The Historical Significance of Tabulam Station

Ms Jill Adam B.Mus. Ed., A.Mus.A. (Pianoforte & Singing), DSME, FFCSME (of Australia)

Editor’s note: This is a special local insight into Tabulam, the birthplace of General Sir Harry Chauvel, whose military exploits and many important contributions to Australia are described elsewhere on this website.

This extract comes from Jill Adam’s original article, written to present her case to have Chauvel Park, its buildings and historic trees, placed on the National Historic Register. Jill wants to ensure that Chauvel Park is purchased for the nation.  She argues that such actions will provide work activities and volunteer activities for Tabulam and the Kyogle Shire, and can be done in such a way as to preserve the village atmosphere of Tabulam.

Introduction

There are indeed a number of reasons why Tabulam is a place of historical significance, one place that needs heralding and preserving for future generations; not the least of these reasons being that one of Australia’s greatest and most patriotic of professional soldiers (who became Australia’s first General) was not only born here in 1865, but his thinking and attitude were shaped here. Why? Because he spent the first twenty-three years of his life with Tabulam as his beloved home, and he never forgot it.

I grew up travelling the long, very winding, very corrugated, very dusty road to Tabulam and thence to the Hunter Valley via Tenterfield/Armidale from the mid-1940s. More recently, in the twenty years since I have lived in Tabulam village, I would be wealthy if I had a dollar for every time somebody has remarked, upon learning that I live in Tabulam, “Oh, isn’t Tabulam a pretty place. It is such a pretty valley when you come upon it on the drive to the coast.” I have climbed Currabubbla many a time, and I have to agree that Tabulam and its valley is indeed a pretty place. The view from Currabubbla in every direction is, without doubt, truly beautiful.

2017 Centenary parade at Tabulam for the Charge at Beersheba

Not only is it beautiful, the particular valley of the Clarence River in which the village of Tabulam is situated is one of immense historical significance; as is the village of Tabulam itself. Home of the original, indigenous west-Bundjalung people, the name ‘Tabulam’ is derived from the aboriginal words ‘Dhabalum’ and ‘Jubbulum’ which mean ‘our place’.

 

Tabulam was, for many decades in the 19th century, the travel and transport hub from the New England Hinterland to the coast. Up to 500 bullock and horse teams a week plied their trade through the hub of Tabulam township, fording the river here before tackling ‘the jumps’ over Currabubbla and heading on down to Grafton or Lawrence for the wharves and the steam ships.

‘Captain’s Creek’ and ‘Captain’s Road’ are named for Captain Charles George Temple Chauvel (Harry’s grandfather), who first discovered a suitable route over Currabubbla for the bullock teams and travellers to the transport hubs of Grafton and Lawrence. Before he found a better route over Currabubbla, the old route traversed the Rocky River near the mouth of Black Creek and went on over a difficult pass at Hamilton’s Gap to Yates’ crossing and thence to Grafton. When the rivers were in flood the teams could be held up for a number of weeks.  

Once the Currabubbla route was in use, teams could still be held up at Tabulam ford by the flooded Clarence River – hence the necessity for the punt and later for the historic bridge.

Harry’s family settled at Tabulam

Harry Chauvel’s grandfather (Charles George Temple Chauvel) purchased Tabulam Station (East Tabulam) from Judge Windeyer in 1848. The grandfather and his wife and younger children lived originally in a homestead close to Tabulam Rivulet. (Harry’s grandfather was a former officer in the British Army in India, and Harry’s own father Charlie had been born in Madras).  Charlie Chauvel continued to live there when he was put in charge of the station at aged 25 years (after Harry’s grandfather retired to Sydney).

This original Chauvel-occupied building was washed away in the great flood of 1863, fortunately not then occupied, as Charlie and his new wife would most likely have been drowned. As it was, seven dray-loads of goods, the seven bullock teams and their drivers were washed away from near the river crossing below today’s Chauvel Park (some of the lost goods being recovered floating near the bar to the sea at Yamba days later). Three teamsters were drowned, and the bodies of the men were buried in the vicinity of the large memorial boulder halfway to the Tabulam Race-course. A little boy, Eli, son of teamster William May, was never seen again. The Police Constable was drowned also, and all the mail was lost when the Post Office and the Police Station/Courthouse were washed away.

It was shortly before this year of tragedy that Charlie Chauvel had built the large Chauvel homestead (dismantled in 1953) where Chauvel Park is located today.  Planning to marry and raise a family of his own, Charlie prepared for his 1862 marriage by providing for his wife ahead of time with a proper and large homestead in the archetypal Aussie style with a big verandah all round and a separate kitchen. Here, the growing family planted trees (which still survive), and is where Harry Chauvel was born, and where he played in and around those trees and grew to manhood.

 

Sir Harry’s early life at Tabulam

General Sir Harry Chauvel GCMG KCB was born on 16th April 1865 (Easter Sunday). Either Mick Jordan (head stockman for Harry’s father) or Harry Mundine (their aboriginal stockman) rode post-haste to Grafton to fetch the doctor when the birth was imminent; but little Henry (“Harry”) George Chauvel could not wait to begin his life and arrived before the doctor could reach Tabulam.

Harry was experiencing horses and the feeling of being on a horse’s back before he could walk, and rode on a pillow placed on the pommel of the saddle in front of his mother, Fanny, all the way to Grafton through the scrub when barely one year old; his two-year-old brother, Arthur, riding ahead of them all the way most competently, on his own pony!

Riding alone almost before he could walk, Harry Chauvel became a skilled horseman and amateur jockey, one who could cut cattle from a mob as competently as any champion camp-drafter of today. He could ride off a bolting horse to a standstill, and pick up a rider from a runaway horse like a rodeo man. All these horsemanship skills were called upon in the Boer War and in the WW1 deserts of the Sinai, Palestine and Syria. On ceremonial occasions, this skill  also saved embarrassment: he even had to rescue General Allenby when the General’s horse bolted out of control (and thus, with riding skills first learnt and honed among the station horses and cattle at Tabulam, he saved a key British commander from serious injury or even death); again in 1927 when the Duke of York’s horse bolted during ceremonies associated with the opening of Federal Parliament in Canberra (the Duke later became King George VI), Harry Chauvel saved the Duke from danger and embarrassment by riding off the bolting horse and pulling it up, enabling him and the Duke to quickly exchange mounts before the official Review of the Armed Forces took place.

Harry Chauvel’s father and grandfather bred thoroughbred horses, renowned far and wide for their quality. As well, Captain Charles George Temple Chauvel imported the original cattle stock, so Tabulam Station became renowned as breeders of champion British Shorthorn and later Hereford cattle which were shown with success at the Brisbane Exhibition and Sydney Easter Royal Shows.

Young Harry Chauvel and his brother, Arthur, grew up at Tabulam playing with the children of the aboriginal stockmen and housekeepers employed by their father (who was known always in the Chauvel family as Charlie). Both of them conversed in the local Bundjalung dialect with their playmates and aboriginal mentors, including the stockman Harry Mundine (pronounced ‘Mun-dyne’), whom they adored.

Jill Adam standing beneath the old camphor tree at Chauvel Park - Richmond River Independent 23 Sep 2020

From a very young age the boys mustered the horses and cattle with the station stockmen. They learnt to ride hard and fast, working in and among cattle and horses, controlling them in the droving and the cutting-out when there was little in the way of fencing. They knew how to swim both horses and cattle through rivers and rising creeks.

Young  Arthur and Harry spent a lot of time with Harry Mundine for almost ten years from 1873, riding to boarding school through the bush to and from Grafton, to go then by steamship for two days at sea and steam train to primary schooling in Goulburn; and later, on to high school at Sydney Grammar. It was a 70-mile ride to Grafton with Harry Mundine leading the pack horse and being in sole charge of the youngsters’ safety and well-being, camping overnight, learning how to survive in the bush, how to value all creatures great and small, and about the tribal folklore of the constellations gleaming above them in the night sky. After the boys were safely aboard the boat, Harry Mundine had to lead the boys’ horses and the pack horse all the way back to Tabulam Station – not an easy feat, and one requiring great strength and stamina as well as focus, a sense of responsibility and ‘nouse’. These rides were repeated at the end of every term and the beginning of the next as the boys came home for the school holidays. 

In 1876 Harry and his brother, Arthur, were saved from drowning in the huge July flood by the Robb couple, left in charge of the home and the boys whilst the rest of the Chauvel family were absent from the property, probably for the Grafton Races or at the grandparents’ family home in Macleay St, Sydney (only the grandmother lived there now, grandfather Chauvel having died in the June of 1865 not long after Harry was born).

The 1876 flood went four feet deep through the separate kitchen (on ground level) and eighteen inches deep through the homestead itself. [Quote report from the Grafton Examiner: “It was four feet deep over Mr Chauvel’s grass paddock (the present-day school grounds and Tabulam Oval) and six feet up the side of Currabubbla”].

Cut off by raging floodwaters racing through the remains of the ancient river bed at the back of the grass paddock and the foot of Currabubbla hill, the Robbs’ planned escape with the boys to Currabubbla became, instead, a dangerous struggle through swirling floodwater to the barn situated about 100 metres north, on the highest ground of the river bank (near the present-day Automotive Repair building).

Mr and Mrs Robb, plus another man (Renham) in charge of the precious breeders and their calves, and a lad by the name of George Ravenscroft, led the saddled night-pony with Arthur (12) and Harry (11) hanging on to it – and at times being swept off their feet by the rushing power of the floodwater – to the barn and safety.

The cattle (including calves) were trapped on a mound between the homestead and the roaring river - but were called by the farmer and swam to safety, over the top of the homestead front fence, on to some higher ground amidst quieter flood waters. Forty years later, it was the son of the lad Ravenscroft who was to became Harry’s Standard-Bearer in the Desert Corps campaigns of WWI !  (There were also to be some hundred aboriginal troopers in his Light Horse units, including those who participated in the dawn charge at Semakh in September 1918).

Having battled floodwater myself more than once, and watched the wild and roaring waters of the Clarence River in January 2011, I know how frightening is the powerful weight and threatening noise of rushing floodwater pouring over a river bank. It must have been a very frightening journey from the homestead to the barn for all six people involved in that escape to safety.

The boys’ last two years of high school education was at Toowoomba Grammar School in Queensland, and this meant a three-day ride (with Harry Mundine and the pack horse) of 150 miles through the rugged bushland via Bonalbo, Tooloom, Acacia Creek, up and down the gorges and steep terrain, fording creeks and rivers. They learnt all about safe horsemanship and riding skills in difficulty and, at times, danger. They had learnt much from Harry Mundine about the skills of camping, living and surviving in the bush; and of the capabilities of horses in extreme conditions.

The memorial to Harry Mundine

Harry’s work at Tabulam

After he completed school, Harry Chauvel had droving/managing roles for his father at Tabulam Station itself and the out-stations at Deep Creek, Tooloom/Woodenbong and Acacia Creek. In this role he learnt about thoughtful, and sometimes quick, decision-making, the power of authority and the value of keeping a cool head when serious problems of runaways interrupted a muster and one had to keep the herd intact.

He thus amassed other vital qualities for good leadership: these included responsibility for the welfare of both animals and people. He learnt that the careful, thorough, proper care of the horses and the planning of their welfare were of the utmost importance to those who relied upon them for survival. His role in the Desert War saw him beloved by the men he commanded for the genuine care and concern he showed daily, care for the men themselves and for their horses.

Leaving Tabulam

The severe and wide-spread drought years of the 1880s were devastating and saw, as a consequence, the liquidating of the family assets of Tabulam Station towards the end of that decade. The family were forced to leave Tabulam and settle at Canning Downs South (which property fortunately had been purchased

in the name of Fanny Chauvel and thus not owned by Charlie, to be taken by the banks).  It was just over the Qld border, south of Warwick near Killarney.  The forced move from Tabulam wounded Harry Chauvel deeply. He loved Tabulam and the surrounding countryside, its birds and wildlife, its alluvial plains and rugged ridges ploughed out by the mighty river over millions of years. He carried Tabulam in his heart all the rest of his life, and talked often and long to his children about his life and times on Tabulam Station. They were left in no doubt about his love for Tabulam and his longing for the life he’d known here. It was also a life free of the terrors and horrors and responsibilities in the theatres of War.

A return visit to Tabulam

After WWI and his return to Melbourne in 1919 with his wife Lady Sibyl Chauvel and children Ian, Edward and Elyne (Eve was born later), General Harry Chauvel was kept very busy with official engagements which took him to every state and capital city. As soon as he was able to find some spare time though, he made a special effort in 1920 to show his old Tabulam home to his beautiful wife.

Travelling by train and then coach, they arrived at Sandilands Station where they stayed as guests of the Bruxner (pronounced ‘Brooksner’) family. Michael Bruxner (known to Sir Harry as ‘Mick’ Bruxner and later to become Sir Michael Bruxner after whom our local highway is named) had served in the Light Horse with Harry Chauvel and his men.

Lady Sibyl described in her diary how her husband drove them both from Sandilands to Tabulam in a sulky. Sir Harry could hardly wait to show her his beloved Tabulam, with the birds and their song on his beloved Currabubbla, and the beautiful, alluvial valley with the big river meandering at its foot.

New to him then was the historic, hand-built bridge, completed in 1902, and across which they drove in the sulky. As they drove through a grove of flowering young wattle on the side of Currabubbla you can imagine his delight at the familiar sights and smells of flowering wattle. Lady Sybil recorded it all in her diary; and this tells us that it was 100 years ago that General Chauvel paid his last visit there.

He was in Lismore on business in 1934 and longing to be at the occasion when the new bridge over the Rocky River was opened. You can imagine his disappointment to learn there was no way possible for him to attend the ceremony at the river he’d crossed so many times on horseback since 1865. Worn out by the ill-health brought on by the years of privation and bad food at Gallipoli and in the Desert campaign, the General could not manage the long and difficult ride from Lismore/Casino; and there was no car available to take him on that long, slow, rough and dusty journey winding through Mummulgum and up and over Mallanganee mountain to Tabulam and the new bridge ceremony. 

 

Harry’s last thoughts - Tabulam

As Sir Harry Chauvel lay dying in March 1945 (he died a month before his 80th birthday) his daughter, Elyne, noted the peace which had settled over him. She saw that all the lines carved in his face by years of ill-health (both during and as a result of Gallipoli and the Desert War) had eased. She felt certain he was back in his mind at Tabulam with his mother and father, brothers and sisters, the aboriginal people he’d loved, the birds and their songs he’d talked of so often, the gleaming gum trees, the horses and cattle and the big river he’d loved so much. Elynne believed, sitting quietly by his side watching him as his spirit prepared to fly, that Harry Chauvel’s last thoughts were of his beloved Tabulam home.

Conclusion

There are museums and other places of interest connected to Harry Chauvel, ones which have records and memorabilia recognising the greatness of the man – but we have nothing in Tabulam celebrating his life and formative times here, apart from the 1985 Light Horse Memorial and plaque in memory of those who served; and its more recent, succinct yet attractive billboard telling a wee bit of the story. There is no really obvious signage directing these tourist attractions to passers-by, either.

As well as the history attached to the Chauvel family, and Sir Harry in particular, there are also many other historically-important things to celebrate, to bring tourists to this valley and to encourage them to stay a while.

We have historical survey lines and remnants of old roads to explore, happenings and special events to learn about (bushrangers, gold strikes, floods and droughts, stock routes, sale-yards). There are interesting people and their memorials, from the hapless Pagan to Lasseter and Harry Mundine.  There are the stories of the bullock and horse teams and the difficult routes they took, the caves the teamsters 

Memorial at Tabulam to Sir Harry Chauvel and to the Upper Clarence Light Horse

lived in for weeks when the river was in flood, stories of transporting the gold and people, the founding of the Coach lines and later the New England Bus Service, the surveying and building of the roads to the coast with their historical hotels and lodging houses. There is the original gravel ‘highway’ from Casino to Tenterfield with its immense number of ‘hairpin’ bends and cars forever boiling before they got to the top of Mallanganee mountain. And of course there is the history of the great bridge across the Clarence at Tabulam – all hand-built by so many local men, including some who had ridden to war with Harry Chauvel.

The West–of-the-Range Historical Society holds many valuable artefacts, photos and records, and the Casino and Grafton Historical Societies have knowledge and records of early Tabulam which can be accessed.

Tabulam as a tourist destination is an event waiting to happen – to be organised and arranged and conducted with maximum efficiency, so it ties in with the other historic villages and places of interest in the Kyogle/Tenterfield Shires.

Bibliography/References

‘Chauvel Country’ – Elyne Mitchell   

      

‘Monash and Chauvel’ – Roland Perry

‘The Desert Column’ – Ion Idriess

         

‘The Charge’ (Victory at Beersheba) – David W. Cameron

‘First to Damascus’ – Jill, Duchess of Hamilton 

                

‘Light Horse to Damascus - Elyne Mitchell

        

‘Bill the Bastard’ – Roland Perry

  

‘The Forgotten Country’ – Isabel Wilkinson

‘Light Horse’ – Elyne Mitchell

‘The Australian Light Horse’ – Roland Perry 

                      ‘

'A Place By the River’ (Part 1)  – Isabel Wilkinson

                            

‘The Road to the River’ – Glen Hall

‘Desert Anzacs’ by Neil Dearberg 

      

The Australian Light Horse website with photographs and history

General Sir Harry Chauvel – on various internet sites; information and photographs

‘Poppy’ Harry Mundine Walker (west-Bundjalung elder > the Mundine family) in discussion at Jubbulum Village Tabulam

Author’s conversations with aboriginal elders, including Warren Mundine AO, at the celebratory gathering and meal in the Tabulam Hall following the unveiling by Tony Mundine OAM (former Australian. Commonwealth and world boxing champion) of ‘Harry Mundine Place’; and the unveiling by other descendants of the granite memorial cairn in Harry Mundine’s honour on the corner of Court Street and Harry Mundine Place, Tabulam.