Majors Creek is 16kms south of Braidwood in the mountainous area of the upper tributaries of the Shoalhaven River. To the south the land falls 200 metres below to the Araluen Valley. A steep road, the original road from the goldfields, leads down to Araluen and beyond to Moruya on the coast.
The immediate area was first settled by Major William Sandys Elrington, who received a free grant in 1827 of 2650 acres. A professional soldier, and veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, his grant was typical of those given in the colony to retired British military men.
His farm, 'Mt Elriington', was extended in 1831 by purchase to cover the existing town and further south over the falls into the Araluen valley.
The major was a harsh man well suited to the tough pioneering conditions, made worse by the predations of escaped convicts in the surrounding ranges - he was said to have dined with a loaded pistol by his side!
One of the senior (ex) military men in the Braidwood district he was its first Justice of the Peace and one of only two magistrates who served to enforce law and order in this 'frontier' region where farms were largely staffed by assigned convicts. Re-offenders were taken up to Mt. Elrington to face his justice up until 1836.
A successful farmer, he also pioneered further settlement. A village reserve named Elrington was set aside in 1840 but did not prosper until a town was established following the gold strikes of 1851, to be named 'Majors Creek' in his memory.
The major, prosperous and having sold his holdings in 1845, had by this time retired to England, where he died in 1860.
This sleepy farming area, in the shadow of the larger settlement at nearby Braidwood, raised cattle and wheat (from 1840, until 'rust' wiped it out in the 1890s), horses, dairy products and vegetables during the gold rush years, and later oats, potatoes, corn, and turnips.
Until the Gold Fever of the 1850s.
Alluvial gold was said to have been first discovered in 1851 by a Mrs Baxter of Irish Corner (now Reidsdale) - to the east of the present town.
Within weeks, gold miners and fossickers who had been racing from one strike to another up and down the country between Bathurst and Ballarat descended on Majors Creek.
In 1851 Majors Creek was for a while the largest goldfield, with 2000 miners averaging 1 ounce of gold per day each and a shanty town soon sprang up.
The fortunes of the Majors Creek goldfields were to wax and wane over the next 80 years as small time prospectors came and went, and large companies prospered in their wake when the easy gold ran out. Then they too, faded away.
Perhaps the earliest, and most shrewd, to prosper were Elrington's pioneering contemporaries Andrew Badgery (of the pioneering Badgery family, one of the first to take up landholdings outside Sydney in County Camden) who received a grant in 1827 in Araluen, which he extended in the 1830s at Jembaicumbene Creek with his brother-in-law William Roberts.
Not tempted by gold fever themselves, they made their fortune in the 1850s selling private mining licences on their properties and supplies from their farms and trading enterprises to the miners.
Badgery opened a store among the ramshackle tents on the goldfields, and with Roberts, the first inn - from which the Doncaster Inn at Braidwood, and the Elrington Inn (opposite the existing hotel, but which burnt down in 1914) are the modern legacy.
The initial flush of success on the Majors Creek and nearby fields was based on alluvial gold - such as can be panned from creeks (you can still find specks of gold this way today) - and this lasted until about 1856.
From the 1869 to 1874 attention turned to reef mining (where the gold is dug out of seams in underlying quartz rock). This requires more cooperative effort, and where the reef is hard to mine, more equipment and capital.
The small, relatively steep and infrequent flows of the streams around Majors Creek did not lend themselves to the sort of (alluvial) dredge mining of Araluen.
The overburden had to be washed away - helped by the floods of the 1870s - but something not possible during the many years of drought between 1875 and the 1890s.
Only large companies - financed on the Sydney speculative market - could afford such operations, and most of the workers of the later gold mining period were employees of such companies.
The ore itself had to be crushed in large stamping batteries, and then treated to release the gold. In 1871 there were 5 large crushers, mostly serving the Dargues Reef mine, which extracted 100-150 ounces per week - at 7506 ounces of gold in the year, one of the then largest gold mining enterprises in NSW.
A chlorination plant was built in 1889 to assist extraction but in the 1900s ore was sent out to Port Kembla for refining. By 1914 the rush was all but over.
Desperate attempts to revive mining during the Depression were not successful, despite a subsidised battery crusher at Majors Creek run as a cooperative in 1936 for the Jembaicumbene field, and the last reef was closed by World War II.
Gold also attracted thieves and bushrangers, who preyed on the gold convoys which wound up the steep road from the Araluen valley, through Majors Creek and then on to Braidwood and beyond.
Ben Hall's gang were active on the trail in 1865, one of whose members was a local man, Tom Clarke.
Clarke was arrested and gaoled at Braidwood but notoriously escaped in 1865. With his brother John and some uncles - now known known as the Jingera mob - they hid out in the Jingera Mountains south and west of the Shoalhaven Valley and preyed on the goldfields.
As was often the case, they were les than romantic figures, being the sons of one John Clarke, a former Irish convict and shoemaker on Mt Elrington, who himself was later gaoled at Goulburn for the murder of an aboriginal he suspected of being a black tracker in the pay of the police.
The Clarkes ambushed and killed a special police gang in 1866 which led to large rewards being posted for them as outlaws. The police rounded up their supporters, including (as in the case of Ned Kelly), their mother. A police task force of 150 soon tracked them down. Tom Clarke surrendered, and was tried and hung at Darlinghiurst Gaol in1867.
This gang of thieves is remembered today in "Clarke's Lookout" on the mountain overlooking the road down to Araluen, from which they tracked the progress of the gold convoys up from the valley.
Majors Creek grew on the site of Elrington's village reserve and was originally a shanty town with miners' tents, stores and sly grog shops - soon to reach 2000 souls.
Life was rough, with frequent fights and drunkenness, until the presence of a police outpost (1851, closed eventually in 1939) and miners' families tempered the frontier lifestyle.
The gold takings, unlike other fields, lasted on and off for over 50 years, which led to more permanent settlement and the consequent demand for social and civic amenities.
In 1866 the population was down to 200, but up again to over 1000 by 1871, declining to about 600 at the turn of the 20th century.
Horse racing, picnics, dances, sports and athletic contests were a feature of local life from the 1850s - often in conjunction with miners from nearby goldfields. Concerts, teas, fetes, cricket and boxing matches were popular through to the early 20th century - including the annual New Years Day picnic, a tradition carried on for 100 years up to the 1970s.
In the 1860s a private school, Wesleyan, Church of England and Roman Catholic churches were operationing out of tents.
These were replaced by permanent structures later - in particular, St. Stephen's Episcopalian Church (1870-2), designed by master mason Peter Rusconi (who also built an elegant bridge over the creek on the Braidwood Road).
The original Catholic church was pulled down and another erected in the 1930s near the recreation ground (now a private residence). A Salvation Army barracks was erected in 1889.
The first government school started in 1880, moving into a new school building in 1889 which catered for 200 children. The school eventually closed in 1969, children today being bussed to Braidwood.
The revival of mining in the 1870s probably saw Majors Creek at its most substantial as a country town. In 1871 it had a post office (1866), chemist, 24 stores (including bakers and butchers), 4 hotels and an Oddfellows Lodge (1866).
About 10% of the population at that time were Chinese who mined at Long Rat to the west on upper and lower Majors Creek, at Bells Creek, and in the Araluen valley. Although local miners signed a petition in support of the anti-Chinese movement at Lambing Flat in 1861, relationships with the Chinese at Majors Creek were more cordial in the 1870s - due in no small part to the activities of Mei Quong Tart.
Arriving on the goldfields at the age of 9 with his uncle, he worked for the Forsyth family in their store at Bells Creek, and was later adopted by the Simpson family and raised as a son.
Quong Tart acted as interpreter for the Simpson's 200 Chinese miners on their Bells Creek field, and was given a lease of his own at the age of 14, where he soon struck it rich.
A popular and well liked figure, Quong Tart achieved natrualisation in 1871 and after some years' successful reef mining he married a Braidwood school teacher and moved to Sydney where he pursued a successful career as a merchant and unofficial Chinese Consul. His activities ensured the racism rife on other goldfields did not extend to the Braidwood fields.
Miners' welfare at Majors Creek, in the days before trades union and the welfare state, was largely taken care of by the "Rose of Australia" branch of the Grand United Order of Oddfellows (1863). The GUOOF provided sickness, unemployment and funeral benefits and took care of widows and orphans - the Majors Creek branch acting as executors to the latter for the Southern District right up to 1970.
This sense of civic duty also manifested itself in enrolment by the bushmen into the army during the Boer War, and the raising of the Majors Creek Light Horse in 1908, later to serve in WWI.
By the 1900s the Majors Creek fields were largely exhausted and the village became yet another small rural centre based on serving the surrounding agricultural district. Bad times during the Great Depression (1930s) and the post WWII years saw eucalyptus distilling as the only new major activity
Modern amentities came to the town in the 1950s, but the latter half of the 20th century saw Majors Creek decline further, especially in the shadow of the larger regional centre at Braidwood.
Few of the (mainly timber) buildings of earlier times remain in the village, the hall at the Recreation Area, originally a shelter shed to which was added an old dance hall and church building being one of the few.
The countryside is still scoured with major erosion from over half a century of gold mining activities.This destruction would not be countenanced today in more ecologically minded times, but the water races, puddlers, Chinese stone walls, dams, mullock heaps, sluices and tailings are of specific environmental interest to historians and industrial archeaologists as living reminders of this part in the nation's development.
Fine alluvial gold can still be panned in the creeks today, an attraction to modern day part-time fossickers eager to try out their luck.
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