Official Opening of Balcombe Park, Wahroonga, 2012

This is the history of the Balcombe family in an address I gave at the Opening of Balcombe Park, Woonona Avenue, Wahroonga, in Sydney NSW  on 27 November 2012.

The house behind the Park is called The Briars and it was built by William Alexander Balcombe in 1895.  He was born in 1855 and subsequently his parents lived in a place they called Napoleon Cottage, and here lies a clue as to why this house is called The Briars and yes, there is a Napoleon connection.

We need to turn the clock back to 1805 when William Alexander’s grand-parents, another William and his wife Jane and two daughters, travelled on the ship Euphrates from England to a volcanic pimple which forms the tiny, remote South Atlantic Island of St Helena. Balcombe went to set up business as a merchant buying from and selling goods to the thousand sailing ships which called in annually to St Helena. These tall ships opened up world trade by visiting India and China and taking merchandise to and from Europe. It was a two year round trip to China in those days of sail and St Helena provided a place to re-stock supplies of food and water and a few days of welcome respite from the monotony of sea travel. William Balcombe subsequently worked as an Agent for the Honourable East India Company which basically governed the island.

It was here on St Helena that three sons were born to the Balcombes, yet another William in 1808, Thomas Tyrwhitt in 1810 and Alexander Beatson in 1811.

During this time Britain was at war with France, the French army being led by the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Finally, following the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was defeated in 1815 and he was sent into exile on the island of St Helena.

In those days it was not possible to telephone ahead and tell the Saints to prepare a house for Napoleon, the islanders only had a couple of days notice before HMS Northumberland, carrying the defeated Emperor, arrived to anchor in The Roads on 15 October 1815 after a 2 month journey. Napoleon disembarked on 17 October and spent his first night in Jamestown.

The next day he was taken to look at the house being prepared for him but it was obvious it needed so much work that he would not be able to live there for many weeks. On the way back down the steep valley the group spotted the Balcombe’s home called The Briars and it was here, in the Briars Pavilion, that Napoleon elected to stay for the first few months of his exile.

If you read any books about Napoleon at this time there are frequent stories of Napoleon playing with the Balcombe children, especially Betsy who could speak French, but also the small boys Thomas and Alexander who reminded him so much of his own son who was a similar age. He teased them by openly cheating at cards, he ordered his staff to make toys for them and they were allowed to sit on his knee to look at his campaign medals. Napoleon loved the children, he enjoyed their openness and honesty, their lack of pretention, he appreciated the relaxed and convivial family atmosphere at the Balcombes.  It was his happiest time on St Helena.

In 1818 the Balcombe family left the island to return to England. It was a sad time as they said farewell to the man who had become their close friend… they would not see Napoleon again as he died on 5 May 1821.

In 1823 William Balcombe was appointed as the first Colonial Treasurer of  New South Wales and he and the family arrived in Sydney on board the Hibernia in April 1824.

Sons Thomas Tyrwhitt and Alexander  Beatson Balcombe, both now young teenagers, attended Sydney Grammar School. Obviously taught about ancient Greece and Latin, at the 1824 Half-yearly Public Examination of the Students the junior class, including Masters Thomas and Alexander Balcombe, “read and explained Seleciae and Profanix, and applied the Rules of Syntax, with much promptitude and accuracy“.

Thomas was just 19 years old when his father William died and the family had to sell their land and cattle to cover debts. Thomas obtained work as a surveyor for the Government  but also developed into a very talented artist, and his sketches of both native and introduced animals and the gold fields show a keen eye for detail. One famous painting is of  E.H. Hargraves returning the salute of the miners after finding gold near Bathurst in 1851. The picture showing Hargraves in red coat, with raised hat and leading his black horse has graced many a text book.

When he was 30 years old Thomas was involved in a serious accident. Driving to Sydney with his future father-in-law Mr Stuckey, the newspaper reported the poor state of repair on a bridge led to a serious incident near Cutter’s Inn (at Mittagong). The horse caught his hind legs in a hole, and in plunging, turned the gig over. Stuckey fell right through the bridge, a depth of twenty feet, where he remained senseless for four hours. Balcombe was pitched on his head on the bridge, and was in a very dangerous state from concussion of the brain. Fortunately three months later, on 27 June 1840,  he had recovered sufficiently to be married to Lydia Stuckey daughter of Peter Stuckey of  Longreach near Marulan. Thus he became brother-in-law to well known members of pioneer families with names like Chisholm, Mitchell, Huon, Perrott and Hume.

Lydia and Thomas Balcombe had 3 daughters starting with Jane in 1841 and finally their only son William Alexander Balcombe born in 1855. Sadly mental illness continued to plague Thomas from the time of the accident twenty years earlier and, triggered by the death of his eldest daughter Jane from low fever (typhus), he died at his home, Napoleon Cottage in Waverley Road, Woollahra in October 1861.

So William Alexander Balcombe was only a small boy just turned six years old when his father died. The Hargraves family obviously remained friends with the Balcombes and in July 1874 the Maitland Mercury reported a boating  accident when “WH Hargraves, son of EH Hargraves, the gold discoverer, and CJ Burns, son of the member for the Hunter, both clerks in the Equity Court, accompanied by a lad William Balcombe, started in a boat for Broken Bay, to spend their “vacation holiday” in procuring conchological specimens” (molluscs with a spiral shell). The weather turned nasty, the boat smashed onto rocks and they were extremely lucky to survive.

In March 1882 William Alexander Balcombe was appointed to be Third Clerk in Equity, a role in the NSW Supreme Court dealing with the concepts of conscience and fairness in courts of law. In December 1883 he was promoted to be Second Clerk in this office of the Master in Equity, a position he held for several years until, in March 1890, he succeeded his friend WH Hargraves to become the Chief Clerk in Equity and subsequently Deputy-Registrar.

William Alexander Balcombe had married Jessie Edith Griffin in 1884. Family rumour said they had met when he was in the Port Stephens area on a hunting trip with a friend and they called into a farm where they met half a dozen beautiful girls! Jessie was one of these six sisters. Their parents had both died and the younger girls were brought up by their older sisters. Jessie would not leave without Lydia, the youngest sister who came to Sydney with  her.

In 1895 this house was built for William Alexander Balcombe and called The Briars after the family home on St Helena. Its design was based on the St Helena house, as was The Briars built in the 1840s at Mornington near Melbourne by Alexander Beatson Balcombe, William’s uncle.

In 1896 William Balcombe’s annual salary was £380 or $760…. that wouldn’t go very far towards building a house today! This new Park was the area of their tennis court.

William and Jessie had four children, 2 boys with 2 girls in between. The oldest boy was born in 1885 at Napoleon Cottage, Woollahra. He was Gordon Tyrwhitt Balcombe who started school at Shore in 1896. By that time his parents were living here at The Briars. He developed into an excellent golfer, no doubt his early strokes were practiced on this old tennis court. He played in state and national championships, he won the amateur golf championship of  New South Wales in 1928. He was a founding member of Elanora Golf Club, became a solicitor and a director of Union Theatres.

The second child was Vera Lydia Balcombe, born 1887, an Old Girl of Abbotsleigh school. She was married from this house and the family have photographs of  her and her new husband Noel, a solicitor, on the tennis court where we are now. They had one son and two daughters and their descendents are here today.

A second daughter Doris Miriam Balcombe, was born in 1890 and was also an Old Girl of Abbotsleigh. She married a farmer and grazier from Collarenebri but returned to the family home of The Briars so her own daughter could be born here in July 1923.

Youngest son William Gould Balcombe was born in 1894 and became a driver in the First World War with the Field Artillery Brigade. He was reported as being ill in hospital at Heliopolis in March 1916 and after promotion to Second Lieutenant was listed in the wounded list in December 1917. He became a Station Manager and married a lady from Bourke and they lived in Scone. They had two sons,  one of them was killed in the Second World War.

It was in May 1939, just before the start of the Second World War, that William Alexander Balcombe died. His wife Jessie subsequently sold ‘The Briars’ in 1941 as it was too big and expensive to run on her own. She spent most of the next year living out at Collarenebri with her daughter until it became too hot! Her other daughter inherited a large 4 poster bed from the house. It was war time and there were several grandchildren in the armed forces, sadly some were lost in the fighting.

We know a bit about Jessie Balcombe from family letters. She had the nickname Gratie. She cared for one grand-daughter so she could attend Abbotsleigh in the early 1930s. Another grand-daughter recalled she was always very kind to her. There was a painting called Nicholas behind the dining room door, from the description we think ‘poor rude Nicholas’ must have been a small boy with no clothes on!

Gratie loved horse racing and usually had her ear to the wireless listening to the races at Randwick and she was knowledgeable about the runners in all the big races like the Epsom, Metropolitan and Melbourne Cup. She turned over in her mind which horses to bet on and family and friends sought her opinion on the best horses. In their early years here we suspect she would have had a good riding or carriage horse or two housed in the stables at the back of the garden.

During the war she regularly sent copies of The Bulletin to her grandsons serving overseas and she was delighted to send one a newspaper cutting about the American garbage carrier ship Tahoe ramming and sinking a Japanese submarine during the hostilities. She was overjoyed when she heard her grandson had survived the long years as a Japanese prisoner of war.

She was known for the ‘devilish glint in her eyes’ and on VP day at the end of the Second World War, one granddaughter wrote to her soldier brother, “On VP day, when we soberly stayed at home, Gran tore into town where seething masses celebrated and danced in the streets, and stayed there all day without a bite to eat and had a wonderful time, and she’s eighty if she’s a day!”

Many family members would love to be here today and best wishes are sent from interstate and overseas from places as far flung as New Zealand, America and Laos. Next time they are in Sydney they will once again drive along Woonona Avenue to enjoy this Park. In the 1950s family members can recall being driven past The Briars and being told it was ‘where Gran used to live’. At that time the garden was overgrown and tangled and the house was in disrepair. We are so grateful to John and Libby Fuller for their incredible work in restoring The Briars to its former glory. This house enjoyed children amusing themselves in the garden and playing tennis on the court. We are so pleased that Ku-ring-gai Council has knocked down the inappropriate  building that stood here and restored this piece of land to a place where children can once again run and play on the grass in this newly named Balcombe Park. Thank you to everyone who has made this possible.

 by Caroline Gaden ©


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