Tag Archives: Gregory Blaxland

Over the mountains and along the stream

In a Government Order of 12 February 1814, Governor Lachlan Macquarie rehearsed the story of the recent expedition of George William Evans, an Assistant Land Surveyor, who with two free men and three convicts crossed the Blue Mountains and explored the country beyond. The Order acknowledged the contribution of Evans and his men and recorded rewards to be given to them and to their volunteer predecessors over the Blue Mountains, Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth.

With instructions from Governor Macquarie, Evans’ party left Emu Island on 20 November 1813 and arrived back at the same place on 8 January 1814 after a journey of seven weeks. The purpose of the journey was ‘to ascertain what Resources this Colony might possess in the Interior.’ Evans was to ‘discover a Passage over the Blue Mountains’ and ascertain ‘the Quality and general Properties of the Soil he should meet with to the Westward of them.’ The direction of the journey was to be as nearly westerly as possible, and the party was to continue for as long as their means would permit.

Based on details in Evans’ journal, the narrative indicates that after leaving Emu Island the party reached the other side of the mountains on the fifth day. Moving along a ‘beautiful and fertile’ valley ‘with a rapid Stream running through it,’ they came to the point at which Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth had stopped, and then went on for twenty-one days before returning. The journey took them over ‘several Plains of great Extent, interspersed with Hills and Vallies,’ where the soil was rich and there were various streams and chains of ponds.

A number of distances are given. Emu Island is stated to be about 36 miles from Sydney. From the end-point of Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth’s explorations the party continued another 98½ miles, and they were not less than 150 miles from Emu Island when they turned back.

The stream flowing from the other side of the mountains and continuing in a westerly direction, ‘with many and great Accessions of other Streams, becomes a capacious and beautiful River, abounding in Fish of very large Size and fine Flavour.’

As for what may lie beyond the furthest extent of their researches:

This River is supposed to empty itself into the Ocean on the western Side of New South Wales, at a Distance of from 2 to 300 Miles from the Termination of the Tour.

‘Government Order’, Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 12/2/1814, p. 1.

The Blue Mountains: forbidding and forbidden

Rugged, precipitous and densely wooded, the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney could easily seem an inhospitable and rather frightening place to someone unaccustomed to the ways of the Australian bush.

An article by a ‘Sydney correspondent’ in the Brisbane Courier in 1876, in which the writer reflected on the significance of the expedition of Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth, described the Blue Mountains as ‘that seemingly impenetrable succession of gaunt ranges, dense forests, and rocky fastnesses.’ In 1813 settlement was confined to the area between Newcastle to the north, Shoalhaven to the south, ‘and the base of the grim, defiant Blue Mountains in the west.’ There were settlers on the Nepean and Hawkesbury Rivers, but in the west ‘those gloomy sentinels stood barring the passage and forbidding further progress.’

An authoritarian government added to this sense of inaccessibility by declaring the country west of the Nepean out of bounds to all but a favoured few. Preoccupied with issues of public order and land use, the early Governors did not want convicts or settlers escaping from lawful oversight beyond the bounds of approved settlement.

At the foot of the mountains, on the western bank of the Nepean, lay a grassed area known as Emu Island. In an Order of 11 April 1812 Governor Macquarie noted that some settlers and others had been in the habit of sending ‘Horses and Horned Cattle’ to graze on this and other crown land west of the Nepean. In future anyone found guilty of such trespass would be severely punished. Moreover, no one was allowed to cross the Nepean River or travel in the country west of it without a written pass from the Governor or Lieutenant Governor. The only exception was for those associated with the sheep farms of Messrs. M‘Arthur and Davidson in the area known as the Cowpastures. Wild cattle grazing west of the Nepean were government property, and anyone found hunting, stealing or killing them would be prosecuted for felony, ‘and punished in the most exemplary Manner.’

The more the Blue Mountains were magnified in the public imagination as a near insuperable obstacle, the greater the achievement of Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth might seem after the explorers found a way through. And the more energetic the Government was in claiming crown rights over the country west of the Nepean, the more subordinate the mountains and plains might seem to the dictates of officialdom. So proceeded the grand conquest of the mountains and the opening up of the territory beyond for pasturage and agriculture.

‘Crossing the Blue Mountains sixty-three years ago’, Brisbane Courier 15/4/1876, p. 6; also in The Queenslander 22/4/1876, p. 14. ‘Government and General Orders’, Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 18/4/1812, p. 1.

The Blue Mountains as a challenge to available technology

When the First Fleet arrived from England in 1788, no attempt had been made to survey the region preparatory to forming a new settlement. It must have been both intriguing and disquieting to scan the range of mountains on the western horizon and wonder what mysteries they held and what lay beyond.

For many years the mountains were regarded as an impassable barrier to westward exploration and expansion. The rugged, densely forested terrain with its many spurs, valleys and cliffs offered no easy way forward, and the continuous nature of the mountain ranges to the north and south meant there was no immediate way around.

The credit for finding a way through goes to the expedition of Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth in 1813 – twenty-five years after the colony had been established. Following their lead, George Evans made a complete crossing later in the same year. In 1814 William Cox, using convict labour, supervised construction of a road across. The work took six months, from July 1814 to January 1815.

But the road was rough, often steep, and boggy in wet weather. Bullock drays carrying goods found the going extremely slow. A railway locomotive would be more powerful, but could a railway be successfully built across such a landscape? In 1857 Captain Hawkins of the Royal Engineers reported that a direct line could not be built from Sydney to Bathurst for a railway or tramway.

Persistence paid off, however, and ten years later a railway across the Blue Mountains was well on the way to completion. After another ten years (during which a bridge had to be built over the Macquarie River), in a land where hunter-gatherers had roamed the mountains and plains for millennia, a steam train arrived in Bathurst.

‘Railways: The Great Western Extension’, Sydney Morning Herald 21/7/1865, p. 7. The literature on technology includes: Fellows of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (comp.), Technology in Australia 1788-1988: A condensed history of Australian technological innovation and adaptation during the first two hundred years, Melbourne, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, 1988; online edition 2000, updated 21 November 2001.