Remembering the Past Australia

Account of a Trip to Hunter's River in 1827

Letter IV

First published in The Australian (Sydney) February 10, 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.

I would fain have stopped a few days longer at the Second Branch, still lingering in the lap of ease; but the fresh horses had now arrived, and it was time to be off, and see that further, but finer country, up the river,

Where the nibbling flocks do stray.

But being Sunday, we attended Divine Service at a pretty cottage of a neighbouring settler, and which was performed to a large family of children and domestics, with that peculiar decency and respect that distinguishes the English all over the world. Although in his duller moments a sigh after home may sometimes escape the English settler, and although he sometimes gives vent to his feelings, in the beautiful language of the poet:

Nos patriae fines et dulcia linquimus arva,
Nos patriam fugimus!

Yet he seldom forgets these earliest associations of his youth, the time hallowed customs of his own country.

It was only in leaving this agreeable cottage, that the lady of the house reminded me that we were old acquaintances, having met together in Almeida, a fortress, of Portugal, thirteen years ago. Such an unexpected renewal of acquaintance in a country so remote, I consider one of the most pleasing incidents of the journey. Mrs.—— was now surrounded by a large and blooming family in the heart of New South Wales, which, while it afforded mean excuse for my want of recollection on the instant, gave me at the same time a gentle jog how fast the tide of life was ebbing unperceived !

But shall never get you up the river at this rate; so good bye pretty branch, and I hope when I see you next, you will have a church and a gaol, a court-house, a ferry, and a blacksmith’s shop, with lots of village maids; and by all means let your church steeple have a bell or bells; for that which is a nuisance in a crowded city and a sickly season, becomes in the country softened by distance, a most agreeable rural sound, and a great improvement to the sylvan scene. For, as yet,

The sound of the church going bell
Those vallies and woods never heard.

I was surprised to find the road so good from Molly Morgan’s to Patrick’s Plains. Excepting a few blind creeks, which though very narrow are very steep, a coach and tour might run the whole distance. ‘Tis a good open forest country, but the line of road runs at the back of the farms on the right bank of the river. It is therefore the most uninteresting imaginable, and not five shillings worth of improvement either in houses, cultivation, or fences, is to be found the whole distance of thirty miles. There never was a better road for a night coach, with a guard and lamps, in which the traveller might go to sleep all the way, without losing anything of scenery. It was a tiresome, hot, weary, monotonous ride; and, if it had not been for a sip of brandy and water which we were enabled to mix at the first stream called Anvil Creek, and a feed of corn afterwards for the tired horses, at a place yclept by courtesy ‘a farm,’ a few mile’s further on, we must have bushed it for the night. This farm belongs, I am informed to a respectable individual connected with one of the public departments in Sydney: his entire stack of wheat, I am sorry to say, would not load a dray, and for want of a fence the five or six acres of maize had been greatly injured by cattle and horses eating it off green. It was evident the owner was an absentee, in Sydney or somewhere else, and I wondered for the twentieth time how people can be reconciled to leave their cattle, crops and improvements, interests involving hundreds, and sometimes thousands of pounds, to two or three convict servants, generally wild Irish –the best of whom at home would hardly be trusted to take a letter to the twopenny post! But by way of “a dram of sweet to this pound of sour,” the farm is the most eligible, if not the only, place for an inn, on the whole road; and from the constantly increasing traffic between the upper and lower country, cannot fail immediately to be of considerable value to the proprietor, for that purpose; and it is now high time that such large drafts on the hospitality of the resident settlers should be discontinued, or at least abated. An inn would be a great public convenience.

When we mounted our horses again, it was nearly sunset, and long before arriving at the plains, completely dark. The forest is not the best of all possible places for riding in at night; and, as we could no longer distinguish the marks of the wheels on the road, it was necessary to keep closer together. I thought of the glee

Who is that rides through the forest so dark,

he was not in the vein for singing; the heat of the day and the jog, jog of my jaded horse, made me think of nothing but the long road and the end of the journey. It soon, however, got lighter, and presently afterwards “up rose the yellow moon,” and it was consolatory to find the trees at length getting thinner, and all of a sudden we burst, upon St. Patrick’s Plains, the first sight of which, and the sensations it awakened, I shall not forget the longest day I live. I was completely enamoured with the splendid scene, and

The high moon sailing on her beauteous way,

while it shewed an almost boundless level, without a tree, threw an uncertain light over the distant horizon, that made it difficult to say how far the Plains extended. — Coming out of the dark and murky forest, a strong breeze swept along the Plain, alike refreshing by its chilliness to man and beast. This spot, indeed, deserves the name of Plains; it was only discovered on Saint Patrick’s day 1819. We still had a long ride through the wheat stubble, and large fields of maize, belonging to the owner of Castle Forbes, though we could not see the castle. If ever I had been inclined to smile at the apparent bad taste and vanity of giving such high sounding names to our bits of bush in New South Wales — our colonial castles, courts, halls, mounts, and parks, it was not at that moment, for I thought the owner of an estate comprising 4 or 5000 acres of such land, need not hesitate to call it after the most favored spot in Britain. If there is not a castle on it yet, there is a very neat and commodious cottage, which, for the present, as much more convenient than any castle could be. Although not at all acquainted with the proprietor, I should not have hesitated in storming his castle for a night’s lodging, but we had previously heard that he was gone to Sydney.

This and the adjoining property are two of the finest grants in the colony, and inferior to none in any part of the world. Thirty-six to forty bushels, to the acre is the usual produce of their wheat crops; and I saw what few people have seen in this country, if any, two stack yards within a mile of each other, containing together 10,000 bushels of wheat! And yet when the proprietor of Castle Forbes chose his land in this distant, out-of-the-way country, as it was then called, not four years ago, he was laughed at and considered mad. Let them laugh who win. But what is to be done with all this wheat, is not so easy to decide. Upto the present year the demands of the new settlers have been sufficient to carry off the superabundant produce of this district; but now that there are no new settlers, it is to be hoped some liberal and judicious system of distillation laws may be adopted to keep the plough going.

To send wheat from Patrick’s Plains to Sydney, to obtain the present market price of four shillings per bushel, is out of the question; whereas, if a distillery were established there, the proprietor would make a fortune, populational ready seven hundred souls, would soon be trebled, the plough share would never rust, and a labouring man, from the low price of spirits, might obtain his glass of grog without robbing his neighbour to obtain the means. Is it to be supposed that men can gather in the golden harvest of 400 acres of wheat in one spot, under an almost vertical sun, without having a glass of grog? Impossible. Beer, no doubt, would be better; and thee will soon be room at Patrick’s Plains, for both a brewery and distillery.

We arrived at the country inn, Patrick’s Plains, very late and very tired; but our man not having come up with the luggage, no beds had been prepared, as we expected, and mine host of the Plough was taken a little unawares. But late as it was, supper, and tea was soon on the table, and we found a grilled chicken and some slices of home made bacon very acceptable after a day’s fasting. There’s nothing like an inn, after all

Whoe’er has travelled life’s dull round,
Where’er his stages may have been,
May sigh to think he still has found,
The warmest welcome at an inn.

We had very good beds, and our horses were as well off as their masters. It required little, indeed, to make us satisfied.

I was soon up in the morning, like a man on board ship, to see whereabouts we were, and read over the door “Plough Inn, by Joseph Singleton, dealer in wines and spirits.” It is the most northern inn in the colony, being situate in 32.30 South latitude. We were on the edge of the river without knowing it, not having seen it for nearly 40 miles. It was reduced considerably in size, and when we went down the deep kloof to bathe, it was with difficulty we could find a place over our heads, although marks of the flood were visible 20 and 30 feet above the present bed but, in the memory of the oldest settler, the water was never known so low. It must be an extraordinary, flood, say 70 feet, that can overflow the banks of Hunter’s River, at this part of Patrick’s Plains; but such an event, we were told, may be looked for every six or seven years. There is plenty of building ground in the rear.

I give my bill for a night’s lodging at the Plough Inn, Patricks Plains, nothing can be more moderate; yet look at the brandy.

Supper with tea . . . 1/ 3
Bed . . . 1/3
Horse, as much corn as he could eat . . . 1/3
Breakfast eggs and pork . . . 1/3
Servants eating . . . 1/0
Half pint of brandy . . . 3/9
Total . . . 9/9

This is the price of 16 bushels of wheat for one gallon of spirits!!! It is not quite so bad as Faltaff’s bill of three shillings for sack, and a penny for bread; but it is an invaluable commentary upon the masterly legislation of Sir T. Brisbane’s early Council, and that precious enactment, the preamble of which talks about “the revenue being sunk by the weight of said impositions,” and, which literally came out, “like a thief in the night” and, as the Chronicle writer, says, at one stroke of his pen made men beggars at breakfast time, who, the night before, were in the flood tide of prosperity, enriching themselves and their country by their enterprise and skill.

Patrick’s Plains, by reason of the extent and fertility of the land, is capable of supporting a very thick population, and some day or other must be a place of great consequence. At present there is neither magistrate, school, nor medical man;— the nearest doctor being 40 miles off. This is a serious want, and naturally tends to prevent the settlement of families; -’tis as bad as the large county of Sutherland at home, which with a population of 23,000 inhabitants, can only boast of one doctor, whose house was shewn me at the extremity of the county, near the little ferry between Dornoch and Golspie.

This is the usual place for fording the river; but I must cut short this letter, for the present, and defer crossing ’till my next, when I will endeavour to point out to you a valuable and astonishing plan of rapidly raising immense herds of cattle, without costing you a shilling.

X. Y. Z

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