Highlands History | Early migrants' struggle

In June 1898 a Mittagong house occupied by six Chinese men was totally destroyed by fire. 

As told in the last article, five escaped the early morning blaze unhurt but one, Ah Kin, who had just arrived from China, died from severe burns at Bowral Hospital the next day.

Details of the inquest were provided in the Robertson Advocate of June 17, 1898. Held before Coroner Andrew Badgery and a jury of 12, it took a whole day. 

Jimmy Ah Moy told the court that he had been a tea merchant in Sydney for eight years. He owned the premises but was at Bowral during the fatal night. The house had been built 22 years ago of wood and iron and was divided into six rooms with one brick chimney. It was insured by the NZ Fire Insurance Company; the policy was burnt. There were 8 acres of land. He valued the stock burnt at 40 pounds. He will not benefit by the insurance. After the fire he gave the bank an order to collect the insurance money and he intends to build again.

Tommy Ah Moy gave evidence that nobody was smoking opium or drinking and that Jimmy had warned them to be careful with fire. The last man going to bed put out the small kitchen fire. Only a half tin of kerosene was on the premises, in the kitchen. He had no idea where the fire originated, and he saw no strangers about the place that night, nor heard the dog bark. 

The evidence was insufficient for the court to decide whether or not the fire was accidental.

This compilation of stories about Chinese at Mittagong continues with another major incident. In February 1910 the Sydney Morning Herald reported the mysterious affair of Ah Fung:

“A Chinese employed at the local vegetable gardens owned by Sam War was found by a little girl on his employer's verandah in a semi-conscious condition. The police and doctor were called in, and it was seen that the man had been severely maltreated, seven cuts and other wounds being visible. The police conveyed the injured man to Berrima District Hospital.”

Two days later the Herald added to the story: “It appears that groans were heard coming from the gardens earlier in the day, but little heed was paid until 5.30, when Thomas Morris, who lives opposite and had just returned from work, went across to make inquiries”.

“He found the Chinaman lying on the floor just inside a bedroom door at the rear of the cottage. The police then made investigations. The man had evidently been assaulted shortly after his two companions had left on their usual Friday's trip to Berrima and Bowral. A strange man was seen by a neighbour on the premises about this time. A murderous attack and severe struggle must have taken place, as the man had received eight cuts about the head, probably with some blunt instrument. The house had been ransacked and 25 pounds in gold and notes stolen.”

It eventuated that a labourer, Robert Stephen Blacker, aged 25, was arrested and then taken to the hospital and identified by Ah Fung, who said “that is the man who struck me on the head”. After being sentenced to death for intent to murder, Blacker was very much affected when being removed from the dock and showed signs of collapse. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.

Another Chinese person who lived and worked at Mittagong from the late 1800s was Jimmy Ah Loy. He came to the district as a young man seeking work and was taken on by a farming family at Lower Mittagong. Despite being very short in stature, he did most of the farm work which included separating the milk. He was treated badly, however, and had to sleep in a tin shed. 

CHERISHED: Portrait of Chinese immigrant Jimmy Ah Loy, c1905, who lived at Lower Mittagong. Photos: Chalker family collection.

CHERISHED: Portrait of Chinese immigrant Jimmy Ah Loy, c1905, who lived at Lower Mittagong. Photos: Chalker family collection.

Jimmy’s circumstances are known to us because the Chalker family lived nearby, and became very fond of him. Marie Chalker has preserved the recollections of her late husband Bryce, who used to recount how his grandmother encouraged Jimmy to visit and how he would often arrive with a wheelbarrow full of records, being a music lover. Jimmy continued visiting until his death in 1949 at age 69. 

PART OF THE FAMILY: Jimmy Ah Loy with members of the Chalker family, 1930s.
Photos: Chalker family collection.

PART OF THE FAMILY: Jimmy Ah Loy with members of the Chalker family, 1930s. Photos: Chalker family collection.

As recounted in this series, Chinese market gardens were established at Mittagong and Bowral from the 1880s. Early Chinese settlers also took up in other parts of the district, including at Kangaloon, but little is known about them.

The Historical Society encourages anyone with more information to make contact.

  • Berrima District Historical & Family History Society – compiled by PD Morton. Part 5 of a 6-part series. To be continued.