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Recently, ten towns were selected to kickstart the regional economy. One of them is Braidwood, a place of historic violence, raucous love and The Rolling Stones.
A few weeks ago, the Business Council of Australia advised the government to select ten regional towns to help kickstart the economy. This way, big cities would not be alone in carrying the responsibility for our financial welfare. A brilliant idea, of course. I have only one reservation: the recommendation of the Council was to select these special places on the back of incredibly boring criteria. Things like infrastructure, industry, power grids and housing and health services.
Personally, I think there is only one way to decide whether a town is worthy of such an important role. Look at its history. Only then can you see if it was made from the right stuff. So, during January and a bit into February, I will give you my seven candidates, every one of them ready, I’m sure, to step up to the plate. I will be talking about Dubbo, Bathurst, Wollongong, Broken Hill, Moree and Bourke.
But first of all: Braidwood.
Braidwood’s claim to fame starts with its white ‘founder’ (because in this country we like to forget what happened before). Thomas Braidwood Wilson (1792-1843) was a young Scottish doctor when he joined the British Royal Navy in 1815.
As a surgeon-superintendent he made nine trips to Australia, taking care of convicts who were taken to NSW or Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). Those trips didn’t always go to plan. In 1829 he was shipwrecked in the Torres Strait and had to row 1600 kilometres to Timor before he and his men were saved.
As many of his contemporaries, Braidwood Wilson was a Renaissance man. Not only was he a medical doctor, he was also very interested in the natural world and in making discoveries. This led him to be one of the first British men to survey Western Australia, from where he took seeds that are now at Sydney Botanical Gardens. He was also the person who brought the first bees to Australia.
In 1826, Braidwood Wilson married in England and ten years later he brought his wife and two young children to Australia, where he had been allocated land. First, his block was in Tasmania, but after a year or so he swapped it for a parcel near Lake George. Then he was given 2560 acres in the ‘new country’ near what is now Braidwood. In 1836 he was living there with his family, in possession of more than 12,000 acres.
For the first few years, everything went swimmingly. He became one of the notables, a magistrate, builder of roads, influencer of the powers-that-be. But then things went downhill fast. First, his third child died at the age of five months. A few months later, his wife succumbed too. Then, in 1841, he went bankrupt, because of drought and a subsequent Depression. Two years later he committed suicide. His daughter buried him with her mother and baby brother in a vault overlooking the town that carries his name.
In 1867, Braidwood was the site of the first-ever Australian Royal Commission. The topic was police corruption, especially connected to the bushrangers that were terrorising the district.
In 1867, Braidwood was the site of the first-ever Australian Royal Commission. The topic was police corruption, especially connected to the bushrangers that were terrorising the district. In its report, the Commission was scathing about Braidwood and its leaders. To begin with, there was a magistrate who, ‘by his behaviour’, was severely ‘affecting the character and standing’ of his profession. He had ‘refrained from taking any open or active part against the bushrangers, to preserve himself and his property from outrage and depredation’.
In doing so, he had ‘evaded his duty’, ‘encouraged crime’ and ‘lowered the status of the magistracy and engendered distrust in the minds of the public’. Another problem was that there was way ‘too much latitude’ by the police towards ‘public houses’.
In Araluen, for example, pubs were ‘open on Sundays and at improper hours and music and dancing entertainments’ were ‘held almost without check, with a very demoralising effect’. But that was only the tip of the iceberg where the ‘misconduct of police’ was concerned.
The biggest issue was that there was ‘improper intimacy between the police and the bushrangers’, even ‘inter-marriage’. It was not that young men in the district had no other options. They did have ‘opportunities of earning an honest livelihood’, but were ‘evincing a greater desire for an irregular mode of life’ involving ‘bad influences’ leading to ‘a career in crime’, like ‘horse stealing, robbery under arms and even murder’.
All of this, the Commission was convinced, could be remedied by keeping a closer eye on the judiciary, the police and by bringing ‘moral training and religious instruction’ to the populace.
By 1851, gold had been found close to Braidwood and that brought in a lot of newbies, including a large group of Chinese men. One of them was Mei Quong Tart, who arrived in town as a nine-year-old. Because he belonged to a wealthy family in China, he could speak English and was, therefore, the interpreter for his uncle, who had been tasked with accompanying a group of Chinese miners.
The young boy quickly caught the eye of Alice Simpson, the wife of one of the town’s businessmen. She took him under her wing, educated him, taught him the poetry of Robbie Burns and gave him some mining shares, which made him rich by the time he was 18. Most of the money he invested in charitable causes, but he was also a smart businessman.
By the 1870s, he started a number of going concerns with the Nomchong brothers, Shong Foon and Chee Dock, who had just arrived from China. Most of them married European women and ran the local stores and vegetable gardens, who were described by a contemporary as ‘the only pleasant colouring in the whole landscape’.
Because they contributed a lot to the town and the district they were left alone when anti-Chinese violence broke out elsewhere. Mei Quong Tart left for Sydney in the 1880s, where he started the first tearooms. His business partners branched out, buying a trucking fleet in the early 1900s, making it possible for produce to be taken to the coast and Sydney far quicker than by horse and cart.
One of Chee Dock Nomchong’s sons, Paul, even began a movie theatre in 1930 that would welcome Mick Jagger a couple of decades later.
The biggest issue was that there was ‘improper intimacy between the police and the bushrangers’, even ‘inter-marriage’. It was not that young men in the district had no other options
That was in 1969, the year Rolling Stones’ guitarist Brian Jones died. But Mick Jagger and his girlfriend Marianne Faithfull couldn’t go the funeral, because they were on a plane to Australia, where Jagger was slated to play the title role in Ned Kelly. Braidwood was one of the most important locations, together with Bungendore and Captain’s Flat.
Jagger and his entourage were stationed at Palerang, 30 kilometres outside of town. There he wrote Brown Sugar, after he was temporarily put out of acting action because of a piece of metal in his right hand, the result of a prop gun backfiring. By this time he had already lost his girlfriend, who had overdosed shortly after arrival and was now in a hospital in Sydney. Jagger took the opportunity to hang in Braidwood’s pubs a lot, where he regaled the locals with impromptu performances.
They thought he was hilarious, especially because he needed a stand-in to ride a horse. In 1970, the film premiered at the movie theatre set up by Paul Nomchong. The town was proud, but they were the only ones. Jagger thought the film was ‘a load of shit’ and the reviewer of the Sydney Morning Herald called the musician a ‘dullard’.
That didn’t stop Braidwood from becoming the location of other film ventures. In 1985, Robbery under Arms was shot here, followed two years later by The Year my Voice Broke.
All in all, enough reasons to nominate Braidwood as one of the candidates for a regional centre with special status.
What do you think?