James Hayes was the first caretaker and groundsman at Sacred Heart College from at least 1863. He not only looked after the grounds, buildings and animals but also cared for the sisters and acted as a chaperone, driving them out in a buggy to visit and care for Geelong’s poor, sick and imprisoned. He lived on site, with his wife Ellen and sons, including Michael who followed in his father’s footsteps and became a groundsman at the Convent in the 1880s. The continued family service followed with Lawrence, Michael’s son also taking up the mantle in the early 1900s.

During a recent literature survey of newspapers and articles relating to the Convent and daily College life, this article turned up. It is from The Ballarat Courier, November 3 1880.

Scene at the Geelong Convent

For some days past rumours have been abroad that a large portion of the grounds attached to the convent of Our Lady of Mercy, at Newtown, was to be claimed by a stranger just arrived from Queensland. In some quarters the rumour caused a little excitement, from the fact that it was based on the assumption that the claimant had a sound title to the ground—which has been fenced in, and now forms a portion of the convent enclosure. The claimant is a man named Thomas Needham, sixty-two years of age, a general dealer by trade, and a married man, with a wife and six children.
He has lately arrived in the colony from Rockhampton, and, according to his own statement, has come to Geelong for the purpose of residing on an allotment of ground facing Aphrasia street, and lying between that thoroughfare and the wall of the convent kitchen. The land claimed, according to Needham, consists of about a quarter of an acre, having 66 feet frontage to the street named by a depth of 450 feet, which goes so far back as to take in nearly 2 feet of the stone building forming a portion of the kitchen at the convent Mr Needham, who appears to be an old resident of Newtown, states that he obtained the title to the land through buying it from a man named John Jones when in Melbourne twenty-three years since. The matter appears to be rather mixed up. Jones borrowed £10 from a person James Rook, who resides in Aphrasia street. After a time Needham advanced to Jones the sum of £10 to release the deeds from Rook, and then gave Jones £30 more for the land, obtaining the deeds for the property, with a bill of sale written on the back of the document. Needham claims that he once resided on the land, which was sold to Jones by the New South Wales Government before the separation took place between the two colonies, and that he left Victoria sixteen or seventeen years since. He values the land in dispute at £50. As there are always two sides to a question, it is now necessary to give the other one.
In the first place the land is not worth more than £15; instead of being 450 feet in depth it is only 450 links; thirteen years since it was fenced and, and has formed part and parcel of the convent grounds; Needham cannot produce any title; the paper he holds being at most merely an equitable mortgage, and in fact he has no claim to the property. The solicitors are Messrs Taylor, Buckland, and Gates for the Roman Catholic trustees of the convent premises, and Mr W. Higgins for Thomas Needham. Acting on the advice of his solicitor, Mr Needham on Monday forenoon proceeded with a tent and other material, and together with Thomas Barber, of Malop Street east, scaled the convent fence and began erecting the tent on the coveted ground. They had scarcely commenced operations when James Hayes, the groom and gardener at the convent objected to the presence of the intruders, especially as to Barber's hand in the affair.
Evidently acting under legal advice also, Hayes, armed with a dangerous looking bludgeon, commenced a vigorous attack on Barber, who, acknowledging the unusual warmth of his reception, beat a hasty retreat across the fence and Needham, fearing similar treatment, played " follow the leader" in a style which would have done credit to a first-class steeplechase horse. Having discomfited the enemy, Hayes hurled the tent and materials into Aphrasia Street, and from a commanding position on the dividing fence invited a renewal of hostilities, but the sight of a broken-handled spade in his right hand caused the offer to be rejected. During the afternoon Messrs Barber and Needham loitered about the outside fences of the convent ground, and Hayes guarded the disputed land with a determination to sacrifice his blood, if necessary. We understand that the attack will be resumed by Messrs Needham and Barber. During the scene there was considerable excitement about the convent grounds, and there was a great stir in the neighbourhood.

Sadly, there are no further reports of what happened next and Thomas Needham seems to have dropped his case, not wanting a repeat of the hostilities and disappears from history. Thomas Barber, who was a strange choice of companion for Needham, goes on to spend a life of infamy and crime, with numerous reports of him appearing before the courts for running a disorderly house, handling stolen goods and forging documents, winds up being expelled from a Geelong benevolent asylum for misconduct in 1904. He dies soon after.

James Hayes goes on to live to 100, dying at his residence in Aphrasia Street in 1920. The descriptions in the Geelong Advertiser describe his funeral with hearse, two mourning coaches and a number of conveyances, and his pallbearers were local councillors and town elders. 

James’s connection to the Sisters of Mercy and Sacred Heart continues to this day with descendants in five families attending the College.

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