MIKE SCANLON: Winemaking was no folly

AMAZING FIND: Jan and Ron Crebert pictured with part of the missing Mayfield tombstone of family patriarch and pioneer vigneron, Peter Crebert.   Picture: Simone De Peak
AMAZING FIND: Jan and Ron Crebert pictured with part of the missing Mayfield tombstone of family patriarch and pioneer vigneron, Peter Crebert. Picture: Simone De Peak

MISSING for about 60 years, part of the tombstone of Newcastle’s first winemaker has mysteriously re-appeared at Lake Macquarie.

The relic is the heavy, marble-like base from the grave of pioneer Peter Crebert, which disappeared from the now long gone Folly Cemetery, at Mayfield East, in the early 1950s. 

The amazing find was made recently by a couple at Blackalls Park,  near Toronto, at their new home on discovering an inscribed memorial block lying in their yard.

Co-incidentally, the discovery came as Newcastle couple Ron and Jan Crebert were making plans for a big Crebert family reunion this September 13-14.

“Peter Crebert was my great, great-grandfather. My wife and I were shocked when alerted to the discovery by the Lake Macquarie couple,” Ron Crebert said. “They’d heard of our family reunion and contacted us. Peter Crebert’s original monument was a cross on top of three pieces of stone. It must have stood about six foot [1.8metres] high in the former Folly Cemetery, at what is now St Andrew’s Anglican Church, in Church Street, Mayfield.

“The key centre part we have, reads: ‘To my dear husband Peter Crebert, died 25th October 1895 aged 71 years and six months’ with the words, ‘At Rest’ at the bottom.

“Louisa died in 1914 in her 80s and is buried at Sandgate Cemetery. No trace remained, until now, of Peter’s grave because the whole site was cleared. Unwanted headstones were removed and a new parish hall was erected in the grounds after 1956. I don’t think any old gravestones would be allowed to be moved these days.

“The old site was first called the Folly Cemetery, or Church of England Burial Ground, North Waratah [now Mayfield]. There’s a wall plaque in the St Andrew’s grounds erected by its parishioners in 1957 stating the cemetery was in use from 1860 to 1905.

“It’s a real mystery how Peter’s gravestone could have ended up at Blackalls Park,” Ron Crebert said. 

(As many as 1221 people may have once been buried at The Folly.) 

Former German migrant Crebert was a true Newcastle success story. He arrived in Newcastle  in 1849 with his pregnant wife, Maria Louisa,  with little money and unable to speak English. 

Originally from Kiedrich,  Germany, they sailed from England on the ship Parland. Later, Peter Crebert encouraged his parents, brothers and sisters to also emigrate to help him out.

Working various jobs, the energetic Crebert (renamed from Grebert) finally bought a five-acre, tree-studded hill site at present Mayfield to settle with his wife in 1853.

Soon he set up an orchard and vineyard. Here, Crebert is credited with bottling Newcastle’s first wine in 1859. 

He then  quit his day job as a colliery carpenter, building and repairing coal skips. By 1870, he had a third vineyard and 21 acres of land. 

One year he even stored 3000 gallons of wine in various sheds for sale and now he’s immortalised in the name Crebert Street, Mayfield.

To get a further insight into what it was like at old Mayfield decades ago, let’s hear from former Mayfield resident  Helen Marshall.

Born in 1925, she remembered how the Crebert family gradually acquired land stretching from George to Ingall streets, Mayfield East.

Marshall said St Andrew’s present 1924 Anglican church site in Mayfield had once had a “lovely stone church [from 1861] which was knocked down for a car park”.

Speaking with Newcastle University’s Gionni Di Gravio back in 1995 on a heritage walk of the suburb,  Marshall said the Folly Cemetery memorial plaque from 1957 was wrong. 

The plaque states the last local burial was in 1905, but she remembered a burial there in 1935. Marshall said there had once been five Crebert family graves visible in the old cemetery.

“The headstones were taken out to Blackbutt [Reserve] and used as retaining walls. The coffins are still under the ground,” she said.

After the cemetery became neglected and overgrown, it became obvious it might soon disappear.

“All the people around here could [then] take what they wanted and they had gravestones in their yards, or as paths,” Marshall said.

“The cemetery was smashed up in early 1952-53. People then just didn’t care.”

Marshall said the Crebert family vineyards had had “a big gate”. (This land was apparently granted to future giant BHP as an industry buffer in 1912.)

“Peter Crebert’s [timber] home was huge, but it had the tiniest little bedrooms, about as big as cupboards ... he had a big family,” she told Di Gravio.

But Marshall said one weekend in the absence of BHP officials, people swarmed over the vacant house and “stole the timber”; each piece of timber Peter Crebert had once cut down, then sawn and lovingly planed to create his new home.

Much earlier, his showpiece orchards had become known as Crebert’s  ‘‘Folly’’ Gardens (after the original estate name of Platt’s Folly) and it was a popular Sunday outing for Novocastrians.

The third vineyard venture by Crebert faltered though when copper smelter fumes, bird strikes and a grub ruined the ripe grapes. There was a land swap and the failed vineyard site became a soap factory. By now, Peter Crebert had left an indelible mark on local history.

And this September 13  at the historic Mayfield East Public School, there will be a Crebert/Grebert reunion and a celebration  at Mayfield Diggers to toast the family’s success in Australia.

Reunion organiser Ron Crebert said he had already sent out 90 invitations.

“The descendants are coming out from all states, except Northern Territory and South Australia. The Creberts had 10 children and Peter brought out three brothers and a sister from overseas to help him,” he said.

“Peter Crebert was originally a vine dresser sponsored to come out to Australia [by Dr James Mitchell] to work at a Stockton tweed factory, but it burned down. I believe Crebert later donated the land on which the first Mayfield East School, a slab hut, was built in 1858, to make sure the area children were properly educated. His signature is one of four on a list of those who started the school.

“One of the more interesting things I found was 17 of Peter’s grandchildren going back in World War I to fight for Australia against his old homeland, Germany.”

Ron Crebert said the September reunion weekend would coincide with the 100th anniversary of the death of Peter’s wife.

“When Peter decided it was time to buy some dirt of his own to farm, I think he had to get naturalised as he couldn’t own land otherwise,” he said. “That’s maybe when he changed his name from Grebert to Crebert. Now we’re also finding the family has relatives everywhere, especially in NSW and Queensland.

 “I’ve a cousin in Melbourne who said the family tree on paper is already about 6 metres long.” 

For reunion details, email petercrebert@gmail.com or ring 49431118.



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