Tag Archives: Australian Agricultural Company

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).

Robert Dawson and Port Stephens

The Australian Agricultural Company was formed in London in 1824 and was to take up a million acres in New South Wales, mainly for sheep farming. The work was to be guided by a local committee, in which the Macarthur family was influential. Robert Dawson (1782-1866) was appointed the Company’s first agent.

The committee was able to choose where to take up land. John Oxley, Surveyor-General and explorer, recommended in order of preference the Liverpool Plains (in northern New South Wales), or alternatively the head of the Hastings River, or the area between Port Stephens and the Manning River. The committee at first declined to follow Oxley’s advice regarding the suitability of the Liverpool Plains, and sent Robert Dawson to examine the area around Port Stephens, which had the advantage of being nearer the coast.

In 1826 Dawson inspected the area and established the Company’s headquarters on the northern shores of Port Stephens, where Carrington and Tahlee stand now. From the Company’s point of view it turned out to be an unfortunate decision, as the area did not prove suitable for sheep farming. In 1830 the Company was able to give up portion of its grant in that area in exchange for a similar acreage at the Liverpool Plains, where as Oxley had predicted the conditions were favourable.

Oxley had explored the Liverpool Plains in 1818 and had discovered the Peel River on 2 September. On the occasion of the centenary of that event, an article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald recalling Oxley’s achievements and the role of the Australian Agricultural Company in opening up the Tamworth area to farming and settlement. The writer commented:

In these days of land hunger and Government resumptions it is hard to look upon any huge land monopoly with feelings of reverence or gratitude; but in those days the outlook was vastly different, and what would to-day be denounced by many people was 90 years ago considered to be a blessing. The colony was then a wilderness. Many parts of it had not been explored. There was no settlement outside the fringe round Sydney. The prospect of opening up the trackless forest and raising “fine wool, and cultivating the vine, olive, flax, and other productions” was too appalling for ordinary settlers to contemplate.

Dawson had to bear some of the blame for directing the Company’s time and resources towards an area that proved unsuitable, and he was recalled. Conscious of having his reputation unjustly blackened, he undertook newspaper publication of some relevant correspondence, and wrote a book, published in London in 1829, explaining matters from his point of view.

In 1830 appeared another book by him on The Present State of Australia. This book is especially interesting in its sensitive insights into the lives and attitudes of Aborigines whom Dawson encountered in the course of his travels and work. Early in the book he gives a detailed narrative of his journey overland from Newcastle to Port Stephens, describing the country and the assistance rendered by local Aborigines. He comments (p. 11) on a meeting between their guide ‘Ben’ and another aboriginal:

I was much amused at this meeting, and above all delighted at the prompt and generous manner in which this wild and untutored man conducted himself towards his wandering brother. If they be savages, thought I, they are very civil ones; and with kind treatment we have not only nothing to fear, but a good deal to gain from them. I felt an ardent desire to cultivate their acquaintance, and also much satisfaction from the idea that my situation would afford me ample opportunities and means for doing so.

Centenary of Oxley’s discovery of the Peel: V.T., ‘The old A.A. Company’, Sydney Morning Herald 7/9/1918, p. 11. E. Flowers, ‘Dawson, Robert (1782-1866)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, 1966, pp. 298-300; and online. Correspondence: ‘The Australian Agricultural Company and Mr. Dawson’, Australian 27/6/1828, p. 4. Robert Dawson, Statement of the Services of Mr Dawson, as Chief Agent of the Australian Agricultural Company, with a Narrative of the Treatment He Has Experienced from the Late Committee at Sydney, and the Board of Directors in London, London, Smith, Elder and Co., 1829; idem, The Present State of Australia: A Description of the Country, Its Advantages and Prospects with Reference to Emigration; and a Particular Account of Its Aboriginal Inhabitants, London, Smith, Elder and Co., 1830.

If, at sunrise, you chance to stroll

A number of waterways enter Port Stephens, on the coast of New South Wales above Newcastle. One of these is the Myall River, which winds its way in from the north, flowing today between the suburbs of Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest.

A 1936 article in the Sydney Morning Herald notes three suggested explanations for the name Tea Gardens: (i) fishermen made tea there in their billies on the foreshores; (ii) wicker baskets of tea were brought ashore from a ship that foundered on the ocean beach; and (iii) Lady Parry, wife of Sir Edward Parry, who was associated with the Australian Agricultural Company, suggested that it would be a good place for the company to grow tea. None of these explanations sounds very adequate, though a connection with the Australian Agricultural Company sounds not impossible as they were influential in the area.

The article contrasts the unprepossessing appearance of Tea Gardens, on the north of the harbour, with Nelson Bay on the southern shores, ‘with its mathematically arranged camping sections fringing the bay, its park and pleasant outlook.’ Tea Gardens has a ‘picturesquely untidy’ riverbank against a background of swamp lands and ‘uninviting scrub’. And yet (says the author) Tea Gardens has its own ‘unassuming attractiveness.’ It is significant for its role in timber, trading and fishing. In particular, it serves as a transit point for timber from upstream, the logs then being shipped from wharves or transferred by barge to a sawmill on the Hawk’s Nest side, in a locality known as ‘Windy-wappa’ (a corruption of an aboriginal word).

Among notable pioneers in the area were the Engel family. There was hardly any non-aboriginal there in the 1870s. In 1888 the Engel brothers took up grazing land further upriver, but the venture was unsuccessful owing to the tendency of the area to flood. They then began to supply provisions to people in the area and across to Nelson Bay. This service was still going in the 1930s. For example, the following advertisement appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1932: ‘Tea Gardens, Port Stephens, business centre, G. A. Engel and Sons, Universal Providers, Supply Bread, Meat, Mail, and Papers to all parts.’

One of the islands in the Myall River is Slip Island, so called because of a slipway built there by Henry Engel, who leased the island in 1913 for boat-building. The name Slip Island is used in the 1936 article. Later it was replaced by the name Witts Island. A local historian, the late Rex Hill, agitated to have the old name restored in recognition of its earlier usage and connection with the Engel boat-building enterprise. He did not live to see his proposal come to fruition, but in 2007 the name was officially changed from Witts Island to Slip Island.

An enormous amount of red cedar and other timber was felled and shipped off to various places. According to the 1936 article, the sawmill, built during the Great War, had been in continuous operation since that time, and puts out 1,000 super feet of timber an hour, for total annual purchases of 3 million super feet of logs. In its boom period ‘it produced more timber than any other mill on the North Coast.’ It is difficult to imagine the effect of this on the landscape and ecology of the area.

Despite all this activity, the writer finds specially attractive the scene at daybreak, before the birdlife is frightened away by human encroachment on its domain:

If, at sunrise, you chance to stroll along Tea Gardens’ extensive “promenade,” you will see a heterogeneous group of waterfowl stationed in the shallows between the mangroves of Slip Island and the mainland—black and white shags, drying their wings in the wind; fragile, motionless snow-white cranes, stealthily eyeing the flow about their stick-like legs; and dignified old pelicans, the last to take flight at your approach.

W. Gilmour, ‘Port Stephens. Story of the Tea Gardens’, Sydney Morning Herald 18/4/1936, p. 13. Universal Providers: Sydney Morning Herald 17/12/1932, p. 5. Rex Hill, Slip Island, Tea Gardens, NSW, Rex Hill, 2006. Name change: New South Wales Government Gazette 72, 1 June 2007, pp. 3114, 3115; cf. the Geographical Names Board entry for Slip Island.