Tamworth 200: Weird historical stories for Tamworth's Bicentenary

ARCHIVES: Tamworth Historical Society archivist Melinda Gill looks back on some of the city's history. Photo: Gareth Gardner
ARCHIVES: Tamworth Historical Society archivist Melinda Gill looks back on some of the city's history. Photo: Gareth Gardner

It's the city of lights, the Big Golden Guitar’s home and the country music capital.

But they’re milestones in Tamworth’s history that anyone can access with a quick Google search.

It’s our weird and wacky underbelly that deserves to be celebrated for the anniversary of the year this area was explored by John Oxley and his crew.

So take a stroll through history, with just some of the unusual events that lie in Tamworth’s past.

The Yahoos

Before white settlement, Aboriginal nations have existed in Tamworth since time immemorial, but it’s the Yahoo people that fall into a far more mythical category.

Deep within the University of New England archives in Armidale lies the Wallabadah Manuscript, a mostly factual document written by sheep station overseer William Telfer jnr that records the stories he was told by Aboriginal people and white settlers.

Supposed to have been the ancestors of Aboriginal people in Tamworth, recent research refutes the existence of the Yahoo people.

Telfer was told about the early race of short, hairy people by an old Gunnedah Aborigine, who said the Yahoos were fast runners, cunning and strong, but not necessarily known for their smarts.

Mr Telfer himself records an experience with the Yahoo people in 1883.

“I heard a curious noise coming up the creek, opposite the camp,” he wrote.

“I went to see what it was.

“He was about a hundred yards away and seemed the same as an ordinary man, only larger: the animal was something like the gorilla in the Sydney museum and of darkish colour and made a roaring noise going away.”

Later, John Oxley crossed the Peel River in 1818.

The worst vices of human nature

Opened by James Charles White with a dray, 11 bullocks, bush clothing, tinware, a puncheon of rum and two kegs of brandy, Tamworth’s first shop didn’t last long.

With no police, little law, and the grog well and truly guzzled, the shop attracted Tamworth’s least desirable customers.

“I felt I was pandering to the worst vices of human nature and I was disgusted with the lawless scenes enacted daily: so I made up my mind to sell the store as soon as I could,” he wrote.

One-armed Sullivan

Two years later, Tamworth made it on the map, and in 1849 Tamworth’s lock-up had its first break-out.

By a guy with one arm.

One-armed Sullivan was sent to Tamworth after escaping from Moreton Bay. He was a six-foot-tall powerful man with red hair who, once escaped, walked leisurely into the bush as if nothing had happened.

It wasn’t until 1851 that one-armed Sullivan was caught red-handed in the gold fields of Victoria, and sentenced to 14 years in the Pentridge Prison.

But what really made headlines were the pigs in Peel Street.

Pig in the middle

In the late 1850s, cousins Joseph Chaffey and William Henry, competing butchers, let their pigs roam Peel Street to show off how genuine their bacon was.

The law took a pretty dim view, and both were fined five shillings each.

Peel Street seemed to be the spot for unusual activities, with Tamworth’s first inter-town cricket match in 1861.

Sportsmanlike visitors

On February 13, an intimidating group of people from Gunnedah arrived unexpectedly on horses; residents thought they were free settlers after land.

Instead, the bunch turned out to be cricketers and their supporters who challenged Tamworth to its first inter-district cricket match.

The match started that afternoon – Tamworth won.

An overqualified postie

And speaking of multiple jobs, Tamworth’s first postman James Johnston was a jack of all trades.

The postie served as a jail-keeper, the chief constable at Murrurundi, an auctioneer, was appointed by the court clerk to run a census of the town and dabbled in a bit of farm work.

With a massive run, Johnston applied for a forage allowance for his horse but was denied. Instead, as business grew, an assistant letter-carrier was appointed for an hour each day.

Onto opium

In the 1880s, dealing in opium was illegal – but that didn’t stop George Hooke of the Tamworth Observer newspaper.

The journalist wrote a series of articles urging farmers to consider growing opium, and let them know there were seeds available at the office.

In fact, Hooke said opium was so simple to grow that even children could look after the crop.

But, that’s still not the wackiest thing to happen in Tamworth.

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The guardian parrot

In 1883, publican Wordsworth Clemesha dodged an attempted robbery.

When three men entered the bar and tried to pinch a bottle of gin, a parrot behind the door screeched “Mrs Clemesha!” – scaring the men out of their robbery. The publican was later made head of the pound.

That’s a flogging

In a different cell, the Johnston Street jail was handed its first cat-o’-nine-tails in October 1883 for flogging sentences. 

They didn’t have to be used until March three years later, but the details of the case are unknown.

Two-mile ghost

It appears 1883 was a strange year for Tamworth when, shortly after the death of a man named George Abbott, reports of a ghost began to surface.

In roomy culvert under the road near his home, young people would hide and, at the sound of a horse being ridden along what’s now the highway, would run out covered in a white sheet – nobody drove that way for years.

Cheaper by the dozen

Back in those days, children were a dime a dozen – quite literally, at the Tamworth Show.

In 1926, the Tamworth P&A announced a prize of 10 pounds for the largest family in attendance. Two families arrived with 12 kids; the Keech family took out first place because it included a set of twins.

Had the prize been offered a few years later, the competing Roser family would have won – they went on to have four more.

Looking forward

This is but a small glimpse into Tamworth’s colourful history, but this year, we celebrate the past and the future. 

With plenty of bicentenary events on throughout town, take part in the John Oxley Re-enactment Walk, or just enjoy that live entertainment and great atmosphere.

Whatever your pick, let’s make history. Happy 200th birthday, Tamworth.