The Hawkesbury Commons

Early conservation and local self-governance in colonial New South Wales

Originally presented as the Hawkesbury District Historical Society Australia Day Talk, Macquarie Arms Hotel (Lachlan Macquarie Dining Room), Thompson Square, Windsor on Thursday 26th January 2006.

I am not an expert in the histories of the Hawkesbury – I come to talk with you on this Australia Day as an outsider, who through his studies of commons has a perspective on the importance of the Hawkesbury Commons that you may find interesting. It is naturally only a brief sketch, and many of you are sure to know much greater detail about some of the places and people I talk about.

The Hawkesbury Commons

The commons around the Hawkesbury created in 1804 (Nelson Common [later Pitt Town Common] of 2285 ha (5650 acres), Richmond Hill Common (later Ham Common] of 2076 ha (5130 acres) and Phillip Common [later Wilberforce Common]) of 2488 ha (6150 acres) were the first commons in New South Wales. They were the forerunners of all the commons established across Australia, created at a time when the English commons were being ‘enclosed’ or privatised. Where did they come from?, how did they operate?, what happened to them?, why do they matter?

Where did the commons of New South Wales come from?

So, what is a common? The OED defines it as

…the undivided land belonging to the members of a local community as a whole … (and also that it is) the profit which a [person] has in the land or waters of another; [such] as that of pasturing cattle, of fishing, of digging turf, or of wood for fire or repairs.”

The right to use a common is known as ‘commonage’, while a person who has commonage rights is known as a ‘commoner’. Commonage rights are usually restricted to the members of a local community, and could be derived from ancient customs, residency, or land ownership. Typically commoners had seasonal access to a common’s resources, such as grazing stock, collecting timber, harvesting honey, and so on. For many otherwise landless country people and small landholders, commonage rights were a major economic investment.

The English ‘historical ecologist’ Oliver Rackham has traced the historical development of commons in England from early medieval times. By the early thirteenth century the ‘wildwood’ landscape had largely disappeared from England, and had been replaced by an intricate mosaic of land-use patterns combining urban, rural and ‘waste’, or un-used, places. Various sorts of ‘protected areas’ were developed to manage particular natural resources such as pasture grasses, building timber, firewood, game animals and wild foods. These areas were usually known as commons.

One of Oliver Rackham's important works on the evolution of the countryside and commons in Britain.  See here for a review.

One of Oliver Rackham’s important works on the evolution of the countryside and commons in Britain. See here for a review.

The first law relating to commons was made in 1235 to prevent unilateral enclosures of common land by the lords of the manor. Early civil actions such as one in 1480 laid down a principal that a commoner who grazed stock on common land was liable for their trespass upon adjacent, unfenced land. The Inclosure Act of 1773 was made to regulate the management of commons and their ‘enclosure’ (breaking-up into privately-owned parcels of land). This was the first in a series of laws for this purpose, with other major enactments following in the Inclosure (Consolidation) Act of 1801 and theInclosure Act of 1845.

As well as causing much social upheaval, the widespread enclosure of commons in 18th and 19th century England created a class of landless labourers who became the new factory workers of the industrial revolution, as well as a major source of the convicts sent to New South Wales. Manning Clark, in his first volume of Select Documents in Australian History (first published in 1950, and still being reprinted) chose two reports on the ill-effects of enclosure as the first historical documents illustrating the social conditions in late-18th century England that lead to the colonisation of New South Wales.

This history, customs, law and experiences of commons arrived in NSW with the First Fleet, part of their ‘invisible baggage’, and within only sixteen years began to take root in the new land.

Why were the first commons established in the County of Cumberland?

It may be possible to argue that the first common in New South Wales consisted of the fringes of the settlement in Sydney Cove from which building materials, foodstuffs and living spaces were extracted; or that early reserves such as the Crown Reserve in the vicinity of Petersham Hill, set aside by Governor Phillip in 1789, constitute commons. However, the first officially created commons were the six Cumberland Commons set aside by Governor King in 1804. These were the Nelson, Richmond Hill and Phillip Commons, in the Hawkesbury district, the Field of Mars & Eastern Farms Common above the Lane Cove River, and the Prospect Hill & Toongabbee Temporary Common, and the Baulkham Hills & Northern Districts Temporary Common on the north-western Cumberland Plain.

The official reason for the establishment of the commons is set out in Governor King’s General Order published on 12th August 1804:

WHEREAS it is neceffary, for the Prefervation and Increfe of the Breeding Stock, that Portions of Land should be referved adjoing thofe Diftricts where a number of Settlers have been fixed in fmall Allotments bounded by others: And it being impracticable to locate larger Allotments to all those who now poffef, or may hereafter poffef Stock; in order to fecure to their Ufe Pafturage for Rearing and Maintaining Cattle and Sheep, HIS EXCELLENCY has deemed it expedient to allot by Grant under HIS MAJESTY, certain Portions of Grazing Lands hereunder ftated: fuch lands to be held and ufed by the Inhabitants of the refpective Diftricts as Common Lands are held and Ufed in that part of Great Britain called England.

source: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertizer, Vol. II, No. 90, 12 August 1804, p1

Smallholders needed more land for their stock to graze, but there not enough left available in some districts, and therefore commons would be established for grazing and other purposes.

Part of the official notice establishing the Hawkesbury Commons, Sydney Gazette 12th August 1804.  Source Trove

Part of the official notice establishing the Hawkesbury Commons, Sydney Gazette 12th August 1804. Source Trove

An unofficial reason, however, was given by Governor King writing on his establishment of the Cumberland Commons a year or two later:

To give all two or three hundred acres [80 – 120 ha] would soon alienate all the disposable land adjacent to the settlers, and to give particular people two or three hundred acres, in places of their own selection, would soon reduce the small farmer to sell his farm and stock, (because he cannot feed them,) to the person who can command money or its worth.

This was at the very time that Captain Macarthur of the Rum Corps, having already tried to discredit King, and then having been sent to England by King to be court-martialled, was returning to the colony having had the charges against him quashed and also obtained several powerful patrons as well as convincing the government in London to support his scheme for wool production in the colony (and a grant of just over 2000 ha (5000 acres) and the promise of more). King needed allies and recognised that the support of the smallholders of the Hawkesbury and elsewhere could provide some political counter-weight to the mercantile interests of the Rum Corps and their returning captain. While there was little remaining arable land that could be alienated, the ancient institution of the common provided a way of giving the smallholders further grazing areas (each of which was similar in size to the grant promised to Macarthur) and preventing Rum Corps traders from buying up the smallholders properties. This fear was based not only upon the real experiences of enclosure in England, in which wealthy landowners rapidly bought up the the tiny plots assigned to poor commoners, but the political realities of the commercial activities and corrupting influences of the Rum Corps.

The usual reason now given for establishing the commons was first stated 90 years later by William Epps in his study of Australian ‘land systems’ in the 1890s, when he described the proclamation of the Cumberland Commons as being

in effect…an extension of the principle of setting aside commons for the general use of communities, which had prevailed for so many years in England.
source: Epps: 10.

This seems to have become an accepted explanation in later years, implying that the creation of the commons was simply a form of nostalgia for the English countryside by homesick immigrants.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and the management and subsequent development of commons in New South Wales illustrates the development of a particularly Australian form of the common. An English institution was naturalised through local ingenuity to meet local conditions and needs. It was not slavish imitation by the homesick.

How did the early Hawkesbury Commons operate?

Governor King established a system of local trustees to manage the new Cumberland Commons. The 1804 General Order stated that

The Leafes will be made out in the name of Three Persons refident in each Diftrict, who are named by the reft, and approved by the GOVERNOR. How the local residents decided who would be nominated to the Governor is not clear, but the Governor acted upon the nominations and appointed three trustees to each common. In January 1805, four months later, the Judge Advocate announced the names of the trustees for the three Hawkesbury Commons:
Nelfon Common
Andrew Thompfon, Thomas Biggers,Thomas Tyler
Phillip Common
Mathew Lock, Edward Robinfon, Henry Baldwin
Richmond Hill Common
John Ryan, John Bowman, Andrew Thompfon
 source:Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertizer, Vol. II, No. 99, 20 January 1805, p1.

Straight away we see a major adaptation of the common to colonial society: the single, hereditary Lord of the Manor was replaced by a collective group of locally-chosen representatives.

An option for local election of trustees was included in the 1847 Act, and then became only elective from 1873. Elections were often highly contested. As an example, the election for five Trustees of the Pitt Town Common held in 1882 attracted a field of 10 candidates, with advertising and reporting in the local press (Barkley & Nichols: 143). However, much more research is needed on the election of Commons trustees.

The commoners as citizens

King was seeking, in effect, to establish a colonial yeomanry that would not only counter the political influence of the Macarthur faction, but also provide some form of localised social control of the emancipist population – partly by providing a mechanism for incorporating at least the more ‘respectable’ emancipists into local society. We can get some idea of this by looking at the character of the eight men chosen as the first trustees of the Hawkesbury Commons: four of them served as a constable, special constable or chief constable between 1796 and 1810, and one of them was a magistrate; six (inc. all the trustees of Phillip Common) were emancipists; and two of them were amongst the first land grantees in the district in 1794 and 96. They were hard-working, community minded, practical men who could rise above their station as ‘convict’ or ‘free’ by becoming commoners, equal in their new status in which to be a commoner was to be a citizen of the new land.

The loyal character of the Hawkesbury commoners is attested by several events during this time.

News of Nelson’s famous naval victory at Trafalgar reached Sydney in April 1806, and a silk flag was made and painted in watercolours. The painting showed the earliest depiction of an Australian coat of arms, with the shield charged with the rose, thistle and shamrock of Britain, supported by an Australian kangaroo and emu, crested with a hopeful rising sun, and scrolled with Nelson’s great order of battle: England expects every man will do his duty. This venerable flag, as I’m sure you will all know, is the Bowman flag, traditionally said to have been made by the women of the Bowman household from Mrs Bowman’s wedding dress. Whether in Britain or in New South Wales, all would do their duty as expected, a pledge affirmed by the use of wedding dress materials symbolising commitment and unity.

The Bowman Flag, emblem of the Hawkesbury commoners.  Image NSW Heritage

The Bowman Flag, emblem of the Hawkesbury commoners. Image NSW Heritage

Governor Bligh arrived in NSW in 1806, replacing King, and the Hawkesbury smallholders sent him a written address welcoming him to the colony, and asking him to, among other things, prevent monopolies, provide free trade and a fair and open market – direct criticisms of Macarthur and the Rum Corps’ commercial activities. In several subsequent addresses, they reiterated their support and loyalty to Bligh, and willingness to defend the colony. In January 1808 (198 years ago today) Macarthur orchestrated a coup against Bligh, imprisoning him and taking over the colonial government, that became known as the Rum Rebellion.

John Bowman was one of the signatories of the addresses to Bligh, and in 1808 was again signatory to a petition that attacked the rebels and especially Macarthur, who was described as …the principal agitator and promoter of the present alarming and calamitous state of the colony. They considered Macarthurs interregnum a period of…oppression, alarm and terror…, and this is well illustrated by the retaliatory persecution of Bowman by one of Macarthur’s Rum Corp proteges, Nicholas Bayly. Bayly had tried to sue Bowman some years before, and now had him fined and jailed for calling him a rogue. Although he was later released, the effects lasted for five more years with much of his property being sold to pay off debts. Bowman, despite the persecution and harassment during the coup, remained loyal to Bligh and demonstrated by his actions the common interests of the Crown and the commoners against the rebels. However, Bowman’s story is not unique, and the Hawkesbury Commoners stand out as a community and district that actively opposed the Rum Rebels in the pursuit of their liberty. Emancipist and free united as commoners – a combination that coup leader Macarthur would have detested.

The rebellion collapsed upon Governor Macquarie’s arrival in early 1810. The reality of the discrimination practised against emancipists, and therefore of the opprobrium that the ‘free’ settlers such as Bowman were prepared to face in their embrace on the Common of the emancipists can be appreciated in Macquarie’s reflection at the end of his governorship upon the situation in 1810:

Finding upon my arrival many persons free, who had come out originally as convicts, and sustaining unblemished characters since their emancipation, but treated with rudeness, contumely, and even oppression by those who came out free, and viewed with illiberal jealousy the honest endeavours of others to attain and support a respectable station in society, I determined to counteract this envious disposition in one class…
source: Macquarie to Earl Bathurst, 27 July 1822, in Manning Clark: 310.

To be a commoner was to be actively engaging in this ‘counteraction’, to be participating in the local community, to be resisting the tyranny of dictators and usurpers, to openly show true loyalties, to be demanding liberty – in other words, to be actively creating the citizenship that we take for granted today.

Naturalising and Australianising the Commons

At the same time that the appointments of the first trustees in 1805 were announced, the Judge Advocate also published an Epitome of the existing Laws respecting Commons, for the information of all concerned. The ‘Epitome’ derived from the laws …used in that part of Great Britain called England. It named the Governor as the universal lord of the manor in New South Wales, recognised the feeding of “beasts of the plough, or such as manure the ground” as a ‘universal right’, a Right of Common … inseparably incident to the Grant of Lands, authorised the Governor to enclose commons provided he leaves … sufficient for such as are entitled to it, stated that the interests of the Governor, as lord, and of local residents, as commoners, was to be regarded as mutual, with each able to sue the other for damages, and provided for the appointment of trustees, who were able to make local regulations for their commons. It then set out nine rules regarding the depasturing of stock, digging pits and trenches, and allowing commoners to graze beasts …on the King’s highway (the origin of travelling stock routes).

One of the earliest acts of trustees was to write a set of regulations for the common. These generally followed a standard model, providing for the running of meetings of trustees, the appointment of a secretary and a herdsman, and sometimes a reeve, commoner’s rights of pasturage, travellers rights of pasturage, rules and fees for using the common and for gathering firewood, and prohibiting the dumping of rubbish, polluting of waterways, or leaving open of gates. Local variations include, for example, the regulations for Ham Common that provided, until 1880, a schedule of fees for commoners engaged in brick-making on the common.

The management regulations were designed to ensure that the resources of the commons, usually firewood and pasture grasses, were conserved by regulating times, numbers and places of grazing, and the removal of wood, timber, soil and other materials. In order for a common to continue its various functions, trustees had to try and strike a balance between the demands of the commoners, both individually and collectively, and the ability of the commons environment to meet those demands.

In 1847, the Commons Regulation Act was passed, the first such piece of legislation in the colony. This Act was intended to overcome certain deficiencies in the law of the ‘Epitome’, and established trustees as bodies corporate, confirmed their right to make regulations and enforce them by fines, grant leases and distrain stock. The purposes of commons was defined as …the use of the settlers and cultivators and other inhabitants of [the] parish or district… (s. 1), and commoners, as inhabitants of such parishes or districts, were to have the same ‘rights and remedies’ as commoners in England. Although drawing upon English precedents, the law was gradually Australianising the commons.

Following the making of this law, commons were subjected to greater attention by the authorities in Sydney. Only two new commons seem to have been made in the 43 years between 1804 and 1847: Sydney Common in 1811 and Wallambine or St. Alban’s Common in the 1824. Possibly in line with the general trend in England of enclosing and dissolving commons two of the New South Wales commons also disappeared, while enclosures took place on others. The Prospect Hill & Toongabbee and Baulkham Hills & Northern Districts commons were initially made for a limited period of 14 years, and in 1818 they ceased to exist . In the 1820s much of Sydney Common was enclosed within the new water reserve over the Lachlan Swamps, and in 1840 the north-western corner was enclosed for the building of Victoria Barracks and nearby housing in Paddington.

The survey of the Field of Mars Common in 1848 was followed by the granting of title deeds to its trustees in 1849 . A similar process of surveying and granting began on other established commons, as did a concurrent process of restricting commonage rights outside of commons. In 1850 the Colonial Secretary published a notice stating that private land owners adjacent to crown land did not have any rights of common over such unalienated lands except within townsites, and in 1852 this was further restricted to townsites having a population of less than 1 000.

Between 1854 and 1861, the trustees of existing commons at Pitt Town (formerly Nelson), Wallambine, Ham (formerly Richmond Hill), Wilberforce (formerly Phillip) and Field of Mars published annual accounts in the Government Gazette, from which it is possible to see something of the workings of a common at this time, and some distinct differences between the commons.

The workings of a common: a meeting of the Field of Mars commoners, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, 14th January 1862.  Source Trove

The workings of a common: a meeting of the Field of Mars commoners, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, 14th January 1862. Source Trove

Continuation of newspaper report above

Continuation of newspaper report above

For Ham Common the main sources of income were fines for trespass of cattle; licenses to graze sheep, cattle and horses; and sales of firewood, while the biggest expenses were the salary of the ranger, Michael McGraw, legal fees for actions involving trespass, etc, and publishing various notices in newspapers. Some particular items of interest are the £13 6s from Windsor Police for grazing stolen cattle seized from Beckett who was later tried and convicted in 1856, the £1 18s 3d for sale of 51 loads of wood by wood sellers @9d in 1857, the £3 from Mr Cornwell for making and burning 6000 bricks in the same year, the £7 19s 9d paid to Mr Karman for putting up 71 boundary posts on the southern boundary in 1858, and the £2 from Mr Cornwell for a licence to cut timber in 1859.

For Pitt Town Common income was mainly derived from various fees for loads of wheelwrights stuff, slabs, shingles, palings, rails, posts, firewood licenses, and stone, as well as rents of various paddocks on the common; with payments to John Paul, Bailiff for his salary being the main expenditure. From 1860 there is income from the burning of charcoal, and expenditure on the fencing of the common paddock. Between 1853 and 1855, the main use of Pitt Town Common changed dramatically from sheep grazing to timber and firewood taking, and the trustees quadrupled their income from £25 to £92.

Thus, while grazing is a feature of both commons, Ham Common was also a site of brick making and firewood gathering, while Pitt Town Common was a source of building stone and building timbers. The main expenses were salaries for the ranger or bailiff, and fencing of common boundaries. It is important to note that commoners did not have unrestricted access to the commons – the trustees had to manage this access to ensure that usage of the common resources was sustainable, and the regular employment of a ranger or bailiff indicates that they enforced these rules.

Some of the commonage rights is England do not seem to have been practised in NSW, such as fishing, mushrooming, turf cutting, or pannage (grazing pigs on fallen acorns), mainly because the physical environments of the NSW commons did not support such activities, but also because the increasingly centralised regulation of the trustees restricted trustees licensing responsibilities to grazing and taking timber. Commonage was not a license to take what you want, and the evidence of what was harvested from the commons illustrates their increasing Australianisation.

The Crown Lands Alienation Act of 1861 allowed this process of consolidation to turn, after 1865, to the rapid expansion of commons in New South Wales. The first common gazetted under this Act, and also the first common west of the Mountains, was made at Bathurst in 1865 . Within two years, commons were being created at a rapid rate. For example, in December 1867 alone, seventeen new commons were gazetted, mainly on the western slopes and the Riverina. In the County of Cumberland, control of the remnants of the Sydney Common was vested in the Sydney City Council in 1866, and the city boundaries were extended to encompass the common in 1870. The Field of Mars Common, after several inquiries, petitions and much bitter argument, was finally resumed in 1874 and subdivided, with the proceeds of the sales going towards the construction of the Iron Cove Bridge across the Parramatta River. The enclosure of the Field of Mars Common was probably the most contested in the County of Cumberland, with the Commoners engaged in a long and often bitter, but ultimately unsuccessful, battle to prevent enclosure.

The Iron Cove Bridge not long after being built.  The high land on the far bank is part of the old common.  Image State Library NSW

The Iron Cove Bridge not long after being built. The high land on the far bank is part of the old common. Image State Library NSW

Thus by 1874, 70 years after their creation, only the three Hawkesbury Commons survived of the original Cumberland Commons, although new commons were being established at a rapid rate across the colony. The enclosure of the other Cumberland Commons had been fractious and contested, with the Field of Mars and Sydney commoners ultimately loosing their commonage rights. The Hawkesbury Commoners may have felt some apprehension that they would survive for much longer.

What happened to the Hawkesbury Commons?

William Epps, after noting that King has established the commons in 1804, went on to state that

…even these common lands could not forever maintain the steadily increasing population and flocks of sheep, and the finding of a way across the Blue Mountains…became a pressing necessity. …They could see the fortune in the immense grassy plains of the interior, and they hungered for it.
source: Epps 11-12

For Epps, the common was simply a stop-gap measure to distribute enough grazing land to small farmers in an overcrowded environment. The inevitable crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813 enabled the common to be consigned to history as the expertise of surveyors and road builders allowed every settler access to enough privately owned property to produce wealth for themselves and the colony without the need to be supported by communal land. Jeans writing nearly 80 years later in 1972 came to a similar conclusion:

Macquarie held back the flocks for three years after the completion of the road [over the Mountains] until in 1818 the situation had changed sufficiently. First, in 1817, Surveyor-General John Oxley reported all the good land in Cumberland [County] taken up. Outside the commons and government reserves very little except ‘indifferent’, ‘bad’ or ‘waste’ ground could be found for new settlers. When drought in 1818 threatened flocks, some major graziers were allowed agistment at Bathurst.
source: Jeans 91:

Thus the traditional explanation is that, upon the crossing of the Mountains, the commons were rendered irrelevant and just disappeared. However, they survived for many years after the crossing, and this coupled with the spread of new commons from the 1860s suggests that there are other reasons.

The earliest enclosures of the Hawkesbury Commons began as early as 1810 when three of the Macquarie Towns encroached upon their commons (Windsor, Richmond and Wilberforce (Proudfoot 23). However, there was a direct relationship between them, with townspeople using them for firewood, grazing, refuge for stock in floods, and so on.

The first major enclosure of the Hawkesbury Commons was in 1865 when the race track and showground area was enclosed on Ham Common, just as Robertson’s Land Act opened up the pastoral stations beyond the mountains to small selectors and homesteaders and began the spread of commons in the interior. At about the same time a strip through the middle was enclosed for the railway line. However, these were relatively small enclosures and do not seem to have provoked much opposition.

During the 1870s there were further revisions to the Commons laws, and the three Hawkesbury Commons were all resumed and rededicated. Although in some sense this was a legalistic move to ensure that the title to these old commons was consistent with that of the many new commons being created, for the Commoners this was a time of apprehension. The Commoners of all three commons petitioned Parliament to keep their commons as they were, reciting the role of the commons as a place of grazing, of refuge for stock during floods, a source of firewood and building materials, and the expenses they had incurred in managing their commons over the years. They particularly objected to proposals to elect trustees annually instead of every three years (as this would lead tounnecessary trouble and occasion much uncertainty as well as being expensive and would compromise the independence of the trustees), to allow trustees to sell off parts of commons (they opposed the sale or disposal of commons in any way whatsoever), and to trustees loosing their commonage rights while holding office (as it would lead to the Common getting into the hands of parties having no interest in them). While Parliament made some modifications to these proposals, all of the Hawkesbury Commons were eventually resumed and rededicated and placed on the same legal basis as the new commons.

The major enclosures of the Hawkesbury Commons took place in the 1890s and affected all three commons.

1500 ha of land for the proposed Agricultural College was enclosed on Ham Common in 1891, enclosing the greater part of that Common. There was apparently some opposition from Commoners that resulted in the area being enclosed to be slightly reduced, but they were facing a loosing battle. The largest remaining area of about 200 hectares north of the railway line was enclosed in 1916 for ‘aviation purposes’, this becoming part of Australia’s second RAAF base in 1923. [Barkley & Nichols, parish maps] I do not know whether any small remnants of Ham Common still remain as common lands?

The enclosure of Pitt Town Common began in 1893 with land dedicated as a Labour Settlement Area for the Co-0perative Labour Scheme, while other areas were set aside as Temporary Commons. Most of the northern and southern fringes were then sold off as Homestead Selections. The Labour Settlement Area went through many changes of use during the 20th century until, in 1996, becoming the greater part of the Scheyville National Park. The little temporary commons were either enclosed and sold off, or in the case of the Long Neck Lagoon area became a nature reserve before being incorporated into the National Park. I have seen a reference to some commonage rights surviving around the lagoon until 1991, but do not know if any now survive? [Barkley & Nichols, parish maps].

View of Longneck Lagoon from Cattai Road in 2007.  Image Wikipedia

View of Longneck Lagoon from Cattai Road in 2007. Image Wikipedia

Wilberforce Common was proposed in 1896 as a Labour Settlement Area (the same as Pitt Town), but then cancelled, and instead enclosed as Homestead Selections of 16 to 40 ha (40 to 100 acres) each, with several Temporary Commons. The selections had mostly all been sold by 1903 (Proudfoot 25), and by about 1924 the Temporary Commons were also subdivided and leased, then later sold to lessees [Parish Maps]. Again, I do not know whether any small areas of common land have survived?

Thus the demise of the Hawkesbury Commons was not a result of the flight of the pastoralists over the Mountains. It was a response to the expansion of small-scale agriculture from the 1860s, and the increasing specialisation of the Hawkesbury farmers from the 1890s, coupled with the impact of new commons legislation that gradually restricted the role of the trustees and centralised control in the Lands Department. I doubt that the Commoners allowed this to happen without a contest, but have not yet researched this period. The new specialisations of dairying, market gardening, orcharding and vinyarding (all represented in the syllabus of the new Agricultural College, the largest enclosure of Ham Common), required smaller areas for highly-intensive uses without the need for communal grazing areas. [Barkley & Nichols, Chapter 2 passim]. The history of opposition of enclosures in earlier periods suggests that there was also opposition in the 1890s – but this is an area that needs further research.

Local landholders had petitioned for local government in Windsor and Richmond, and had voted in Borough or Municipal elections since 1871 and 1872 respectively, but for those outside the boroughs, the election of Common trustees was the main form of local governance until the formation of the Colo Shire in 1906 incorporated the commons into the new local government system. Within a century of the first selection of Commons trustees by local residents, elective local government was operating across the whole Hawkesbury district. This may have displaced some of the opposition to the enclosures and the loss of the trusteeships, but more research is needed on this matter.

So why do they matter?

  • the first commons in Australia
  • an example of naturalisation of English land management practises in a colonial environment through local ingenuity and adaptability
  • early sites of local or communal resource management
  • early example of local structures of self-governance being developed
  • only example of regional resistance to Rum Rebellion – are there any others?

Does this have anything to tell us on this Australia Day?

  • we have a history of communal endeavour, of working for the common good that is little explored – it hasn’t all been about rugged individuals and self-interest
  • we have a history of local communities developing democratic forms of self-governance long before local government introduced – it wasn’t all the province of powerful elites at the colonial and imperial levels
  • we have a history of loyalty and support for the Crown in the face of despotism and venality that has never been given much voice
  • we have a history of conserving natural resources that long precedes the 1970s – settlement wasn’t all about avariciousness and greed
  • the history of the Hawkesbury Commons tells us that there are (and always have been) alternative visions for Australia other than the current unquestioning acceptance of individualism, consumerism, nationalistic republicanism, technophilia and then more consumerism as the only vision for our future in the Great South Land.

you may or may not agree with my interpretation of the story of the Hawkesbury Commons, but I’m sure you can see that this is an area of Australian history that needs much more research and writing about. You are today’s Commoners of the Hawkesbury – I hope that I have encouraged you to further research the history of your commons, and their implications for Australia’s history.

John Clare (1793-1864), aged 20, folk poet and muse of the commons.  Does he have his Hawkesbury Commons counterparts?  Painting by William Hilton, in Stephen Hebron's The Romantics and the British Landscape, The British Library, London 2006, page 96.

John Clare (1793-1864), aged 20, folk poet and muse of the commons. Does he have his Hawkesbury Commons counterparts? Painting by William Hilton, in Stephen Hebron’s The Romantics and the British Landscape, The British Library, London 2006, page 96.

The one thing that I have not found is any poet or artist of the commons in New South Wales. In contrast, the English commons had their muse in the poet John Clare, who witnessed the enclosures of the early 19th century with despair. Poor John Clare was eventually locked up in a lunatic asylum where he ended his days in 1864 after 27 years of incarceration, and I would like to leave you with a few lines from one of his moving observations:

Where bramble bushes grew and the daisy gemmed in dew
And the hills of silken grass like to cushions to the view
Where we threw the pissmire crumbs when we’d nothing else to do
All levelled like a desert by the never weary plough
All vanished like the sun where the cloud is passing now
All settled here forever on its brow
By Langley Bush I roam but the bush hath left its hill
On Cowper Green I stray tis a desert strange and chill
And spreading lea close oak ere decay had penned its will
To the axe of the spoiler and self interest fell a prey
And cross berry way and old round oaks lane
With its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see them again
Inclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain

It leveled every bush and tree and leveled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still
It runs a naked brook cold and chill

I wonder if the Hawkesbury Commons had their muse?


  • Barkley, J., & Nichols, M, Hawkesbury 1794-1994: the first 200 years of the second colonisation, Hawkesbury City Council, Windsor 1994
  • Clare, John, ‘Remembrances’, online at The John Clare Society
  • Consolidated Index to the Minutes of the Proceedings and Printed Papers, Vols 1-23, First Session of the First Parliament to Third Session of the Seventh Parliament, 22 May 1856 to 25 June 1874, NSW Legislative Council
  • Epps, W., Land Systems of Australasia, Swan Sonnenshein & Co., London 1894
  • Fletcher, B.H., ‘Bayly, Nicholas, John (1770-1823)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 1, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne 1966: 76.
  • Fletcher, B.H., ‘Bowman, John (1763-1825)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 1, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne 1966: 138-139.
  • Gadsden, G.D., The Law of Commons, Sweet & Maxwell, London 1988
  • Jeans, D., An Historical Geography of NSW to 1901, Reed Education, Artarmon 1972
  • Manning Clark, C, (Ed), Select Documents in Australian History, Volume 1 1788-1850, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1965
  • Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. IX, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1933: 690
  • Parish Maps, Parish of Pitt TownParish of RichmondParish of Ham Common in the County of Cumberland, and Parish of Wilberforce in the County of Cook – online at Department of Lands Parish Map Preservation Project
  • Proudfoot, H., ‘The Hawkesbury Commons 1804-1987’, Heritage Australia, Vol. 6, No. 4, Summer 1987: 23-25
  • Rackham, O., Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape, London 1976
  • Steven, M., ‘Macarthur, John (1767-1834)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 2, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne 1967: 153-159.

This paper was published in Journal of the Hawkesbury Historical Society, No. 1, 2006: pages 57-66; and is cited in Grace Karskens’ The Colony: A History of Early Sydney, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest 2009: Chapter 4 ‘Food from common industry: public farms and common lands’, passim.

Readers may also be interested my earlier paper titled The Commons of Colonial New South Wales, presented to the Royal Australian Historical Society’s Affiliated Societies Conference at Ultimo in 1994, and subsequently published as conference proceedings.

The right of Bruce Baskerville to be identified as the moral rightsauthor of this work is hereby asserted in accordance with theCopyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act 2000 of the Commonwealth of Australia.


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