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.

Perry's Look-down, Blackheath
The view from Perry’s Look-down

It was here  he gathered the stiff  blades of the grass trees to make his simple brooms and whisks.

Grass tree, Blackheath NSW
A grass tree growing near Mr Murphy’s old home.

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.

William Murphy
William Murphy, the hermit of Hat Hill
William Murphy's Hut, Blackheath
A simple abode

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.

Eastern yellow robin
A FAVOURITE PERCH
Male gang-gang cockatoo
THE GANG-GANG
King parrot.
THE GORGEOUS MALE KING PARROT

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.

Grass tree broom
Grass tree broom.

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.

Grass tree broom ready for test flight by Editor Des andMilly
Test flight of the grass tree broom

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4 Comments
  1. I love it, a new career for you of course, you could autograph each one aqd Editor Des could be your manager . I’m sure he wouldn’t ask for a very high percentage of sales.

    • Pauline

      Probably make more than from writing, Chris. Editor Des would extract every cent he could!

  2. Of course the test flight of the broom didn’t go well – they are sitting on it backwards!

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