Sharon Nile on the site of Madame Thornett’s old front garden
Photo credit: Ricky French

‘Why would she live here?’

A search for two stone lions leads to a reclusive millionairess, her vast horde of treasures and a coastal town rediscovering its past.

Ninety-nine bottles of beer in the dirt, 96 trunk-loads of loot. The empty bottles are still buried in mud and lantana along what’s left of Panama Street, just up from Bombo Beach and behind the blue metal quarry in the NSW south coast town of Kiama, the place where I was born. They’re remnants of a party that started in 1972 and lasted some time into the 80s; detritus from a chapter of the town’s history that few people have thought about, until now.

A short history of Kiama: During the time of the Wadi Wadi people the rainforest stretched to the sea. The cedar-getters arrived in the early 1800s, chopping down and moving on, paving the way for dairy farmers and quarry workers. During the 60s and 70s when my dad was growing up it was a work hard and play hard town. Friday night blues down at Tory’s pub, surfing off the hangover in the morning, shirts off and bongs on the veranda in the summer sun. “Madame” Thornett’s arrival caused a bit of a stir because we didn’t get too many millionaire reclusive single women who bought prime farmland and built lavish gardens and employed French maids and Chinese gardeners and kept a fleet of Rolls Royces and hoarded barn-fulls of extravagant, priceless Asian and European antiquities around these parts.

Forgotten for nearly half a century after she died in 1972, the town is not only rediscovering but also redefining just who the “Madame” was and where she fits into its history, all thanks to an unlikely connection with two missing stone lions…

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