As Assif “George” Trad lay on his death bed in 1960, he said there was a fortune hidden in his hawker’s van. Most thought his illness had made him delusional, but events decades later proved him right!
Bega Pioneers Museum, operated by the Bega Historical Society has a complete and functioning hawker’s van that belonged to George Trad who used it from around 1920 to 1960 to hawk haberdashery on the south coast and the hinterland. It is an important item of heritage significance to our Lebanese community because it is the only example so far found in NSW that is evidence of how so many of our people worked and lived “on the road”.
Museum notes tell us that George Trad (born Syrian c. 1903 – Died October 1964 Sydney) was christened Assif after his grandfather but preferred to be called George after his father. He boasted of having the first Hawkers’ licence in NSW, although how he calculated this is not known since he could have only started hawking from around 1920. Perhaps it was his father’s licence. In the 1920’s he was hawking sewing materials in Eden from a basket he carried on his head.
Trad’s hawker’s van started out as horse drawn ambulance for the South Coast town of Cobargo. It was built in 1906 by coach builders Whyman and Brooks of Carp Street, Bega and cost £67 which was raised by public subscription. Anyone who needed to use the ambulance had to supply their own horse, or else hire one! It is said that it was only ever used to transport one patient, a man with a broken leg who was carried to a ship at port for transportation to hospital.
A history of Cobargo notes:
And so it remained in its shed until the mid-twenties. Then four or five of us pulled it down the road to Alex Boyd’s coach workshop, situated where the Cobargo swimming pool is today. The pole was removed and a set of shafts put in to be drawn by one horse. This conversion work was done for one George Trad, an Assyrian [sic] hawker.
George Trad purchased the van and converted it into a mobile haberdashery with lots of shelves for his goods. He travelled the local roads selling his wares until about 1960. The territory he covered was a large one. Deab Wehby remembers encountering Trad in his van in Braidwood from time to time. Staff at the Bega Museum said he ranged north to Moruya and south to Eden. He was a well known sight on South-coast roads. A Bega Museum leaflet says that children had a habit of throwing stones at the van and the tin sides have dints showing the result.
A Bega newspaper article of 1937 headlined Syrian Horse Bolts, recounts how Trad’s horse had bolted down Auckland Street, Bega with the tin van attached and came to grief by falling near the Co-op Store. The horse was uninjured and there was no damage to the van or George.
In February 1950 George was taken to court in Bega for ill-treating his horse. The magistrate ordered the horse shot and fined George £10 but the horse got a reprieve and was put in a paddock to recover. Whether George used the same horse or bought a new one is unknown, but when his horse died in late 1950’s George stayed at the Lucas family property at Brogo for nearly three years before he became ill in 1961. He was hospitalised in Bega and apparently then moved to Sydney to be with his brother Elias and family. The dates about George Trad’s and his van’s movements in the early 1960s are not entirely clear and his exact death details are not found in the usual sources. When George died in 1964, it was believed in Bega that he had no relatives in Australia and the local police attended to his estate.
The van was parked in the Balmain Bros. second-hand car yard and remained there for some time. At some stage a Sister Bernice Smith, who was then president of the Bega Historical Society, bought it for £10 and had it taken to her home at the top end of Carp Street, Bega where it remained for some years in her back yard. She apparently bought it in 1962 when George had left the district but before he had died. Later it found its way to the then new Bega Valley Historical Society Museum where it is on show today. The van featured in an historical procession through Bega on 16th April 1977 to celebrate the opening of the Bega Museum and the photo shows it in being drawn by horse in the parade.
The Lost Fortune!
While he was ill in the late 1950s and staying with the Lucas family, Bega Museum staff say Trad would visit his van now and then. He was obviously in decline and they spoke of his distress of not being able to locate cash that he said was in the van although he and his friends searched it many times. People doubted there was ever any hidden cash. George was adamant that he had hidden cash in the van and in a rash moment, accused his carers of stealing it.
In April 2002, a panel of religious pictures that was attached to the front interior wall of the van was removed for cleaning an maintenance. Packed behind the panel were 8 tobacco tins. In the tins were wads of £10 notes, many of them rust-stained from the tins. They had been in the van as George had claimed, undisturbed for about 40 years!
Van Survives in Good Condition
When I inspected the van at the Museum in June this year, it was in very good condition. The Society said the panel of religious pictures, in place, was recently inspected and cleaned by Georges’s family including a lady, that as a young girl, had assembled the collage. Shelves, just like the hand made shelves in many of the old photos of shop interiors ran along the internal sides of the van with pencilled marks such as “Braces”, or “Belts”. The Museum received a grant from the Powerhouse Museum to raise moveable items up off the ground and as a result the van’s axels are now resting on purpose built steel supports. It is housed in a shed that is roofed and partly enclosed that is reasonably weatherproof. Considering that it has borne weather, good and bad from 1906, the present accommodation is superior in comparison.
It is truly a remarkable item to have survived and belongs on our heritage list.