In 1918 an article in The Sydney Morning Herald reported on brooms being hand-made in the Blue Mountains village of Blackheath;
The brooms are manufactured under the most primitive conditions, the machine for binding them together being home-made, and it is contended by the maker that with proper machinery a much better and more durable article could be manufactured. The maker of these brooms collects the stiff, spiky grass that grows in abundance on the mountain-side, and in his hut turns it into the finished article. The grass tree [also] provides him with the raw materials for making hand whisks, so popular in hairdressing saloons.
The maker was Mr William Murphy, who had arrived in the Blue Mountains as an elderly man shortly before WWI. He was a bachelor, and chose to live the life of a hermit. He built himself a stone hut near spectacular Perry’s Lookdown, in Hat Hill Road.
It was here he gathered the stiff blades of the grass trees to make his simple brooms and whisks.
To bind the grass he invented a quirky apparatus using pulleys made from cotton reels. The result was an effective ‘straw’ broom, more commonly made from millet.
BROOM MAKER AND BIRD LOVER
Of course, Mr Murphy was never really alone. He had a great love of the area’s wildlife, and befriended the native birds and animals. Soon, word spread and tourists would arrive at dusk to watch him whistle up possums, wallabies and the colourful mountain birds.
At the end of January 1919 there was a huge bush fire in Blackheath. It raged through the Hat Hill area, fuelled by the oil rich eucalyptus trees. The roof and entire contents of the hut were destroyed, but old William was found sheltering in his private ‘shower’, a little waterfall nearby. Unfortunately, many of the creatures he loved so much were destroyed in the fire. The blackened landscape was a constant reminder of the trauma he had endured.
Local people helped rebuild the hut, and he was given a horse, to make his journeys into Blackheath village easier, but his spirit was broken. He left the Mountains soon afterwards. The old fellow died in Sydney, in 1927, aged 81.
There is a delightful podcast and a song about Mr Murphy, written by historian and folk singer Jim Low. CLICK HERE
MY OWN BROOM, INSPIRED BY MR MURPHY
I decided I would have a go at making a broom from the grass tree in my garden. It was quite easy. I just grabbed a handful of the blades, snipped them off, and secured them with an elastic band. Then I pushed a stick handle into the centre . A very unsophisticated version, but it worked pretty well. I could sell a few at the Blackheath Farmers’ Market, especially in the lead-up to Halloween.
The residents of Blackheath complained of one major shortcoming with Mr Murphy’s product. When the grass dried out, bits started to snap off. Regrettably, I can confirm that this is true.
Here is the ‘Murphy Broom’, ready for a test flight by my associate Editor Des and his friend Milly. But….I’m afraid they had it the wrong way round. That’s my husband Rob in the background, running up to try and stop them. Too late! The ‘flight’ (well….. dive!) did not end well.
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