Tag Archives: Drought

Rain at Hunter’s River and not a blade of grass at Bathurst

On 17 February 1827 the Monitor newspaper in Sydney published a letter to the editor which referred to current weather conditions:

Cattle are dying in many parts of the Country through the drought, and the Hawkesbury Maize crop is ruined. There is, however, a plenty of it at Hunter’s River, where the rains have fallen (so I am informed) in great profusion. There is not a blade of grass at Bathurst and the case is much the same in many parts of Argyle.

The letter was dated Clydsdale [sic], 12 February 1827, and signed ‘R. M. T.’ The last initial suggests a relative of Charles Tompson, who bought Clydesdale Farm near Windsor in 1819 and was still in possession at the time of this letter. He had arrived in Sydney in 1804, having been transported for seven years. He acquired land in various parts of the colony, including (I understand) a property at Bathurst also given the name Clydesdale. In the present context ‘Clydsdale’ no doubt refers to his estate at South Creek near Windsor. The letter-writer (a son of Charles?), in mentioning the four regions of the Hawkesbury, Hunter’s River, Bathurst and Argyle, is likely to have had specific properties in mind. Charles had a number of sons, among them Charles jr., a poet; I have not identified R.M.T. The county of Argyle lay to the south-west of Sydney and centred on the township of Goulburn.

In his Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, John Dunmore Lang comments (p. 209) on the regional variability of climatic conditions in the colony, in a passage which has in view the same drought to which the letter-writer was referring:

Calamitous as it was, however, the drought was only partial, whole districts having either entirely or in great measure escaped its influence. It was much less felt, for instance, in the county of Argyle, to the southward and westward, than in the lowlands or earlier settled districts of the colony. In the lower parts of the settlement of Hunter’s River, or on what the Americans would call the sea-board, it was by no means so severe as at a greater distance from the coast: and in Illawarra, an extensive and highly fertile district about fifty miles to the southward of Port Jackson, the few settlers who had cultivated grain in any quantity never lost a crop. Such also was the case at the settlements of Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay, to the northward; and at Patrick’s Plains, a tract of fertile land on Hunter’s River, naturally destitute of timber, where the crop was nearly all destroyed in the year 1828, a good crop was reaped in the first year of the drought.

Letter to the editor: The Monitor 17/2/1827, p. 5. Note Adele Whitmore (comp.), Descendants of Charles Tompson: Australian Family Tree and Album, 4 vols., South Penrith NSW, A.M. Whitmore, 1987. 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, p. 209. Baker’s Australian County Atlas includes a map of the County of Argyle, accessible online.

Showers have revived our hopes

Sir Thomas Brisbane was Governor of New South Wales from 1 December 1821 until 1 December 1825. Three years after his departure from office, the Sydney Gazette referred to a long-range weather forecast attributed to the Governor:

The Australian says, that “Sir Thomas Brisbane, before he left the Colony, predicted that we should have a drought of three years’ duration in New South Wales!” For the first six months after Sir Thomas left, it did nothing but rain, and that as violently as ever rain descended from the heavens. But, should this prediction come true, there are about two years yet to the good: and, if there be no rain in that time, we will undertake to predict that the world will then be at an end.

This suggests that in March 1828 the writer was of the view that the colony had been subject to drought for about a year, that is since about March 1827. We read of drought in 1826 but there was evidently sufficient rain by the beginning of 1827 to mark off that period of drought from the more prolonged period which succeeded. Thus we read concerning the Thursday market in Sydney on 4 January:

The fruit is beginning to shew itself, though the long drought has been a great drawback upon the orchard; but the late occasional showers have revived our hopes in this respect.

There seems to have been a spirit of hopefulness abroad in March 1827. Experience suggested that substantial rains were likely in the latter part of the month, and on 10 March the Sydney Gazette was taking heart from recent conditions and expecting even better:

Upon looking into the Almanack we are glad to find, for once in a way, that our Colonial Compiler is tolerably correct. We see that we are to expect rain in torrents this month; of this we are right glad, as nothing is more universally needed than rain in abundance. Horticulture begins, even already, to wear a smiling aspect; and, as for the field, nature has proudly and joyously assumed her ever-green. We have had a long drought. The maize has somewhat suffered; but still nothing—no, not even the apparent frown of Providence, will operate as a drawback upon our prosperity, since all things will continue to work together for our Commercial, Agricultural, Political, and Moral Good.

Some readers may have wondered whether, in ascribing to Providence merely an ‘apparent frown’ that could hardly hinder human progress, the writer was tempting Fate.

Governor Brisbane’s prediction: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 21/3/1828, p. 2. Market report: ibid. 6/1/1827, p. 2. Almanack: ibid. 10/3/1827, p. 2.

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).

Beware the Ides of March

On 27 February 1823 the Sydney Gazette expressed a mixture of gratitude and foreboding:

The rains, with which we have been visited during the past week, have been extremely beneficial to the garden and to the field. The face of nature speedily assumed a grateful appearance, and the poor beasts even have had occasion to rejoice. From experience, however, we think it a duty to put the settler in mind of next month, for the “ides of March” approach.

The reference to the Ides of March seems to mean that there will be an inevitable development in the weather and it will come irrespective of the strength of one’s hopes and fears. Was the writer suggesting that by the middle of March there might be either too little rain or too much?

On 18 March 1824 the Sydney Gazette reported an alteration in the weather from dry to wet:

The recent rain has been productive of vast benefit to the drooping garden and perishing field. With the exception of a few showers at the commencement, this month has been marked as one of the most inclement for heat and drought, up to the 15th. Every year, as well as each revolving season, fully assures the Colonists that there is nothing more uncertain than the Australian weather—while it must be allowed, as well as generally acknowledged, that this uncertainty does not at all diminish the proverbial salubrity of our clime. As we have had but little rain since July, water has been scarce in town; but then it should be gratefully remembered what a providential supply Black-wattle Swamp furnishes in the most dry season.

In that year at least the Ides of March were associated with a welcome change.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 27/2/1823, p. 2; ibid. 18/3/1824, p. 2.

Weather and prophecy

After a long drought in the last months of 1821 and the beginning of 1822, the Sydney Gazette was able to report on 15 February 1822 that, ‘Rain has come at last.’ (See the entry ‘Droughts and flooding rains’ of 1/3/2011.)

A week later the newspaper reported:

The long-looked for and much desired weather, which is showery and also pleasant, still continues. Prophets (those of the calculating and predicting cast} are not to be found in every generation, and were never eminently notorious for numerical strength, yet it would seem that Australia may boast of some such antiquated mortal, by occasionally prying into the arcana of the Colonial Kalendar.

The somewhat cryptic reference to prophecy appears to be a qualified commendation of weather information found in the almanac which had been published annually in Sydney for quite a few years.

George Howe (1769-1821), publisher and printer of the Sydney Gazette, had produced the New South Wales Pocket Almanack and Colonial Remembrancer for the year 1806, the first almanac published in Australia. This effort was not repeated for 1807 because of lack of paper, but he reinvigorated the concept in 1808 under the title New South Wales Pocket Almanack, a publication which continued to appear annually for fourteen years, until the year of Howe’s death, 1821. His son Robert Howe (1795-1829), who had grown up with the Sydney Gazette, took over the newspaper and the almanac, and issued the Australasian Pocket Almanack for five years from 1822 to 1826, and the Australasian Almanack for 1827.

These almanacs contained a wide range of materials for reference, including weather information and other advice useful for farmers and gardeners. On the question of prophecy, an article on ‘Australasian Almanacks’ in volume 4 of The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, published in London, observed that the Australasian Pocket Almanacks of 1822 and 1823, in contrast with English almanacks, have ‘no prophetic warnings about war or weather; but in each month “the usual state of the weather” is given, which to us, appears a much more rational method’ (pp. 406-408, at p. 406).

It was perhaps at least partly on the basis of information in the almanacs of George and Robert Howe that the Sydney Gazette was able to counsel patience among its readers when the weather was difficult for protracted periods.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 15/2/1822, p. 2; ibid. 22 February 1822, p. 2. The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, 49 vols., London, J. Limbird and others, 1822-1849 (there is a list with links to Google reproductions on the University of Pennsylvania website); vol. 4 was published in 1824. J.V. Byrnes, ‘Howe, George (1769-1821)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, 1966, pp. 557-559, and online (includes a section on the life of George’s son Robert Howe, who was born in 1795 and drowned in 1829).

A drought, a heat wave and high winds

In early February 1823, as in the first week of February in the previous year, Sydney was again in the grip of a drought. In the issue of Thursday 13 February the Sydney Gazette reported that the cattle on the Sydney side of the mountains were ‘deplorably off’, with the grass eaten away. Fortunately there was an abundance of supplies coming from the ‘new country’ on the other side, and there was beef from that region that ‘would no way discredit Old England.’ Rain was needed in Sydney soon or ‘the drought will be severely felt.’ The maize had been affected by lack of rain and it was likely that it would be scarce and dear.

‘Monday last’ (presumably 10 February) ‘was one of our hottest days.’ The temperature was still 80° at 4 in the afternoon. There was a stiff sea-breeze from the south-east and then about a quarter past 5 a gale-force ‘white squall’ sprang up from the south, a ‘hurricane that in a few moments spread for miles around the town of Sydney,’ enveloping the metropolis in ‘astonishing’ clouds of thick dust. It was among the most violent of gales ever experienced. The wind continued ‘with small intermission’ throughout the night. About 7 p.m. there were lightning and distant thunder, then ‘gentle and genial showers.’ The temperature was still 78 at 6 o’clock and 75 at 9 o’clock.

There had been a pattern of high temperatures at night in both January and February:

It has been nothing unusual to discover the thermometer, during the last month, as well as the present, as high as 70° of heat at 11 and 12 at night.

The temperatures mentioned, if accurate, are in the low to mid-twenties on the Celsius scale.

It was so windy on ‘Thursday last’ (this evidently means 6 February) that the Government boat the Antelope overturned as it was coming into Sydney Cove. Four crew had to be rescued and one named Stafford was drowned. The boat was recovered the next day.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 13/2/1823, p. 2. 80, 75 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit are approximately 27, 24 and 21 degrees Centigrade. Monday 10 February: the wild weather events of ‘Monday last’ are narrated before reference to the windy conditions of ‘Thursday last’, but Monday 3 February would presumably be too far away and would be several days before the preceding issue of the Sydney Gazette. In the Sydney Gazette of 1/8/1818, p. 3, the Antelope is described as ‘a boat of 20 tons, belonging to the Government dock-yard.’ Accounts published in the Sydney Gazette in March and November 1820 and September and November 1821 refer to John Cadman, ‘Cockswain of H. M. Boat Antelope’ (also spelled Coxswain), in that position as far back as 25 December 1817. The Sydney Gazette of 2/1/1823, p. 1, lists ‘J. Cadman’ among recipients of grants of land. Cf. D.I. McDonald, ‘Cadman, John (1772-1848)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, 1966, p. 192, and online (no mention of a grant of land; unclear about the origins of the cottage in which Cadman lived; states that he lived there from 1816). According to the City of Sydney website, the building now called Cadman’s Cottage, at 110 George Street North, The Rocks, possibly designed by Francis Greenway, ‘was built in 1815-16 as the ‘Coxswain’s Barracks’ attached to Governor Macquarie’s dockyard and stores’; Cadman lived there for a time from 1827 onwards, when he was Superintendent of Government Craft (this statement omits reference to his having lived there earlier). It is Sydney’s earliest surviving example of a residential building. See also ‘Cadman’s Cottage’, in Dictionary of Sydney; ‘Cadmans Cottage Historic Site’, and ‘Plans of Cadmans Cottage, 1815-16’, on the website of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water.

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.