Remembering the Past Australia

Account of a Trip to Hunter's River in 1827

Letter II

First published in The Australian (Sydney) February 3, 1827.

Backwater on Lower Hunter, NSW ca. 1800-1899

Backwater on Lower Hunter, N.S.W., ca. 1800-1899, Samuel Thomas Gill. State Library of New South Wales.

Molly Morgan’s is a remarkable stage in the journey up Hunter’s River. All the land in the neighbourhood is reserved by Government, for a township, church and school; but there is no ground adapted for a town within some miles, and therefore, the sooner a site is purchased out of the reach of the flood the better. “You have got a neat cottage” said I to a man who was giving me a jug of milk, in a weather boarded hut, about half a mile from the river, in the very place where the town of “Morpeth” is intended to be built. “Pretty well, sir”, he replied; “but if you had stood where you now do, in the year 18 — you would have been drowned, as the flood came higher than those plates,” pointing to a high chimney-piece over the fire! Mr Close’s land is out of the reach of floods, and is more convenient in, every respect, but, particularly, in saving about 20 miles of water carriage, although it joins the government reserve, the sinuosities of the river being so remarkable in this particular spot.

The Venerable the Archdeacon is expected to make a tour in the spring, through the various settlements of Hunter’s River, and the commencement of any large public building, either church or school, will be a signal to decide the settlers, where the town is to be built. The soil throughout this neighbourhood of Wallis Plains, is a rich alluvial flat, which after the heavy expense of felling and burning off, will repay the settler by the richest harvests. The rising grounds are good for nothing, the surface being composed of loose iron-stone, making even the walking difficult and disagreeable.

A ride of four miles through the forest brought us to the Old Branch, or Patterson’s River, a change much for the better; the land being equally good, and a large space of country on both sides of the water cleared and under cultivation. Indeed, the picture from my friend N—— ‘s window, was rich and animated, compared with anything I had previously seen in New South Wales. We were told this was Patterson’s Plains, another instance of the, “lucus a non-lucendo“, as it is impossible to see the plain for the trees. This branch of the river is broad and deep, and is besides, prettier and more useful than the main river.

We were detained a whole day for want of a ferry boat. In a populous district like this, it is surprising that the gentlemen do not assemble, to draw up a respectful memorial to the Authorities to establish a public ferry. The government have enough to do at Head-quarters to think of the private interests of individuals in distant districts, and cannot be supposed to know such things are wanted unless, they are told.

Everything on Patterson’s River looked cheerful and abundant, barns and stock yards full of wheat; butter, cheese, milk, pigs and poultry at every settler’s house, with the numerous herds of fine cattle, and flocks of healthy sheep, belonging to the richer settlers, all evinced a state of ease and prosperity highly pleasing. The left bank of the river exhibits a number of small farms, in the occupation, for their natural lives only, of men who were formerly prisoners, and under Colonial sentences at Newcastle, who were allowed the indulgence of a hundred acres each. These prisoners farms are the oldest on Hunter’s River, but from the slovenly, and wretched appearance which they make, afford little encouragement to future Commandants, to adopt, a similar practice. It was an error, but as it was on the side of humanity, the Major cannot be blamed.

Being desirous of seeing an old and esteemed friend, in whose literate habits, and polished society, I had often in Sydney been eager in participate, we crossed the river, and soon arrived at the First Branch, or what was anciently called Williams’ River, but, which is now best known by the name of First or Port Stephen’s Branch. Although a branch, it is considerably larger than the principal river, and is here a very respectable stream of water. Our friend was in his sugar-loaf hat of Malay manufacture, luxuriating in all the indolence of a sheep farmer’s life, in an excellent house, furnished with every comfort, but one, to make a bachelor’s life easy and happy. We had here the earliest and finest melons, in the whole journey, the garden had received a considerable quantity of manure from the sheep yards, and the fruit and vegetables were consequently in the greatest perfection.

I slept, in a room full of bales of wool, being part of this year’s clipping, and after an abundant breakfast the following morning, the boat was in readiness, and we started to explore the almost terra incognita of the sources of this river. A strong prejudice has always prevailed amongst the settlers, against the First Branch and I am inclined to think not without cause. As far as the navigation goes, there is little or no water for cattle; and when the river becomes fresh, you are in mountainous country not at all adapted to grazing purposes. Exceptions might be made of course, to small patches here and there, but upon the whole, it appears that the public estimation of the land in this quarter was right. If romantic and picturesque situations had any charms for the new settler, or if wild ducks and teal, in thousands, but which would not be shot, were preferable to rich flats and plenty of grass, streams of water and no trees, the First Branch would come in for a share of admiration that I fear under present circumstances it can hardly hope to enjoy.

We bivounced in the bush, and passed a very tolerable night, sleeping on dry bark, although we were without, brandy or cigars, two most essential articles on these occasions. We had, however, a fine round of beef, and plenty of tea and sugar, melons and potatoes, and good store of blankets; and by the help of a rousing fire kept off the mosquitoes and slept as well as if we had been in our feather beds in Sydney. There was not, I confess, much temptation in the morning to turn round on our downy couch and take another last, longing, lingering, waking slumber; or like our friend —— , in —- street, who gets out of bed an hour earlier on Sundays only to run in again with Boccacio or Harriette Wilson, and to enjoy an indolent repose ’till church time.

We were up before the sun, shooting ducks, and by ten o’clock returned to the flats, took the dingy, joined the boat, and had a hearty breakfast on the ground where we had slept. Throughout the whole extent of this branch of Hunter’s River there are not more than a dozen settlers, though the navigation extends at least thirty ‘miles. The greater part of these settlers were formerly prisoners; and from the force of habit as fond as ever of the keg of rum. One of them acknowledged that he had been drunk two years running, at a cost of eight hundred pounds; but, sensible at last of the folly of such proceedings, he was now a different man, and had not tasted spirits for six or seven months. The very next day we passed his door; the house was shut up as if somebody was dead; and so in fact it turned out, as every body in the house was dead drunk.

A boat had gone up the river just as we had gone away the preceding day, and the news spread like lightning that there was a cask of rum on board; this was irresistable-— part of it was obtained, at whatever cost, and the true, right merry and conceited way of getting drunk was adopted; viz. shutting up the house and going to bed with the five gallon keg for a bed fellow! Ex. uno disco omnes!

We returned in a very hot day down the river, and were surprised to hear, at the government reserve that the Commandant’s cottage, which used occasionally to be lent as a compliment to the better class of settlers when in search of land, was now in the permanent occupation of an unfortunate woman who was lately kicking up a great row inside the gaol, at Sydney. If this accommodation was intended to be included in the voluntary banishment from Sydney, it is not to be wondered that the alternative was so readily embraced. How it will operate in future on the character of this convenient cottage, can hardly be difficult to guess. These injudicious distinctions, in favour of unblushing infamy, stifle all incentive to virtuous behaviour amongst industrious free settlers. It makes them abandon the race, to allow villainy to walk over the course, and tempts them to think, there may possibly be some reason for such monstrous instances of the “prosperity of the wicked”.

The abundance of good grass in this particular part of the country arises from the small number of cattle, hitherto depastured there, rather than from any fertility of the soil. Our friend enjoys the benefit of a great scope of country for his flocks and herds, and is not likely for many years to be interrupted. This advantage makes up for the solitariness of the situation, though I am not sure that the constant necessity of sleeping with loaded pistols under your pillow can be compensated by any luxuriance of feed for your sheep and cattle. There is no magistrate on this branch.

X. Y. Z.

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