From death sentence to Kiama mayor

Joseph Pike.

Joseph Pike.

The story of a farm labourer sentenced to death at age 19 who became a long-serving Kiama mayor, an entrepreneur who pioneered much of Kiama’s commerce and industry and who twice personally bankrolled a broke Kiama Council, is to be told in Kiama for the first time by his great grandson.

Joseph Pike’s great grandson, Geoff Pike, is coming from Perth to address the Kiama and District Historical Society in Kiama’s Family History Centre at 2.30pm on Saturday, October 21.

Geoff has spent 40 years researching his great grandfather’s life and says that while there’s still more work to be done, he now has enough documented detail to show what a unique and enduring legacy Joseph Pike left to Kiama and the wider municipality.

“The heritage Joseph Pike built for Kiama and area has not been fully appreciated because not a lot was known about him but now we have the detailed research and digitised newspapers and other documentation in the National Library of Australia’s Trove website, we realise what a huge contribution he made – and it’s a contribution which has so far gone unrecognised in the Kiama district,” Mr Pike said.

Joseph Pike played a very significant part in the development of the town and region and was involved with practically every political and public improvement in Kiama in the second half of the 1800s.

Sentenced to hang in April 1829 for a non-violent housebreaking and theft with a friend, Joseph’s sentence was later commuted to 14 years’ transportation to Sydney where he arrived as a convict in December 1829.

He was thrown on his own resources into work on properties in the then wild and remote western areas around the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee Rivers and proved more than equal to the task. He married in what is now Dapto and moved to Kiama in 1848 where he had bought land just west of Kiama, now known as Pikes Hill.

There he built a wooden house, sank a stone-lined well, perhaps the town’s first, (it is still there, contains water and is in excellent condition) and opened Kiama’s first general store. It was not only Kiama's first retail shop, it had Kiama’s first spirit licence as well and it also served as the post office for a time, long before the current one was eventually opened in 1880.

He petitioned the State government successfully for Kiama’s first public cemetery and promoted the establishment of Kiama Public School which was opened when he was mayor.

In Kiama, Joseph became a farmer, a very successful storekeeper, postmaster, spirit merchant, hotel owner (The Diggers Arms), businessman, quarry owner, a director and substantial shareholder of the Illawarra Steam Navigation Company, established in 1858, a director of the Pioneer Dairy (Butter) Factory, a builder of stone cottages for lease, Church of England churchwarden for nearly 40 years, and a long serving Alderman (Councillor) and Mayor.

He was elected as a Kiama Ward Alderman on the newly established Kiama Municipal Council in September 1859 and remained there until well into the 1880s, having been elected Mayor on at least six occasions (nearly six years in all).

Joseph also twice contributed his personal finances to keep a nearly bankrupt Kiama Council operating, first in 1859 and then again in 1886.

He petitioned the State government successfully for Kiama’s first public cemetery and promoted the establishment of Kiama Public School which was opened when he was mayor.

He was foundation Treasurer of the Kiama Agricultural and Horticultural Society formed in 1856.

Dry stone walls are a prominent feature and a valuable part of the heritage of Kiama and the Illawarra region. It was Joseph Pike who first had the idea of building stone walls from the stones cleared from farmland. He asked a young Thomas Newing to build a stone wall out of the stones Newing had collected from a property Joseph had bought at Foxground.

Recognising the cost-effectiveness of stone walls for fencing paddocks, Joseph immediately had Newing build another one. And that was the start of it all. From that day, for more than 70 years, Tom Newing (1835-1927) later assisted by his son, Tom Newing Jnr., built practically all the stone walls found in the Illawarra, mainly in Kiama, Gerringong, Shellharbour, Dunmore, Woodstock, Jamberoo, Jerrara, Foxground and Berry.

A generous public benefactor, Joseph donated the land for Kiama’s first hospital and the stone to build Christ Church Kiama.

He became a Justice of the Peace in his later life which must have been quite ironic for a man once sentenced to death.

Geoff Pike will be accompanied by another Joseph Pike great grandson, Jamberoo’s Graham Pike, at the Historical Society presentation on Saturday, October 21.

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