Mary Harper

Mary Harper (by Susan Bradshaw)

Mary Harper and her twin sister Helen McKay, c. 1864, Newcastle

We know of Charles Harper and his endeavour in setting Helensburgh Coal before the world, but what do we know of his wife Mary, his life’s partner. Mary spent thirty years living in Helensburgh beginning with its first very raw weeks of inception as Camp Creek in 1883 until the end of her life in 1913 when it had grown into the pretty town it remains today.

Identical twin girls were born to David and Dorothy Young in Lasswade Midlothian Scotland on 15th February 1835 and baptised Helen and Mary. This small community lay along the bank of the North Esk river, and just six miles to the south west of Edinburgh. Its people were employed either in the collieries, the two paper mills or the carpet factory that lay within the bounds of the Parish of Lasswade. David was a coal miner as were many generations of the Young family before him.

The eight children of the family had a little schooling at the parish school where they learned the three basics of education, reading, writing and arithmetic before embarking on their working lives at around seven years of age. The four boys of the family went to the Colliery to be miners but in the case of the four girls, Janet, Jean, Mary and Helen their employment was as rag cutters in the Springfield Paper Mill at Loanhead just a mile and a quarter from their home. Founded in 1742 this was the second oldest papermill in Scotland and supplied paper for The Edinburgh Courant and Caledonian Mercury, the two popular Edinburgh newspapers of the day. In 1842 the Springfield factory had work for 20 men, 3 boys, 35 women and 14 girls.

Once proficient, Mary would cut 1cwt (50 kilos) of rag per day, each hundred weight earning her one shilling (10c.)

Perhaps it was here in this factory that the Young girls and Charlie Harper began to sing together. Charles had also been employed in the factory from the same early age, – he had been born in the village of Loanhead, the second of the three villages that made up the parish of Lasswade.

Charles Harper and Mary Young were married on 17th January 1856 in the parish of Lasswade and Mary’s life of adventure beyond her small village began. In 1857 her first child Dorothy Ann was born and the small family prepared for the biggest step in their lives – migration. They embarked on the “North” from the port of Liverpool on the Eve of “All Hallows”, 31st October 1858 bound for the colony of South Australia. Mary was close to confinement with her second child. This son came just 12 days out while in the North Atlantic, helped into the world by Mary’s sister Helen who was travelling with them. They called him Boyd North after Captain Andrew Boyd and their ship.

All that is known of the Harper family after they arrived in Adelaide is that Mary’s parents, brothers, a sister and two nieces arrived in the Colony 6 months later and took up work as shepherds and station hands on “Coonatto” an immense sheep station in the upper Flinders Ranges. However there is nothing to suggest that the Harper family went with them, in fact Mary was soon to produce another daughter, with the birth being registered at North Adelaide in 1860. Again sentiment was part of this family’s naming process and the new arrival was named Adelaide Jean.

Here in South Australia a tragedy fell upon the family when their father David Young, a shepherd, was lost in the vast emptiness of the 900 square miles of station country and never found.

There is no certainty when the family travelled to NSW except for the arrival of a new baby girl, Helene Hannah, in c.1863, who may have been born after they arrived at the Hunter Valley. Five more sons were born to Mary and Charles, all while they were living at the village of Hanbury close by the Waratah Colliery on the coalfields of the Hunter Valley where Charles was overman. By 1875 Mary had nine children to care for and there may have been little spare time in her life. Whether she joined the singing performances with her family on the stage for their many concerts we cannot tell;  – the newspaper music critics of the time only enthuse on the performances of her sister Helen, Charles, her brothers and her niece. Their life, however, at Waratah was one of great energy, they had a school to build, – their church to support, they initiated many sporting events and musical societies, there was a School of Arts to be funded for the growing community and her husband had become involved in local politics, first as an alderman and then serving as Mayor of Waratah.

Mary had a reasonably quiet year at the Greta mine after Charles became Manager of this colliery in 1879 before another change with a move to Coal Cliff at Illawarra. Probably Mary thought that she could settle here for a while in the new cottage that had been built for them, and certainly the local storekeeper was pleased to welcome her and her large family into his custom.

1883 and Charles consents to undertake the exploration for coal at Heathcote. The unknown question is did Mary and the children go with him at the beginning, to that wild unsettled place of bushland? They certainly wouldn’t have been able to stay in the cottage at Coal Cliff belonging as it did to the Colliery once Charles had left its employ.

Heathcote became Camp Creek and later Helensburgh named by Charles in honour of Mary’s sister Helen. As they had done at Hanbury and Waratah the Harper family again helped to organise a community, – there was the school needed for all the children, a community social structure to build and as with all pioneer women there would have been a number of roles for Mary to play, especially now that her children were growing older.

Mary and Charles with the children had a little cottage perched on the ridge where, from their back porch, they could look down on the mine.

1888 – just as the mine came to fruition Charles was gone; – killed by a terrible accident. While a work party was lowering a heavy piece of machinery, a wire cable broke, and caught Charles suddenly, causing him to be flung down the steep embankment striking his head as he landed; Mary was widowed. In the years that followed it is impossible to know how Mary managed without the energetic and exuberant Charles but she was possibly a very resilient person. In a strange land she had reared her 9 children into adulthood without loss of a child, quite a remarkable feat for those times, but she was dogged by tragedy. First was the loss of her father, then two of her brothers killed in mine accidents in the Hunter region, her niece’s toddler burnt to death in her cot, her husband was suddenly killed, her son Boyd North died of T.B. while a relatively young man, and son David at 19yrs was killed in a work accident on Sydney Harbour.

Mary’s sister Helen and brother in law Donald McKay returned from Queensland and took up residence in Helensburgh so at least Mary had the companionship of her twin in later life.

Wedding John Falconer Harper to Nellie Gill, 1904. Mary and her sister Helen are seated either side of William (Darkie) Gill

Mary died in Helensburgh 20th. December 1913 and as one of Helensburgh’s earliest pioneers she lies in the cemetery surrounded by many of her family but sadly Charles is not at her side. No cemetery had been designated for Helensburgh at the time of his death, so Charles Harper was buried in the C. of E. section of the Bulli Cemetery.

This story of my 3 times great aunt Mary Harper was written by Susan Bradshaw,  31 October 2016.


Old Parish Records for Scotland/

1841 and 1851 U.K. Census for parish of Lasswade Midlothian Scotland

Shipping records for South Australia, Mortlock Library Adelaide S.A.

Register of Births Deaths and Marriages South Australia

Register of Births Deaths and Marriages New South Wales

Illawarra Mercury (Wollongong NSW 1856-1950)

Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW 1843-1893)

Miners’ Advocate and Northumberland Recorder (Newcastle NSW 1873-1876)

Newcastle Chronicle (NSW 1866-1876)

Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW 1859-1866)

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW 1876-1954)

Sydney Morning Herald (NSW 1842-1954)