During the early stages of the Covid lockdown I continued a project that I had started some years earlier, to write a detailed family history. This project was recommenced after the family tree was researched by fellow volunteer members at the Benalla Family Research Group. My curiosity was aroused whilst looking at the names and dates on the chart. What was the story behind these ancestors?
My Great-grandfather was James O’Connor who was born in 1840 in Clare, Ireland, the son of Bridget and Martin O’Connor. He migrated as a single man aboard the ship ‘Marco Polo’ in 1864. James went to Happy Valley near Ballarat, and worked in the mines until he saved enough to buy a horse and dray. He then contracted the supply of timber to the mines. Within a very short time, he had several horses and drays. He later made the acquaintance of the Cameron family, who lived at Linton near the mines he was supplying.
It has been confirmed in family letters, that Ewan and Ann Cameron and their family, migrated to Australia in 1853 because of the Highland Clearances. Their family comprised five daughters and three sons. Unfortunately the two youngest daughters died during the voyage.
In 1873, James married the youngest surviving Cameron daughter, Janet Margaret (Jessie). He left his staff in charge of the mine timber supply business and set off in search of a new location for his family to live. He rode up and onwards past several gold mining centres – Maryborough and Inglewood – till he came to Mt Wycheproof. Here he stayed for a while and was greatly impressed with the possibilities for agricultural pursuits in these parts. He took up some building lots at the foot of the Mount and went back to the town of Lucky Womans near Ballarat, and gathering together his belongings, sold all he did not consider necessary for a pioneer and set off in two drays with his wife and young daughter.
James O’Connor was one of the founding fathers of Wycheproof and a Councillor on the St Arnaud Shire 1885-1894. In May 1893, he commenced work on splitting the huge shire. The Wycheproof Shire was formed from what was the North Riding of the St Arnaud Shire.
James was Shire President at the time of the split and the formation of the new Wycheproof Shire in April 1894. The new shire had an area of 620 square miles and a population of 1850. The shire was subdivided into three ridings. James served an initial term on the new shire from 1894 to 1898.
James built the first commercial building in Wycheproof, the Mt. Wycheproof Hotel in 1874, which he operated until 1884 when he sold the property. At this time, James purchased 2,000 acres from the Buckland Brothers and established ‘Killarney’ Station at Thalia, as a farming operation and horse breeding facility. James was a horse breeder of some renown. He had very well bred stallions, which won numerous show trophies over the years. James not only bred thoroughbred horses, he specialised in carriage horses, particularly pairs. Advertisements for the sale of these horses appeared regularly in the Age newspaper.
There is a letter in the family collections stating that the Governor of Victoria, Lord Hopetoun was supplied horses by James. Lord Hopetoun visited the property at Wycheproof to inspect and ride his prospective purchases.
The support James appears to have received from his wife is encapsulated in a contribution from a cousin Helen Whiteman, during research:
Jessie O’Connor was a formidable lady and a staunch Catholic, and also proud of her Scottish ancestry and very anti-British. The Cameron’s migrated as a result of the “Highland Clearances” and Jessie was in the habit of speaking Gaelic whenever possible and English as little as possible. This would fit with James’ Irish Nationalist politics. Jessie was also the driving force behind James’ support of building churches. James employed several single men who then found possible wives. Jessie was not going to have unwed women on the property so insisted a church be built so that they could be properly married. Jessie also believed in educating all her children and the girls were raised to be strong and independent. There is a story that Isabel was to be sent to boarding school in Melbourne but the school they chose did not suit Isabel. James had to attend some stock sale in Melbourne, so took Isabel on the train and deposited her at the boarding school and then went to the sales. This took a few days. By the time he got back home, Isabel was already there. After much negotiation Isabel went back to school in Melbourne at the school of her choice.
It would appear that James and Jessie made a formidable team. It would also appear that the girls inherited their mother’s tenacity.
James O’Connor was not only a Shire Councillor for 14 years; he also made a significant contribution to the Wycheproof community. James was a leader in the building of the first Catholic Church in 1877 and was actively involved in any project involving the advancement of the community. He served as a Water Commissioner, a Racing Club official and was actively involved in the project that saw the railway extension to Wycheproof. Friday, September 28, 1883, was a memorable date for Mount Wycheproof, for on that day the long awaited "official opening" of the railway took place.
In 1883 he was nominated along with John Ryan, William Hamilton and Henry Blabey as a trustee of the land reserve for the Mechanics Institute of Wycheproof. In 1885 James was nominated as the President of the newly formed Agricultural Show Committee.
The following year he was nominated as one of the trustees for Wycheproof Show Grounds. He, along with fellow Crs. Tipping and Stewart, commenced work on a project in 1890, which saw the Mt. Wycheproof Hospital officially open in 1898. During his time on Council in 1885, James was also involved in the ‘Dog Netting Fence’ project that covered 204 miles from Tyntynder to the South Australian border, to prevent wild dogs and other vermin from entering 1.2 million acres of farmlands to the south.
As the children were married and the family expanded, in 1886 James O’Connor turned his attention to further land holdings in an area called Ultima. At this point in history, it only existed as the name of a leased pastoral run of an estimated 168 sq. miles, or 107,520 acres, between Wycheproof and Swan Hill.
The subdivision and development of Ultima undertaken by James O’Connor appears to be following on from the revocation of a number of large leases in the area. It is believed that the Government had become frustrated with the inaction of the leaseholders in developing the properties. The allotment areas and locations were detailed in the legislation passed in September 1862. These requirements were implemented as land was opened up for development, however much of the marginal agricultural country remained as leasehold, as many prospective farmers would not commit funds until they had time to inspect and initially work the land.
In 1887 James was still living in Wycheproof. He was still a Councillor in the St Arnaud Shire, and was re-elected President of the Wycheproof Agricultural and Pastoral Society, as reported in The Australian newspaper on 25th June.
From the Swan Hill Guardian 10.6.1891:
The above Run, the property of Mr. O’Connor of Wycheproof, consisting of 168 square miles of the finest mallee land in the district, six miles from the town of Swan Hill, has been cut up into 650 acre blocks or thereabouts, and is not thrown open for sale – it may be purchased in one lot if so desired.
The sale of the Ultima Estate was conducted over 2 days. The first day selling commenced at 2 pm with the sale of township blocks. These met with spirited competition and all offered were readily bought at prices ranging from £3 to £15/10/-. Two township sections only, were offered on the first day. Messrs. Nicholls, Wilkins, Franklin, Sutton, P. Fenton, Hattam, Taylor and Bell being the largest buyers. The sale of the Mallee blocks then proceeded – the nearest to Swan Hill being offered first. These allotments varied in size from 420 acres to 640 acres and prices ranged from £75 to £105.
The sales continued as the land was developed over a number of years.
From the Bendigo Advertiser, on 25th February 1899:
“The well-developed Wycheproof property of James O’Connor of 1,270 acres freehold and 7,000 acres of leased land is to be sold as he is moving to Ultima”.
Reported in March 1899 was the situation that there were insufficient funds to extend the railway line past Lalbert to Ultima. The cost of the extension would be £250. At that time there was only £150 in funds available. The Premier declared that if the additional funds were not raised, the line would be taken to Lalbert and no further. A meeting was held at the home of James O’Connor and it was agreed that the members present would raise the funds required. £30 was raised on the night. A directive was sent to the Minister advising that the money would be available on 1st April. The Quambatook to Ultima rail extension opened for traffic on 1st March 1900. The train journey from Ultima to Melbourne took 13 hours to cover the 221 miles.
27th July 1899, as recorded in the ‘Ultima Centenary’, the new official post office opened and James O’Connor was appointed the first Postmaster. Prior to this, the General Store owners the Cuttle family, had provided an official service, initially from the front room of their house and later the enclose verandah section of their store. James held the Postmaster position until 1902, when daughter Annie Eileen took over.
In 1899 a lot was happening in Ultima. James O’Connor having sold land at Wycheproof, had built an ‘imposing’ new home. He also built a large wine hall (café), for which Jessie held the licence, and the Cuttle family built a large new store. In 1900 Herbert Cuttle wrote to the Minister requesting a Primary School for Ultima. Some months later, the Education Department suggested that the O’Connor café might be a suitable site for the school. On the 28th August 1901, James O’Connor donated a block of land for the new school. PS No. 3426 was officially opened on 19th February 1902. Reported in the Quambatook Herald on 7th February 1902 was an article regarding the opening of the new Public Hall. Hall committee President, James O’Connor was unable to attend, so Vice-President Herbert Cuttle presided. It was a grand event with music and dancing until 5 am.
O'CONNOR.—On 27th July 1903, at Ultima, James O'Connor, of heart failure; aged 62 years. R.I.P.
The late James O'Connor was born at Tierrmaclane, Clare Castle, County Clare, Ireland, and belonged to a very old and much respected family of some standing in that county; He arrived in Victoria in 1864, and followed mining pursuits at Ballarat for some years. He then moved to Wycheproof, where he built the first hotel, also entering very extensively into farming pursuits, He afterwards took up the Ultima station of 168 square miles, now the terminus of the Ultima railway, as a public man he was always foremost in matters relating to the welfare of the district.
He had been for 16 years a councillor in Wycheproof and St. Arnaud shires, having resigned
a few years ago from all public offices owing to ill health. Like all Irishmen, the late Mr. O'Connor had an unquenchable love for his native land, and always took a prominent part in every Nationalist movement.
Jessie lived on until her death in 1940 at the age of 92. They are both buried in Swan Hill.
I would have loved to have been able to know my Great-grandfather and Great-grandmother, as they appear to have had an extraordinary life.