Tag Archives: Livestock

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.

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).