of the 1930s. Picture: Supplied.

After a campaign from the Bulli Progress Association, the Bulli Shire Council purchased 50 acres of land at Slacky Flat from the Bulli Coal Company in 1939 for £500 to establish a recreation ground and later a trotting and greyhound track.

This forced many of the residents of ‘Happy Valley’ to find alternative accommodation. Some, including Bandy Sam, simply moved their shanties further into the bushland behind Slacky Flat. By the early 1950s, it was reported that there were over 100 people living in shanties behind Slacky Flat.

Bandy Sam was again in trouble with the law when he was charged with “offending against decency by exposure” during a trotting meeting at Slacky Flat in 1947. The Illawarra Mercury reported on Friday 26 September 1947:

NAKED MAN FINED £3: A man who stood naked in front of a shack at Slacky Flat, Bulli, during a trotting meeting on Sept. 13, was fined £3 at the Bulli Court on Friday by Mr. R. A. Hardwicke, S.M. He was Samuel Cowie, 61, labourer, who was charged with offending against decency by exposure. He pleaded guilty. Sgt. Kennedy said there were about 1500 people at the trotting meeting, and after a woman had spoken to him, he looked in the direction of defendant’s shack, where he saw defendant standing absolutely naked. He walked towards defendant’s shack and defendant went inside. Witness went in the shack and saw Cowie sitting on a bed naked. He was under the influence. When he was being bailed out next day, Cowie said: “It was dark. I always undress at night.”

As the northern suburbs’ population continued to grow, more and more pressure was placed on those living in the foothills to vacate their humpies. The Illawarra Daily Mercury reported on Thursday 28 January 1954:

THE visit of the Queen is having far reaching effects, ‘Bandy’ Sam, for the last 30 years the occupier of a small tin shanty at Slacky Flat, and regarded by many as the unofficial caretaker, has been told to move out or else. Although his hut can’t be seen from the oval, around which the Queen will drive once, it looks as though Sam will have to bow to the authorities at last and move out, as did a hundred or so other dwellers of similar shanties there about a year ago.

Of course, not even the Queen herself could move Bandy and a number of other men who refused to leave their humpies behind Slacky Flat. They continued to call the foothills homes until Mother Nature did what the law and Her Majesty could not.

The Black Monday bushfires of 1968 was said to have forced the last of the swaggies out of the escarpment behind Slacky Flat, although I do have recollections of one or two still calling the foothills home into the early to mid 1970s.

On October 28 1968 around 30 bushfires ravaged the Illawarra from Coledale to Dapto destroying 31 homes, damaging hundreds more, and forcing thousands of people to flee as the flames rushed down the escarpment, devouring anything in their path. Not included in those official figures though, are the humpies that Bulli’s swaggies called home.

The remains of a humpy or shanty in the foothills behind Slacky Flat, Bulli in 1987. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

There were a number of men living in corrugated iron humpies near Slacky Flat in 1968. They included ‘Bandy’ Sam and William ‘Dumby’ Henderson.

Dumby Henderson, who was deaf and mute, lived in a humpy in a paddock behind William Street in the 1950s. He later moved his shack into bushland behind Slacky Flat, probably in the 1960s.

I remember ‘Dumby’ as a grumpy old man, who sometimes carried a shot gun with him. We were always told to steer clear of him on our regular adventures into the escarpment bushland.

William Anderson was mates with my grandfather, Jim ‘Double’ Orvad. My grandfather would sometimes visit ‘Dumby’ and other ‘swaggies’, as we called them, living in the foothills. My grandfather would have a few beers and play cards with the men at one of their shanties. He told me that William Henderson taught him sign language.

Of all the swaggies who called the bush home, Dumby had most encounters with the law. During 1950 he was convicted of assaulting a girl and placed on a six month good behaviour bond. The Illawarra Daily Mercury reported on Saturday 22 July 1950:

Deaf-mute Accused Of Assault On Bulli Girl

In an eerie and silent hearing in Bulli Court of Petty Sessions yesterday, a deaf mute was convicted on a charge of having assaulted a young, attractive girl at Bulli on July 8.

The man charged, William Henderson, a 48-years-old labourer of Williams Street, Bulli, told the few words he had to say through an interpreter in the deaf and dumb sign language. Georgjeannie Smithers, of Sanders Street, Bulli, said she had known Henderson for about eight years and he lived about two streets down from where she lived.

On July 8 she was talking to another girl, Valerie King, in Prince’s Highway, Bulli, when Henderson came up to her and seized her by the left arm. Gesticulating with his other hand he started to pull her along the highway and she found it impossible to get away. “He was carrying a small suitcase and tried to hit me in the face with it,” Miss Smithers said.

PULLED HIM AWAY

At that moment a man named Orvad pulled Henderson away and she went to the Police Station with Valerie King and made the charge. She had two bruises on her arm as a result of the assault, she said. She had in no way, at any time, aggravated Henderson. The interpreter, Charles Harold Hewen, showed Henderson the evidence, which he read. He said he had no questions to ask. Constable McIntosh, of Bulli, said he took Henderson to the Bulli Police Station and made out a charge against him. He wrote on a piece of paper “Why did you assault Miss Smithers?” Henderson wrote “My self business.” He asked Henderson “What have you got to say about the charge?” Henderson wrote “Nothing.”

In sign language, Henderson told the Court he worked with the City Council and was on his way, by himself, to his job in Farrell Road on the day in question. As he walked past Miss Smithers “She began to make trouble.” Mr. Fleeman asked Hewen to ask Henderson what he meant by “making trouble.” Henderson said she laughed at him and “made trouble.” He denied having hit her with the bag, although he did have a bag in his possession when arrested.

When asked how he knew that what Miss Smithers was saying referred to him, Henderson said “She was blab-blab-blab-blab-blab.” Mr. Fleeman, S.M., found the offence proved and ordered Henderson to enter a £10 bond to be of good behaviour for six months. However, he said, he was not inclined to make an order for costs for Miss Smithers — a claim of £3.

Henderson found himself in court again four months later after he stole a police cap from the front verandah of Bulli Police Station. The South Coast Times reported on Monday November 13 1950:

STOLE POLICE CAP FROM STATION AND BURNT IT

A 48-years-old labourer who stole a police cap from the Bulli Police Station and burnt it, was fined £5 at the Bulli Court on Friday. The labourer, William Henderson, of Williams Street, Bulli, was also ordered to pay £1/0/8 compensation to the Commissioner of Police. A charge of maliciously damaging the cap was withdrawn by the police.

According to Constable Smith he was sitting in the Station at 5.40pm on November 3 and heard someone enter the porch. He said he looked out and saw the defendant leaving with a sack slung over his shoulder.

At 7.30pm he went to get his cap but found it missing. After searching the yard at the station, he went to Williams Street, where the defendant lived in a hut. The defendant was in bed, and on the bed was a button from the cap.

Constable Smith said the defendant handed him the badge and then took him to an old drum in which some material was burning. Henderson indicated that the smouldering rags were the ‘last mortal remains’ of what was once a 20/8 police cap. In court Henderson (through a deaf and dumb interpreter) said it was customary for him to have one beer on his way home from work. On the day in question, however, he had three beers and this was the cause of his action.

The old bachelor’s luck changed for the better in 1955 when he won £15,000 in the NSW Lottery. The Central Queensland Herald reported on November 17 1955:

GOOD LUCK

SYDNEY. November 15.-A lonely 55-year-old deaf mute shared first prize of £30,000 in the State mammoth lottery, drawn today. William Henderson, of Bulli, South Coast, promptly downed tools when he learned of his win. He was swinging a pick as labourer in a road gang employed by the Main Roads Board. Henderson, who shared the £30,000 with a 16-year-old girl, Gwen Lindsay, of Austinmer, South Coast, lives in a one room hut at Bulli.

After Dumby Henderson’s lottery win he faded into the pages of history. He died at the age of 70 in 1970.

The fate of Bandy Sam is revealed in a letter I received in 1996 from Joyce Alchin, who at the time was living in Underwood Street, Corrimal.

While editor of the printed version of the Bulli Times newspaper during the 1990s, I encouraged readers to write-in with their precious memories of the district. We published many stories and photos, which thankfully are preserved in archived editions of the newspaper kept at the State Library of NSW and Wollongong City Library (Hopefully one day they will digitised and available online).

SAM ‘BANDY’ COWIE

The Editor, Bulli Times

Dear Mr. Roberts,

Some weeks ago I noticed an article in the Bulli Times mentioning the names of some of the old “identities” of the Bulli area including that of “Bandy” Sam Cowie – and I thought I’d share a story concerning the later years of Sam’s life which might interest your readers.

Sam lived in a little shack in the bush behind Bulli Showground – he’d walk to Woonona each fortnight for his pension, some provisions and a supply of alcohol, drink at Woonona hotel and then catch a taxi home.

The tax-drivers weren’t all that keen to drive up the bush track behind Slacky and somehow my husband, Sonny Alchin – who drove Alan Bow’s cab – became Sam’s regular driver.

This particular day in 1968 Sonny had taken Sam home, and then later in the afternoon the big bushfires swept through the escarpment. Sonny had finished work but thought of Sam and jumped into Alan’s private car – which was parked in our driveway – and proceeded up towards Sam’s old camp to see if he needed help. The fire was very fierce, the firefighters advised Sonny that Sam was up there but they couldn’t get him out, and felt it was unsafe for him to try and do so. However, Sonny felt he should attempt it, so with windows up he drove quickly along the track, finding Sam’s shack on fire, Sam lying on his back on the bare path bemoaning the fact his accordion had been burnt! “Don’t worry about the accordion,” our rescuer said, as he bundled Sam into the car, drove back through the falmes and took him to Bulli Hospital.

The staff cleaned Sam up (with an unaccustomed bath) and treated superficial burns before contacting us and asking what we wanted to do with him. As it happened there was a simple little flat behind our home in Kulgoa Rd, Woonona, so we decided he could stay there and we’d look after him. We gave him meals, my husband would bath him regularly and he’d spend occasional evenings with us – even trying to make his old hands play piano at times. He didn’t seem to have the same need or desire for alcohol and we found him a quiet, pleasant old Scotsman.

He stayed with us until he suffered heart failure and died in his early 90s in Bulli Hospital in 1970.

Yours sincerely, Joyce Alchin

June 15th 1996

Although the 1968 bushfires removed most of the remaining ‘swaggies’ from the escarpment, I can clearly recall a couple still living in humpies in the bush behind Slacky Flat during the early 1970s.

The remnants of ‘Bandy’ Sam Cowey’s humpy in the foothills behind Slacky Flat, Bulli in 1987. The bamboo he grew can still be seen growing near his bed and sheets of iron. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

I took photographs of two of the remnants of the remaining humpies that had been destroyed by the 1968 bushfires in 1987. One, I think, was Bandy Sam’s shack. It was located in what is today’s Illawarra Grevillea Park.

Bandy, I recall, used to grow bamboo beside his well-maintained home, and as kids, we would often ask him for cuttings, which we would make bow and arrows from, before exploring the other wonders and attractions of the escarpment bush.

FOOTNOTE: Glenn Chilby, who grew-up in Point Street, recalls a ‘swaggy’ who he says was “the last one to be removed” from behind Slacky Flat in about 1968/69. Glenn says “Salty Bill” was so called because if you went near his humpy he would shoot at you with a salt pellet.


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