William Affleck

William Affleck NSW Parliamentary Archive
William Affleck NSW Parliamentary Archive

This article about William Affleck was written by Syd Malcolm in the Strathfield District Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 3 No.6 February 1981.

William (Wully) Affleck, was an early colonist and pioneer of the Gundaroo district between Yass and Canberra, where he lived for 44 years before retiring to “a rising suburb, 7 miles from Sydney, with the best train service in the State” – Strathfield.

“Wully” was born on the 5th March, 1836 at West Wemyss, Fifeshire Scotland, one of thirteen children, 11 of whom died in infancy.  At 12 years of age he was taken from school to help augment the family income.  He served an apprenticeship with a Confectioner/Pastry Cook but gave it up after 2½ years because the long house – 4am to 9-10pm – and poor pay – 2/6 per week – almost ruined his health.  By the time he was 18 years of age he was earning only a meagre 4/6 per week and a bleak future was facing the Affleck family.

Desperate for something better, “Wully’s” father, Arthur Affleck, made a decision that was to “set their destiny on a higher plane”.  Encouraged by reports in letters from Mrs Affleck’s brother – John Wishart – who offered to sponsor him under an assigned passage scheme, he decided to emigrate to Australia.  The family embarked on the S.S. Nabob at Birkenhead on 27th October 1854 and reached Sydney on 15th February 1855.

John Wishart met them at the wharf and took them to Gundaroo where he was the proprietor of a flourishing general store.  They lived with him for a year, assisting in the store and helping with improvements to his land, before renting a farm at Colyton on the Yass River 10 miles from Gundaroo.  Within another year Arthur Affleck’s prospects took a real turn for the better when John Wishart decided to shift to Melbourne giving him the opportunity to return to Gundaroo and take over Caledonia Store.

“Wully” decided to stay on at Colyton for a few years, clearing and cultivating with a single furrow plough and threshing with a swiggle.  These proved to be very hard years for a man in his early twenties but if nothing else, they served to affirm his determination and perseverance.  In reflection in later years, he likened his days on the farm to “living worse than if I were in gaol.  I would get up in the summer about 4am, then get breakfast, consisting of tea with bread and butter and beef, if I had either; about 9am I would start out to work, if it was too hot I would come in and have bread and water at noon, if not, stay at work till tea time when it would be a repetition of the morning meal, then know about at work as long as I could see.  In the busy time I would work till bedtime ………….. At the end of the four years I had been in NSW, I had a mare and plough and was about £7 in debt.  So I gave up the farm”.

Back in Gundaroo, “Wully” secured the position of pound-keeper and began working another farm that his father had been able to rent for him.  However at the end of two more years he found that he was still no better off financially.  Weighing his situation he resolved “not to look back on the turned furrow but to look forward to the unturned land”.  With this resolve came the realisation that the “betterment of his own lot depended on the betterment of the community as a whole” and thus started what he termed his “active life” – becoming involved and taking initiatives to bring about progress.

His first move was to found a “Mental Improvement Society” with the lofty motives of uplifting the moral and intellectual levels of the community and then, down the scale, to promote the formation of a cricket club and a dancing class.

Being of a staunchly religious family he became the driving force in obtaining a government grant of land and raising money to establish a Presbyterian Church, it was erected in 1864, the first in the Queanbeyan parish.  This was quite an achievement because, as he afterwards recalled, “the first Presbyterian service was held in an old disused horse mill with the smithing machine as the pulpit and the congregation seated on wheat sacks”.

By 1865 “Wully’s” circumstances had improved somewhat, he had acquired a block of land in the township and was “induced” to build with financial assistance from his father, the Royal Hotel.  This venture was in sharp contradiction of “Wully’s” professed religious and temperance convictions, but as it happened he married Catherine Campbell Cameron at this time and the delightful understanding between them, doubtless to salve his conscience, was that “she should do the inside work and I the outside work connected with it (the Hotel) till the debt was cleared off and then we would get rid of it”.

Four years and two sons later “Wully’s” wife died with £100 still owing.  He wished to dispose of the Hotel but was entreated not to do so by “ministers and others who said I was the right sort of a publican for I would not encourage men to drink.  I would on no account stand in the bar talking to customers nor drink with them.  I only supplied them with what they wanted and then retired”.  It was not long before principle asserted itself however and the Hotel was leased and eventually sold.

In debt and depressed “Wully” was ready at this stage to join his uncle in Victoria, but his father, who had continued to prosper in the Caledonia Store, persuaded him to open a store in a new shopfront cottage he had built opposite Caledonia Store.

From then on “Wully” never faltered and he pressed on with an endless series of campaigns to improve the community.

A public school and residence were built as a result of his efforts and he became Secretary of the local school bard.  He successfully advocated the construction of proper roads, in particular the road from Gundaroo to Gunning, and was appointed to several Road Trusts.  Affronted by the existence of only two small cemeteries – one Church of England and the other Catholic – about 4 miles from the township, he pressed a claim to the Minister for Lands and secured a grant of land in the township for a general cemetery with separate provision for all denominations.  He became one of the first trustees of the Presbyterian Section.  He involved himself in the establishment of a Free Settlers Association and a Pastoral, Agriculture and Horticulture Society and worked energetically to bring success to annual shows which were conducted for many years.

High in his achievements and the culmination of years of persistent agitation, was the construction of two bridges, the first over Fairfield Creek and the other over the Yass River.  The latter brought celebrations as never before to Gundaroo, the opening ceremony performed by Mrs C.A. Massey, was preceded at night with a grand banquet.  Speaking at this function “Wully” displayed his mettle, declaring that he was a firm believer in Daniel O’Connells principle of “agitate, agitate, agitate” and he would agitate for whatever was needed to make Gundaroo “the centre of the earth”.

If one achievement gave “Wully” more pride and satisfaction than another it was in obtaining an alternative site for a park out of the flood area.  Becoming aware that two locals were moving to acquire 10 acres of choice land within the township area he proceeded with haste to Sydney, placed the matter before the Minister for Lands and came away with action already in train to dedicate the 10 acres to park land.  With two others he was gazetted a trustee and set about establishing a cricket oval, making pathways and personally planting trees and caring for them.  Later he recorded “and now the beautiful park of 10 acres, the admiration of every visitor to Gundaroo, who declares there is not a more beautiful park anywhere, stands as a memorial, if there is no other, after I am dead and gone”.

Spite, jealousy and scorn engendered dislike of “Wully” opening in many places but his persistent and tireless involvement in just about everything that happened in Gundaroo earned him the respect of the majority and affectionately, the title “King Billy”.

In 1880 Arthur Affleck built a new Caledonia Store – the fourth over the years – and “Wully” gave up his own store and joined him.  “Wully” had now established himself financially and was modestly securing himself in real estate, locally and at Manly, Burwood and Strathfield.  On the death of his father in 1887, the Caledonia store, indisputably the commercial hub of Gundaroo, passed to him and so remained until his retirement when he transferred it to his son John who, in time, relinquished it to his own son William.  In all, the Caledonia Store remained in the Affleck family for just on 100 years.

“Wully’s” activities over the years had frequently brought him within the influence of politics but not until the vexed question of free trade – protection surfaced in the late eighties did he exhibit any serious inclination towards a political career.  A strong campaign mounting in favour of protectionism impelled him to join the free trade movement and he lost no time in forming a league of adherents at Gundaroo.  In the 1894 election he presented himself to the electors of Yass Plains in opposition to two advocates of protection and won handsomely.  He held the seat in three successive elections until, in 1904 when the advent of Federation had removed the free trade – protection issues from the State arena, he lost the seat.

“Wully” Affleck came to Strathfield to live in 1899 but he had bought 3 adjacent blocks of land in Homebush Road in 1886.  In 1896 he built a cottage (now No 89) and called it Wemyss after his place of birth.  His intention was to live in “Wemyss” to be closer to Parliament House but when it was completed Mrs Affleck was reluctant to leave Gundaroo.  Three years later he built “Gundaroo” (now No 93) and they took up residence.  Later on he built a third cottage between “Gundaroo” and “Wemyss” and called it “Caledonia”.

In retirement the Affleck’s lived a much quieter life but whilst he remained the Member of Yass Plains “Wully” applied himself as assiduously as ever to his parliamentary duties.  In this period he became most incensed when it came to his notice that the Board of Health proposed to house a leper in a cottage in the vicinity of Strathfield Council Chambers.  With all his old time zeal he drafted a private Members Bill “to amend the Public Health Act 1901 in respect to the isolation of persons suspected to be suffering from leprosy” to annul and powers that enable the Board of Health to house such persons in any place other than a lazaret.  Enlisting the support of Strathfield Council he succeeded in getting the Bill through the Legislative Assembly but it was thrown out by the Legislative Council.

Throughout his whole life, the closest interest to “Wully” Affleck’s heart was his association with the Presbyterian Church.  He expressed this interest in deeds, at Gundaroo he was instrumental in gaining public support and raising money to establish the church and actually built it with the assistance of others, at Strathfield he joined the congregation of St James Church Burwood, giving generous financial support and in his latter years, he found time and energy to support the establishment of a Presbyterian Church (now the Chinese Christian Church) on the corner of Homebush Road and Alviston Street for which he had the honour of laying the foundation on 3rd September 1921.  He was loath to miss the Church General Assemblies, participating very actively for many, many years, mostly as the delegate for either the Queanbeyan or Goulburn congregations.

William Affleck died at his Homebush Road residence – “Gundaroo” – on 6th March 1923 aged 87 years, Mrs Affleck having predeceased him there, on 1st August 1913.  They are both interred in the family plot at Gundaroo.

The remaining link with the Affleck family in Strathfield is Mrs Lillian Affleck, widow of William Affleck’s grandson, William John Affleck.  Mrs Affleck and her late husband and her late husband were the fourth generation and the last of the Afflecks to own the Caledonia Store.  She resided at 84 Homebush Road, where she lived for a major part of the last 30 years.

Links: William Affleck, NSW Parliamentary Library 

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