by Patricia M Frei, ©2012
Twelve Mile House, Coombs, Molonglo Valley ACT by Patricia M Frei is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.canberrahistoryweb.com.
On Saturday, 18 January 2003, a severe firestorm struck the western suburbs of Canberra. It had begun near Macintyre Hut, on the Goodradigbee River, west of the Brindabella Range in NSW. It swept everything before it as it headed eastwards towards the western suburbs of Canberra. It struck the suburb of Duffy in Weston Creek around 3pm in the afternoon and promptly fire-balled when strong winds moved the fire through the pine plantation along the fringe of Eucumbene Drive. About 500 houses were destroyed, with damage to some 700 more. The pine plantation was destroyed, as was the older pine plantation to the north of Weston Creek, following the southern boundary of the Molonglo River, originally planted during the First World War.
Some years later, I met an old workmate, TC, an artist and bushwalker, who introduced me to a dwelling house, or hut of an uncertain age that he was shown by a forestry worker. It was situated near Southwell’s Crossing on the southern bank of the Molonglo River, and the site now lies within the new suburb of Coombs in Weston Creek. TC had viewed the remnants of the house prior to the firestorm when a dwelling made from timber slabs could clearly be seen, complete with a chimney and stone hearth. It then lay within the forest and was hidden from view. The house’s timber structure had endured and, wondering whether some of it had survived the firestorm, TC managed to re-locate the site on one of his many walks through the area.
By 2008, when I met him, bulldozers from ACT Forests had cleared the older pine plantation and you could literally walk anywhere, the only obstacles being some blackened tree stumps and new pine growth and blackberry bushes that had appeared on the landscape. TC offered to show me the house site and we duly met and looked over it together. The bulldozers had played havoc with part of the site, but you could still see where they had swept the remains and could easily follow the debris left in their wake. The stones, forming the base of a hearth, were visible, although moved, and another hearth was located a little further away to the southeast. This later proved to be the kitchen. We located some ceramic shards and Indigenous stone flakes within the area, and black bottle glass, which told me that the area might be older than thought. I undertook to do some research to locate more about this house.
I had noted that the site of the house was within the area where squatter, Robert Johnston, a Marine Officer, had built a dwelling house and a few bark huts as shelters for his overseer, Charles Sculthorpe, his convict labourers and their supplies. Surely this house would have since disintegrated over time and was not the one on this site! Robert Dixon marked Robert Johnston’s dwelling house, or hut, on his map of 1830, and the site of Johnston’s house appear to be a little more easterly, closer to the vicinity of the old Weston Creek Sewerage Works and the caretaker’s cottage, which still stands, now in the new suburb of Coombs. Johnston was the son of George Johnston, also a Marine Officer, who was reputedly the first man in the First Fleet to step ashore in Sydney Cove from the convict transport, Lady Penrhyn. Robert Johnston had squatted on land in what is now Weston Creek, and here he grazed cattle for sale to the commissary store in Sydney. Since he was a still employed as a Marine, he was unable to obtain a grant. He was eventually granted land at Jeir, north of the ACT.
In 1831, Johnston’s brother-in-law, Captain George Edward Nicholas Weston (nicknamed ‘the General’, and taken from his initials ‘GEN’), was granted the area comprising the Weston Creek suburbs of Weston, North Weston, Stirling, Waramanga and Fisher. Johnston had persuaded Weston to take up the grant in order to stop another squatter, James Martin, the son of a convict woman, from doing so. Martin was apparently encroaching upon his territory.
In 1827, James Martin (aka Taylor ) was squatting on what became Yarralumla Estate, and his three-roomed habitable dwelling-place was situated on the eastern side of Yarralumla Creek, approximately where it meets with the Molonglo River. An elderly hut, since demolished, was once located in the western part of the grounds of the present Yarralumla House, home of the Governor-General of Australia. The site is also marked on Robert Dixon’s map of 1830 as Taylor’s Hut. Martin had unsuccessfully applied for a grant in August 1827 and again in 1828 but was still there in 1832. He was obviously seeking further grazing land. At this period, both squatters were residing outside the ‘nineteen counties’ or ‘boundaries of civilization’, where government had little or no jurisdiction, control being held by squatters in what was virtually Australia’s wild west.
 James Martin was also known as James Taylor, the surname taken from his step-father, convict John Taylor.
A surveyor, Robert Hoddle, visited the Limestone Plains in 1832-1833, pre-Canberra days. His map, with amendments to 1916, shows the Weston Creek area clearly, particularly the site of the house. No house is marked, but a hill is li1832-1833sted as ‘Martin’. It is not known whether this, or Mt Taylor to the south of Weston Creek was named for James Martin/Taylor, as he bears a common name, and it is assumed his step-father, John Taylor, a carter, made the journey several times to take stock to Sydney’s commissary yards where they were slaughtered.
Two ground indentations were marked on Hoddle’s map, and these are displayed on a 2008 Google Earth map. Just north of these indentations, the Uriarra Road is indicated on Hoddle’s map, and to the north of that was the location of the remnants of the hut. Only the forestry track is shown on the Google Earth map, the original Uriarra Road being a little further north, when it crossed the southern entrance to the farm. The indentations are watercourses, flowing into an old creek bed, which flowed to the east of the house, providing water for the inhabitants and their stock.
A parish map of Yarrolumla, (2nd ed. 1904), shows that the block in question was part of the Yarralumla Estate, owned at this time by the Campbell family. With Thomas Walker, Terence Aubrey Murray bought the estate from Francis Mowatt in 1837, with the deed of grant not being issued until 27 July 1842. Murray’s in-laws, the Gibbes’s, took over the estate and in 1881, Frederick Campbell and his family took possession from Lt-Col. AG Gibbes. The property then encompassed 26,000 acres. On this parish map, Annie Gibbes was marked as the lessee of Block 13, comprising 40-acres on what was known as the Washpen Paddock. She was also shown as leasing the surrounding 40-acre blocks, nos. 14-16.
Another parish map of Yarrolumla, dated 16 June 1904, showed that William Rolfe leased Block 13, probably from the Yarralumla Estate. This might be the son of William and Jane Rolfe who was born c1846 and died on 20 May 1896 at Queanbeyan, although it may have been his father of the same name who was a butcher and publican. The Rolfe’s would require land to graze stock, maintain holding paddocks, or cultivate grain. This block had direct access to Queanbeyan via the Uriarra Road. Further, it was exactly twelve miles to Queanbeyan from this point.
 Gwendoline Wilson, Murray of Yarralumla, OUP, Melbourne, 1968, p. 80.
In 1880, a ‘Plan Shewing the Road between Queanbeyan and the Murrumbidgee River’ by James Bayliss, Licensed Surveyor, and dated 11 December 1880, showed Block 13, underwritten as Block 11, as comprising 40-acres leased by W. Rolfe, who also leased Block 14, to the south.
This map is interesting as it is annotated. It shows the position of a farmhouse, a yard, a barn, and shows that Uriarra Road divided the block in half. The eastern side of the block was under cultivation.
Prior to acquisition of land by the Commonwealth, AW Moriarty, Appraiser for the Federal Capital Territory 1910-1918, evaluated land holdings in the ACT. His notebooks stated that Richard Moore leased the block, now called Block 15. The lease was number was 13/43. The size of the block had altered to the west, entering into what was known as Murray’s Paddock, but a farmhouse was included on Block 15. This map shows the two ground indentations very clearly, which means they were never filled in, but whether they were dammed or not, is not known. Moriarty’s notebooks further revealed a kitchen, sketched in alongside the house. The area to the south is recorded as Rolfe’s Paddock.
At Queanbeyan, on 22 August 1913, Richard Moore applied to the Director, Lands & Surveys of the Commonwealth, Canberra, to sublet his cottage on Block 15 (NAA: A202/1 14/911):
“Sir, I desire to obtain permission under conditions of my Lease covering Block No. 15 of 320 acres formerly portion of the Yarralumla Estate, for the sub-letting of a dwelling thereon, and as shown on plan.
I shall be glad to have your approval to this application.
Yours faithfully, Richard Moore”
The Director wrote to the Administrator, Federal Territory, dated 6 September 1913:
“Application by Richard Moore to Sublet Cottage on Block 15, Yarralumla.
I know of no objection to this application being granted, the lessee to be responsible for the maintenance of the building in proper order and condition.
Charles Robt. Scrivener, Director of Commonwealth Lands and Surveys, 6th September 1913”
Overwritten on this letter was:
“The Director General of Works (Engineering)
Is the cottage required for any purpose in connection with works.
David Miller, Administrator, Federal Territory”
He received the typed reply, dated 12 September 1913:
“The Administrator, Federal Territory
Sir, Re the above. This cottage would be very useful in connection with the carrying out of the works also the piece of land surrounding it which is enclosed by a fence. This is on of the camping stages for Traction Engines also Road Maintenance men. The engine drivers suffer considerable inconvenience by having to carry tents and also to erect them, whereas, if this cottage was made available it certainly would be very useful for engine drivers and road maintenance men there being two fire places attached to the cottage which would be most useful for cooking purposes, also saving a considerable volume of wood that has to be carted, some distance, to this spot. The enclosed area around the cottage would be very useful for keeping horses in that are being used in road construction work close at hand.
Yours respectfully, JD Brilliant, Clerk of Works, 12/9/13.”
This cottage was very clearly the hut or farmhouse, located near Southwell’s Crossing on the Molonglo River, and now sited within the new suburb of Coombs in Weston Creek. Richard Moore provided a glimpse of the past with this letter, as the subletting of the lease, which began on 1 June 1913, provides a description of what was there.
It mentions the area as being 5-acres with fencing around the house. The house was built of slab with an iron roof and a skillion (a lean-to, or outhouse), wooden floors, unlined hessian ceiling and a slab and iron chimney. The verandah was unfloored, assumed to mean the earthen ground only. Nearby was a detached kitchen, built of slab with an iron roof, a wooden floor and a slab and iron chimney. It too had a skillion.
I returned several times to the site and introduced it to the Canberra Archaeological Society who found it most fascinating and wished to carry out conservation work. Unfortunately, plans had gone ahead to use the area for residential purposes and no further funds to provide an adequate investigation of the site were forthcoming from the ACT Heritage Unit or ACTPLA.
The following photographs show some of the ceramic sherds, glass, a knife, an iron wedge (a log splitter) and artifacts found on the site.