Tag Archives: Agriculture

An era of drought

In his Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales (4th ed., 1875), John Dunmore Lang makes a number of notable references to weather patterns in the colony and consequences for the inhabitants.

In discussing exploration in the time of Governor Macquarie, Lang notes that floods on the Hawkesbury River were succeeded ‘in the usual course of the seasons in New South Wales, by a serious drought in the year 1813’ (p. 163). Given that the colony had over 65,000 sheep and 21,000 cattle, and nearly 2,000 horses, it was imperative to find new pastures for them, and this gave an impulse to search for land on the other side of the Blue Mountains.

A quarter of a century later there was a momentous period of drought in the time of Governor Darling. That Governor’s tenure (1825-1831) was marked by ‘four remarkable epochs’: ‘the era of general excitement … the era of general depression … the era of drought … the era of libels’ (p. 196).

In 1825 the Australian Agricultural Company was formed as a joint-stock company under Royal Charter, to cultivate land, to rear sheep, cattle and horses, and to contribute to the improvement of the colony (pp. 196 ff.). It had a capital of a million pounds sterling and was authorised to select and take possession of a million acres free of charge. Around the same time, other men of means in England, with agents in New South Wales, obtained extensive grants of land. The price of livestock had been rising during the time of Governor Brisbane (1821-1825), when landholdings increased and there was a corresponding demand for sheep and cattle. With the advent of the Australian Agricultural Company and the great extension of landholdings at that time the additional demand caused prices to rise rapidly. And then a ‘sheep and cattle mania’ formerly unknown in the colony ‘instantly seized on all ranks and classes of its inhabitants’ (p. 198). Barristers and attorneys, military officers and civilians, clergymen and doctors, merchants, settlers and dealers wanted to buy sheep and cattle at the markets.

The large numbers of sheep and cattle bought in 1826 and 1827 had to be paid for, they and their progeny had to be fed, and in the meantime agriculture contracted through an over-emphasis on livestock and grazing. It was even more disastrous, therefore, when encouraging weather gave way to a drought that lasted for nearly three years, from 1827 to 1829.

John Dunmore Lang, An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, from the Founding of the Colony in 1788 to the Present Day, 4th ed., vol. I, London, Sampson Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1875 [previous editions, 1834, 1837, 1852], pp. 163, 196-210. The literature on Governor Darling includes: ‘Darling, Sir Ralph (1772-1858)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, 1966, pp. 282-286, and online; Brian H. Fletcher, Ralph Darling: A Governor Maligned, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1984; Brian Fletcher, ‘Ralph Darling (19 December 1825 – 22 October 1831)’, in David Clune and Ken Turner (ed.), The Governors of New South Wales 1788-2010, Annandale NSW, Federation Press, 2009, chap. 7 (pp. 148-166).

Droughts and flooding rains

On 8 February 1822 the Sydney Gazette reported that, ‘The present month of February makes the fourth month of continued drought this season.’ This indicates drought from October 1821, through November, December and January and into the first week of February.

It was driving people to distraction. The newspaper noted that ‘a professional Gentleman’ in Sydney had recently tried to dig for water to save a few choice plants and had found the earth twenty feet down ‘in as heated a state as that within only a few inches of the surface.’

The wheat harvest was ‘safely in’ but the maize was ‘in a terrible condition.’ Around Windsor the maize appeared to be healthy but was mostly stalks and leaves, with ‘hardly any cob.’ The most optimistic prediction was that, if plenty of rain came, about half the originally expected crop would result. The writer counsels patience:

To make up, however, for this apparent calamity, the next month’s rainy visitation, which is pretty certain, may be providentially instrumental in producing abundance from the forest or stubble crops. We must not too readily give place to despondency, after having been so signally blessed with such a luxuriant harvest.

Within the week there was cause for celebration. The next issue of the Sydney Gazette, dated 15 February, announced the glad tidings to a public already very much aware of the event:

Rain has come at last, and though there is not much occasion to render that public which is generally known, still it should be remembered that it calls forth from our hearts the liveliest gratitude towards that gracious Being, who so promptly attends to, and effectually relieves, our wants.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 8/2/1822, p. 3; ibid. 15/2/1822, p. 2.

Wanting coal for the colony

In enumerating in June 1815 the natural resources of the Blue Mountains and the Western country, Governor Macquarie was pleased to report that there were enough water and grass in the mountains to support cattle taken over them, and on the other side enough ‘fertile soil and rich pasturage’ to support any increase in population and stock for many years.

However, there were certain deficiencies. Timber to the west of the mountains was everywhere ‘much inferior both in size and quality to that within the present Colony.’ Fortunately there was enough timber ‘of tolerable quality’ around Bathurst for building and farming purposes.

There was another deficiency which occasioned particular dismay:

The Governor has here to lament, that neither Coals or Lime-stone have been yet discovered in the Western Country: articles in themselves of so much importance, that the want of them must be severely felt whenever that country shall be settled.

A dozen years earlier the Sydney Gazette had reported on the discovery of coal in the region of Hunter’s River. A new mine had been found likely to yield ‘the finest coal that has ever been witnessed.’ The Governor (Philip King) planned to send a sample back to England, ‘and from the accounts given of the mine, we have every reason to affirm, that it will prove highly beneficial to the general interests of the Colony.’ The coal resembled that at Leith near Edinburgh but was even better. A month later more coals arrived in Sydney from the New Colliery at Hunter’s River, and these were ‘of superior quality to those formerly procured at the River, and promise to the Colony a lasting resource.’ Later in the same month coal from Hunter’s River was being compared with the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts in ancient Colchis.

Governor King found that he had to step in and regulate the extraction, sale and export of coal from the Hunter region, and the getting of timber there. In an Order of 24 March 1804 he declared that, ‘The Coals and Timber of all descriptions are the entire and exclusive property of the Crown wherever found or growing’; and by the same Order taxes were levied on coal and timber at set rates under the heading of ‘King’s Dues for Orphans.’

Two hundred years later, coal interests and governments are still acting in liaison despite the realisation that coal is not ‘highly beneficial to the general interests’ of society.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 10/6/1815, pp. 1-2. A new mine at Hunter’s River: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 8/5/ 1803, p. 3. Coals ‘of superior quality’: 12/6/1803, p. 3. The Golden Fleece: 19/6/1803, p. 3. Governor King’s Order: 25/3/1804, p. 1.

An ode for the Queen’s birthday

On Saturday 20 January 1816 the Sydney Gazette reported that, ‘Thursday last being the Anniversary of the auspicious Birth of Our Gracious Queen, was celebrated with the fullest demonstrations of loyalty and joy.’

The Royal Standard (at Fort Phillip) and the Union Flag (at Dawes’s Point) were displayed at sunrise. A Royal Salute was fired at 12 noon, and the Governor inspected the 46th Regiment and the Royal Veteran Company in Hyde Park. His Majesty’s armed brig Emu fired a Royal Salute at one o’clock, and the Governor held a levee at Government House, ‘and received the Congratulations of the Civil and Military Officers, and other Gentlemen of the Colony.’

At the levee, ‘The Laureat Bard (for so we may venture to call him, from the frequency of his tributes on such occasions) presented his offering of an Ode, which, at the instance of His Excellency, he recited in an emphatic and appropriate style; the distinguished approbation of those who had the satisfaction to hear it, will best convey the high opinion entertained of the merits of this production – We have the pleasure of introducing it to our Readers in our present columns.’

In the evening a ball and supper, attended by over 120 ladies and gentlemen, were held at the New General Hospital, Government House being too small for the occasion. That morning, news of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo had arrived, and the decorations included a salute to this triumph.

The ‘Laureat Bard’ was Michael Massey Robinson, who held several positions of trust in the colony despite having been transported for blackmail and having been detected acting in breach of regulations. Over the course of a decade during Governor Macquarie’s tenure he was regularly looked to for an ode for the King’s and Queen’s birthdays. It is intriguing that, if the year of his birth is correctly given as 1744 (there is some doubt about the date), he was born in the same year as Queen Charlotte, a circumstance which may have given him an additional emotional investment in poetically marking the passage of time and reflecting on human progress.

The odes vary in quality and clarity, but they have a sense of feeling and power, and they give valuable insights into the thinking of the time. While audiences may not have followed every convoluted thought or expression, even in an age when convolution was accepted as a part of high style, they no doubt appreciated the values that Robinson was careful to promote: pride in ‘Albion’ and her heroes in war and peace; a commitment to reason, civilisation, the wisdom of classical Athens, Christianity, the arts and sciences, education (with mention of Oxford, where Robinson studied, and Cambridge), and human valour and industry in such fields as exploration and agriculture; and firm rejection of all that was regarded as unsympathetic to these ideals.

Each ode develops a timely theme. That for the Queen’s birthday in 1816 begins by praising those who have explored the world by sea, including Columbus (a great but flawed adventurer) and even more so Albion’s heroic representatives (‘Firm as the Oak that bound their Vessels’ Sides’). The poet then considers the glorious and patriotic achievements of adventurous Britons whose explorations take them across ‘Tracts of untravers’d Earth’ in Australia, and in particular ‘Where yon Blue Mountains, with tremendous Brow, / Frown on the humbler Vales that wind below, / Where scarcely human Footsteps ever trac’d / The craggy Cliffs that guard the lingering Waste / O’er the wild Surface of the Western Plains…’ Bringing agriculture to this new domain caused surprise: ‘Invaded Nature startled at the Plan’; but the ‘stubborn Glebe’ yielded, shared in the triumph and disclosed its riches. ‘And proud Posterity shall prize the Land / That owes its Culture to a Briton’s Hand!’

One can imagine Governor Lachlan Macquarie being very pleased with these sentiments.

The date of the Queen’s birthday, and the date of its celebration, present some difficulties. George III (4 June 1738 – 29 January 1820) married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, whose dates seem generally to be given as 19 May 1744 – 17 November 1818. According to Percy Fitzgerald, The Good Queen Charlotte (1899), p. 6: ‘The future queen, Sophia Charlotte, was born May 16th or May 19th, o.s. 1744.’ In colonial New South Wales the anniversary was celebrated on 18 January (or 19 January if the 18th was a Sunday). It seems that Queen Charlotte’s Birthday Ball (a traditional occasion for the coming out of debutantes) is held in May in Britain but in January in at least one or two places elsewhere.

Given the recent and current floods in eastern Australia (though not in the Sydney region), it is interesting to note that this period in January 1816 was a time of rains with a threat of floods, as the Sydney Gazette reported below its description of the Queen’s birthday celebrations: ‘The continuance of the rains begins to excite apprehension for the safety of the crop of wheat newly gathered, as well as for the growing maize. The earth is already saturated, the lagoons and hollows are in general full, and are likely to overflow unless the rains should cease.’

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 20/1/1816, p. 2, including Mr. Michael Robinson, ‘Ode for the Queen’s Birth Day, 1816’. Donovan Clarke, ‘Robinson, Michael Massey (1744-1826)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 2, 1967, pp. 387-389, and online. George Mackaness (ed.), Odes of Michael Massey Robinson, First Poet Laureate of Australia, with five illustrations, Sydney, Ford, 1946. Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald, The Good Queen Charlotte, London, Downey, 1899; ‘o.s.’ = ‘old style’.

The five Macquarie towns

Just before Christmas in the year 1810, Governor Lachlan Macquarie issued an Order in which he noted the ‘frequent Inundations of the Rivers Hawkesbury and Nepean,’ the calamitous effects of these inundations on the crops in that vicinity, and the consequent serious injury to the subsistence of the Colony. To guard against a recurrence of such calamities, he had ‘deemed it expedient … to erect certain Townships on the most contiguous and eligible high Grounds in the several Districts subjected to those Inundations.’

The stated purpose of the townships was to provide accommodation and security to the settlers affected by the floods. Accordingly the townships were organised on a particular basis. Each settler was to be assigned ‘an Allotment of Ground for a Dwelling house, Offices, Garden, Corn-yard, and Stock-yard proportioned to the Extent of the Farm he holds within the influence of the Floods.’ These allotments could not be sold or alienated separate from the farms in connection with which they were allotted; they were always to be considered part of these farms.

The five districts concerned, and the names of the townships to be established, were: Green Hills, Windsor; Richmond Hill, Richmond; Nelson, Pitt Town; Phillip, Wilberforce; and Nepean, Castlereagh.

The local constables were to submit returns listing the settlers whose farms were affected by flood, the number of persons in their families, the size of their farms, and the number of animals in their flocks and herds. These returns, on the relevant form, were to go to the Principal Magistrate, William Cox, and from him to the Governor. The Acting Surveyor was then to mark out allotments.

Following this process, settlers were to erect houses as soon as possible and move in. The houses were to be of brick or weather-board, with brick chimneys and shingled roofs, and were to be no less than nine feet high. Official plans for the houses and offices would be left with the District Constable, and each settler had to build in conformity with these plans.

Christmas Day holiday and services

Just before Christmas in the same year, the Sydney Gazette also carried orders concerning Christmas Day (which fell on a Tuesday). ‘By divine Permission’ the church of St. Phillip, at Sydney, was to be consecrated on that day by the Principal Chaplain, Rev. Samuel Marsden. The Governor announced that he ‘is pleased to dispense with the Labour of all the Prisoners, and other Men working for the Government, on Christmas Day and the Day following.’ They were required to work as usual on other days of the week. Moreover, they were required on Christmas Day to parade at the usual hour and place for Divine Service.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 15/12/1810, p. 1; similarly, ibid., 22/12/1810, p. 1. Cf. ‘The Macquarie Towns’, State Library of NSW website. St. Phillip’s church: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 22/12/1810, pp. 2-3. Christmas Day holiday: ibid., p. 3.