Robert Harold Connell was born in 1945 into a farming family. He was the middle child of Harold & Joyce Connell, between Carolyn and Sam. The family property is located on the Murrumbidgee River in the Yass area and was called Dowan Hill after the property the Connell family left behind in Scotland at the beginning of the 1800s. Robert was the fifth generation of his family to farm at Dowan Hill, Yass, and the family were the first European people to do so.
Robert was born at a chaotic time in the family history only months after the family’s homestead was burnt to the ground in an electrical fire. The fire meant that much of the family’s history was lost. While the homestead was being rebuilt, the family lived in a small cottage on the farm. Joyce would sit the cot legs in dishes of water in an effort to stop the creepy crawlies from getting into Robert’s bed. Progress on the rebuild was slow, coinciding as it did with post WW11 supply shortages, and the final result was a far cry from the original homestead.
Robert’s early life was spent helping his father on the farm, fishing and riding his poddy calf. One incident saw him being bucked from the calf only to come face to face with a frill-necked lizard! Many hours were spent with the Shannon cousins, as his mother, Joyce, was one of the 6 Shannon siblings of Marilba, Yass. Robert loved his cousins, and they all became firm friends over the years, spending much of their time together at parties and skiing on Burrinjuck Dam.
Robert began his schooling at home with a governess, Miss Buchanan, who spent much of her career caring for the various Shannon cousins. Robert remembered with delight when his sister began her correspondence and Robert was left to his own devices, being 4 years younger. He had vivid memories of marching up and down the hallway outside the schoolroom shouting, “girls have to go to school and boys don’t!”. There was also an incident involving the meeting of Robert’s teeth with Miss Buchanan’s ankle, which did not go down terribly well!
When Robert was 7 he was sent to boarding school at Barker College in Sydney. He had only been there for a year when on holidays back at Dowan Hill he was kicked by a horse, resulting in the loss of his kidney. The accident happened a long way from the homestead near the river yards. Harold set off immediately on horseback to collect the car and drive it as close as possible, whilst a farmhand carried Robert at least 1.5 miles over very steep and rocky terrain to meet the car. This undoubtedly saved Robert’s life. Once in Yass Hospital Robert was sent straight to Sydney by ambulance, which was apparently travelling at such a pace that Harold couldn’t keep up with it in his car. When back at Barker College many months later, Robert was hugely disappointed to find that the school would not allow him to play rugby as a result of the lost kidney. He remained very frustrated by this, however enjoyed watching the games from the sidelines throughout his life.
Upon leaving Barker, Robert worked alongside his father (and later his brother, Sam) on Dowan Hill. Then in 1967, he married Penelope Harrington from Mudgee. The two of them built a cottage on Dowan Hill, over near Gooda Creek. Three children came along: Joanna, Georgina and James. During this time Robert and Penny bought the old store in the Burrinjuck village, along with John and Helen Crisp, which they converted into a holiday house. Many happy weekends were spent down at Burrinjuck fishing and water skiing from a 16-foot speed boat which Robert and his father built over the course of 7 years (working only on wet days). The boat was Robert’s pride and joy. In 1974 when the rains hit, Burrinjuck Dam rose to alarming heights. It took the combined weight of Robert and 3 other men to lower the boat enough in the flooded boatshed to float it out.
Robert loved the Yass community. He donated to and participated in many community organisations. He was President of the Yass Picnic Race Club where he introduced advertising into the Race Programme, which was quite controversial at the time. Later he was Fire Captain of the Jeir Marchmont Brigade for many years where he made it his mission to get some of the newer landholders in the area involved and fire ready.
Dowan Hill was a huge part of Robert’s life and he, alongside his brother and father, continued the family business of running sheep and cattle to produce lamb, beef and wool. There was a brief foray into pigs and he also cropped up to 1000 acres. In 1989 Sam decided to branch out on his own, leaving for Orange where he and his wife Jacque bought a property.
In the wake of the 20% interest rates of the 80s, Robert decided to further diversify. He imported 1000 feral nanny goats with the view to breed them up and create a premium line of white cashmere goats. This resulted in Dowan Hill being the biggest producer of Cashmere in Australia at that time and Robert was very proud of the fact that one year the Dowan Hill Cashmere clip accounted for one-third of the entire Australian clip. Later, when Cashmere was no longer as lucrative, Boer Goat Sires were purchased to further diversify the business into the goat meat industry. An unexpected consequence of the goat enterprise was that in order to effectively manage them Robert had to engineer some Goat Handling Equipment. This helped contain and subdue the animals enough so that their animal health needs could be met. The Goat Handling Equipment was so successful that Robert and Penny began exhibiting at field days, selling handlers to goat farmers all over the country. Penny and Robert travelled to China and Mongolia in 1986 and there was talk of manufacturing equipment for export into the Chinese market.
Robert was a self-taught engineer/mechanic. His inquisitive mind was always at work, hoping to understand and in some cases better, a solution. His goat handing equipment was a commercial success, however other projects were purely for personal benefits, like the caravan boat mounting solution which worked a treat, though looked unconventional. He didn’t want to be packing and unpacking the boat every trip, so the solution was to hoist and mount the boat upright.
Robert was hugely proud of his children, sending all three away to boarding school, as he and Penny had gone before them. Sadly, James died the day before his 27th birthday on 29th May 2004 from heart complications following a game of rugby in Canberra. This loss devastated Robert and indeed the whole family. James had just moved back home to begin running Dowan Hill as his father and grandfathers before him. As a result, Georgina moved back home to help run Dowan Hill in James’ place.
Around this time, Penny and Robert began to take extended holidays in their caravan, seeing much of Australia. They travelled with many of their friends and loved the freedom of being in the caravan and stopping whenever and wherever they pleased.
In 2015 Robert received the devastating diagnosis of lung cancer. The shock of this diagnosis coming at a time when Georgina’s two children were still so young, saw the hard decision made to sell Dowan Hill. Penny and Robert bought a house in Yass so that they could remain close to family and friends. The new garden became Robert’s oasis, and it became a family joke that after spending not one second of his life at the farm helping out in the garden, he became a dedicated green thumb with an eye for garden design! Penny and Robert thoroughly enjoyed the new lifestyle that town life offered. They both became regulars on the golf course and often socialised at the 19th hole.
In 2017 Robert and Penny travelled to the Baltic States with their good friends David & Cathy Shannon, and Clive & Rosie Phillips. Robert enjoyed this trip immensely and followed it up with a trip with Penny to Alaska and Canada in 2019.
It was on this trip to Alaska that Robert fell ill with pancreatitis and the trip was cut short. Sadly, from this time onwards Robert was in and out of hospital battling the return of his cancer. In January 2020 Robert was moved home where Penny spent nearly 10 months nursing him, throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Finally, in October 2020 Robert was taken into care at Horton House in Yass, where he died on 3rd February 2021. Robert was known as a true gentleman who always had a quick-witted laugh with his carers. His strength and determination were truly remarkable. It saw him beat all odds and predictions to completely mystify and surprise all medical staff.
Robert’s funeral was held on 11th February 2021 in the Old Presbyterian Cemetery in Yass. He is now at rest beside James and close to many Connells who have gone before him.
The Connell Family would like to thank everyone involved with Roberts fantastic care, particularly the Yass Valley Community Nurses, the Gunning & District Community Service, all the staff at Horton House and his wonderful doctor, Dr Jonathan Williams. We would also like to thank the Yass Community for their continued support and friendship. We are so very lucky to live where we live!