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Minard Fannie Crommelin

The Crommelin Biological Field Station, Pearl Beach, N.S.W.

The Book: "Pearl Beach Legacy"

Letters to Margaret Sadler - 1952-1963

"All's Well, and Cheerio!" - Minard and Charles Pryce

(Source: "The Gazette", May 1972 - article by Mary Besly, Lecturer in Biological Sciences)
Crommelin Library, University of Sydney

About sixty-five miles north of Sydney, at Pearl Beach in the central coast area, is the Crommelin Biological Field Station of the University of Sydney. No one who goes there ever calls it by that very imposing title - it is universally known as "Warrah", an aboriginal word meaning "a wide view" or "seen from a long way." Warrah consists of two houses, a tiny cottage, and approximately seven acres of land surrounded on three sides by part of the Brisbane Waters National Park. Those are the bare bones; actually it is much more than that and largely it is the story of an indomitable, sometimes formidable, but always dedicated woman - Miss Minard Fannie Crommelin, M.B.E.

Miss Crommelin, known affectionately as "Crommy", was born on June 29, 1881, at "Aston" Station near Bombala, New South Wales, the eldest of six children. She lived in various parts of New South Wales as a child, and although the family underwent a good deal of hardship, family life was obviously happy. Miss Crommelin had little formal schooling but was always proud that she had attended what is now S.C.E.G.G.S. at Darlinghurst. At fourteen she became an unpaid assistant to the postmistress at Mittagong; finally she became an official member of the Postal Service and was one of the very early operators of the "Morse Telegraph Key".

She was the first postmistress at Woy Woy (1906-1910) at a salary of 70 pounds per annum. This was her introduction to the central coast region and she explored it thoroughly by foot and by boat. Then followed many travels through New South Wales as a relieving postmistress. She always remembered the bush of the central coast area.

When she retired in the mid-1930's she went to England and Europe, contacting many conservation and natural history societies - she was a member of one hundred and fifty-four - and also following another great interest, the Crommelin family. Originally French, with considerable land holdings and prominent in the linen industry, the family suffered greatly during the Huguenot persecutions. Three brothers who comprised the senior branch escaped to Holland and one, Louis, became a banker in Amsterdam. William of Orange, a sympathiser of the Huguenots, met Louis Crommelin in Amsterdam and was impressed by his ability. On William's return to London he was subjected to pressure from the English woollen manufacturers to restrict the Irish wool weavers and to further the linen industry which had been introduced by Huguenot refugees. William invited Louis Crommelin to take charge of the ailing industry at Lisnagarvey (Lisburn) and later appointed him "overseer of the Royal Linen Manufacturers of Ireland." Louis Crommelin has long been regarded as the real founder of Ireland's flax industry. Miss Crommelin was very proud of her family and loved to talk of its many prominent members. At one time she tried to cultivate flax in the hope of starting a linen industry in Australia.

When she returned from Europe she tried to lease the area around Pearl Beach but found that it had been gazetted as a National Park. She then bought seven acres of land at Pearl Beach adjoining the park and built what she described as "a naturalists' cabin, with garage and store room and a larger cottage of six rooms and a detached caretaker's cottage... there I hoped to encourage naturalists to come and study and work for the conservation of the native flora and fauna. It was a little haven for wildlife and rare specimens."

Then in 1946 Miss Crommelin gave the property to the University of Sydney, together with many of her personal possessions, some money and share certificates, "these to be devoted to the purpose of seeing established thereon in perpetuity a biological and natural field station for research into and for the promotion of the study and the improvement and preservation of the native flora and protection of native fauna."

Since that time some thousands of biology students have stayed at Warrah and studied the animals and plants of the area. For many it has been their first introduction to "the bush"; and they look back upon the experience with tremendous pleasure. Frequently when I meet former students they recall the few days at Warrah as their most pleasurable university experience and it is not unusual for them to come back just to see the place if they are in the area.

Why is it special? The sleeping conditions are crowded: five or six to a small room and nowhere to put anything; ancient furniture in the sitting room; and a makeshift laboratory. On the credit side: the pleasure of sitting round an open wood fire; the Victorian atmosphere of the sitting room with out-of-tune piano and walls and mantelpiece covered with pictures, vases and odd bric-a-brac; the companionship of working together in the field, the lab, and the kitchen (although washing up for twenty is not too much fun) and feeding the kookaburras who appear punctually for every meal.

The library occupies one room and almost all the books in it were bought by Crommy. For many years she collected books on Australian animals, plants, conservation, early explorations and memoirs. It is interesting that she paid 84 pounds for the land on which Warrah stands and a year later 94 pounds for Gould's "Mammals of Australia". Amongst the more valuable books are Gould's "Birds of Australia"; Matthew's "Birds of Australia"; early editions of Darwin's works and some exquisite early books on Australian orchids. Many of these are now in the Rare Book Collection in Fisher Library. The library is not merely a collection of valuable books, it is a real expression of Miss Crommelin's personality. For instance, in a book on lyre birds she has used the end papers to record her observations of the behaviour of the lyre birds which are still to be seen in the area.

Although she had no biological training she had acute observation and a love for all native things; she would sit for hours watching and noting. Lots of the library books are autographed by the author and almost all have newspaper cuttings tucked into them. These may be the first reviews or paragraphs treating some subject included in the book. In Volume I of Brionowski's "Birds of Australia" is a letter from the author's son with a delightful account of how the whites of the eyes in the illustrations were painted.

Surrounding the house is a garden of native plants. Huge angophoras and eucalypts, blackboys, turpentines, wattles and lillypillys. Many grevilleas and banksias and orchids on tree stumps and among rocks, maiden-hair fern and Geraldton waxplants. At the bottom of the garden is a creek with a tree trunk bridge which leads to natural bush and then to the surrounding National Park. A short walk through unspoiled bush and another creek with a waterfall and a big pool with a huge contorted angophora, all pink and grey leaning out at right angles to the bank.

Ten minutes' walk from Warrah is Pearl Beach itself with views of Lion Island, Barrenjoey and Pittwater. A short climb to the top of the ridge and what must be the most magnificent view of the mouth of the Hawkesbury River. There are aboriginal rock carvings and wild flowers which defy description.

Throughout her life at Warrah Miss Crommelin fought for the preservation of the natural bush in the area. She relentlessly pursued and prosecuted people who picked flowers in the area - and often paid the fine if she thought they were poor. She carried on a voluminous correspondence with members of parliament, pressing for more National Parks to be gazetted and for active research for the conservation and protection of the native fauna and flora. I find it sad that in her last years she felt that she had failed: actually she had accomplished far more than most people and the award of the M.B.E. in the New Year's Honours List of 1959 gave public recognition of her achievements. It was typical of her that the hat wich she wore to the investiture was made by herself from the leaves of the native cabbage tree trimmed with hand-made flannel flowers. This may sound quaint but the straw forming the hat is beautiful and the general workmanship perfect.

Miss Crommelin had great ability in any sort of handicraft and there are several examples of her industry at Warrah - hand-carved picture frames, patchwork quilts, upholstery for chairs and rugs. The rugs I will remember especially: they were made from discarded men's woollen socks, and every man who visited Warrah in those days was asked to contribute towards them. Some of Sydney's leading biologists provided the makings for those rugs.

Sadly, on Friday, February 4, 1972, Miss Crommelin died, aged 90. Characteristically she had asked to be cremated and that her ashes be scattered from the Warrah Lookout over the bush which she had loved and fought so hard to preserve. This was done one early morning in March on a clear, sunny day to the accompaniment of birdsong.

What of the future? Warrah will continue to provide students with training in field botany and zoology and some research projects will continue to be based upon it. We hope that facilities will be improved and that funds may become available for a proper laboratory to be built. We hope that other field stations may be possible - Warrah is the only one at present. But whatever changes there may be, I think that everyone who has ever been to Warrah hopes that the special atmosphere will never be lost.

University of Sydney
Field Station Website