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Traditional Custodians of Illawarra Land
Local communities of Aboriginal people were the original inhabitants and Traditional Custodians of Illawarra Land. Their dialect is a variant of the Dharawal language. Before European settlement, the Aboriginal people of the region lived in small family groups with complicated social structures and close associations with specific areas. Suburb boundaries do not reflect the cultural boundaries of the local Aboriginal community. Traditional Custodians today are descendants of the original inhabitants and have ongoing spiritual and cultural ties to the Land and waterways where their ancestors lived.
The giant fig tree originally growing at this place gave rise to the name of the township. The fig tree was at a very important road junction, and thus became a well-known landmark. When travellers were being directed to or from Sydney in the early days, the best way of describing the route was to tell them to "turn off at the fig tree". The fig tree was cut down in 1996 due to disease and only a portion of the trunk remains.
Gregory Blaxland, of Blue Mountains fame, had a property of 1280 acres promised to him in 1830. The property was known as "Keelogues" and later as "Gundarun". John Hubert Plunkett (who was appointed as Solicitor General for the Colony in 1832) secured this grant in 1837 for £1300. Plunkett subdivided and sold Keelogues estate for £13,000 in 1840. (Cousins, 1994)
James Stares Spearing and 'Paulsgrove' (later known as 'Mount Keira Estate')
Spearing received promises of two grants totalling 2000 acres. The south west corner of his second grant fell within the current borders of Figtree as it extended from the Cross Roads to Mount Keira township and south almost to Figtree Hotel. (McDonald, 1988)
An area of land at Figtree and Cobblers Hill was sold in small grants to the following people:
(Lindsay, 1934 and 'Parish of Wollongong' maps 2nd, 4th and 12th editions)
- Matthew Ryan (1833) 40 acres
- Malachi Ryan (1833) 30 acres
- John George Richardson (1835) 80 acres
- Matthew Ryan (1835) 100 acres
- John Darragh (1836) 50 acres
- John Plunkett (1838) 60 acres
- Benjamin Rixon (1839) 40 acres
John Plunkett of 'Keelogues'
Gregory Blaxland had a property of 1280 acres promised to him in 1830. John Hubert Plunkett secured this grant, and the deed was issued to him on 12th March, 1837. Mr Plunkett was a member of a distinguished family of Irish patriots and had been the Solicitor General for the Colony.
John Plunkett took a prominent part in local affairs, particularly in issues involving the aborigines, education and navigation. He was the Superintendent of National Education in New South Wales and he was a member of the Committee of Management of the Illawarra Steam Packet Company. (Cousins, 1994)
He sold the estate for 13,000 pounds four years after its purchase to a Mr Wood who was the first chairman of the Illawarra Agricultural Society.
Benjamin Rixon was a native of Parramatta and a well known tracker. He settled at American Creek in 1839 on a farm later owned by Deighton Taylor (husband of Rachel Henning). In 1847 Ben Rixon discovered a route over the escarpment which now bears his name 'Rixon's Pass'. Subscription was used to provide funds for making a road along Rixon's line … it was reported in December 1848 that Rixon had opened a road to the top of the mountain and along twelve miles of bush to Appin for the sum of £35. The line was used by the mailman. (Marshall, 1963)
The presentation of the Rixon Testimonial with a purse of one hundred sovereigns was made on 31 August 1857 at a public meeting. 'In testimony of the respect in which he is universally held by the inhabitants of the Illawarra and neighboring districts. (Illawarra Mercury, 7.9.1857)
Rixon died aged 80 in 1886. (Illawarra Mercury 22.7.1886)
Rachel Henning (1826-1914) lived with her husband, Deighton Taylor, at Springfield, on American Creek near [the] fig tree, from 1872 until 1896. Rachel's descriptive letters, mainly addressed to her sister in England, provide a detailed account of nearly 30 years of pioneering life, including glimpses of the early Illawarra.
Rachel's letters were first published by The Bulletin in 1951 and 1952. They were collected in book form and published by Angus and Robertson in 1963, with a foreword and illustrations by Norman Lindsay.
Rachel's house and garden have gone, but Springfield Avenue in Figtree is named for the property today. (Gibbs, 1995)
In the 1880's Figtree was described as 'a thinly populated farming community dominated socially by such pastoralists as the Jenkins of Berkeley, and the Gibsons, Taylors and Lindsays.' (Piggin, 1983)
In the 1850's Central Illawarra contained one main road (passing through Figtree) and a number of branch roads, none of the roads were metalled. One of the earliest roads over the escarpment was O'Brien's Road which went from the 'Fig Tree' to Appin. It was discovered by Cornelius O'Brien from Bulli who proposed to develop it 'to make a cattle road from the Illawarra to the District of Appin'. This was achieved in 1821 by subscription i.e. each proprietor (land holder) along the road was required to pay £10. 'It was primitive for many years, the track being only a bridle track. It was almost impossible for vehicles to go down the mountain. However some vehicles did go down with the aid of ropes passed around trees.' (Marshall, 1963) O'Briens Road in Figtree today is the beginning of the original track.
Following the proclamation of Central Illawarra Municipality and the election of council member's in1859 money was put towards improving travel in the Illawarra. This included construction of Figtree Bridge in 1861 by Messrs. Moore and Vaughan. (Cousins, 1994)
In 1846 Hugh Higgins built a single storey brick building with a wide veranda on the main road south of Wollongong, now 59 Princes Highway, Figtree. After Higgins returned from the Californian goldfields the building was upgraded and used as an 'Inn'. The Inn was distinguished by its rose gardens and two fig trees planted by Higgins in 1865. The fig tree on the south side still stands today. (Local Studies Cuttings file)
'In 1892 the Clarke family took over the old Inn (now Hotel) and George Clarke became the publican in 1901. A second storey was added, along with extensions to the south west corner.' (Organ, 1991)
In the late 1920's the hotel's licence was transferred to the Crown Hotel in Wollongong. Shortly after this the second storey was removed and once again it was used as a private residence. After the site was subdivided a Golden Fleece service station was built in the 1950's next to the old Inn. During the 1970's the service station closed and the Hellenic Club was built and the Inn was converted into two flats. Since the 1990's the flats have been used by small retail businesses whilst still retaining original floor boards, fire places and walls. (Local Studies Cuttings File)
The natural vegetation of Figtree has greatly changed since European settlement of the district in 1815. Eugene von Guerard vividly described the area when painting 'Cabbage-tree Forest, American Creek, New South Wales' in 1867 -
'This sylvan scene is situated at a distance of little more than ten miles from Wollongong, near the junction of a little stream … Brandy Water creek, with the American Creek, and at the foot of a noble range of mountains. With the lofty bangalow palm, the cabbage tree palm, the gigantic wild fig-tree, and the fire tree (otherwise known as the blaze tree) with its vividly scarlet blossoms, are intermingled the nettle tree, the rose-wood tree, the sassafras, the white-wood, the wild rose, numerous varieties of the fern tree and parasites innumerable; the whole being tightly woven together into one dense and almost impenetrable mass of foliage. Unfortunately the progress of settlement is necessitating the destruction of some of these magnificent forests which in many instances clothe a rich chocolate soil of especial value to the farmer…' (Guerard, E. von, 1866-68)
Today most of the tall forests have been cleared, initially for small farms, and later for residential areas that now occupy most of Figtree. The remaining pockets of vegetation and fauna will be described briefly below.
Closed Forest (Rainforest)
An example is found on the lower slopes bounding American Creek. The common rainforest trees include:
- Backhousia myrtifolia
- Red Ash (Alphitonia excelsia)
- Red Cedar (Toona ciliata)
- Pittosporum undulatum
- Cheesetree (Glochidion ferdinandi)
- Whalebone Tree (Streblus brunoniuanus)
- Flintwood (Scolopia braunii)
Blue Gum Tall Open Forest
This community occurs on moist slopes generally face south and east and contains species such as:
- Blue Gum (Eucalyptus saligna)
- Coast White Box (Eucalyptus quadrangulata)
- Grey Ironbark (Eucalyptus paniculate)
- Maiden's Wattle (Accacia maidenii)
- Accacia binervata
Red Gum Open Forest
This community occurs on the drier slopes and ridges merging with the Blue Gum Forest with the following characteristic species.
- Forest Red Gum (Eucalyptus tereticornis)
- Pink-tips (Callistemon salignus)
- Prickly-leaved Paperbark (Maleleuca styphelioides)
- Native Cherry (exocarpuos cupressiformis)
- Black She-oak (Allocasuarina)
Coral Tree Stands
This community is dominated by exotic plants.
- Coral Tree (Erythrina x sykesii)
- Castor Oil Plant (Ricinus communis)
- Wandering Jew (Tradescantia albiflora)
- Crofton Weed (Ageratina adenophora)
- Lantana camara
This community covers much of the area particularly on the flood plains. The main species are:
- Kikuyu Grass (Pennisetum clandestinum)
- Rhodes Grass (Chloris gayana)
- Carpet Grass (Axonopus affinis)
- Paspalum dilatatum
Of the many introduced plants to the area many have become problem weeds such as Thorny Poinciana, Lantana, Blackberry, Crofton Weed, Willow and Coral Tree.
Below is a small sample of the native fauna identified in a 1993 survey of the area.
- Common Brushtail Possum
- Sugar Glider
- Swamp Wallaby
- Grey-headed Flying Fox
- Brown Thornbill
- Eastern Spinebill
- Eastern Whipbird
- Lewin's Honeyeater
- Pied Currawong
- Red-whiskered Bulbul
- Rufus Fantail
- Spotted Pardalote
- White-browed Scrubwren
- Yellow-tail Black Cockatoo
- Eastern Water Dragon
- Eastern Water Skink
- Grass Skink
- Common Eastern Foglet
- Brown-striped Frog
- Lesueur's Tree Frog
(Local environmental study, Figtree, 1993)