The Holtermann collection: the greatest wonder of the world

State Library of New South Wales

Highlights from the 2013 exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales

Bernhardt Holtermann and the A&A Photographic Company
In 1951, a hoard of 3,500 glass plate negatives from the nineteenth century was discovered in a garden shed in suburban Sydney. This find proved to be the most important photographic documentation of goldfields life in Australia.The photographers responsible for the images were Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss of the American and Australasian Photographic Company, who had travelled to the town of Hill End in 1872 to record the rush. From there, they also recorded the burgeoning Gulgong and Mudgee goldfields. Newly rich Bernhardt Otto Holtermann used some of his wealth to employ Merlin and Bayliss to photograph other gold producing areas and cities in NSW and Victoria for exhibition overseas. Proud of his own success, he believed that his travelling exposition would encourage immigration to Australia. Merlin and Bayliss’s documentation was slow, with long exposures and the difficulty of processing one photograph at a time, however their wet plate negatives captured exceptional detail. The State Library's Holtermann Collection of glass plate negatives was included on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World register in May 2013.

A view of Circular Quay east in 2015

In mid 1873, Beaufoy Merlin returned to Sydney to continue photographing the city for Holtermann. The Sydney Morning Herald 2 August 1873 noted, "Mr. Beaufoy Merlin has taken a considerable number of photographic views of Sydney for the first section of 'Holtermann's Intercolonial Exposition.'" This image from Dawes Battery, past Campbell's Wharf to Circular Quay can be dated to early September 1873, as the Haddon Hall (r) from London, is loading for San Francisco at Campbell's wharf. Behind it is Aviemore and the ship in background in front of Customs House is La Hogue. Both Aviemore and La Hogue left for London on 13 September 1873.

A view of Dawes Point, Circular Quay west in 2015

The outlook from the tower of Holtermann's mansion on 8 acres [2.5 hectares] at St Leonards was spectacular. This view across Lavender Bay, Sydney is one section of a 5 foot [1.5 metre] panorama taken by Charles Bayliss with Holtermann's help in 1875. It was a small part of an extensive collection of photographic views of the scenery and public buildings of New South Wales and Victoria, which Holtermann commissioned from Beaufoy Merlin and later, Charles Bayliss. According to the Argus 27 October 1875 they were taken "with the idea of one day making a tour of Europe, and exhibiting a grand panorama of the Australian colonies, - especially New South Wales - as a field for emigration."

Hill End, New South Wales
Hill End in 1872 was a gold town at its peak. According to the Empire newspaper on 7 June 1872, "The streets were thronged by a motley crowd; the stores and places of business crowded with customers; the little theatre so densely packed by an admiring audience, that there was not what is facetiously called 'standing room,' and even the public-houses, whose name is legion, were crammed. Yet I saw less, far less, drunkenness than can be met with in any street in the metropolis after 10 o'clock at night. There were very few inebriates, no filthy dishevelled women, no crouching loafers, no abject vice. The general aspect of the crowds of decently dressed folk who thronged 'The Hill' was that of respectability - rough indeed in many respects, and loud and noisy too, in some instances, but not disreputable, and altogether good-humoured."

This panorama of Hawkins Hill was taken by Beaufoy Merlin, who erected his camera in a tree more than a kilometre away across a gully nearly 300 metres deep. In the centre of the image is Krohmann's mine, with the twin buildings and two storied structure of Beyers and Holtermann's immediately to the left of it. These two mines contributed to the 12.4 tonnes of gold extracted from Hawkins Hill, but such are the vagaries of goldmining, that Rapp's, on the extreme right, returned little to its investors, despite digging to a depth of over 380 feet [115 metres].

Bernhardt Holtermann (second from left) Richard Ormsby Kerr (centre) and Louis Beyers (fourth from left) posed with 3,663 ozs [114 kg] of gold specimens from their claim. The specimens were described in the Sydney Morning Herald 28 September 1872 ; "To say they were good would be to say but little - they were almost without rival - magnificent - the talk of this town, where specimens are not unknown." Holtermann took the best to the Sydney Mint for smelting, "as being clotted with gold it would be almost impossible to crush it in the ordinary way."

Pullen and Rawsthorne's new battery, seen here surrounded by cords of timber to power its steam engine and a pond to supply water to its machinery. The most modern in Hill End, it operated fifteen heads of stampers, each weighing 4½ cwt [229 kg], specially built by engineers P. N. Russell in Sydney. It had a fifteen horsepower engine noisily driving the stampers at seventy blows per minute. The new battery commenced operation in February 1872 and by the end of the year, 1943 tons of stone had been crushed, yielding 15,333 ozs [477 kg] of gold. The remnants of Pullen's old battery can be seen in the foreground.

The American and Australasian Photographic Company established a studio in Tambaroora Street, Hill End in 1872. Beaufoy Merlin's assistant Charles Bayliss stands, hands in pockets, in the doorway, with studio operator James Clinton behind him. Among the group of curious miners who have chosen to be part of the tableau is the driver of Merlin's outdoor photographic van, to Bayliss's immediate right. The miners could also have their portrait made in the studio and a standard carte-de-visite is visible in the window, above the boy. For the sartorially challenged, the A&A studio supplied suitable clothing.

The road directly in front of William Meare's Criterion Store [on the left] covered a test hole sunk by an early prospector and this hole subsided in the winter of 1872 to form a bog. The Sydney Morning Herald 12 September 1872 described the scene. "As regards the mud in Clark-street, I never have heard an exaggeration. No, to Clark-street I will give the palm for mud and the ill manner it is laid out. It possesses three remarkable features, being narrow, crooked, and filthy…"

A view of Clarke St, Hill End, 2015

Architect and surveyor Charles Mayes' unusual portable building was situated at the corner of Denison and Tambaroora Streets, Hill End. Before this, he practiced as an architect, surveyor and civil engineer in Melbourne and Sydney and from 1862 had published six editions of The Australian Builders' Price-Book. Mayes didn't stay long in Hill End and in 1873 he was employed as an engineer on the Orange Extension Railway. Mayes later designed three Sydney public schools (Darlinghurst, Forest Lodge and Double Bay) during a boom time of government school construction, following the introduction of the Public Institution Act in 1880.

Ludwig Hugo (Louis) Beyers, his wife Mary and daughters Sylvia and Gertrude were photographed in their backyard. Although earlier images show the family at the front of the neat stone house, which faced Clarke Street, Hill End, Beyers had the photographer record its backyard as well. Beyers was a mining partner of Holtermann for many years, and in 1868, they married sisters Mary and Harriet Emmett in a double ceremony at Bathurst. Beyers was a modest man, who despite achieving (and losing) great wealth, retained his simple tastes. In 1876 he became the mayor of Hill End and was elected a member of NSW Legislative Assembly 1877-1882 .

Beyer's Cottage, Hill End, 2015

With his distinctive shock of hair, Mark Hammond stands with his wife Mary and daughter Minnie outside their neat four room cottage in Hill End. Tragically, young Minnie died soon after this photograph was taken, from abdominal tuberculosis, caused by drinking infected milk. Hammond had bought into the Star of Hope mine in 1871 and was responsible for finding the major seam. In the Sydney Morning Herald 21 September 1871, he gave a detailed description of gold veins in the mine. At that time, he was a shareholder with Louis Beyers, Bernhardt Holtermann, Moses Bell, Richard Kerr and two others. Having made a small fortune, Mark Hammond left Hill End for Sydney in June 1873.

A group of miners pose atop their mine head equipped with primitive wheel-powered ventilation in the Gulgong area. Much of the land around the richest veins on the Gulgong field was Crown land, meaning a miner had only to pay 10/- [$1] for a miner's right to own any gold from his claim. A rush was inevitable. William Collins described the field in the Maitland Mercury 16 May 1872 "When I arrived upon the diggings, and beheld the beautiful grazing country torn up with diggers, and hillocks of dug up earth the size of houses, I must confess that the strange sight made me feel quite wretched and miserable, as I had been used to seeing such country covered with sheep, cattle and horses."

The incongruous sight of toy dogs among the rough-and-ready types that inhabited a frontier gold town has been captured in this view of Herbert Street, Gulgong. According to the Empire 28 May 1872 "The streets - so to call the dusty avenues between the rows of shops and Inns - are thronged in the daytime, by much about the same number, though not, apparently by the same sort of persons, as the streets in Sydney. There is not the same bustling activity about them… There are also fewer women amongst them, and fewer well dressed men. The yellow, clay-stained fustian trousers which have never made and never will make acquaintance with the wash-tub, invest the lower extremities of every two men out of three…"

Herbert St, Gulgong, 2015

The Gulgong Guardian 20 November 1872 noted that Charles Bird had received a new disinfectant "which will be invaluable during the summer months to all who are unfortunate enough to live in those parts of town where stenches are pungent and plentiful."

Dr Charles Zimmler's Gulgong Dispensary was situated in Mayne Street next to the Warburton Hotel. The dispensary appeared as one element of a montage on Australia's paper $10 note in 1966, but this is not Dr Zimmler. Standing out front is Henry Kirke White, who prior to the photo being taken was managing Barnes' chemist shop. At the time of this photograph, Zimmler was serving six months in Bathurst gaol for manslaughter of an infant to whom he had prescribed ammonia. After serving his time, Zimmler returned to Gulgong and over a period of years was elected mayor of the town on four occasions.

Mayne St, Gulgong, 2015

This timber clad façade fails to conceal the bark structure behind and the poverty of its inhabitants. This is Gulgong bootmaker William Holmes and his family outside their shop in Mayne Street west. His wife Emily, in the doorway, died a few months after the photograph was taken.

Mayne St west, Gulgong, 2015

These are detectives Charles Powell and Robert Hannan, outside their Gulgong office. They had plenty to do. In a letter to the editor of the Maitland Mercury 16 May 1872, William Collins stated "The people (except the bankers and storekeepers), are in general a rough and ready set, occasionally a fight is to be seen, but the very diligent police speedily settle such hostile engagements, by marching the pugilists to a place called the town cage, from which place they are brought in the morning before the magistrate, who has often heard of mercy, but does not know what it means…" Powell and Hannan arrested 14 Chinese for gambling in January 1872 and the Empire 20 January 1872 noted "In all these cases the lawyers reap a rich harvest, and it was somewhat amusing to witness their actively and interest within ten minutes of the time of arrest."

The establishment of William Thomas Lewis, Undertaker and Carpenter at the corner of Belmore and Herbert Streets was primitive, but his funerals were said to be carried out 'with his usual taste and completeness'. In 1871, Gulgong lacked a suitable place for burials and the Gulgong Guardian commented several times on the growing outcry for a cemetery. The locals had a valid complaint, particularly because of the considerable mortality rate among the young. In April 1871 alone, nine children died in a fortnight. Even Thomas De Courcy Brown, editor of the Guardian, lost his daughter Rose, age 7 months, in December that year. In January 1872, there were 37 deaths in Gulgong, (including 21 children under 5 years) and 17 births. The newspaper complained that the new cemetery was still unfenced.

J.H. Osborne, painter & signwriter of Gulgong also supplied decorative wallpaper. It seems he painted faux marble headstones as well. Osborne's bark clad establishment was located at 2 Medley Street, at the sparsely populated northern end of town, which explains the prominent display of his sign writing skill. The Empire 28 May 1872 commented on the temporary nature of buildings in Gulgong. "The shops and public-houses are, for the most part, of a very temporary and unsubstantial character, considered as buildings. A large proportion of them are capable of being removed, piecemeal, and set up again on a new diggings in the event of Gulgong declining in prosperity, and a rush taking place to another field within a day or two's journey."

Medley St, Gulgong, 2015

Despite the rude appearance of their slab hut, this Gulgong family has dragged out its proudest possession to be included in the photograph – a Willcox & Gibbs treadle sewing machine. In 1865, the Empire reported that a Willcox & Gibbs machine had won the award for the best family sewing machine at the Pennsylvania State Fair. Advertising boasted that "two thousand stitches, or two yards of work, can be done in one minute without dropping a stitch". The Willcox & Gibbs Family Model machine could be purchased in Sydney for £10 [$20], which was about a month's wages for a Gulgong miner.

Louisa Lawson, (mother of Henry Lawson), her son Charles William (born 25 June 1869) and her sister Phoebe Albury, (dressmaker), stand outside Mrs. Albury's dressmaking shop in the Gulgong area. Henry Lawson lived at Gulgong as a young boy and some of his stories are set in Gulgong, although the references are less than flattering. In 'Water Them Geraniums' post-goldrush Gulgong is described as 'a wretched remnant of a town on an abandoned goldfield'. In 'Brighten's Sister-in-Law' it is 'dreary and dismal enough'. On the other hand, his 1889 poem 'Roaring Days ' is a nostalgic ode to the gold rush days. The same year Louisa launched the campaign for female suffrage and announced the formation of the Dawn Club.

Sam Hand's boarding house was next to a butcher's shop in Home Rule. According to the Gulgong Guardian 13 July 1872,"The irrepressible Chinese have taken the lead in providing restaurants, and are well patronised especially on Sunday, when the patrons have to wait their turn outside." The Gulgong Argus, quoted in the Queanbeyan Age 4 January 1872, told the story of one Chinese boarding house owner being overrun by miners when he advertised roast beef, pork, turkey and goose for Christmas. He needed 10 extra cooks to cater for the 200 who turned up.

Taken in the Hill End studio of the American and Australasian Photographic Company, this is Dr John O'Connell and his wife Theresa, née Cummins. They were married in Hill End on 6th June 1874. She was 24 and he was 71 and had just been appointed medical officer at Hill End Hospital, much to the dismay of the Hill End Observer, which decried “the notorious habit" of Dr O'Connell and his lack of “a firm, steady hand..." During the 1880s, he advertised a cure-all for those whose “debility, exhausted powers, premature decay, and failure to perform Life's Duties properly are caused by excesses, errors of youth, etc.," Unfortunately, Theresa died age 31 in Sydney, seven days after a stillborn birth in 1880. 

On Gay owned a drapery and general store in Clarke Street, Hill End, which he proudly advertised was part of a chain of similar stores on other goldfields. In his memoirs Remembered with Pride, miner Mark Hammond observed that “The appearance of the some of the Chinese had considerably altered from what it was … many of them were now adopting European costumes."

Adelaide Montgomery and her fluffy dog were photographed in the Hill End studio of the American and Australasian Photographic Company. Her father died when she was three and she and her brother were raised by their mother Grace, who was a dressmaker. Adelaide met an unfortunate end in 1892 from an untreated illness, as she belonged to a sect that forbad medical intervention. Her mother omitted to report her daughter's death to the police, declaring that she was"only sleeping till the Lord should awaken her."

Five year old August Gondolf poses on his horse tricycle in the studio of the American and Australasian Photographic Company, Hill End in 1873. The image is reminiscent of Claude Monet's 1872 painting of his son Jean on a similar expensive machine in Argenteuil, a suburb of Paris. Young August was son of miner Peter Gondolf, a partner in the Oxon and Gondolf mine, which was situated on the ridge of Hawkins Hill, just outside the 'Golden Quarter Mile'. His fashionable sailor suit is topped with the hatband of HMS Cadmus, a 21 gun wooden steam corvette of the British Navy.

Engineer and mill owner Seren Petersen, wife Maria and family crowded into the studio. Of their 12 children, the last five, including the youngest here, died before age two. The blur to the right is the photographer's assistant, accidentally captured during the exposure. Petersen's Battery at Oakey Creek was small but well positioned and in 1872 was able to crush 100 tons each week. The charge for crushing was 15s [$1.50] per ton. His throughput increased the following year, when he erected a tramway which conveyed quartz directly from Hawkins Hill. In 1874, Petersen was so proud of the efficiency of his gold extraction, that he offered a $1000 reward to anyone who could find 1 dwt/ton [1.5 g/tonne] from his tailings

State Library of New South Wales
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State Library of New South Wales

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