In 1890, at the age of 44, William Henry Corkhill of Tilba Tilba, accountant, cheesemaker and farm manager, decided to become a photographer. There is no record that he received any training in photography, but he had, it seems, read a few books on the subject. Over the next twenty years he would take thousands of pictures of his family, friends and neighbours, seldom taking his camera beyond the confines of his local community. Corkhill’s collection of glass plate negatives, reduced over the intervening decades to about 1,000 in number, were offered to the National Library by his daughter in 1975. Suffering the decays of time and damp, only 840 of the plates still retained printable images, but the record they contain of life in a small but thriving rural community at the turn of the twentieth century is fascinating. As we see Tilba Tilba through William Corkhill’s eyes, he too, as the creator of this singularly focused, longitudinal record, becomes fascinating.
The Tilba district lies inland from the New South Wales south coast between Narooma and Bega, and by 1900 supported a population of 1200 people, mainly engaged in dairying. The mining of gold at Mt. Dromedary contributed to a general prosperity that favoured the establishment of large families who remained in the district and intermarried. In 1882 William Corkhill was invited to visit Tilba Tilba by Henry Jefferson Bates and his wife Elizabeth. When he married their daughter Frances the following year, Corkhill joined one of the district’s larger families, and through them, became ‘cousin’ to many others.
The 20 year span of the Tilba Tilba collection lets us see the life of this community as it unfolds and develops. Important milestones and events in family and social life are commemorated in photographs of weddings, picnics, sports days and the Tilba District Agricultural Show. We see people going about their work on farms, in the cheese-making factories and at the mines. Proud householders stand in front of tents or slab huts or substantial houses. Twenty years in a small stable community of large families reveals the rhythm of community life, as babies are born, grow up and marry before our eyes, and the birth of a great grandchild is celebrated with a portrait of four generations of the family.
Corkhill’s familiarity with and affection for his subjects is evident throughout the collection, and imbues his photographs with a strange combination of authority and informality. He has a rather casual approach to the backgrounds in his portraits, as if his familiarity with the scenes he records makes him impervious to some of their oddities. Personal dignity, family pride and adherence to borrowed pictorial conventions result, on occasion, in some very serious sitters; and small children with grave faces stare resolutely at the camera, determined not to move and spoil the portrait. Everyone else, however, returns William Corkhill’s regard with equanimity. Young women in particular become beauties under his sympathetic gaze, smiling quietly as he makes their brief glory last forever.
Although the negatives came to the National Library without records identifying the sitters, Sister Pearl Corkhill and other residents of the Tilba district were able to name most of the people and places depicted. The caption lists provided by Norman Hoyer in particular are strangely moving as he details the successes and disasters of his forebears’ lives, the deaths of children, the survival of others to advanced age. Other collections documenting the life of rural communities – such as Mandurama, Gundagai and Yass – are held by the National Library, but none follow the lives of identifiable individuals over so many years, none triumph over the passage of time with such a sense of permanence, as those long dead continue to gaze at us from the prime of their lives.
National Library of Australia