From the West Indies to Eugowra: How Storyplace Unearthed My Own Family History

by Victoria Cleland

‘Oh, we knew Harry real well…when the [gas street] lights came to Eugowra, Harry put the lights in and he put the lights out… he was a real nice old fellow Harry…he was sort of a real gentleman…’

My grandmother, Kath Mallick (1920-2022) talked about Harry Esperance with great fondness. At 101, her memory for the present was fading, and our conversations were increasingly about her past in Eugowra, where she spent her childhood and entire married life. The people, the place, the properties…they were her favourite subjects. Even still, how she got to chatting about Harry is a story worth telling.

Eugowra is a small town in the Central West region of NSW on Wiradjuri Country. It is known for the Escort Rock Gold Robbery in 1862 and more recently, for the severe flooding that devastated the township in November 2022. For my family, Eugowra’s significance lies in the generations of Kirby and Mallick families who lived there.

Though I’ve lived in Sydney all my life, I have always felt connected to Eugowra as it is the town where my maternal and paternal grandparents, my mother, my uncles, and numerous cousins were born. Not to mention the many happy holidays spent at the Mallick family farm, ‘Island View,’ with my country smart cousins climbing fences, catching tadpoles, feeding poddy lambs, and exploring the pine covered hills with their rocky granite outcrops.

In the latter half of 2021, I started working at Museums & Galleries of NSW as the Communications Coordinator. Part of my role included assisting in the promotion of Storyplace, which was to be launched in May 2022. Despite Storyplace’s focus on small organisations in regional communities across New South Wales, it had never crossed my mind that Eugowra – with its population of less than 800 – would be involved in the project.

I was genuinely thrilled to find it represented on the website by two beautiful objects, a rosewood concertina from the 1860s and a 9-carat gold medallion, awarded for best band practice attendance in 1914. Both items belonged to a man I’d never heard of – Harry Esperance.

Hundreds of kilometres away from Eugowra, in an aged care home in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, I opened the Storyplace website to show my grandmother the concertina and Eugowra Town Band medal. I doubted she would have any connection to Digobeth Henry Esperance (known as Harry), the Eugowra Town Band member who was born in the West Indies in 1859. To my astonishment, my grandmother had quite vivid memories of him.

Over many conversations, pieces of Harry’s story began to unfold. In an audio recording taken by my mother in May last year, she reminisces about her interactions with Harry when she was a young child, in the mid to late 1920s.

Nan describes Harry as someone who did odd jobs around the town – lighting the gas street lamps, as a worker at the open-air picture theatre, and as a farmhand or cook for her father on the family farm, ‘Galwary.’ It was clear that Harry was much loved by the Eugowra community. Nan recalls a donation drive to get Harry back to America: ‘there was great business there at some stage because he was going to go back home to have a holiday…’

Most interestingly, Nan talked about her childhood memories of Harry, which focused on being fascinated by someone so different to her and her extended family – all of who were of Anglo-European descent: ‘When I was little, I was fascinated with his hands…because there was some white on the palms and I used to get him to show me…I was intrigued with his curly hair …it was the curly hair I was taken with…’

My grandmother’s recollections demonstrate how objects can remind us that small country towns are not all the same, each has unique people with unique stories, which can be too often lost amid the idea of sameness. Kate Gahan, Project Manager of Storyplace, tells me Harry’s concertina and medal were chosen to feature on the Storyplace website for this very reason.

 Serendipitously, Nan’s story that Harry had worked at ‘Galwary’ was corroborated late last year when my mother happened upon a photo of Harry Esperance from my grandmother’s own photo album. Harry stands on a veranda, a trumpet under his right arm (testament to the significant role music played in Harry’s life, as outlined in Annie Steven’s Storyplace story). It is captioned in silver pen: ‘Harry Esperence [Esperance], cook at Galwary.’

How funny that I had thought there could not possibly be a connection between this man from the West Indies and my grandmother from Eugowra, born over 60 years apart, when in fact they had been together under the very same roof!

In June 2022, my grandmother died peacefully at 101 years old. The following month, she was buried on the hill in the Eugowra Cemetery. The day after her burial, I visited The Eugowra Historical Museum and Bushranger Centre. The Museum has been thoughtfully curated, allowing visitors to connect with Eugowra’s rich history through objects, artworks, and photos. Harry’s concertina was on display, and the Museum’s curator, Elaine Cheney organised for me to see and hold Harry’s medal.

By chance, when flipping through one of the Museum’s many photo albums, I came across a photo of Harry with the Eugowra Town Band in 1923. I emailed Elaine to tell her. She hadn’t realised that the photo was still in ‘in captivity’ (Elaine’s words) at the Museum. Perhaps there are more clues to be discovered about Harry’s time in Eugowra?

After the tragic 2022 flooding in Eugowra, where much of the town was decimated, this may be unlikely. Sadly, we know many of the Museum’s objects and records were badly damaged, some beyond repair. Eugowra’s devastating flood could have erased Harry’s story too. Instead, his memory, his passion for music and the love of his local community is preserved in digital form on the Storyplace platform, a testament to the importance of digitising community collections.

When my grandmother spoke about Harry, she spoke about her own life. Through her stories, she expanded our understanding of Digobeth Henry Esperance while unearthing layers of her own memories – memories of her childhood, her family, her neighbours, her Church – threading links between her life, Harry’s life and my own family history.

Read Annie Steven’s story about Harry Esperance

With heartfelt thanks to Elaine Cheney, curator at The Eugowra Historical Museum and Bushranger Centre and Eugowra Historical Museum guide Peter Slaven.