WERONA a place of peace: the first years (1969 – 1982)
Heather Saville, New South Wales Regional Meeting
This is the first of a two-part contribution about Werona, the 38-hectare property at Kangaroo Valley that was purchased in 1969 and is now majority owned by NSW Regional Meeting. Some 10 years ago Katrina Hasleton and Margaret Littlewood, who are central to the running of Werona, began investigating its story. Their efforts are what forms the basis of both articles, enhanced by records held by Anne-Maree Johnston (the company secretary) and photos provided by Tim Sowerbutts.
The bark hut that burnt down in 1982
How it all began
The NSW Quaker newsletter of March 1969 records that “some Sydney Friends together with others and the Sydney Bushwalkers have made an offer to purchase a farm in Kangaroo Valley”. Following a meeting at Wahroonga Meeting House of 17 interested folk, Rudi and Hannah Lemberg and Dougald and Carole McLean wrote to Quakers explaining their intentions:
“Some of us have had a concern for some time to provide a rural site for conscientious objectors, war tax resisters, and others needing a temporary retreat from the alienating effects of this supercharged society”.
ccccAfter purchase the property was subdivided into two lots; one belonging to Sydney Bushwalkers and the remainder (38 hectares) to be owned by a newly established company, Kangaroo Valley Friends Properties Pty Ltd. The purchase price was $9995 and was achieved by donations from Friends and kindred spirits with the sale being completed late in 1969. Those who provided funds were issued shares in the company – $100 per share.
As Eileen Barnard Kettle wrote in an article for The [English] Friend, those who funded the purchase intended Werona to be a place for subsistence farming, for conscientious objectors, a study centre and retreat to further Quaker concerns and awareness – to meet for the purpose of study, fellowship, recreation and conservation.
What happened next?
The description of ‘farm’ was somewhat grandiose. Much of the 38 hectares is natural bush and sandstone rock formations, with a steep slope down to the cultivated land and below that the Kangaroo Valley River. Included in the purchase price was a small cottage and outbuildings. Access to the property is across an area around the electricity sub-station that provides power for the township.
One of the shareholders, Ed Stanton an English Friend with agricultural experience, moved into the cottage, began basic farming, including bee-keeping and selling honey locally and organising rural craft weekends. He remained there for several years, joined for some time by Evelyn Spencer. Ed, a dedicated vegetarian, was interviewed by Earth Garden magazine in 1972 where he spoke of his aim of self-sufficiency and his vision for the property.
With the sale completed and the formal legal company established it was possible to begin developing the ideas for ‘the future Australian Study Centre’. Newsletters of 1970 talk enthusiastically of a simple building that could be used for meetings of all sorts, as well as a shower and toilets. Both electricity and water would be needed and plans were made about how this could best be achieved.
The first large event took place in early 1970 when Young Friends held their annual gathering at Werona. It took the form of a camp with tents clustered around the farm cottage; at that time the only source of drinking water. One of those attending was Peter Buscombe, who had building experience. He began designing a building some distance from the cottage, that could be used for large groups. Several working bees were held at the site that had been chosen, and within an impressively short time there emerged the building that was first called Young Friends hut and eventually became known as Friends Hut.
Swimming in the river about 1975.
Connection to the electricity grid was achieved largely with the voluntary labour of Canberra and Sydney Young Friends over many work weekend camps. This was followed by a bush shower and a much-needed pit toilet. The latter had become urgent when both Ed and Evelyn indicated that they preferred their toilet to be used only by fellow vegetarians! The new toilet was christened by someone at the time as The Backhouse. Within 3 years a bark hut on a rocky shelf above the Friends Hut had been built and Ed had erected an A-frame sleeping hut using similar materials.
A cleared open area gradually developed into an orchard where Ed had planted a range of fruit trees. Situated between the farm cottage and the new large communal building, the orchard proved a popular camping spot, with the added advantage of being close to the bush shower, and views out over the river.
These simple but important improvements meant that the twin aims of living simply off the land and providing somewhere for study, recreation, fellowship and worship in the serenity of the bush was proving possible. Throughout the 1970s Werona gradually became a sanctuary in many ways for Quakers and others. Families came for weekends, various anti-violence organisations booked training weekends there and schools brought groups of students for short camps.
Among the other groups who discovered and were welcomed to Werona were women’s refuges that brought children down for holidays. They reported the delight that the children had in the bush, something new to many, together with the sense of space and freedom.
Young Friends continued to hold their annual gatherings at Werona throughout the 1970s, and the newsletters which they produced spoke of hard physical work (including trench digging for installing electricity) swimming in the river, music, spiritual regeneration and contemplation of future uses for Werona.
Photographs of the time show people just sitting around the fire, either at the Bark Hut or Friends House, something that many spoke of fondly in their reflections of the time. A variety of walking tracks existed, leading in one case to a sheltered area near a spring which was often where silent Meeting was held.
For several years Martin Mulligan, (Margaret Tuck’s son) took Social Ecology students from the University of Western Sydney there as part of his course in Wilderness Values and Landscape Conservation. Martin also recalls times when the whole group of Young Friends would attend bush dances in Upper Kangaroo Valley community hall. Another of those first Young Friends was Tim Sowerbutts.
Katrina Hasleton first encountered Werona as an eleven-year-old when it was winter with grey skies and tall trees. It was wild and rugged. Friends Hut was there and on the verandah were Eric and Enid Pollard drinking tea. That first visit of Katrina’s was followed by many more as a teenager with a group of junior young friends who named themselves Friends Freaks and were joined by others who came just because they loved the place. Music, shared meals and swimming in the river feature in everyone’s reflections.
The 1970s were a time of significant interest in moves back to the country and simpler living. In 1973 the National Review published a long article entitled Down Quaker Country. One of the most significant Quaker gatherings of the period was when Charlotte and Stewart Meecham, American Friends who delivered the 1976 Backhouse Lecture, were able to join over 100 Friends for a weekend at Werona. That resulted in a program by the ABC also called Quaker Country.
The Aboriginal Dance Company – Bangara – were another organisation that booked Werona for their work. They, too, featured in the ABC program.
With ‘conservation’ being one of the original aims for the property, Werona was gazetted as a Wildlife Sanctuary in February 1974.
Changes over time
By 1979 Ed had moved on, farming had ended and the bush had begun to return to much of the cleared land. Of the original share-holders few continued to spend time there and the day-to-day management of the property devolved to what has now become known as the Users Group, only some of whom are Quakers. This involved raising funds to pay council rates, electricity, insurance, etc., liaison with the local bush fire brigade and the Water Board regarding the dam to be built further down the river, taking bookings for visitors and ensuring continued maintenance of the property. All tedious but necessary tasks and achieved by a combination of camping fees and annual subscriptions, drawing on the wide network of Werona supporters.
In Kangaroo Valley fire is always a risk. An early newsletter told of a fire that raced through the upper level of the property, saved the buildings but destroyed similar ones on the Bushwalkers land. Then in 1982 Werona was not so lucky. The farm cottage and outbuildings burnt down, as did the much-loved Bark Hut. Fortunately, Friends House was saved, but this fire prompted much soul-searching about future plans. The horrors of the most recently fires that tore through so much of east coast Australia three years ago will be covered in the June Australian Friend.
Friends Hut and the much-loved fire.
Werona is a place of many and varied stories and experiences. For some the connection has been unbroken for over 50 years whilst for others, after many years of absence, it is rediscovered. We give thanks for those friends back in 1969 whose vision has provided a wonderful place of peace and renewal.
. . . to be continued