Historian Professor Ged Martin returns to Australia’s Ilford

Ilford Recorder: A Google Maps satellite view shows Ilford, new South Wales.A Google Maps satellite view shows Ilford, new South Wales. (Image: Archant)

If you’ve never heard of the Australian Ilford, don’t worry. The population in 2011 was just 311, and that was for the whole 204 square mile district (about nine times the area of Redbridge).

But Downtown Ilford, New South Wales, isn’t a case of “blink and you’ll miss it”. It stretches along a couple of miles of highway to the regional centre of Mudgee – just like our own Ilford High Road, you might say. Well, not really: I doubt if there are twenty buildings in the entire settlement.

Australia’s Ilford began in the mid-19th century, when pioneer settler Reuben Leader obtained land at Keen’s Swamp, 150 miles north-west of Sydney. It wasn’t an attractive address, so he renamed it after his birthplace, Ilford, Essex.

As early as 1911, a disrespectful journalist called the Down Under Ilford “Sleepy Hollow”, claiming that it had started to decline when the main railway line bypassed it in the 1880s. “One comfort is that it can’t go that way much further.”

Ilford Recorder: The Castlereagh Highway runs through Ilford, Australia. Picture: Google MapsThe Castlereagh Highway runs through Ilford, Australia. Picture: Google Maps (Image: Archant)

The sum total of Ilford was “a pub, also a store, a school, a post office (very nice postmistress), a church, and various cottages. It is the sort of place where nothing ever happens but Sunday and a dog fight.”

There was something creepy about Ilford’s rural calm. “It is surrounded by a great peace, like a flea in a folded horse-rug.”

An earlier scribbler, in 1899, had waxed more lyrical. “A few months ago the exquisite colourings of Ilford’s beautiful mountain scenery were further enhanced by a foreground of cool green meadows and a peaceful rippling stream with dazzling bubbles sparking on its waters in the sunshine.”

Unfortunately, a summer drought had ravaged Ilford’s paddocks. “The meadows are parched, not a vestige of grass with the slightest semblance to green is to be found here”.

Cunningham Creek, Australia’s answer to the Roding, had run dry. Its riverbed was the “abode of shining lizards”.

“Ilford’s beautiful mountain scenery” was an exaggerated description for the series of bumps that punctuate the horizon, but they still beat anything vertical that you might spot between Wanstead and Goodmayes.

Recently, I revisited the Australian Ilford for the first time in 45 years. Of course, during the lockdown, I went there through Google Streetview.

Back in 1975, I was neat and trim, and the Ilford town sign was a bit battered. It’s the other way round now.

If you’re not familiar with Streetview, just type “Ilford New South Wales map” into the Google search engine, and click on the thumbnail to get the full map. Then drag and drop the yellow parachutist on to the highway and follow the arrows.

Wikipedia calls Ilford “unremarkable in appearance”. That’s not fair. You’ll spot Ilford Public School (sensibly, in Australia, a public school means a state school), opened in 1868 and still going. The local diner, the Ilford Roadhouse, has a shady verandah. It’s up for sale, and a lyrical real estate agent praises its “iconic corner location”.

Turn off there along Ilford Hall Road (it’s like an Essex country lane with gum trees).

Head past the church to the headquarters (I mean the shed) of the Ilford Bushfire Brigade, which celebrated its eightieth birthday in August last year, on the eve of one of Australia’s worst-ever bushfires crises.

After flying over the area just before Christmas, local MP Andrew Gee reported “fires all through the back of Ilford”.

Early in January, water-bombing aircraft tried to drench a major bushfire threatening the 42,000-acre Capertree National Park, south of Ilford.

It’s an area with a very Australian mix of Aboriginal and imported place names. There were fire warnings for Ilford, Brogans Creek, Clandulla and Bogee.

“We’ve lost five homes in the Ilford area,” said local Mayor Des Kennedy. “Luckily, no fatalities or bad injuries.”

On the other side of the world, there’s a very different Ilford. You can get there with a couple of computer clicks.