Lost tradition of making cabbage-tree hats comes alive

The popularity of the cabbage-tree hat spread throughout Australia and has been immortalised in folk song and poetry.


Photo provided by Sue Brian 2016.

The art of cabbage-tree hat-making was a thriving cottage industry in the Hawkesbury during the 1800s and early 1900s. A cabbage-tree hat was included in items held by the Police to be sold at public auction in 1841 – ‘taken from Bushrangers and other persons’ and the bushranger Ben Hall was photographed with a cabbage-tree hat supposedly about 1864/65 as it was ‘at the height of his inglorious career’.

Some of the best palms for hat-making grew in Cabbage Tree Hollow, or Fox Hollow as it was known, in the Kurrajong district and some of the most accomplished hat-makers were Fairlie Frances Pittman, Mrs Thomas McMahon, Mrs John Tierney, Mrs R. Turner, Mrs Tom Overton and Mrs Richard Ezzy. The tradition continued in later years with Ethel Overton, who married Syd Sheldon from Blaxlands Ridge.

Children would plait the sinnet on their way to and from school and they could earn good money for each hundred yards (about ninety metres) of plaiting. Families all along the Lower Hawkesbury also earned extra money making cabbage-tree hats and, depending on the quality of the workmanship, the hats could sell from £2 to £5 each which would be quite expensive in today’s money.

To prepare the bark for making the hats, the ‘hands’ of the palm trees were scalded in hot water for about ten minutes to make the leaf open out like a fan before bleaching in the cold night air. The whitened leaf was split into narrow, ribbon-like lengths, then folded and plaited into long lengths. The sides were made first and shaped onto a wooden hat block, followed by the brim, the lining, black velvet band, leather chin strap and finally the shaping of the centre over the crown. A well-made and well-stitched hat could last for up to three years.

The popularity of the cabbage-tree hat spread throughout Australia and has been immortalised in folk song and poetry. An old poem by John Barr recalls that ‘We shrink not from the iron gangs of ruthless days of cabbage-tree hat…In famous days of cabbage-tree hat, they danced in hobnailed boots and spurs, they polka’d high, with stamp and go; they kissed the girls through whiskered furze, with smacks you’d hear at Bangalow’. A folk song from 1925, ‘A bushman’s farewell to his cabbage tree hat’, eulogises ‘I trust life may close with a record as true, as that of my cabbage-tree hat’.


Photo by Geoff Roberts, 2016.

The hat in the photograph above was made by Fairlie Frances Pittman (wife of Charles Pittman, of ‘Thorn Hill’, Hermitage Road, Kurrajong) who died in 1934 aged 89. Born and reared in Kurrajong, Fairlie was the daughter of James Charles Mostyn (Admiral Gambier) and Mary Francis. This hat was shown to members and visitors to  Colo Shire Family History Group on 16 July last year by the great-grandson of Fairlie and Charles Pittman, Don Webster and his wife Helen, during a presentation on cabbage-tree hat-making by Sue and Don Brian, collectors of folk lore and folksongs . The traditional skill of cabbage-tree hat-making is being kept alive today by Sue and Don, who have developed a passion for learning about traditional hat-making skills. If you get the chance, don’t miss one of their interesting presentations.


Sue and Don Brian demonstrating how to separate the cabbage-tree palm leaf. Colo Shire Family History Group meeting 16 July 2016. Photo by Geoff Roberts 16 July 2016.

Just do a search for Sue and Don Brian and you will see why they are so popular as guest speakers/demonstrators at community meetings and events.

(A version of this story by Carol Roberts first appeared in Hawkesbury Gazette, Wednesday, 30 November 2016, titled ‘Hawkesbury a hat hotspot’.)

Carol Roberts   copyright


Ben Hall 1837-1865, Threads of Connection, Through a Glass Darkly, http://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/threads-of-connection/through-glass-darkly#data6860, accessed 13 January 2017.

Gould genealogy and history, https://www.gould.com.au/new-south-wales-government-gazette-1841/au2100-1841/, accessed 13 January 2017.

Australian Folk Songs, The Federal Capital Pioneer, ‘A bushman’s farewell to his cabbage-tree hat (1925)’, http://folkstream.com/494.html, accessed 28 November 2016.

‘Cabbage-tree hats – a lost industry’, by Will Carter, Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday, 2 November 1929, National Library of Australia Trove Newspapers, http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/16598483, accessed 28 November 2016.

‘Deaths – Pittman’, Sydney Morning Herald, Monday, 26 February 1934, National Library of Australia Trove Newspapers, http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/17075747, accessed 28 November 2016.

‘Legal Notices – Will of Charles Albert Pittman’, Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday, 7 May 1936, National Library of Australia Trove Newspapers, http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/17341853, accessed 28 November 2016.

‘Personal – About Men and Women’, Windsor and Richmond Gazette, Friday, 9 March 1934, National Library of Australia Trove Newspapers, http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/85796015, accessed 28 November 2016.

‘History group teach how to make cabbage-tree hat’, Hawkesbury Gazette, Wednesday, 1 July 2016 (submitted by Carol Roberts).

St Stephens Church, Kurrajong, Parish Registers 1861-1902, the Family History Group, Kurrajong-Comleroy Historical Society, 2013.




William Pitt Wilshire – eccentric member of the Pitt Wilshire clan

Photos courtesy State Library of New South Wales (paid for copies and publication rights)

Born and raised in Sydney, William Pitt Wilshire was the eldest son of pioneers James Wilshire and Esther Pitt and a grandson of Robert and Mary Pitt (Matcham). His father, who was Acting Deputy-Commissary for several years, received a number of land grants in the Sydney area and established a large tannery at Brickfield Hill which operated for nearly 60 years.  James also owned land at Kurrajong on Wheeny Creek, adjoining John Howe, Thomas Matcham Pitt, Samuel Leverton and Matthew Everingham.

Although William Pitt Wilshire entered into a number of business ventures, his main interest was art and he ‘achieved some success as an artist’. In 1829, he married Catherine Maria Robertson, daughter of Sir John Robertson, and they had three children (William, Frederick and Maria).  Catherine Wilshire died in 1848 aged 36 and was buried in the St Laurence Chapel in Sydney.  Parish maps indicate that ‘Miss C M Robertson (Mrs Wiltshire)’ owned 640 acres in Kurrajong, adjoining M McMahon, James Davidson (senior and junior), John Davidson, Peter Hornery, Peter Gilligan and William John.

As an artist, William Pitt Wilshire would have appreciated the beauty of the Kurrajong area and several newspaper articles indicate that he spent a great deal of time in Kurrajong after his wife died.

Now this is where it gets interesting. Every family has its stories and our family is no exception. My mother and grandfather were adamant that William Pitt Wilshire was the father of my grandfather, William Matcham Hornery. Although Wilshire never remarried after his wife died, it seems that sometime after 1860 he formed a relationship with Margaret Hornery of Kurrajong and they definitely had one (if not more) children. He was considerably older than Margaret who was 26 when her eldest son (my grandfather) was born in 1870. William Matcham Hornery recorded ‘William Pitt Wilshire, grazier’ as his father when he married my grandmother Charlotte Clarke in 1898 at St Matthew’s Anglican Church in Windsor. Thanks to the results of my recent DNA testing, the indications are that William Pitt Wilshire is my great-grandfather and I am in contact with several members of the Wilshire clan whose DNA results were a high match with mine through William Pitt Wilshire’s brother.

It is not surprising given the connection, that Wilshire called Elvina, Margaret’s eldest daughter (born in 1863), as his witness in a court case in 1877 when he was accused of serious assault against Albert Packer at Kurrajong. Margaret Hornery had married Albert Packer a short time before the assault occurred, so presumably the fight was either about the marriage or the children. I have yet to find out if Wilshire served out his sentence for this assault, but from all accounts he had a fiery temper and it was probably not the first time he had ‘lost it’.

It appears Wilshire took an active interest in the Kurrajong community. From the 1860s he was involved in the push for the establishment of a railway to Kurrajong and on 27 August 1869, he attended a meeting at Benson’s Hotel in Kurrajong and proposed that a committee be formed for the purpose of establishing a public school in Kurrajong, ‘with as little delay as possible and in a central position’.  John Lamrock donated an acre of land and the school was eventually built ‘at the junction of the north and south Kurrajong Roads’.

An avid reader, as well as a regular contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald, Wilshire was a colourful character who was considered slightly eccentric ‘because he sat around the Kurrajong hills sketching’. According to Sam Boughton in the 1860s, W P Wilshire was ‘of superior talent, being a no mean artist’.  His life-long hobby was art and he preferred portrait painting, showing several paintings in the 1857 Fine Art Exhibition and the 1872 New South Wales Academy of Art Exhibition.

Wilshire’s artistic talents were passed on to his granddaughters Ada, Rosie and Hero and descendants who have chosen to follow artistic and musical careers, including his grandson, Harley Wilshire, who in 1892 composed The Hawkesbury Waltz. The artistic gene also passed to his grand-daughters in Kurrajong down to a gggranddaughter, a classical singer.  William Pitt Wilshire died aged 82 on 12 March 1889 in Surry Hills and was buried in Rookwood Cemetery.

copyrightCopyright Carol Roberts 2016

This is an updated edition of my article about William Pitt Wilshire that appeared in Hawkesbury Gazette, Wednesday, 8 June 2011.


Parish Map Preservation Project, Kurrajong Parish Map, 140965, dated 1893, http://parishmaps.lands.nsw.gov.au, accessed 2 May 2011.

Parish Map Preservation Project, Merroo Parish Map, 140270, undated, http://parishmaps.lands.nsw.gov.au, accessed 2 May 2011.

Lake Macquarie Family History Group, St Matthew’s Church of England Windsor NSW Parish Registers 1857 to 1900: a complete transcription, 2004.

The Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday, 1 September 1869, p. 5.

The Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday, 13 March 1889, p. 14.

Kerr, J. ‘Dictionary of Australian Artists Online: Rosalie Wilshire’, http://www.daao.org.au, accessed 2 May 2011.

McHardy, C. (Ed.), Reminiscences of Richmond: From the Forties Down by ‘Cooramill’, Kurrajong, NSW, 2010.

Moore, W. The Story of Australian Art, Sydney, 1934.

Rees E. (Ted) Baker, Dictionary of Australian Art, 1992.

Roberts, C. ‘William Pitt Wilshire 1807-1889’, Spanning the Centuries of Hawkesbury History – Hawkesbury Personalities, Journal of the Hawkesbury Historical Society, No 3, 2014.

Musical policeman found happiness in Windsor

Easterbrook’s love of music brought him in close contact with another musical family during his time in Windsor, the Clements family.


Nathaniel and Elizabeth Easterbrook c1903

One of the most popular policemen at Windsor police station in the early 1900s was Nathaniel Easterbrook, the son of baker Isaac Easterbrook and his wife, Ann. Nathaniel’s father operated one of the early mills in Kurrajong in the early 1860s, before opening a bakery business in Singleton where he died in 1864 leaving his wife to raise eleven children: Thomas, Isaac, Benjamin, Joseph, Abraham, Nathaniel, Elijah, Rebecca, Elizabeth, Sarah and Mary Ann.

Nathaniel married Margaret Boag in Sydney in 1884 and by the time he joined the Police Force in 1890, the couple had two surviving children, Harold and Lila (Clarice had died in Queensland in the previous year). Another daughter, Gladys, was born in Hamilton, near Newcastle, in 1893.

In 1900, Constable Easterbrook transferred from Tumbarumba to Windsor because of his wife’s health but tragically, Margaret died in June 1901 aged 36, just six months after the death of baby Olga. During his time in Windsor, Nathaniel took an active interest in the community. It seems that he was something of a tradesman, as it was reported that ‘Constable Easterbrook has done some good work at the police quarters and gaol. The places have been painted throughout and the wall round the barrack-yard has been coloured. Constable Easterbrook is no novice with the paint brush’. He was also a member of a Masonic Lodge and was described as a ‘tip-top’ musician from ‘a musical family’ who took the opportunity to perform in town bands wherever he was stationed.

Easterbrook’s love of music brought him in close contact with another musical family during his time in Windsor, the Clements family. He was a cousin of Mary Ann Clements, who with her husband Herbert Australia Clements, opened a grocery shop in Windsor in 1892. The Clements family were greatly involved with the Salvation Army in Windsor and it was about this time that Mary Ann and Herbert took in Elizabeth (Lizzie) and John Whyte (aged about 13 and 11) to live with them and their five children. Because of the relationship between the two families, Lizzie would more than likely also have helped care for the three Easterbrook children after the death of their mother.

In 1903, Nathaniel Easterbrook married Lizzie Whyte, who then accompanied her husband on various transfers around the State until he retired in 1922 after more than 28 years’ service. Apart from Windsor, Sergeant Easterbrook served at Petersham, Wagga, Tumbarumba, Parramatta, Ingleburn, Penrith, Lawson, Thirroul and Hay, gaining ‘the esteem of all with whom he came in contact’. He died at his home in Mosman in 1937. Lizzie Easterbrook remained in close contact with her three step-children and after Nathaniel’s death her two step-daughters, Lila and Gladys, took Lizzie out to dinner every year on her wedding anniversary until her death in 1968.

copyrightCopyright Carol Roberts 2016



‘News in Brief’, Windsor and Richmond Gazette, Saturday, 15 December 1900, National Library of Australia Trove Newspaper Article 85853325, http://trove.nla.gov.au/, accessed 15 July 2016.

‘Death of Mrs Margaret Easterbrook’, Windsor and Richmond Gazette, Saturday, 29 June 1901, National Library of Australia Trove Newspaper Article 85853651, http://trove.nla.gov.au/, accessed 15 July 2016.

‘Deaths’, Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday, 19 June 1901, National Library of Australia Trove Newspaper Article 14391971, http://trove.nla.gov.au/, accessed 15 July 2016.

‘News in Brief’, Windsor and Richmond Gazette, Saturday, 16 February 1901, National Library of Australia Trove Newspaper Article 85852314, http://trove.nla.gov.au/, accessed 15 July 2016.

‘A Musical Family’, Nepean Times, Saturday, 30 June 1906, National Library of Australia Trove Newspaper Article 110473152, http://trove.nla.gov.au/, accessed 15 July 2016.

‘From Week to Week’, Windsor and Richmond Gazette, Saturday, 12 September 1903, National Library of Australia Trove Newspaper Article 86217929, http://trove.nla.gov.au/, accessed 15 July 2016.

‘Sergeant Nathaniel Easterbrook’, Riverine Grazier, Friday, 20 January 1922, National Library of Australia Trove Newspaper Article 140130534, http://trove.nla.gov.au/, accessed 12 July 2016.

‘Deaths’, Sydney Morning Herald, Friday, 18 June 1937, National Library of Australia Trove Newspaper Article 17394645, http://trove.nla.gov.au/, accessed 12 July 2016.

New South Wales Police Gazettes, 22 October 1890 and 22 January 1896.

New South Wales Births, Deaths, Marriages, https://familyhistory.bdm.nsw.gov.au, accessed 11 July 2016.

Clements family information and photograph of Nathaniel and Elizabeth Easterbrook from June Irving and Julie Sinfield, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Herbert Australia and Mary Ann Clements. Research by Carol Roberts.