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Monday, September 5, 2011

Early Residents - Axel Bech

Axel Bech was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1857 to Wilhelm and Marie Bech. These birth dates were calculated from his death certificate. However, calculating it from his naturalisation certificate suggests that Axel was born in 1841—a mystery we are unable to solve. Gustav Larsen was Axel’s uncle. They came to Australia in 1877 on the Hawkesbury and began a tobacconist’s business in Balmain. Gustav was naturalised in 1890 and Axel in 1894.

In 1881 Axel married Mary Ann Hodgson, who, according to McCook family Tree on Ancestry, was the daughter of Benjamin Thomas and Sarah Ann Hodgson. The Bech's lived in a brick two storey semi detached house in Darling Street, Balmain called Kronborg. It was a large house which included a servant’s room. They also built a weatherboard iron roofed country cottage called Elsinore at Springwood, probably at the beginning of the 1880s. This house was set on 4 acres with a 550 ft frontage to the main Bathurst Road (now Macquarie Road) and backing on to the Railway line. It stretched from the eastern boundary of the first Public School. It was quite spacious with five rooms, a kitchen and outbuildings which included stables, shed, a man’s cottage of three rooms and a separate building used as a billiard room. They eventually planted an orchard of oranges and summer fruit as well as an ornamental garden, and they built a tennis court. They kept a few cows and some fowls and had a horse and a variety of horse drawn vehicles—a phaeton, a sulky and a spring cart.

Mary and Axel had five children, all born in Balmain: Sarah M.E. (known as Emma) in 1882, Gustav A.J.W. 1885, Dagmar L. 1886, Gertrude L. L. 1889, and Emily E. H. 1891.The Bech family spent quite a bit of time in Springwood and the children attended the Public School for a time. Mrs Bech assisted other mothers in making delicious sandwiches for the school picnics and both Gustav Larsen and Axel Bech regularly arranged lantern show entertainments for the enjoyment of both children and their parents and also to raise money for the school. Emma Bech was artistic and won a prize for one of her works at a Balmain Industrial Exhibition when she was 13, against severe competition. At least one of the girls (probably also Emma) was musical and played a pianoforte duet with Miss Rayner at a benefit concert.

Elsinore and its inhabitants were involved in a strange mystery which ended with the execution of a man called Lars Peter Hansen at Dubbo in 1891 for a murder he committed in Peak Hill. In the previous year Hansen had been employed by Larsen as a gardener, living in the man’s cottage on the property, and a number of burglaries were carried out. Alice Hoare of Homedale and one of her employees were robbed as were Faulconbridge and North Springwood residents, both hotels. The luggage of one of Miss Hooper’s Hartford pupils was also stolen: it was waiting on the railway platform for the morning train when most of the packages and three trunks disappeared. Shortly after the robberies Hansen left Larsen’s employ and went to Sydney. He was not suspected, appearing to be a man of integrity. However a few days after Springwood folk heard he had been arrested for murder, one of the Bech children fell into a waterhole on the property. Axel pulled the child out, finding in the process portions of three empty trunks. Further investigation by the constable uncovered the rotting remains of various articles stolen in the robberies, buried under heaps of rubbish. In an old stove on the premises was a lump of metal thought to be some of the stolen plate ware. It was also found that Hansen had pawned articles in Sydney which fitted the description of items stolen in Springwood.

Gustav and Axel had a couple of clashes with William Rayner whose General Store was opposite Elsinore. On the first occasion they became tired of stray livestock wandering the street and getting into their garden. Axel took up a petition to present to the court to establish a pound in Springwood. He apparently collected signatures of people who were not Springwood residents. Rayner, who kept livestock for his butchery, collected his own signatures and argued against these people who did not work and live in the town all the time. He believed it was a country place and suggested that people who wanted animals kept out of their gardens should put up better fences. Eventually Rayner lost the battle and a pound was established and a pound keeper employed, but the battle was acrimonious and split the town.

On the next occasion, at the end of 1892, a train carrying cattle and sheep crashed just outside Springwood. William Rayner bought the dead and dying cattle and proceeded to boil them down for tallow on his property alongside his store and opposite Elsinore. Mary Bech and her family were in residence and the smell of the boiling down process was so offensive she had to take to her bed. Axel complained to the police constable who investigated, and eventually Gustav Larsen took court action against Rayner. A number of townspeople gave evidence, including Mary, who was at great pains to assure the court that her children played with the Rayner children (thereby, perhaps, demonstrating that she had nothing personally against the Rayners). After two court sessions, William Rayner was reported as having moved his boiling down apparatus out to Cable’s Spring along the Hawkesbury Road and the case was dropped.

When William Rayner found that he needed for his business his big room, Rayners Hall, which was used for meetings and concerts, Gustav Larsen made his billiard room available and groups such as the Progress Committee met there. Axel was elected to the Progress Committee and supported better train and postal services as well as the opening of a Bank branch and the establishment of a School of Arts. In 1894 Gustav Larsen was elected the first treasurer of the newly formed Progress Association. Both Axel and his uncle were appointed as additional trustees of Lomatia Park and the recreation ground (also the Cricket Ground) in 1892. In 1893 the improvements to the Cricket Ground were noted at a Progress Committee meeting and attributed to Larsen and Bech.

Although Axel Bech’s name never appeared in the published cricket results and he was probably not a player, he supported the Cricket Club, becoming a Vice President in 1897 and presenting a first class bat as a prize for the best average scorer in 1895. Gustav Larsen died on 17 September 1894 in his Balmain residence from a cerebral tumour at the age of 58. He was buried in the Church of England section of Waverley Cemetery. It was reported that Axel Bech and his family were Gustav’s only relatives in Australia. His property, valued at £2,304 1s 7d was left in trust to Mary Bech.

After 1897 the Bech family seemed to spend less time at Elsinore. The cottage was let to Mr Orme in October 1897 and to the Mayor of Newtown, Mr W. Rigg MLA, in January 1899. Some of the children were in their teens and perhaps were sent to city schools. On 22 August 1910 Axel Bech suffered a sudden cerebral haemorrhage and died aged 53. He was buried in the Church of England section of Waverley Cemetery. As his wife Mary had been left Larsen’s estate in trust, Axel’s estate was worth only £157 5s 8d, largely coming from the value of the tobacconist business in which he had a partner. Mary Bech lost no time in selling Elsinore. The land was subdivided in October 1911 and sold well, realising £4 10s per foot. Mary died in 1939 in Petersham.

Shirley Evans

1 comment:

Michael McCook said...

Mary Ann Hodgsons father was Benjamin Thomas Hodgson