Robinson’s Farm, Orchardtown

Dairy farms, market gardens, orchards and vineyards are scattered throughout the Hunter Valley today. But at one time, all these agricultural activities were also taking place in New Lambton, on farms such as that run by the Robinson family.

John Robinson was born 1846 in the north of England. His father was a coal miner, and at age 16 John was working as a pony driver at a colliery. He married in 1872 and emigrated to Australia in 1879 with his wife Dorothy and their children. After arriving in New Lambton the Robinsons lived in Alma Rd adjacent to the fire station, with John probably working in the local collieries.

The New Lambton Coal  Company, after extracting the payable coal from their lease, looked to profit from selling and leasing their land above ground. In October 1892 the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate reported that “a large extent of splendidly-sheltered and good land in New Lambton has lately been surveyed and laid out in five-acre allotments for fruit orchards or market gardens.” The twenty allotments, to the south of Queens Rd, were offered for lease on a 21 year term with an option to purchase.

John Robinson took this opportunity for a change in occupation. He obtained a lease on four of the allotments on the hillside to the west of Orchardtown Road, and pursued a number of farming endeavours such as dairy cows, bee keeping, vegetable gardens, an orchard, and even a small vineyard. In 1913, when the original 21 years leases expired, the Orchardtown allotments began to be sold off. From 1919 housing subdivisions commenced, and then accelerated particularly in the 1940s. By 1951 all of the original twenty allotments had been replaced with houses, shops, parks and sporting fields. Today there is but one remnant of Orchardtown’s agricultural past, that being the name of the main road that traverses the former farmland.

John and Dorothy Robinson on their Orchardtown farm, with their son Barwise, and daughters Margaret and Frances. November 1896. Photo by Ralph Snowball. University of Newcastle, Living Histories.
The name of Orchardtown Rd is the only remnant of the agricultural heritage of this area of New Lambton.

The article above was first published in the May 2022 edition of The Local.


Additional Information

Robinson Family

There is some uncertainty about the birthplace of John Robinson. His obituary from 1920 states that he “was born at Seaton (England) in 1846.” Seaton is a village in county Durham on the east coast of England. In contradiction to this location, the 1851 census of England shows John, aged 5, as having been born at Workington in county Cumberland, a village on the west coast of England. In 1851 John is living at Maryport UK, with his widower father Barwise, older sisters Frances and Elizabeth and older brother Barwise. His father’s occupation is listed as “Coal Miner”

1851 England Census

In 1861 England Census shows John Robinson aged 16, living at Hetton-le-Hole in county Durham, with his widower father Barwise, older sister Elizabeth and older brother Barwise. His father’s occupation is listed as “Coal Miner”, and John is listed as “Pony Driver at a colliery.”

1861 England Census – Barwise Robinson (widower), Elizabeth Robinson (daughter)
1861 England Census – Barwise Robinson (son), John Robinson (son)

I’m not sure how to resolve the discrepancy in birth places for John Robinson. It is possible that the John Robinson mentioned in these census records is not the same John Robinson who lived in New Lambton. However, the 1851 and 1861 census entries show the Robinson family lived in various places on both the east and west coast. The 1861 census location is Hetton-le-Hole, which is just 5km from Seaton, so it is possible that John Robinson’s 1920 obituary confuses a childhood residence with his place of birth.

John Robinson married Dorothy Maughan on 31 December 1872, in East Rainton in county Durham. East Rainton is less than 2km from Hetton-le-Hole. The Robinson’s had three children (Barwise, Mary Ann, Elizabeth) before moving to Australia in 1879. The list of immigrants for the ship “Blair Athol” that arrived in Sydney on 4 March 1879 shows the Robinson family as follows …

  • John, age 28, labourer [The listed age of 28 is probably an error – other sources indicate that John was born in 1846, which would make him 32 or 33 on his arrival in Australia.]
  • Dorothy, age 26
  • Barwise, age 5
  • Mary A(nn), age 3
  • Elizabeth, age 1, died during voyage

John Robinson’s obituary in 1920 states that he lived in Alma Road New Lambton for 41 years, which indicates that they moved to New Lambton very soon after arriving in Australia in 1879.

Of John’s occupation when he arrived in New Lambton, we have no definite evidence, and we can only presume that he worked in coal mining as he had done back in England. In August 1883 the newspaper reported an accident in Lambton Mine causing injury to two miners, John Robinson and Robert Young. The article contains no information to definitively identify this person as the John Robinson of New Lambton, but it is a reasonable conclusion to draw.

At New Lambton, John and Dorothy had several more children born to them.

As with many families in that era, the Robinsons suffered the premature death of several of their children.

  • Elizabeth died at age 1 during their voyage to Australia in 1879.
  • George died at age 4 in December 1888, when he drowned in an unfenced waterhole on the New Lambton Coal Company’s estate.
  • John died in 1891, just two weeks after he was born.
  • William died at age 12 in October 1899 due to a “tumor on the brain.”

John Robinson’s main residence for the 41 years he lived in New Lambton, was on Alma Rd. Up until 1890 this was part of the Newcastle Pasturage Reserve (Commonage), and so Robinson did not have freehold title on this land. In August 1890 a sitting of the Commonage allotments Land Board granted Robinson’s application for lot 1320. It is somewhat confusing that the land title record (Vol-Fol 1363-20) for the grant of lot 1320 to John Robinson is dated 11 years later on 2 May 1901. I suspect that this is just due to a delay in the paperwork – that while the purchase took place around 1890, the registration of land title wasn’t submitted to the Lands Department until many years later.

Application for Lot 1320 of the Commonage was granted to John Robinson in 1890. The adjacent Lot 1321 is New Lambton fire station. Historical Land Records Viewer.

My initial research into John Robinson of New Lambton proved to be quite confusing, as there were references to John Robinson both in Orchardtown and in Alma Rd. As these locations are one kilometre apart, I initially thought that these were two different people with the same. However as progressed I kept finding that the details (wife, children, occupation) associated with the “Orchardtown” John Robinson kept matching the “Alma Rd” John Robinson. The seeming discrepancy of the two distinct locations can be explained by noting that John Robinson only ever leased the land at Orchardtown, he never purchased it. While there are some newspaper references to Robinson’s residence in Orchardtown, being on leased land it would probably have been only a small secondary house to enable living on the farm land, and that the Alma Rd land was the Robinson’s primary residence, noting that they purchased the Alma Rd land in 1890.

John Robinson died on 4 July 1920, aged 74 years, and was buried in Sandgate cemetery. His wife Dorothy died 6 November 1947, aged 94 years, and was buried beside her husband at Sandgate.

Grave of John and Dorothy Robinson, at Sandgate Cemetery

Orchardtown

On 25 October 1892, the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate reported …

“There are a good many people in this district who are going, or intending to go, into fruit farming, and an impetus will be given to the business by the throwing open of a large extent of splendidly-sheltered and good land in New Lambton, which has lately been surveyed and laid out in five-acre allotments for fruit orchards or market gardens.”

Four years after the land was first leased, the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate described the progress of Orchardtown in an article on 29 January 1896.

“Orchardtown is situated on the New Lambton Company’s estate, adjacent to the New Lambton township. The inhabitants are working men, who within the last four years have taken up blocks of land of from three to five acres. The land is leased to them by the company at a nominal fee, subject to certain conditions. The land is cleared more or less, and under cultivation, but there is still a great quantity of timber, and much labour will need to be applied before the plough can be used advantageously. The object of the settlers is to make a living on the ground. The crops, so far, have yielded fairly, and the people appear satisfied that when they have the whole of their land in working order they will be able to supply the local market with vegetables of European growth, that are somewhat scarce at present. A road a chain wide runs through the land, the blocks (20 in number) being on the east and west of it. The road is in its natural state, and therefore does not afford the facilities demanded.”

The 20 blocks of leased land leased in “Orchardtown”.

A report from 22 March 1902 on the possible resumption by the government of portions of Orchardtown states that …

“This land is at present held by tenants of the New Lambton Company, on a twenty-one years’ lease, with a purchasing covenant.”

Robinson’s Farm

The first mention of John Robinson in connection with farming leaseholds at New Lambton, is at the Municipal Appeal Court in May 1893

“John Robinson, leased land, New Lambton Estate, annual value £3 3s, rate 2s 10d; confirmed.”

In August 1894, the Hunter River Vine Diseases Board cancelled the fees of a number of vine growers, including John Robinson of New Lambton, as those growers were “occupying less than half an acre.” In September 1894, New Lambton Council granted John Robinson application to be registered as a milk vendor.

At the Municipal Appeal Court in May 1896 “it was announced that the New Lambton Company and the council had arranged for a reduced assessment on their properties” including “21½ acres let to John Robinson.” This gives a clue to the probable location of Robinson’s lease. Snowball’s photo clearly shows the farm being on a hillside, which means that it must have been on the west side of Orchardtown Road. In the background of the photo behind the fence the land is still uncleared because this area was the Scottish Australian Mining Company lease. The 21½ acres leased by Robinson indicate that he leased four of the 20 allotments, each approximately 5 acres in size. If he leased four adjacent blocks, the most likely area of his farm was blocks 12 to 15 as shown below.

In the Deposited Plan 3365 where the blocks are surveyed, lots 12-15 have a total area of only 20.9 acres, which seems to contradict the appeals court figure of 21.5 acres. Note however that the Deposited Plan surveyed blocks do not include the area of Orchardtown Road. If we extend blocks 12-15 to the centreline of Orchardtown Rd, the area comes to exactly 21.5 acres. I suspect that the blocks were originally leased out before the road through the middle of the allotments was officially dedicated, and this accounts for the apparent discrepancy in areas.

Probable location of allotments leased by John Robinson.

A sitting of the New Lambton Municipal appeals court indicates that by 1908 John Robinson was only leasing 3 acres at Orchardtown.

After the initial 21 year leases expired, the land was available for purchase. The first sale was Lot 11 in 1913 to John Oliver. The final blocks were sold in 1942 to William Henry Hudson the Younger, who purchased lots 9 and 10.

Some remnants of agriculture in Orchardtown persisted into the 1940s with a dairy still operating there in 1943. However the post World War 2 years saw a rapid expansion of housing in the area, and by 1951 a story on the history of Orchardtown noted that …

To-day the orchards and most of the farms-like the market garden at Jean-street-have given way to modern suburban houses.

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 10 February 1951

Comparing aerial photographs from 1944 and 1954 shows how much suburban development took place in Orchardtown in just 10 years.

Aerial photographs of Orchardtown in 1944 and 1954 show rapid suburban expansion. NSW Historical Imagery

Newspaper articles

Article Date Event DateNotes
25 Aug 1883
24 Aug 1883
Accident and injury to two miners, John Robinson and Robert Young, at Lambton mine.
5 Dec 1888
4 Dec 1888
John and Dorothy Robinson's 4 year old son George drowns in a waterhole at New Lambton.
6 Dec 1888
5 Dec 1888
Inquest into the drowning death of George Robinson.
21 Aug 1890Commonage Allotments Land Board grants application for lot 1320 (on Alma Rd New Lambton) to John Robinson for £56 18s.
18 Aug 1894Hunter River Vine Diseases Board. John Robinson of New Lambton has less than half an acre of vines.
21 Sep 1894
19 Sep 1894
New Lambton council meeting … application from John Robinson to be registered as a milk vendor is approved.
8 Feb 1895
6 Feb 1895
First mention of "Orchardtown" in a newspaper article … in a New Lambton Council meeting, in reference to the state of the roads, and have the roads dedicated to the council.
22 Feb 1895
20 Feb 1895
At a New Lambton Council meeting … "The matter of making a road to Orchard Town was held over pending the deputation of residents reporting the result of their interview with Mr. Alexander Brown."
29 Jan 1896“Realising the growth of the place the inhabitants have determined to make an effort to have a representative in the New Lambton Council. Mr. C. H. Dagwell was unanimously nominated to go forward in the interests of the new township. Mr. Dagwell thanked the meeting for nominating him, and promised if he was successful in getting a seat in the council to have an eye to the interests of the New Lambton squatters.”
5 Feb 1896
4 Feb 1896
Charles Dagwell from Orchardtown is elected unopposed to New Lambton Council, to represent the interests of Orchardtown.
20 May 1896New Lambton Municipal Appeals Court … John Robinson is leasing 21½ acres at Orchardtown.
22 Feb 1897
18 Feb 1897
"On Thursday night about 100 friends proceeded to the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, Orchard Town, and tendered to them a surprise in commemoration of their silver wedding."
8 May 1897New Lambton Municipal Appeals Court … John Robinson is leasing 21½ acres at Orchardtown for an annual rental of £5.
26 May 1898
25 May 1898
“Mr. John Robertson [Robinson], of Orchardtown, applied for the levels of Alma road, as he intended to build a house.”
1 Jul 1898"WANTED to Buy, Sulky PONY, 13½ hands, or 14¼ ; must be cheap and staunch. Apply Saturday, Mr. Barwise Robinson, Orchardtown, New Lambton."
25 Sep 1899
20 Sep 1899
Wedding of Barwise Robinson, eldest son of Mr. John Robinson, of Orchardtown, New Lambton, to Adeline Patterson. "After the ceremony the party left the church amid showers of rice and best wishes, and drove to Robinson's Farm, in the Orchard Blocks (residence of the bridegroom's parents), where a large circle of friends sat down to a sumptuous breakfast."
31 Oct 1899
29 Oct 1899
Death of William (age 12), son of Mr.and Mrs. John Robinson, of Orchard Town, from tumor on the brain.
31 Dec 1900
26 Dec 1899
Marriage of John Robinson's daughter Frances Jane to Thomas Ashman.
7 Dec 1901
4 Dec 1901
"On Wednesday a quiet though pretty wedding was solemnised at the residence of Mr. John Robinson, the contracting parties being Maggie, the youngest daughter of John Robinson and William, fifth son of Robert Atkinson, both of Orchard Town."
22 Mar 1902"A proposal was made to the Minister for Lands yesterday that he should resume certain areas at Orchardtown. This land is at present held by tenants of the New Lambton Company, on a twenty-one years' lease, with a purchasing covenant."
28 Jul 1904
27 Jul 1904
New Lambton Council meeting, correspondence. "From the manager, New Lambton Coal Company, stating, in reply to a request made by the council that, they were prepared to dedicate to the council the Orchard Town-road from Queen's-road to Mr. J. Robinson's lease."
3 Jul 1908New Lambton Municipal appeals court … "The appellants were residents of Orchardtown, who occupy land under lease from the New Lambton Company." J. Robinson appears to be leasing only 3 acres at this time.
23 Jun 1910
22 Jun 1910
"The wet weather had made the sanitary road almost impassable, and Mr. Robinson had allowed the council the use of his paddock for a month as a temporary depot, at a rental of £1. The manager of the New Lambton Company had consented to the Council taking any material they required from the old pumping shaft for repairing the Orchardtown-road."
7 Jul 1920
5 Jul 1920
"The funeral of the late Mr. John Robinson, of Alma-road, took place on Monday afternoon ... The interment took place in the general cemetery, Sandgate. The deceased, who had been suffering for a lengthy period, died early on Sunday morning. He was 74 years old, and was born at Seaton (England) in 1846. He was married in the year 1872 at East Renton, West Durham, and came to New Lambton 41 years ago, living in Alma-road during that period. He was highly respected. He leaves a widow and three daughters, one son, 20 grandchildren, and two great grandchildren."
24 Dec 1920The probate notice for the will of John Robinson of New Lambton shows his occupation as "fruiterer and gardener."
18 Nov 1931"Mrs. Dorothy Robinson was given a party at the home of her daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. W. Atkinson, Portland-place, New Lambton, in celebration of her 80th birthday. For more than half a century Mrs. Robinson has been a resident of New Lambton, having arrived from England in 1879. The Robinsons were among the earliest settlers of Orchard town, where they had an orchard and bee farm."
11 Aug 1943"C. Maclean, Orchardtown-road, New Lambton, said he conducted his business without outside labour. It required three carts and four horses, one a spare."
10 Feb 1951Ian Healy's article on the history of Orchardtown, and its rapid suburbanisation after World War 2.

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