Insight into a leader

Artistic talent: Detail from a sketch of Morpeth by EC Close.

HE’s the founder of Morpeth township, but what do we really know about pioneer settler Edward Charles Close?

Monument: St James Church at Morpeth.

Also called the “father of the Hunter”, ECClose lived a long, satisfying life, which is a bit of a miracle considering he could have died in battle many times in faraway Spain during the bitter Napoleonic Wars.

He’s best remembered today perhaps for a vow recorded in his diary that if spared in the particularly savage battle of Albuera, in 1811, he’d build a church to the glory of God. Right?

Captivating: Author Ann Beaumont with her book, A Man of Many Parts.

Well, no. Nowhere in his surviving diary (republished last year) is that wartime vow recorded from the brutal Peninsula Wars. So, is the story a myth?

Historian and Mittagong author Ann Beaumont after studying Close’s life for the past six years to produce the pioneer settler’s first biography is convinced the story is true.

“It was at Albuera that Close was nearly killed. His close brush with death had a deep effect on him,” she said of her new biography, A Man of Many Parts.

“Close obviously spoke of his vow to his family and friends and many years later (in 1840) he fulfilled his vow to build St James Church, at Morpeth.

“A lot of material written about Edward Close over the years though has just been recycled. I needed to know more, so I started from scratch, including research in England,” Beaumont said.

She saidEdward Close (1790-1866) enlisted with the British 48th Northhampton Regiment in February 1808 and was soon promoted to lieutenant. He served two tours of duty in Spain, eventually being involved in seven major battles.

Just how brutal the Peninsula Wars were in best illustrated in the victory over the French enemy at the Battle of Albuera with its terrible loss of life.

Close wrote about the first and second battalions of his 48th regiment (comprising 450 men) coming out of the battle with only 25 men and six officers, himself included. The rest were dead, wounded or missing.

“Edward Close had left England in 1808 as a naïve 18-year-old and arrived back in his homeland as a battle-scarred 21-year-old veteran,” writer Beaumont said.

He then left the killing fields of Europe to come to NSW with his regiment in 1817 before resigning his commission. He then carved an estate from Hunter Valley wilderness with convict labour, creating his private town of Morpeth on land grants in an area known as Green Hills.

Beaumont said the soldier settler built a world for himself with opportunities that would have been impossible in England.

She said while he was one of many former military men who created the backbone of the colony, he stood above most because of his empathy, kindness and his practical Christianity.

“I tried to find dirt on Edward Close. I didn’t find any, but in writing biography you have to show all sides of a personality,” Beaumont said. “Born in Bengal in India in 1790, Close later grew up on his family’s estate in England, living a privileged life. His mother was a quaker and I’m sure a lot of his attributes, like a love of art and religion, came from her.”

His father, silk merchant Edward Close snr, was gored by a wild bull and killed in India six months after his son’s birth.

“It had always been assumed ECClose was an only child, but before his father married he’d had a common law Indian wife called Peggy who produced two daughters. His will stipulated they be sent to England,” the author said.

Beaumont said Edward Close was appointed in 1819 as a military engineer to Newcastle Harbour where he removed hazards to improve navigation, put down mooring chains, built a small hillside fort and erected a coal-burning beacon to safely guide ships.

Close was again busy with his pencils and paints, painting landscapes.

“A lot of what we know about early Newcastle, what it looked like in 1819-1821, comes from his paintings. A lot of them were later wrongly credited to his wife’s aunt and they were kept in a cupboard in England for 150 years,” Beaumont said.

“The Mitchell Library then bought them at auction [in 2009]for almost a million dollars.

“Before his Newcastle duty, Close was down around Camden way, in Sydney, chasing bushrangers. Here he painted the natives. This is a man interested in other people who was trusted enough to be allowed to sketch them, “ she said.

“I did find, however, while Edward Close was generous in donating land, he was hard and a businessman. He was very controlling, particularly with his own family, and was very much the squire of Morpeth.”

Beaumont said Edward Close had a wry sense of humour, but was a hesitant speaker all his life. Despite this, Close was always in demand as a moderator during debates.

Although Close sold his fine stone house called Closebourne to the Anglican church in 1848, it was actually the third home he’d built locally, all on prime positions.

“When colonial Governor Darling took over in 1825, he demanded Close surrender his grant so it could be used to build a government town. Close agreed, provided he was fully compensated for his labour, his financial investment and the disruption to his family. Darling refused and Close kept his land,” Beaumont said.“In 1833, the government came to an agreement with Close for him to provide waterfront land to build a public wharf. The place became known as Morpeth from 1834 when Close started to sub-divide his land into town blocks.

“As Morpeth was the head of navigation on the Hunter River, it was a major port for settlers moving into the interior and to ship goods to and from Sydney and Newcastle. I think he also built two pubs,” she said.

“When Close started subdividing land for sale at Morpeth he was advertising it as suitable as sites for merchants. In 1842, he tried to create Closebourne Village, half way between Morpeth and East Maitland, about where Raworth is now,” she said.“Some 100 blocks went up for sale and it was quite blatantly advertised as being suitable for the lower classes, for the working class.SoClose was a man of his time. He’s good to people, but there’s still that class distinction,”Beaumont said.

A Man of Many Parts, by Ann Beaumont,$29.95, is in bookstores now.

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