Recently the Williams Valley area and particularly its major town of Dungog has enjoyed a series of films, cabarets, and musical events promoted and in some cases created by locals. As with so many things, such creatively and artistic talent is nothing new to the collection of river valleys that is known today as the Dungog Shire. The Williams, Paterson and Allyn Rivers have in fact had a long history of creative endeavour centred on town bands, local concerts and dramatic societies. As well, numerous individual artists and crafts people have either originated in the valleys or taken up residence within them.
The area around Dungog was especially recognised early on for its scenic beauty, a beauty that soon inspired a poem. Entitled ‘Dungog’ and published in 1863 in the Sydney Morning Herald, the poem was written by the then well known poet Henry Kendall. It was a 21 verse poem that included lines that today would still be appreciated by modern tree-changers:
I’ve seen the deep, wild Dungog fells,
And HATE the heart of towns!
Henry Kendall’s style of poetry is perhaps not to the modern taste but another poem also inspired by the Shire has had a more lasting fame. Many know, but for those who do not it bears repeating, that the famed Dorothea Mackellar’s poem of 1911, I Love a Sunburnt Country, was inspired by the Paterson and Allyn River valleys where she lived for a time on a property at Torryburn owned by her family.
Less well known is yet another poet, Arthur Ferres who wrote for The Bulletin as well as writing a book of poems called The Free Selector and Other Verses. Arthur Ferres can also claim to be the Shire’s first writer, having published a collection of short stories for boys entitled His First Kangaroo. Arthur Ferres was the pen name of John William Kevin who, as Inspector of Schools in the 1890s, travelled up and down the Paterson, Allyn and Williams Rivers to the many single teacher schools that then existed in these valleys. Continuing in literature, Dungog and the Williams Valley can also boast one published author in Ruby Doyle, writer of The mystery of the Hills (1919) and The winning of Miriam Heron (1924). In more recent times the book illustrator Kim Gamble, illustrator of the Tashi books by Anna Fienberg among others, was also for long a local resident.
Leaving aside the written word, in the early 20th century photography became very popular and many professionals, including many in and around the Williams Valley, Dungog, Clarence Town and elsewhere sold their pictures as postcards. One whose skill raises his work to the level of art was R J Marceau, a school teacher in the 1920s at both Eccleston and Halton schools on the Allyn River Valley to the west of the Williams Valley. Many of his beautiful photos are now rare examples of life and scenery in the more isolated settlements nearly a century ago.
The creative life of the community has never been restricted to talented individuals and throughout the three rivers numerous community as well as church halls have provided space for amateur performances as well as visiting entertainers. While little is known about some of the earliest theatrics (though blackface is reported on at least on occasion), by the 1940s and 1950s the Dungog Dramatic Society was putting on a dramas such as Arsenic and Old Lace in the James Theatre. While most such performances used scripts written by outside professionals, a series of performances enacted in the 1970s to raise money for Dungog High School were written and performed by school staff and teachers.
In the field of music too, much was accomplished with town bands and for many years Dungog had its own town band as well as a number of dance bands such as the Red Peppers. There have also been many music teachers who have trained local students and put on live performances such as Alethea Abbott in the 1930s, Sandra Osmond in the 1990s and most recently Kathryn Abbott since 2010. In 1907, fundraising from the town also sent a young violinist to Europe, while in the 1960s, Kenneth Street (aka Ken Churcher), a teacher at Brookfield, registered a song he wrote in collaboration with William Bates of Newcastle called ‘Reach Me Down a Star’.
In a creative field of another kind – architecture – the three valleys of the present Dungog Shire can boast three Edmund Blackett designed buildings: two churches – St Helen’s at Gresford and Christchurch at Dungog – and a Cathedral-like barn at Tocal near Paterson. While architecturally the Williams River district has many lovely buildings, relatively few can claim to be unique or especially creative; an exception is Keba in Dungog town itself. Keba, named for when it was a private hospital, is of unique design and construction, being built entirely of concrete slabs of a tongue and groove make. The architect is unknown but some conjecture that he was a friend of the owner and was working at the time as an engineer on the construction of the Chichester Dam.
Dungog’s famed film festival and its James Theatre’s 100 years of cinema history are not the Dungog Shire’s only links to film. In fact a number of films have been made within the three valleys of the Dungog Shire district: The Earthling (1980) starring William Holden, Tomorrow When the War Began (2010) and most recently Bathing Franky (2012). In addition, an episode of the ABC-TV series The Outsiders (1976) was also made in Dungog town itself with many locals appearing as extras. Unfortunately, obtaining a copy of this now rare episode seems to be near impossible.
A final area of creative endeavour worth mentioning are the many works of local historians, often self-published, that over the years have preserved many elements of the history of the three valleys that would otherwise be lost forever. All have significance to the extent that they record information that would otherwise be lost, and not a few have merit in themselves as history and as literature. Many of these local and family histories are now rare and have not been systematically preserved.
The three river valleys – Williams, Allyn, Paterson – that we now call Dungog Shire have a long history of creativity and this brief overview is by no means intended as an exhaustive one, with many creative people and even whole areas of creative endeavour left out.