Mary Brownlee (nee McNally) born 1847-1934

An account of the life of Mary Brownlee (nee McNally) who's family were one of the early pioneering families of Bellingen NSW Australia.

Mary Brownlee (nee McNally).  Mary Brownlee, wife of William Brownlee, was one of the oldest of the district’s pioneers, and the last member of the original McNally family which pioneered settlement on the Bellingen upwards of seventy years. She was a daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. Bernard McNally, and was born in County Armagh, Ireland. When she was 14 years of age she came to Australia with her parents, who had decided to seek their fortune in the great land beyond the sea.
The trip out was made in one of the “Sandringham” sailing vessels, and for just four months the McNallys were on the water before they sighted the eastern coast of Australia. Immediately after arriving in Sydney in 1864 they set out for the Northern Rivers, and were attracted by the claims of the Macleay, where they decided to settle down on the lower river. However, after a few months there, the succession of floods made it necessary for the family to look for new fields.
It was after the devastating flood in 1864, in which they suffered severe loss, that they headed further northward, and moved to the Bellingen River. They came from the Macley on foot, travelling by way of the beach, fording the swollen rivers in the improvised hewn-out log boats, and carrying the great bulk of their worldly belongings on their backs. After arriving at the Bellingen Heads they moved up-stream by boat and reached a point then known as Bunker’s Hill, but which is today the centre of the town of Bellingen. Here, in the centre of a dense belt of timber, Mr. McNally decided to select land, and the first cottage of the McNally’s was erected on the site which today is occupied by Mr. D.C. McNally’s private residence. At that time there were but four humble hunts in the clearings hereabout, and the whole of the valley was densely timbered, with aboriginals roaming through it in hundreds.
Every foot of the country had to be won with the axe, and it was therefore weeks before the modest little hut was completed and fitted out with it crude and improvised appointments. It was in such a setting that Mary, then a girl of sixteen, was pioneering a life on the Bellingen and she shared the trials and privations with her parents and other members of the family in that courageous way which has characterised those sterling people who first established settlement in these parts.
The other four huts referred to as being in existence at the time of their arrival were occupied by the Jarrett, McGrath, Fisby and Eather families. They were built in little square clearings which had been cut into the dense forest, while the river, ever with a fast-running current seemed to cleave its way through a wall of timber. After from four to five years on the Bellingen Mary was married, and with her husband, Mr. William Brownlee, settled one mile up the stream from Bellingen, and there cut from the forest a farm which is still owned and occupied by the family. In those times there were no roads and the properties were only served with rough bush tracks which led down to the riverside, where boats picked up produce and conveyed it down-stream to the assembly points.
Maize growing was the first occupation, and this was undertaken when the area was only partly cleared. Harvesting was not easy between the fallen timbers, while the farmer of those days received no great remuneration for his work, as the price for the product in Sydney was only 1/- per bushel. Every cob of corn had to be carried out of the clearings in bags on the backs of settlers, and the small boats would only carry from six to eight bags at a time to the assembly point. The floods and strong currents made rowing up-stream difficult, the harvesting of the crop was extremely slow. Frequently the settlers suffered severe reverses, and just when a crop was ready to harvest a flood would come and, in the space of an hour or two, a whole year’s labour would be swept away. On one occasion a succession of floods at critical periods over three successive years robbed all the riverside settlers of their harvests, and many would ha;ye perished had it not been for the generous assistance of agents and the great neighbourly help which was the main asset of the early communities.
Eleven years after their arrival on the Bellingen one of the worst floods ever experienced swept the valley, and in relating this incident Mary said that the rain fell in torrents without a break for three days. The waters were rising the whole time, and when the peak was reached the whole of the flat land on either side of the stream was completely inundated. The low-lying parts of Bellingen were feet under the torrent, and from the town site to Marx Hill, it was a veritable sea. Just prior to this much clearing .work had been carried out all along the river flats, and the trunks of the huge fallen trees were carried along in the flood waters almost en masse, and they bobbed and jostled away down the stream like corks in boiling water.
It was always with a measure of pride that Mary would relate to friends that it was her father, the late Mr. Bernard McNally, who brought the first cow to the upper reaches of the Bellingen River. As soon as her father had cleared sufficient timber from the selection, he walked back to the Macleay and purchased a milking cow, driving the animal on foot all the way back along the beach. There were few horses at all in the upper parts of the Bellingen River at that time, and the only horse, in fact, that was known on the river was owned by the late Mr. George Tyson, at Fernmount. There were many difficulties experienced before “Strawberry” was finally placed on her new pastures. With the advance of settlement came better services, but it was a noticeable thing that medical services were not available to settlers closer than the Macleay River, and residents were thrown upon their own resources for the cure or suffering of all ordinary complaints. It was in this sphere that Mary Brownlee rendered much aid to the community, and for some years before the advent of a permanent doctor, she acted as a midwife, and it is on record that not in one instance did her ministration meet with serious consequences.
The surviving members of the family are five sons and three daughters while in addition her late husband and one son and two daughters predeceased her. The surviving sons are Messrs. William Henry (Bellingen), John (Bellingen), James (Epping), Hughie (Woolahra), and Arthur (Bellingen); and the daughters are Mesdames R. J. Smith (Coffs Harbour), J. J. Cooper (Bellingen) and R. Foster (Bellingen). The deceased son was Mr. Joseph Brownlee, while the deceased daughters are Mesdames John Smith and Thomas Rigney.
AUTHORS NOTE: Because of my own great interest in the stories of our early pioneers, I would also like to report that William and Mary Brownlee in 1863, as they trudged along the beaches from the Macleay River to take up a new selection on the recently opened lands of the Bellingen Valley, Mary carried a crate of six fowls on her back, a bundle of clothes under one arm and food under the other, her pockets were stuffed with seeds, etc., and a bag hung from her neck; William was “loaded to the hilt” with tools, shot-gun etc. And they walked the forty miles to the Bellingen in two days!
They reared a family of eleven, who played an active part in the role of the family, helping get established on the land and taking on part of the farm work. They purchased a cross-cut saw and two wedges. With these they split slabs for their little hut, which was ready for occupation by the first winter, and also cut palings to fence in a garden plot, to keep out bush animals, using flooded gum for this purpose. The first hut was a small two-roomed building with bark roof and puddled clay floor which lasted for several years before being destroyed in a bushfire. By this time the family had increased, and all crowded into a small shed, which had missed the flames, while a new home was built. Slabs were still used in its wall construction, but pit-sawn boards were cut for floors and doors. The roof was of shingles.
The family’s meat supplies, consisted of hindquarters of wallabies, broth from kangaroo and wallaby tails, brush turkeys and various birds. The poultry quickly multiplied, thanks partly to the cattle dog, who scared off marauding goannas, snakes etc. There was no butter most of the year, but they grew vegetables and made flour from arrowroot which they grew.
Of the six girls and five boys, the best remembered is Elizabeth, who was born in 1871 and lived to be 99. Her splendid memory allowed her to give many a vivid picture of life in the difficult pioneering days. She commenced school in Bellingen in 1877 and, at the school’s Centenary in 1970, was the sole survivor of the original pupils. At a time when many girls married very young, Elizabeth was courted for seven years by Robert Smith before they were married. Bob Smith was one of the hardest workers in the valley. He had bacon-curing rooms and there are accounts of his handling eighty pigs per week. His bacon became famous both in the valley and on the Sydney market. He later established a butcher’s shop at Coffs Harbour.

See THE BROWNLEE FAMILY published by Brownlee Printing. Editor and Co Author: Ian Edward Brownlee and Author: Allan Lindsay Arnold Brownlee. ISBN O9588301 0 X. pages 207-213.

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Chart 10026