Keast Burke
photographer, photo historian, editor of the Australian Photo-Review

 

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Beaufoy Merlin

Gold And Silver (Australasian Photo-Review #3 1953)

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The early autumn saw him back in Gulgong. The evenings were drawing in and business may well have been becoming slack, with new subjects for photography to be found only in the more distant south-eastern leads. And then, one afternoon perhaps, Merlin was approached by a wellattired stranger, his waistcoat adorned by a heavy gold chain carrying two miniatures or lucky charms; this person he had never before observed in the streets of Gulgong. The visitor was a shortish, rather sad-looking individual with a sparse beard, yet very much a man of ideas and practical enterprise, and one who had survived many vicissitudes.

After a few mutual words, it appeared that the two could meet on common ground. The stranger was very much interested in photography - and he was a wealthy man; in fact, a very successful gold-miner. Merlin, on the other hand, was the practical photographer in search of new avenues for his enterprise. What better project could a wealthy miner undertake than to arrange for the effective photographic coverage of Australia's progress? What fine publicity for Australia (and for the wealthy miner) such a collection of photographs would be when exhibited in the cities of the world? No sooner discussed than it was all agreed upon.

Merlin would leave at once for Hill End and there establish a studio that would make available the regular A. & A. house-by-house and studio services. As soon as that was done he would commence work, as his patron's personal photographer, on the much broader scheme of picturing the greater cities of Australia's south-west. He would photograph, in the largest possible negative proportions, their streets, their public buildings and their industries. In this way the story of Australia's extraordinary material progress could be recorded and prepared for exhibition throughout the great centres of U.S.A. and the Continent.

Beaufoy Merlin appears to have reached Hill End in the autumn of 1872 and to have started operations immediately, but it is unlikely that he spent the whole of his time there in view of his interstate interests and the field undertaking referred to above. He probably left Hill End, for the last time, about March or April 1873, that fact being confirmed by his photography of the decorations arranged by the citizens for the visit of Sir Hercules Robinson, the State Governor, on March 11, 1873.

By the autumn of 1873 his health must have been failing rapidly and he returned to Sydney, spending his last days in one of those familiar two-storeyed terraces in Leichhardt. He passed away at the early age of forty-three of "an inflammation of the lungs," almost certainly tubercular in origin, on September 27, 1873, and was buried in the Church of England cemetery at Balmain.

And so, the Beaufoy Merlin story draws to its close. One cannot help thinking . . . if only he had known how magnificent was his work, how well preserved against the ravages of time would be his negatives and, finally, how well they would respond to modern sensitized papers and modern enlarging methods, giving 'contact quality' at 4 to 15 diameters. If only he could have seen the great travelling exhibition of his work and the interest it was destined to arouse throughout the world ....

* * * * * * * * * * *

Before we bid farewell to the old days, let us bring the background up-to-date. On the fields (and elsewhere ' ) a scattering of old men and women in their eighties and nineties are living today, most of them with keen minds, vivid recollections and a wealth of tales. The descendants of the miners are legion; in Sydney, as like as not, two out of every five at a luncheon table will tell you of their forbears of the Turon. Gulgong still stands, sharing with Mudgee the pastoral prosperity of the rich alluvial flats of the Cudgegong. Surprisingly enough, as one walks the characteristic narrow curving streets of the town, one notes on almost every hand buildings whose detail of construction bears undeniable evidence that their erection goes back to those first days when the throng of carpenters busily sawed and nailed the boards of pine into 'false fronts' of surprising variety. Quite a number of the buildings actually photographed by Merlin can be recognised without much difficulty, though, in most instances, their days are numbered. Incredibly enough, there is still one building which ante-dates to the gold-rush days by some ten years-it is the original accommodation house and posting station for the teams and other road travellers bound for the north-west.

Black Lead, just north of the railway line, remains a name on the map and many a high mullock heap is to be seen, mutely reminding us of the strenuous labours of the deep-lead miners.

At Home Rule, some six or seven miles to the south-west, digging is still in active progress, but all of it is for clay (of both the building and pottery varieties). Any of the locals will be happy to point out to you the very spot where four Irishmen found the first gold and without hesitation named their claim Home Ride.

Canadian Lead to its west is barely recognisable, for there the pits were shallow and mostly they have been filled in by the graziers.

Moving down to Tambaroora you will find it hard to reconstruct the town from a,few pine trees, a single chimney and one or two overgrown cemeteries.

Southwards across Fisher's Hill there is still a Hill End, and the wattles in their season still blaze in Golden Gully where the prospectors coming down from Hargraves met those coming up Oakey Creek from the Turon. What remains of the town dozes sleepily on its great Hawkins Hill spur high above the river. It enjoys a magnificent setting as the everchanging light plays on the slopes of the valley and on the river fifteen hundred feet below. The views are magnificent; there are many that say that the Split Rock outlook is the most beautiful in Australia. To the west, Sargent's Hill bleeds scarlet from a thousand erosion scars but the impression is softened by the rich greenery of the avenues of great shade trees planted 'by Beyers and Mayor Hodges, to say nothing of a generous sprinkling of orchard trees everywhere. Of the buildings photographed by Merlin, a handful have managed to survive the passage of time but to-day's observer is likely to be hard put to recognise some of them.

As for gold, one is more likely to encounter a boundary rider than a fossiker as one moves about the surrounding countryside. Nevertheless, a panful of gravel taken at random from any creek is likely to show a few colours in the dish. It is good fun, but undeniably strenuous; after washing half-a-dozen dishes most City dwellers would consider they had done a good day's work.

There is little local employment and it is difficult to see from whence could come any new enterprise. Hill End does not want a tourist industry and probably it is unlikely to have one. There are no golf links and there is plenty of better fishing than the Turon's. Casual walking is hardly to be encouraged by the steep slopes everywhere and the thousand unfilled, unfenced shafts would be something worse than a nightmare for parents. In any case, those fifty odd 'V.H.' miles from Bathurst will ever deter all but the most confident and well-equipped drivers.

But hope still runs strongly among those good people of Hill Endand we share those hopes . . .

(To be concluded in the May issue)


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