Coochin Coochin homestead is one of the Scenic Rim’s oldest homes, and for the past 110 years it has been maintained by the Bell Family.
Tim and Jane Bell have lived in the heritage-listed homestead, just south of Boonah, for the past 30 years. They have traced the history of the house, its occupants, and its very distinguished visitors.
A candid diary kept by Tim’s great grandmother reveals much about the homestead, which in the early to mid 1900s was visited by a long line of notable people, including the Queen Mother, the Prince of Wales and Agatha Christie.
The Bells and Coochin Coochin Homestead
He Coochin Coochin story has its beginnings in 1842 when the 120,000 acre property was first established.
This sprawling run stretched from the outskirts of the town of Boonah, south to the New South Wales border, and west to the Mt Alford range.
David Hunter applied for the first grazing lease in September 1842 and named the area Dulhunty Plains, apparently after a ‘very well respected Sydney family’.
By 1870 Thomas Alford was the owner-manager of the property which was now known as Coochin Coochin, meaning ‘Many black swans’, because there were many swans living on the large lagoon.
He moved the Coochin homestead to its existing site in the centre of the property, high on a hill to avoid floods, and from where he could command a sweeping view of workings of the farm.
In 1883 the Bell family bought 22,000 acres of freehold land at auction in Sydney.
James Thomas Marsh Bell heard about the pending sale, while living in central Queensland at the family cattle property, Camboon.
“A drover told him about this coming up for sale,” says Tim Bell. “It was before cars so he came in his buggy from Camboon to Chinchilla, caught a train to Ipswich and sailed from Ipswich to Sydney for the auction. He paid 30 shillings an acre – about $3 an acre in current terms. He bought Coochin Coochin in partnership with an Englishmen, Colville Hyde, who was the financier. Bell did the hard work. James Bell packed up at Camboon and came to live here with his wife Gertrude and their two sons Archie and Ernest.”
Gertrude Bell is affectionately known to Tim and Jane as ‘Granny’. She is Tim’s great grandmother and her candid and extensive diaries have given the couple an insight into life at Coochin in those early days. Before taking the name Bell, she was Gertrude Norton and lived in a large and affluent home at Darling Point in Sydney.
She was just 18 when she met James at a garden party in Sydney. He was in town on business and for 10 days he romanced the much younger Gertrude. On his final day in Sydney the then 35-year-old proposed to Gertrude. She accepted.
“Mr Bell went back to Camboon and said, ‘I’ll come back in a year’s time, you arrange a wedding and I will marry you,” says Jane. “They had a three-day honeymoon on the boat up to Brisbane from Sydney and then they went to Chinchilla by train.”
Yet that is all Jane and Tim know of ‘Granny’s’ wedding. Her usually extensive diary writing faltered around the time of her wedding, with the words, ‘My Wedding Day’, all that marked the occasion. Between 1875 and 1882 Gertrude and James lived at Camboon. Gertrude initially found the remote location difficult to take, she had been an eager and willing participant of the Sydney social scene prior to marrying.
While living at Camboon, they had two children, Archie and Ernest. They later had three more sons, Frederick (FM Bell), Victor and Bert, and three daughters Una, Enid and Aileen. In 1882 they moved to Coochin and Gertrude remained there until she died in 1946. Her husband bought out his financial partner in 1901. Then came the 1902 drought and in 1903 at the age of 63 he died following a series of strokes.
Gertrude’s diary reveals that in 1902 things were so dire they were cutting cactus to feed the cattle.
Following James’ death Gertrude resumed her formerly social life, inviting a wide variety of people to come and stay at Coochin. Her hospitality led to visits by Agatha Christie, the Queen Mother and the Prince of Wales, as well as a host of other dignitaries.
“Granny was from a socially-active group in Sydney, she knew all the right people,” says Jane. “Although Mr Bell was well-bred and well-connected, he wasn’t interested in social activities and when they married he did not encourage that.
“Once he died the connections began again.”
Over the years it became tradition for distinguished visitors to plant a tree at Coochin. These trees continue to grow and are now marked with plaques stating the year they were planted and by whom.
Royals and celebrities
The first trees – two jacarandas – were planted in 1907 by Lord and Lady Chelmsford. The Prince planted a palm tree, the Queen Mother a hoop pine, which continues to thrive. Agatha Christie planted a Leopard Tree.
“After the first war Granny used to hold garden parties to raise money for the Red Cross,” says Jane. “The first garden party was for returned servicemen and it just went on annually. They made 100 pounds at a garden party and shared it between the RSL, the Red Cross and the hospital.”
“The Prince of Wales visited in 1920, he was out here on a visit to Australia. They had a function in Boonah for him, he was only meant to stay one night but because of the rain he stayed five days because Wallace Creek flooded. According to Granny’s diary he played tennis, went mustering and enjoyed dancing at night during his time at Coochin. Some versions of local history claim there was an assassination attempt on the Prince by a drunk but Jane says ‘there’s no mention of it in her diaries’.”
They were very social times.
“They used to go to Maroon for dinner and then come home by horse and buggy,” says Tim. “Then two days later they would go to the Gold Coast for a holiday. The girls would go by train and the men rode their horses.”
Agatha Christie visited soon after the Prince.
“It’s hard to know in each situation how they came to be here,” says Tim. “The Prince came here because the Captain of his ship, Captain North, was a relative of Granny’s. Agatha Christie met my great aunt and uncle who were down at Sydney. Agatha’s husband, Archibald Christie, was interested in flying and Bert Bell started talking about planes. Una, the eldest sister started talking with Agatha Christie, who admitted she was getting a little bored. My great aunt asked ‘Would she like to come and see a cattle property up in Queensland’ and so she came and spent a week here without her husband; he came up afterwards.”
“Agatha Christie loved it up here. In the diaries it says they put on a concert on the Saturday night at the Mt Alford School of Arts. She was part and parcel of the performance, she sang at the concert, wrote skits, Agatha was involved, they made costumes and decorated the hall.”
The Queen Mother visited Coochin in 1958, following her husband’s death. She and her husband had travelled to Australia after they were married and during that first trip she had stayed at Tamrookum House. When her second trip was being planned, she requested to again stay at Tamrookum House, but it had since been demolished. The Premier of the day, Sir Francis Nicklin, asked whether the Queen Mother could spend a night at Coochin instead. Una, Enid and Aileen Bell said ‘Of course’.
Although Tim wasn’t at Coochin for the visit, he later wrote a letter to the Queen Mother informing her of the progress of her tree and enclosed a photograph of the thriving hoop pine. He expected to receive a polite reply from a Royal staff member, but instead he received a four-page hand written letter from the Queen Mother herself, saying what a wonderful time she had had in Australia and at Coochin. In 1979 following the death of Tim’s great aunt Aileen, Tim and Jane moved to Coochin with their three young children.
They say the property was an idyllic place to raise a family and they continue to run a mix of Santa Gertrudis and Droughtmaster cattle on the 800 acre property. They also grow soya beans, lucerne and barley on the flats. Their son Thomas also lives on the farm with his wife Lesley and their daughter Neva. He has diversified into organic tea tree and hardwood plantations.