Century-old postcard a window to another time

An old postcard that recently arrived at the Gazette has revealed a number of intriguing stories and insights into various corners of Blue Mountains history.

The postcard, which is more than 110 years old, was sent by local resident Stephen Langford, who himself was sent the item by a friend in Bondi who acquired it as part of a 'job lot' of old postcards.

The postcard's front shows what appears to be a Blue Mountains landscape and a large railway bridge. The words 'Hands Across the Mountains' are overlaid, as are two disembodied arms that hold hands. Because of either limited production capabilities or the passage of time, or both, the colours are dim and faded. At some point in the postcard's history, someone has decorated the front with glitter.

On the back, there is a short message, written in elegant old-fashioned cursive, to one "Miss M. Best c/o Mrs Robison, Lynton, Leura, NSW". The note reads: "My darling, You will see in the letter why I am sending you this. Only one place in Sydney where I could this postcard [sic]. Yours, FE.JHP."

In an accompanying letter, Mr Langford wrote: "I find it rather beautiful and romantic. Who was Miss M. Best? And Mrs Robison?"

Naturally intrigued, the Gazette sent the postcard to Robyne Ridge, vice president of the Blue Mountains Historical Society and the paper's columnist on local history. Mrs Ridge and her associates duly got to work and produced a truly heroic research effort, consulting all manner of books, archives and records.

Their research has revealed fascinating details about the people whose written words have echoed through to us, as well as the imagery and production of the postcard, which according to Mrs Ridge can be dated to 1906-8. The image on the front, she said, shows the ZigZag Railway on the Lithgow side.

"Our photographic curator couldn't believe his eyes when he saw the postcard," she said.

Mrs Ridge and her team, Fiona Burn and Ted Szafraniec, found that 'Lynton' was a sanatorium for sufferers of tuberculosis (TB), opened by Ethel Robison in 1900, located on Olympia Parade in Leura. The sanatorium could originally host three patients, increasing to 10 in 1902 when Mrs Robison extended the premises to the house next door.

"We couldn't find anything about Miss Best," said Mrs Ridge, "but in 1908 Mrs Robison advertised for a housemaid and a female chef, preferably country girls."

Miss Best therefore may have been a patient at Mrs Robison's sanatorium, or she may have been an employee. Mrs Ridge believes the latter to be the more likely given that the majority of death notices from Lynton, from around this period, were for men.

Mrs Robison was a pioneer of TB treatment in the Blue Mountains, having spent time in Germany for the sake of her husband who died of the disease. Her adoption of open-air TB treatment was an example for the famed physician and surgeon Dr Philip Sydney Jones, who opened the home for TB treatment at Wentworth Falls, the Queen Victoria Hospital.

Other notable details include the fact that Lynton, and Olympia Parade, was threatened by bushfires in 1909, 1923 and 1930. The sanatorium moved from Olympia Parade to Leura Mall in, Mrs Ridge's research suggests, about 1926 - and a house called 'Lynton' can be found on Leura Mall to this day.

Documents provided by Mrs Ridge also indicate Mrs Robison was an avid golfer, and detail her request to council in 1904 to dispose of nightsoil pans "in a special way", no doubt because of the contagious nature of TB. Mrs Robison died in 1958.

The postcard itself offers its own backstory. The item was produced by Star Photo Company of Sydney, which, according to the book Picture Postcards in Australia: 1898-1920 by David Cook, "limited its production to views of Sydney and surrounding areas, although with such profusion that its cards are found in most old collections."

The slogan 'Hands Across the Mountains', meanwhile, has maritime origins.

"In August 1908 an American fleet came to visit Australia called The Great White Fleet," said Mrs Ridge. "And it produced a series of postcards called 'Hands Across the Sea'. They were popular, and I think Star Photo picked that up."

Mrs Ridge added that she had found a number of references to the 'Hands Across the Mountains' that may have pertained to the campaign for federation.

Do you know more? Perhaps about Miss M. Best or who might have sent her the postcard? Mrs Robison? Contact barnaby.smith@austcommunitymedia.com.au.