Tag Archives: Newcastle

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.

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.

Nelson Bay or Nelson’s Bay?

Whatever may have been the original form of the name of this bay at Port Stephens, ‘Nelson’s Bay’ seems to have been usual in the late 1820s and 1830s.

In 1829 the Australian newspaper refers to Nelson’s Bay in reporting a near-disaster that overtook the New South Wales Attorney-General Alexander Baxter in the course of an attempted voyage from Newcastle to Sydney on the schooner Samuel. After departure from Newcastle, heavy squalls blew up at night, sails had to be taken in, and by 9 o’clock there were two feet of water in the hold. The pumps were inadequate, and passengers and all hands had to bale with buckets. The ship managed to limp into Port Stephens (spelled Port Stevens in the newspaper account) and came to rest in Nelson’s Bay, with 4 feet 7 inches of water in the hold. Some of the coal on board was taken off, the ship was reprovisioned and the pumps re-rigged, and finally the Samuel was able to make it safely to Sydney; but Mr. Baxter, who had helped with the baling, remained behind. ‘His exertions and fatigues … left him, by the latest accounts, in rather a feverish state.’

A shipboard adventure of quite another type was reported by the Sydney Gazette in 1835. Nine convicts, five of them assigned servants of William Charles Wentworth, escaped from Sydney on Wentworth’s ketch Alice, which had been lying in Vaucluse Bay, taking with them some provisions, wine and plate stolen from a house belonging to him at Vaucluse. One of the convicts was already among Wentworth’s men on the vessel, which was under the command of Hamilton Ross and the Mate John House. The boat sailed past Newcastle and entered Port Stephens, coming to anchor in Nelson’s Bay or Salamander Bay. It was dark by then. The next morning one of the convicts and House, who knew the harbour, were put ashore to get water. The convict came back with an aboriginal who wanted to sell some fish. House remained on shore, and Ross was allowed to go ashore as well after he refused to join the convicts. One of the convicts, Joseph Kay, gave Ross a written discharge and an order on Mr. Wentworth for his pay, which Kay signed as commander of the Alice. (According to evidence, he had a grudge against Mr. Wentworth for punishment dealt out some six weeks before, and was threatening to murder him, a threat Mr. Wentworth took seriously, especially as he discovered some poison hidden away.) Ross and House came across a camp of aborigines and persuaded one of them to guide them to Newcastle. Three days after seizure of the vessel the Revenue Cutter Prince George under Captain Roach went in pursuit. The ketch had been seen passing Newcastle and Roach, proceeding towards Port Stephens, saw a sail at sea and gave chase. The vessel put off a boat and ran into shore itself, the convicts escaping into the bush. The cutter put into a bay and some of the men walked round to the Alice and threw the provisions into the sea to deprive the convicts of them. Roach and six of his men tracked the pirates for four or five miles but then lost the trail. They returned to the Alice and dismasted her, then sailed on the cutter back to Port Stephens, where they alerted the Police Magistrate and joined a party of police in pursuit. Some aborigines were able to point out the location of the escapees, about fifty miles from Port Stephens. Meanwhile the cutter proceeded up the ‘Miaul River’, and the crew took the captured pirates on board for the return trip to Sydney.

Over the next few years we find a number of reports of land sales which refer to Nelson’s Bay. There is also the incident of the Daniel O’Connell, reported ‘high and dry on the beach at Nelson’s Bay’ in 1836. Finally in 1839 we encounter the Sophia Jane on a voyage from Moreton Bay to Sydney, anchoring in Nelson’s Bay for supplies.

Then in January 1840 comes news of another maritime incident and a change in terminology. On 23 December the cutter Water-Witch, putting out from Port Stephens, failed to cross the bar, went broadside to the breakers, and came to grief ‘on the rocks off Nelson Bay.’ Her cargo of maize and cedar was saved; but the possessive ‘s’ and its attendant apostrophe had gone.

Samuel: Australian 16/9/1829, p. 3. Alice: Sydney Herald 2/11/1835, p. 2. Daniel O’Connell: Australian 17/6/1836, p. 3. Sophia Jane: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 23/5/1839, p. 2. Water-Witch: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 4/1/1840, p. 2. ‘Baxter, Alexander Macduff (1798-1836?)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, 1966, pp. 74-75, and online.