Thursday, January 26, 2012

The day my ancestor met Charles Darwin

By Cassie Mercer, editor of Inside History magazine

Above: Table Land Blue Mountains, 1826, by Augustus Earle. This painting depicts the road and 
country Charles Darwin travelled between Sydney and Bathurst. Courtesy National Museum of Australia

My 4 x great grandparents were farmers and cattle drovers in the central west of New South Wales in the mid-1800s. Between the present-day towns of Warren and Nevertire they built cattle yards to hold 2000 head, and bred draught and thoroughbred horses. But it is their occupation in the 1830s – one that allowed them to meet one of the most influential figures of the modern world no less – that I’d like to focus on for my Twigs of Yore Australia Day blog.

My 4 x great grandfather Tom Readford was a petty criminal in York, England. On Christmas Eve 1813 Tom and a friend stole four hides of leather, were caught, and handed a sentence of transportation for seven years. In the same year, and on the other side of the world, the first crossing of the Blue Mountains by white men was talking place – an area that was to be Tom’s new home two decades later.

Tom arrived in the colony in 1815, and a few years later married “cornstalk” (that is, she was born in the colony) Jemima Smith. Fast forward to 1833 and Tom and Jemima were landholders northwest of Sydney and employing two convict labourers. At a time when liquor licences were not required, Tom sold alcohol at a weatherboard dwelling call the Bathurst Traveller, but known locally as the Weatherboard Inn. The name Weatherboard was also given to the village that grew there; now this is the town of Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains. Pitt Park in Wentworth Falls today covers the site of the Weatherboard Inn. The inn was a popular stopover with people travelling between Sydney and Bathurst, and kept the couple, already parents to a large family, extremely busy. In 1835 a James Backhouse wrote that he’d had “an excellent meal of beef and bread with tea” at the inn, but the room had no glass in the windows and so a piercing cold wind blew through them.

Decades later Tom and Jemima’s son Edward wrote of his childhood at the inn, especially how he would show the local sights to visitors and unlike his father never became lost. Edward claimed that “people were arriving from all parts daily at my father’s house for the sole purpose of beholding this wonderful place”. Edward also told the story of meeting the soldier who shot the bushranger John Donohue: apparently the soldier spent considerable time at the Weatherboard as his barracks was just opposite. Edward described him as a very quiet Scotsman. Interestingly, Edward’s brother became notorious cattle thief Harry Readford (aka Captain Starlight), and his grandfather had been a highwayman in Ireland, but this seems not to have coloured his view of the man who had shot a bushranger as part of his job.

Above: A portrait of 31-year-old Charles Darwin by George Richmond in 1840. 
Courtesy of the Darwin Heirlooms Trust, copyright English Heritage Photo Library.

Even more interesting is the fact that on January 17, 1836, after tethering his horse at the Weatherboard Inn, Charles Darwin walked to the Wentworth Falls along the wooded track (now known as Darwin’s Walk). On January 23 on his return from Bathurst to Sydney, Darwin stayed overnight at the Weatherboard Inn. And so my 4 x great grandparents waited on Darwin, served beef and bread to him and probably ensured his room was the “good bedroom” with glass in the windows!

Their occupation as innkeepers continued for many years: in 1837 the couple sold the inn to Abraham Joseph Levy, and they moved to the Woolpack Inn 25km closer to Sydney. Then in 1842 Tom obtained a licence for the Old Westwood Inn at Cunningham Creek, near present-day Ilford, 50km south of Mudgee.

Tom began life in Richmond, North Yorkshire, found home life and Richmond problematic, committed a minor crime and found himself flung to the other side of the world. But this new place allowed him to build up considerable wealth through leasing land, buying and selling property, running cattle and managing inns. And through his toil, he met the famous Mr Darwin.

When Tom died, it is not entirely ironic that he was buried in Richmond, not in North Yorkshire, but in New South Wales.

I would like to thank Barbara Hall and Neil Hall for their time and toil in researching the story of Tom and Jemima. More information on the Readford family can be found in One Family History: 220 Years in Australia (Irish Wattle, 2010).


  1. Fascinating! My only visit to Wentworth Falls was on a wet and windy day, and I shudder to think of an overnight stay with no glass in the windows!

  2. What a great story! As well as Darwin they must have met many other interesting people who stayed at their inns. I'm glad hotels/motels all have glass these days - imagine staying in the Blue Mtns in winter with an open window, brrrrr!

  3. Our convict ancestors just needed opportunity to gain "wealth for toil" and the colony of New South Wales gave them that opportunity.

    How exciting for your ancestors to have hosted Charles Darwin.

  4. Thanks all for your comments! I was amazed to find they'd crossed paths as well. Who'd have thought?!

  5. Gosh! I've learned so much. I have stopped at the patisseries at Wentworth Falls so many times. I never knew it was originally called Weatherboard. Now I shall keep an eye out for Pitt Park and think about Darwin supping there. Great stuff - thanks Cassie. Lovely links too...

  6. Hi Alex, we love those patisseries as well! Sweets + history = our favourite combination :)

  7. You are very fortunate that the visit of Charles Darwin was recorded. It makes you wonder what famous people our ancestors met. Don't think I would have enjoyed staying there without windows but I suppose the alternative of staying outside would have been much worse.

  8. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.