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’.)
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.