Commons of Colonial New South Wales

This paper was first presented at the Annual Conference of Affiliated Societies of the Royal Australian Historical Society in Ultimo, 8-9 October 1994, with the theme of ‘Knowing Places, Understanding Spaces’ on Sunday Morning, 9 October, 10-10.30am.  It was subsequently published in Knowing Places, Understanding Spaces: Conference Proceedings, RAHS, Sydney 1994: pages 58-66.

 Given the sudden rise of interest in the history of commons, I have re-published the paper here to make it easily accessible.  Readers are advised to take into account the extensive technological changes since 1994, especially the availability online of digitized archives and finding aids, the vast increase in historical materials available through database aggregators such as Trove (neither of which were available in 1994), and the endless re-naming of government agencies and changing of agency locations.

Introduction

This year [1994] marks the 190th anniversary of the gazetting of the first commons in New South Wales.  It is my intention with this paper to bring these places named ‘commons’ to your attention, to outline a brief history of commons generally in New South Wales up to federation, and to suggest some ways to go about researching the history of your local commons.  Now is an opportune time to begin writing histories of those places named ‘commons’, and to try and assess what such histories could have to contribute to the debates of our time.

Definition of a ‘Common’

So, what is a common?  A dictionary definition will tell us that it is

…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.[1]

The English ‘historical ecologist’ Oliver Rackham has traced the historical development of commons in England from early medieval times.[2]  By the early thirteenth century the ‘wildwood’ landscape had largely disappeared from England, and had been replaced by an intricate mosaic of land-use patterns combining urban, rural and ‘waste’, or un-used, places.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 named forests, parks or commons.  Over time, local land uses would change and this would be reflected in the landscapes of commons.  For example, some wood-pasture commons in northern England became treeless when grazing came to a region; while on the other hand in eastern England during the sixteenth century, a decline in pastoralism was associated with an increase in the tree cover on commons.

A historian of the law of English commons, G.D. Gadsden, in his magisterial work on the subject, can tell us that the first law relating to commons was made in 1235 to prevent unilateral enclosures of common land by the lords of manors, and that 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.[3]  Three hundred years later, the Inclosure Act of 1773 was made to regulate the management of commons and their enclosure.  This was the first in a series of laws for this purpose, with other major enactments following in the Inclosure (Consolidation) Act of 1801, the Inclosure Act of 1845 and the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866.[4]  Gadsden makes the point that within this web of central authority, local commons continued to be managed by local manorial courts according to local customs.  There were also several distinct classes of common land that have their own distinct rules.  This regional and functional diversity of commons has, in the past and still today, ensured that certain tensions exist in England between local custom and the standard legal model of a common that Gadsden describes as an ‘English Elizabethan lowland manor’.[5]

By the time of the 1866 Act in England, however, a body of colonial law had begun to evolve that defined, and was specifically directed towards, the commons of New South Wales.  The landscape diversity and changability, as well as the tensions between local usages and central authorities that Rackham and Gadsden described in England, seems to have been partly true of New South Wales by that time.  Although genealogically speaking, the commons of New South Wales are derived from the commons of England, it is worthwhile noting that commons can also be found in places as diverse as France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, the Philippines and Japan, as well as most of the Australian states and territories and many other former British colonies including parts of the United States.[6]  In each place commons have been shaped by local needs and customs.

A Brief Overview of the Historical Development of Commons in New South Wales up to Federation

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 of 161 hectares in the vicinity of Petersham Hill, set aside by Governor Phillip in 1789, constitute commons.[7]  However, the first officially created commons were a series of six areas set aside by Governor King in 1804.  These were the Nelson, Richmond Hill and Phillip Commons, in the Hawkesbury district, and the Prospect Hill & Toongabbee, Baulkham Hills & Northern Districts and Field of Mars & Eastern Farms Commons to the north and west of Sydney.[8]

Early in 1805, the Judge Advocate published an “Epitome of the existing Laws respecting Commons, for the information of all concerned”, as well as the names of three trustees locally elected to manage each common.[9]  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”, and 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.  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 notice also provided for the appointment of trustees able to make local regulations for their commons.

Only a few new commons seem to have been made over the next fifty years: Sydney Common in 1811, Wallambine or St. Alban’s Common in the 1820s and the Wollombi Common about the same time.[10]  Possibly in line with the general trend in England of enclosing and dissolving commons some of the New South Wales commons also began to disappear.  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.[11]  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.[12]  The ‘Epitome’ appears to have remained the main legal instrument for the regulation of commons.  Even the Wallambine and Wollembi Commons referred to before were only surveyed, but not actually gazetted until many years later.[13]  This may also be the case for other commons made at other places during this period.

In 1847, the Commons Regulation Act was passed, the first such piece of legislation in the colony.[14]  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.

Following the making of this law, commons were subjected to greater attention by the authorities in Sydney.  The survey of the Field of Mars Common in 1848 was followed by the granting of title deeds to its trustees in 1849.[15]  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 towns having a population of less than 1000.[16]  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, from which it is possible to see something of the workings of a common at this time.  For example, between 1853 and 1855, the 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.[17]  This formalisation of local commons management and the restricting of commonage rights by the central authorities to places officially named ‘commons’ continued through the 1850s.  It is possible that the use of resources on commons near Sydney was also becoming more exploitative at this time.[18]

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 possibly the first common west of the Great Divide, was made at Bathurst in 1865.[19]  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.[20]  In the Sydney area, 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.[21]  The Field of Mars Common, after several inquiries, petitions and much bitter argument, was finally resumed by the Crown in 1874 and subdivided, with the proceeds of the sales going towards the construction of a bridge across the Parramatta River.[22]

The final three decades of the nineteenth century were a time of expansion of the commons estate in the colony and of consolidating the management of commons.  Legislatively, a new Commons Regulation Act in 1873 made some changes, notably prohibiting the leasing of commons, and required annual accounts to be published in the Government Gazette.[23]  Further changes to the law of commons were made in 1886, when commoner’s rights were essentially restricted to pasturage and taking fallen timber and firewood, and 1895, when trustees were empowered to restrict access to common lands by carriers, teamsters, travellers and drovers.  All these changes were consolidated in a new Commons Regulation Act in 1898.  This law governed the management of commons in New South Wales until its repeal by the present Commons Management Act of 1989.[24]  Commons continued to be made across the colony under the Crown Land Alienation Act 1861.  They were categorised as permanent, temporary or pasturage commons, with each having their own distinct characteristics and rules.

An example of the general pattern of making post-1865 commons is Wellington Common.  A Permanent Common of 268 hectares was gazetted in December 1867 between Wellington town and the Macquarie River.[25]  In February 1868 a Temporary Common of two parts, one of about 3750 hectares and the other of 1164 hectares, was gazetted adjoining the river, town and Permanent Common.  At the same time the commoners’ boundaries were defined – that is, those “freeholders and householders” mainly living within the “reserve of account of population of the town of Wellington” were recognised as having rights to use the commons.[26]  This was followed by the election, by the commoners, of trustees to manage the commons, with the results being duly gazetted in March 1868.[27]

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, 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.[28]  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.[29]

The bureaucrats in the Lands Department in Sydney maintained a framework of control over all the commons through administering the Commons Acts and their regulations.  The authority for any significant local changes came from Sydney rather than the commoners, a point that can be illustrated by the example of just two months in 1899, when the Government Gazette carried one notice calling for trustees of a common, three notices defining commoner’s boundaries, three reserving land for temporary commons, four applying s.25 of the Act to specific commons, nine describing pieces of land ‘withdrawn’ from commons, and 21 appointing trustees.[30]  A total of 41 commons were the subject of official notices in September and October 1899 alone.

A picture can be drawn from all of this in which commons in country areas are considered desirable by local inhabitants and their establishment is readily facilitated by the central government.  The management regulations, both central and local, 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 effect, local interests in a common negotiated its management arrangements, and presented these as regulations to the government for approval, which endorsed them and provided for their legal enforcement.

The urban commons near Sydney, however, present a different picture.  Those parts of Sydney Common not included within Centennial Park in 1888 were developed for various recreational uses, such as Sydney’s first zoo, leased out to sporting clubs, or developed as parklands.  In 1905, the two remaining sections of Sydney Common were removed from the control of Sydney City Council and placed under the authority of the Chief Secretary.[31]  The Field of Mars Common had been partly sold-off, and parts of it reserved for parks, before the Resumption Act of 1874 was repealed in 1897.[32]  Both commons had been partly privatised through the sale of land for housing, and partly converted into urban parks, and they had both been removed from local control.  Unlike the active preservation of commons in the urban areas of England after 1866, the commons of Sydney were disappearing, often amid much dissent, from the landscape by the turn of the century.  A similar story for the Pitt Town, Wilberforce and Ham Commons in the Hawkesbury District has been told.[33]

There are many things that I have not talked about in this overview that I would have liked to, especially questions about how the landscapes of commons changed over time.  However, you can see that, generally, commons will date from after 1865, that there were plenty of bureaucratic requirements that created records that can now be studied – provided that they have survived; and that commons fulfilled significant cultural and resource needs in many communities.  This is part of the broader context for the making of commons in New South Wales before federation – a context that should be considered when talking about your local commons.

First: Ask a Question

If you are interested in researching the history of your local common or commons, then you need to begin with a question.  A good starting point is to ask “why am I choosing to study the history of our local common?”.  Your answer may be that it is part of a wider inquiry into your local history, or that it is related to a planned commemoration of an important date or event.  It may be that the information is needed for a townscape or heritage study.  Perhaps there are proposals afoot to ‘develop’ the area.  Maybe you just like the place and would like to know more about it.

You then need to ask yourself “how much information will I be happy with?”.  This question is important to consider, because your accessibility to the archives containing commons records, and the nature of those archives, will largely determine just how much information you can get.

Finally, you need to ask yourself “what am I going to do with this history once I have written it?”.  If your Society has a newsletter, try and get it printed in there.  Perhaps your local newspaper may be interested.  Send copies of your work to the major libraries – the State Library, the RAHS Library and the National Library.  Whatever you do, make sure that other people can be informed by your research.  The best knowledge is knowledge that is shared.

What Records are Available for Researching a History of Commons?

The place to begin is at the common.  What is it that you see when you take a look around and try some ‘landscape reading’?  What does the land that is or was your local common look like?  How are the trees, bush and grassland arranged?  Where are the creeks and swamps?  What condition are they in?  Can you make some educated guesses as to why the landscape looks like it does rather than something else?  Where are the boundaries, the gates, the roads and paths?  Why are they where they are and not somewhere else?  Are there any ruins of buildings or other relics of habitation?  How do they relate to the use of the place as a common?

The next thing is to see if anyone else has already written and published something that may be relevant to what you want to know.  Published local histories are a good place to start, although I have found very few that refer to local commons.  Back copies of local historical society journals and newsletters may reveal something.  Local newspapers may also contain some reminiscences or stories that refer to the common, but the accessibility of such materials will depend upon a combination of whether the newspaper has been indexed and how patient you are.  If your common is still managed by trustees, then they may have some records that you can look at.

Having checked upon what has already been done, it is time to sit down in the archives.  The imprimatur of central authority within which local commons existed can be seen reflected in the availability of records for research.  Overwhelmingly, these are to be found within central archives, most notably the State Library and the Archives Office of NSW.  However, it is possible that a wealth of material compiled by local trustees, especially in places where the local shire or municipal council acted as the trustee, can be unearthed in municipal records or archives.  I would be very interested to hear of anyone’s experiences in this matter.

State and Mitchell Libraries, Macquarie Street, Sydney.

Your first port of call should be the Mitchell Library, and its collection of the Government Gazette commencing in 1832.  These are bound in large volumes by year.  In the early years, a whole year is contained in one volume, but by the 1880s, a volume contains a quarter of a year, and by 1899, only two or three months.  Initially, the sheer number of volumes may be off-putting, but there are some short cuts.  There is an index to each year, and usually to each volume.  Page numbering begins with page 1 on the first issue for the year, and then continues consecutively throughout the year to something like page 4897 in the last issue for the year.

Generally, you should look under the heading ‘Land’, which will then have further sub-headings including, sometimes, ‘commons’ or ‘commonages’.  Sometimes, ‘commons’ is a heading in itself.  Under the sub-headings will be a listing of place-names and page numbers.  Sometimes, place-names themselves are main headings – the system of indexing changes every now and then.  Once you have located a reference to your common, simply go to that page in that year’s volume, and you will find (hopefully!) an official notice regarding your common – often it will be in a table of reserves being made by the government that will include water reserves, public schools, and so on.  Such a notice should tell you the place, county, locality, area (in acres), purpose, and papers number.  For example:[34]

Place | County | Locality | Area | Purpose | Papers

Wellington | Wellington | on the Macquarie River nr Wellington | 657 acres | permanent common | 66-13,994

It is important to note the ‘papers’ number, as this is the number of the Lands Department file that deals with your common.  Other information that can be obtained from Government Gazette notices includes extensions or ‘withdrawals’ of land from the common, appointments of trustees, descriptions of commoner’s boundaries, calling of nominations for trustees, and of meetings of commoners, and the acceptance of local regulations.  The financial accounts of common trustees are also published in the Gazette.

Once you have exhausted the Government Gazette, but before leaving the State Library, it is worth having a look through the Consolidated Index to the Proceedings and Printed Papers [of] Parliament.  These commence in 1856, and are particularly useful if your common was the site of some conflict.  For example, in Volume I of the Index, covering the period from 1856 to 1874, under the heading ‘Field of Mars Common’, there are references to petitions, reports from parliamentary committees and inquiries, reports of real estate valuations of the common land, and other interesting documents, all of which can be obtained at the Library.[35]  It is also worth looking under the general heading of ‘Commons’, but you need to bear in mind that your common may have had a fairly mundane existence, and so never have attracted the attention of parliamentary inquiries!  You should also read through the explanatory notes at the beginning of the volume to understand the meanings of the various abbreviations used.

Land Title’s Office, Queens Square, Sydney

You may like to go along to the Land Title’s Office and obtain a copy of the Deed of Grant issued to trustees for their common.  However, this will not really tell you much more than the Government Gazette notice stating that the deed had been issued except in the detailed description of the boundaries of the common.

Archives Office of NSW, Globe St., The Rocks/O’Connell St., Kingswood

The first thing to say about the State Archives is that most of the records dealing with commons are housed at the Kingswood Search Rooms.  Initially, it is worth perusing the Concise Guide to the Archive’s holdings, particularly under ‘Lands Department – Miscellaneous Branch’ and ‘Surveyor-General’ to get some idea of the sort of records that they hold.  There are some series dealing with particular commons, but these are very few.[36]  The most useful items are the seven volumes of Dedication Registers, which cover the period from 1842 to 1979.[37]  In addition to the details provided in the Government Gazette, the Register may also provide a reference to a catalogue number of a plan, as well as the date of notification, date of grant and remarks and other references to later resumptions and revocations that will help you determine when and why some parts, or all, of a common were lost.

While all these details can help you work out some broad outlines for a history of your common, the colour to fill in the spaces of such an outline will be more elusive.  Having carefully noted all the papers numbers provided in the gazettals and registers, you may find it difficult to actually track down the files in the archives.  In fact, I have yet to successfully trace a single one of the files that I have searched for!

Other useful series include the Parks Register 1867-1950, which provides similar details and may be useful if your common, or part of it, was converted at some stage to a park.  The Registers of Reserves other than Recreation Reserves, 1883-1977, and the Register of Areas Allocated as State Forests and Forest Reserves, c1915-1917, may also be similarly useful.  Precedent Books 1873-1973 may help provide some explanation of why trustees followed a particular course of action.[38]

The point about these registers is that they provide a summary of the legal details of a common, and the important ‘papers number’, which in turn may give you access to the original files dealing with events on your common.

The State Archives also contains one series of records from the trustees of a common, the Wanganella Commons Trust, covering the period between 1900 and 1970.[39]  Included are herdsman’s books, a commoner’s roll, minute books, letter books, ledgers, cash books, and two maps of the commoner’s boundaries in the 1930s.  Although these seem to be the only such records held by the Archives, they give an indication of what sort of records were made by commons trustees and how useful you may find them – provided that you can locate any such records for your local common.

Local Government Records and Archives

I can only offer a most general comment on these.  It was only after 1919 that local councils were required by law to preserve and protect some of their records.  These were minute books, registers of legal documents, legal documents, registers of correspondence, registers of returning officer’s declarations of elections and of polls, and the declarations of returning officers.  Patient searching of minute books may reveal information regarding your local common, as may registers of legal documents.  Returning officer’s declarations may also cover elections of common trustees.

You should also remember that local councils have been abolished, amalgamated, and resurrected over the years, and their boundaries have often shifted about.  If your common has ever been within the jurisdiction of a different council to the present, you may also need to search through their records.  All this, of course, presupposes that you are lucky enough to have found a council that has an extensive and well-maintained archives.[40]

Conclusions

To conclude this paper, I would like to remind you that the historical development of places named commons in NSW began in 1804.  Greater regulation of commons came after 1847, and a broad expansion of the numbers and sizes of commons began after 1865.  By the time of federation, an extensive network of commons existed throughout NSW except in the metropolitan area, where commons, often after much dissent, were converted to other public and private uses.

The main avenues for researching commons history can be found in the Mitchell Library and the State Archives Office.  These records provide a broad legal and administrative history of particular commons.  Records of common trustees may be found among municipal records.

I would argue that now is an opportune time to begin researching and writing histories of commons because questions of cultural identity, and the legacies of past environmental change, are prominent within public debates today.  Commons history can contribute to these debates in a number of ways:

  • it suggests that there is a significant and interesting element of communalism in the settlement of Australia’s landscapes that has long been hidden beneath a focus on the rugged, individualistic pioneer;
  • it suggests that English institutions, such as commons, parks and forests, were not uncritically copied in the colony, but rather were naturalised and shaped by local needs and conditions;
  • it suggests that some environmental problems have been inherited from the recent rather than more distant past, and that attempts were made in colonial NSW to settle within the limits set by the physical environment;
  • it suggests that commons and common trustees have played a role in the development of institutions for local governance and local resource management, and therefore have a role in local histories that has been overlooked;
  • it suggests several new areas for research, for example, why were the commons of Sydney lost to urban development while those in London were retained as parklands and recreation areas?

So, it’s up to you – if you have become interested in the history of commons in your district, now is the time to begin looking, researching and writing.  I would be very pleased to hear of your results.  Happy hunting!


[1] The Oxford English Dictionary, Volume IX, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1933: 690.

[2] Oliver Rackham, Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape, London 1976

[3] GD Gadsden, The Law of Commons, Sweet & Maxwell, London 1988.  The examples are: Statute of Merton 1235, 20 Henry III, c. 4; and Anon, (1480) Y.B. 20 Edw. IV, fo. 10, pl. 10; 17 CBNS 251, n (references in Gadsden: xxxi, xlii)

[4] Inclosure Act 1773, 13 George III, c. 81; Inclosure (Consolidation) Act 1801, 41 George III, c. 109; Inclosure Act 1845, 8 & 9 Victoria, c. 118; Metropolitan Commons Act 1866, 29 & 30 Victoria, c. 14.

[5] Gadsden: Chapter 1 passim.

[6] for more on the international examples, see: E. Ostrom, Governing the Commons: the evolution of institutions for collective action, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1990, for a sophisticated analysis and argument regarding the role of commons in the contemporary world.

[7] LG Norman, Historical Notes on Newtown, monograph, City of Sydney 1963: 1; JF Campbell, ‘The Early History of Sydney University Grounds’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, XVI (IV): 274-276.

[8] ‘General Order’, Sydney Gazette, 12 August 1804: 1

[9] ‘Judge Advocate’s Office’, Sydney Gazette, 20 January 1805: 1

[10] ‘General Order’, Sydney Gazette,5 October 1811; Helen Proudfoot, ‘The Hawkesbury Commons, 1804-1987’, Heritage Australia, 6(4), Summer 1987: 23-25; Government Gazette, – January 1841: 177

[11] Sydney Gazette 1804, op. cit.; see also Figure 14 in Denis Jeans, A Historical Geography of New South Wales to 1901, Reed Education, Sydney, 1972: 83

[12] For more on the dissolution of Sydney Common see: Ian Black, ‘The Sydney Showgrounds: a case study of heritage issues’, in Mari Metzke (ed), Heritage Conservation: local issues and action: Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Royal Australian Historical Society with Affiliated Societies, Sydney, 6-7 October 1990, RAHS, Sydney, 1990: 28-41

[13] Proudfoot, op. cit.

[14] Commons Regulation Act 1847, 11° Victoriæ, XXXI, assented to 2.10.1847

[15] Lynne McLoughlin, The Middle Lane Cove River: a history and a future, Macquarie University Centre for Environmental and Urban Studies, Monograph No. 1, North Ryde 1985: 29

[16] ‘Crown Lands – Commonage Rights’, Government Gazette, 26 July 1850: 1099; ‘Commonage Right’, Government Gazette, 2 November 1852: 1609.

[17] Government Gazette, 20 January 1854: 164 and 25 January 1856: 241.

[18] for example, see Lynne McLoughlin for a discussion of Field of Mars Common.

[19] Government Gazette, 10 January 1865: 69

[20] Government Gazette, 6 December 1867: 3304

[21] Ian Black: 30-31; Sydney Boundaries Amendment Act 1870, 33° Victoræ, IX, assented to 20 April 1870

[22] Lynne McLoughlin: 31-33; see also Consolidated Index to the Minutes of the Proceedings and Printed Papers [of Parliament], 1856-1874, under ‘Field of Mars Common’, NSW Government Printer, Sydney; and Field of Mars Common Resumption Act 1874, 38° Victoræ, 111, assented to 25 June 1874.

[23] Commons Regulation Act 1873, 36° Victoriæ, XXIII, assented to 25 April 1873.

[24] Commons Regulation Amendment Act 1886, 50 Victoria, 15, assented to 24 September 1886, Commons Regulation Amendment Act 1895, 59 Victoria, 12, assented to 22 November 1895, Commons Regulation Act 1898, No. 15 of 1898, assented to 27 July 1898, Commons Management Act 1989, No. 13 of 1989, assented to 18 April 1989.

[25] Government Gazette, 6 December 1867: 3304

[26] ‘Commons, Wellington’, and ‘Temporary Commonage, Wellington’, Government Gazette, 7 February 1868: 378-379

[27] Government Gazette, 10 March 1868: 637, and 25 May 1869: 1375.

[28] for example, ‘Junee Common Regulations’, Government Gazette 6 October 1899: 7580-7582

[29] Ham Common Rules and Regulations made by the Trustees…, 1872, 1880, Mitchell Library (MS Room, Ah 103).

[30] Index to Government Gazette for September-October 1899, in front of Volume September-October 1899; s.25 of the Commons Regulation Act 1898 restricted pasturage rights for bonâ fide travellers to a designated part of the common sufficiently enclosed by a fence.

[31] Sydney Corporation Amendment Act 1905, No. 39 of 1905.

[32] Field of Mars Resumption Repeal Act 1897, No. 9 of 1897.

[33] Helen Proudfoot.

[34] Government Gazette, 6 December 1867: 3304

[35] Consolidated Index to the Minutes of the Proceedings and Printed Papers (Volumes 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, Sydney.

[36] Concise Guide to the State Archives of New South Wales, Lands Department – Miscellaneous Branch, A(t)(4) Papers concerning Terragong Swamp, 1855-1919 (City 2/1033-34) 2 boxes; A(t)(6) Papers concerning Field of Mars Common, 1863-1874 (Kingswood 7/6056) 1 vol.; A(t)(7) Papers concerning Ham Common, 1867-1874 (Kingswood 7/6056) 1 vol.

[37] ibid, A(t)(28) Dedication Registers, 1842-1979 (Kingswood 11/22028-34) 7 vols.

[38] ibid, A(t)(29) Parks Registers, 1867-1950 (Kingswood 11/22037-38) 2 vols; A(t)(32) Registers of Reserves other than Recreation Reserves, 1883-1977 (Kingswood 11/22035-36) 2 vols.; A(t)(33) Precedent Books, 1873-1973 (Kingswood 11/21985-95, 3/2938) 12 vols.

[39] ibid, A(t)(43 – 53) Wanganella Commons Trust.

[40] for a discussion of local government records, see Ian Jack and Terry Kass, Local Government Records and the Local Historian, RAHS Technical Information Service, No. 7, February 1987, RAHS Sydney.

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‘Ready at all times’: the Hawkesbury resistance to the Rum Rebels

This paper was presented to the Hawkesbury District Historical Society on the 200th anniversary of the Rum Rebellion (1808 – 1810) as the Society’s Australia Day address in 2008, at Pitt Town.

 “Ready at All Times, at the Risque of Our Lives and Property”[1]:

The Hawkesbury Resistance to the Usurpation known as the Rum Rebellion

Introduction

Tonight, on this 200th anniversary of the overthrow of Governor Bligh, I want to explore the story of those who opposed the Usurpers, and the price they paid, especially among the Hawkesbury settlers.

Setting the Scene: New South Wales in 1808

Firstly, I want to set the scene, and ask you to imagine a New South Wales that is very different to today.  Sydney was the capital, and to the west were the impassable Blue Mountains.  The colony’s population of about 8000 convicts, settlers and soldiers was spread between the two towns of Sydney and Parramatta, and the country districts of the Hawkesbury, Baulkham Hills, the Field of Mars and more sparsely The Cowpastures.  Beyond the County of Cumberland there was also the remote penal station at Coal River, the Queensborough, Phillipsburg and Kingston settlements on Norfolk Island, and the newer settlements at Port Dalrymple and Hobart Town in Van Diemen’s Land.

The colony was largely maritime in its outlook: the principle highways were by river and sea rather that overland, significant economic activities centred on the seasonal sealing and whaling in the southern fisheries, and one of its major means of convict imprisonment were restrictions on convict labour in boat building and fishing.  It probably seemed natural to many people that the governance of this ‘South Seas’ colony rested in the hands of a succession of naval officers, and that the seemingly unlimited powers of the early governors were not unlike those of a sea captain.

The Hawkesbury District was the most ‘inland’ settlement in the colony, and even it was frequently journeyed to and from by way of the river and the coast rather than the rough road to Parramatta.  Boat building and maintenance were a feature of the district’s economy, which along with regular flooding suggests the importance of the aquatic environment even when far from the sea.

It was into this marine colony that Captain William Bligh RN arrived in August 1806 as the fourth governor of New South Wales.  He immediately made his mark felt, not least by providing public assistance to the Hawkesbury settlers who had just survived their fourth devastating flood with great losses to their crops and stock, as well as houses, sheds, roads and even lives.

Old New South Wales, around the time of the Usurpation

Old New South Wales, around the time of the Usurpation

This then is the stage upon which the drama of the Rum Rebellion would be played out.

How others have seen it

I was probably first struck by the idea of a resistance to the Rum Rebellion a few years ago when I read HV Evatt’s 1938 history titled Rum Rebellion.  In his introduction Evatt wrote of Governor Bligh exercising his authority in favour of the agriculturalists and poor settlers and against the wealthy traffickers and monopolists.

Evatt's 1938 history of the Usurpation.  Image Editions Books

Evatt’s 1938 history of the Usurpation. Image Editions Books

Bligh has had over 200 years of bad press, but my objective tonight is not to try and rescue his reputation.   Neither is it to look at the motives and actions of the Usurpers and the other chief protagonist, John Macarthur.  Instead, I want to focus on the “agriculturalists and poor settlers” that Bligh apparently championed.  Who were they? How did they show their support for him?  How did they resist the Usurpation?  What did it cost them?

Evatt provides a good coverage of the 19th century historiography of the rebellion[2]; and Brian Fletcher writing in 1968 covered the 20th century writings[3].  The Hawkesbury settlers have been cast as either hostile to the uprising and loyal to Bligh, or as worthless characters easily bribed to sign petitions.  These points of view can be traced directly back to the opposing arguments advanced at the trial of one of the rebel leaders, Colonel Johnston, in 1811.  There is also another view, in which the settlers and the loyalists resisting the Usurpers are simply ignored as peripheral to the main action revolving around Bligh and Macarthur, Johnston and Foveaux, and Government House Sydney on the 26th January.

Governor William Bligh.  Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol. VI (1898)

Governor William Bligh, friend of the ‘small settler’. Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol. VI (1898)

The Hawkesbury’s local historians have devoted only a few pages to the Usurpation before moving quickly on to the glories of the Macquarie era.  The most notable is probably Bowd, who in 1969 wrote that the Hawkesbury settlers were loyal supporters of Bligh, who promoted their welfare as the colony’s food producers.  They disputed Macarthur’s right to make a welcome address to Bligh on their behalf, and drew up their own welcome.  Bligh set a good price for purchasing their grain for the public stores, and the settlers publicly pledged their loyalty to his government.  After the overthrow of Bligh, the settlers were forced to sign a petition of support for the Rebels, but most recanted as soon as they could and subsequently signed several petitions calling for Bligh’s restoration.  Bowd noted that “It was well within the power of the ruling junta to bring ruin upon those who opposed them”, and cited the example of Martin Mason who was forced to sell his farm[4].

Elsewhere in his book Bowd also makes occasional references to the mixed fortunes of many during this period.  William Cox was absent from the colony, and so “…free from the factionalism of the period…” which later made him eligible for appointment as Chief Magistrate in 1810; Richard Fitzgerald “…had the direction of Mr J MacArthur’s affairs …[and]… sided with the usurpers…”, and was appointed a magistrate during their regime; Andrew Thompson had “…made an implacable enemy of Macarthur…” and was dismissed from the magistracy during the Usurpation; Thomas Arndell, the first magistrate at the Hawkesbury, was a prominent supporter of Bligh; Archibald Bell “…was made a magistrate at the Hawkesbury by the rebel administration and was given a grant of 500 acres…”.  The “…courage and forthrightness…” of Andrew Johnston at Portland Head was evidenced when he “…christened his youngest son James Bligh in 1809, when the rebels were in charge of the colony…”.  William Singleton “…was a signatory to the various petitions that circulated during the Bligh period…”.

Two decades later in 1990 Powell & Banks included in their Hawkesbury River History an essay on the settler Peter Hibbs[5].  The author noted that during the Usurpation Hibbs was spared the foreclosures on loans suffered by many of Bligh’s supporters, and “…appears to have had two bob three ways…”, having signed petitions both supporting and opposing the Usurpers.

A cast of characters begins to emerge from these writings.  Magistrates are being replaced; petitions of support and opposition are being signed – sometimes under duress; support for Bligh or the Usurpers is being demonstrated in various ways.  Clearly, something is going on, and it seems to be of greater importance that a few drunken soldiers dragging a notoriously bad tempered viceroy from under his bed in Sydney.  Several historians have acknowledged the hardships suffered by the Hawkesbury settlers, although not all of them have been kind.  The two issues evident in the work of local historians, the replacement of the magistracy, and the settlers’ public petitioning, point to two themes in the ‘Rum Resistance’ as it was played out on the Hawkesbury stage that I will explore a little further.

So what was the ‘Rum Rebellion’?

But what was the Rum Rebellion?  Briefly, the arrival of Governor-designate Bligh in August 1806 was warmly welcomed by the Hawkesbury settlers, and many in Sydney, but viewed with some suspicion by vested interests in the local military force, the NSW Corps, popularly known as the Rum Corps.  This was confirmed by the first meeting between Bligh and the colony’s wealthiest man, and former Rum Corps officer, John Macarthur.  They met in the garden of Government House Parramatta at a dinner hosted by retiring Governor King, and almost immediately quarrelled when Macarthur began pressing his claims for a large grant of land.  It was a bad omen for the future.

Old Government House Parramatta, where Bligh and McArthur first met in the viceregal gardens.  Image NSW Heritage

Old Government House Parramatta, where Bligh and Macarthur first met in the viceregal gardens. Image NSW Heritage

Relations between the two parties deteriorated rapidly.  In the absence of a political assembly, their conflicts were fought out in the local courts.  By the summer of 1808 the political atmosphere was poisonous, and on the evening of the 26th January the officers of the Rum Corps under Major Johnstone and Lieutenant Bell marched on Government House Sydney where they seized the Governor and placed him under house arrest, declared a state of martial law to exist, and freed Macarthur from the Sydney jail where he was awaiting trial.  He was carried by a drunken mob through the town.  This has been variously described as a coup d’état, a rebellion, an uprising or an insurrection, although they usual description at the time was a usurpation (according to its opponents) or the overthrow of a tyrant (according to its supporters).

One of the first actions of the rebels was to isolate Bligh.  Bligh wrote to Lord Castlereagh that “Every precaution was used by the rebels to prevent any communication with the interior of the Colony.  Guards were set on the road to Parramatta, and no one suffered to pass.”[6]  Bligh hoped that during the night he might be able to escape from Government House and flee to the Hawkesbury, where he could rally the settlers and other loyalists.[7]  However, as he later told Castlereagh, “…the Settlers are in a very enraged state of Mind at the indignity I suffer through my arrest …[however] their want of Arms has prevented much bloodshed, and the precaution of disarming them…[some months earlier], whereby the Military became of greater power, has by this means acted against us, and enabled them to act with greater confidence”.[8]

The Usurpation lasted for nearly two years, covering almost the whole of 1808 and 1809.  This period, sometimes called the interregnum or the rebel administration, has three distinct phases.  The first lasted for six months under the command of Major Johnstone, with Macarthur as his Colonial Secretary; the second for nearly six months under the command of Colonel Foveaux; and the third for twelve months under Lt Col Patterson, although Foveaux appears to have held the reins of power during this phase as well.  Each of these men occupied the office and used the title of Lieutenant Governor.

John Macarthur Esq.  Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol. VI (1898)

John Macarthur Esq. Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol. VI (1898)

There were various fallings-out between the Usurpers, and their aims, never very clear or unified apart from hatred of Bligh, shifted and changed over time.  Bligh was kept imprisoned in Government House Sydney until he agreed to leave for England in February 1809.  This proved to be a ruse, and instead he sailed for Hobart, where he remained exiled on HMS Porpoise until he heard of Macquarie’s arrival and sailed back to Sydney.  The Usurpation ended in fact when Macquarie arrived in the colony at the end of 1809, and officially on New Years Day 1810 when Macquarie assumed the office of Governor and revoked all the acts of the Usurpers.

The orthodox view of the rebellion: Raymond LIndsay's 1928 painting of Major Johnson announcing the arrest of Bligh, depicted in the heroic style of liberators justly overthrowing a tyrant.  Image HHT

An orthodox view of the rebellion: Raymond LIndsay’s 1928 painting of Major Johnson announcing the arrest of Bligh, depicted in the heroic style of liberators justly overthrowing a tyrant. Image HHT

While the Usurpers claimed to have rescued the colony from a tyrannical governor, Bligh and the loyalists invoked the language and imagery of the French Revolution to describe the Usurpers. Bligh asserted that a jubilant Macarthur crowed on the night of the overthrow that “Never was a revolution so completely affected, and with so much order and regularity”, and described Nicholas Bayly, the “…self-created Lieutenant-Governor’s Secretary …” coming to Government House “…and in a very Robesperian manner he read and delivered a paper to me…”.[9]  It is a symbolism that was soon picked up by local songsters, perhaps most notably in ‘A New Song …On the Rebellion’, written sometime in 1808[10].  Some of its more notable lines are:

The voice of rebellion resounds o’er the Plain.

The Anarchist Junto have pulled down the banner

Which Monarchical Government sought but in vain

To hold as the rallying Standard of honor,

The Diadem’s here fled

From off the Kings head

And further on:

And the New Gallic School in its stead have erected,

John Bull’s would-be pupil, how dare he to frown

His French education was too long neglected.

That Turnip head tool

Jack Boddice’s fool.

And:

A clown in his gait, and a fool in his Face,

The Carmagnol Mayor

Has here got an heir.

‘Off the kings head’, ‘Gallic school’: some of the allusions seem obvious; other less-so.  John Bull’s would be pupil and his neglected French education is an allusion to Foveaux’s French ancestry and the French revolution; Turnip Head refers to Johnston, Jack Boddice to Macarthur; the Carmagnole was a popular song and dance during the French revolution, and is an allusion to the first revolutionary Mayor of Paris, Jean Bailey, a principle in the execution of Louis XVI who was later guillotined himself, and thus a play on the name of Nicholas Bayly – the song writer noted of Bailey that “His hopeful namesake has been no less active in putting down monarchy here, being a Principal in the Rebellion now existing”.  And while there were no appointments with Madame Guillotine on the Parade Ground in Sydney, the association of the Usurpers with violent revolution and the destruction of lawful authority was commonly made over the Cumberland Plain in such ‘pipes’.

'Trying out the guillotine', a French revolution cartoon showing Louise XVI about to be executed while revolutionaries make coarse remarks, seemingly unaware that they will soon meet the same fate.  Bailly may be the fifth figure from the left, exclaiming 'Paris has re-conquered its king'.  Image UCL

‘Trying out the guillotine’, a French revolution cartoon showing Louise XVI about to be executed while revolutionaries make coarse remarks, seemingly unaware that they will soon meet the same fate. Bailly may be the fifth figure from the left, exclaiming ‘Paris has re-conquered its king’. Image UCL

The Right to Petition

The principle means by which we have some idea of the reactions to the Usurpation by the Hawkesbury settlers lie in the petitions and counter-petitions they drew up and signed.

Petitioning the King, and by extension anyone in authority, without fear of persecution was a long-recognised right. The settler’s petitions usually took the form of an address to someone in authority, with their welcome address to the newly arrived Bligh in 1806 the first in a series.

Fletcher analysed the four petitions from the Hawkesbury settlers of 22 September 1806, 29 January 1807, 25 February 1807 and 1 January 1808, which cover the period from Bligh’s arrival to the eve of the Usurpation.  There are also two petitions of 17 February 1809 and 17 March 1809 during the Usurpation, and then another of 1 December 1810 after the first year of the Restoration under Macquarie.

Fletcher showed that about 75% of the Hawkesbury settlers had signed the pre-Usurpation petitions, included old and new settlers, large and small land holders, emancipists predominated numerically, but almost all of the free settlers had signed.  The January 1808 petition had been broader, including some Parramatta and Sydney landowners, and about 30% of the signatories were not farmers but tradesmen and labourers.  The Portland Head Presbyterians were consistent signatories.  Thus, he concludes that the petitions are as representative of the settler’s views as we are ever likely to know.  Fletcher also makes the point that, while signatories to a petition supporting the Usurpation were very soon afterwards renouncing their support and claiming their signatures had been obtained under duress, no such allegations were ever made by the pro-Bligh petitioners.[11]  The signatories were mainly men, but a small proportion were women, presumably those who held land in their own right?

Evatt ascribes great importance to the petitions, describing them as a ‘Bill of Rights’.  Their key demands were freedom of trade and an end to monopolies and extortion, justice to be administered by civil rather than military authority, and debts to be payable in currency rather than goods.[12]

The words of the petitions, in addition to these general points, can speak for themselves:

22 September 1806, with 244 signatures – Asked Bligh to protect the people in general in their rights, privileges, liberties and professions, as by law established; suffer the laws of the realm to take their due course; and that justice be administered by the Courts authorized by His Majesty, according to the known law of the land;

29 January 1807, 156 signatures – ‘We will be ready at all times, at the risk of our lives and property, lawfully to support our native laws and liberties under a just and benign government’;

25 February 1807, 546 signatures – ‘We have willingly enrolled our names for the defence of the country; and request that you dispose of rebellious ringleaders and principles to prevent future conspiracies and stop keeping liege subjects in constant alarm’;

1 January 1808, 833 signatures – ‘We hold ourselves bound, at the risque of our lives and properties, to support Your Excellency; we request freedom of trade, and trial by jury, and have confidence in your detailed research and knowledge of the whole country;

17 February 1809, 14 signatories “who came free into the colony” (mostly around Portland Head) – we abhor and detest the rebellion; the military continues to monopolise trade and land; there is favoratism, corruption and excessive punishments by the Officer-Judges; we remain loyal to Bligh; and pray for protection and relief from the rebels;

17 March 1809, 15 signatories “who came free into the colony” (mostly around Portland Head) – we fear our houses being assailed, our wives and daughters violated, our property plundered; the government is corrupt at all levels; we were forced to sign an address of support for Johnston under fear and terror; bands of soldiers and abandoned and worthless characters are intimidating settlers and burning effigies of Your Excellency; drunkenness is everywhere; we need speedy protection and relief’

1 December 1810, 94 signatures – congratulate Macquarie on his arrival; and give thanks for the appointment of William Cox as a local magistrate – to which Macquarie thanked them, and advised that he had fixed on the sites for the new towns.

Freedom of trade, trial by jury and judicial fairness are central to the earlier petitions, as well as expressions of loyalty to Bligh.  The settlers petitioning against monopolies indicates this remained a real issue for them, although recently the journalist Michael Duffy[13] and historian Peter Cochrane[14] have both claimed the monopoly problems had been overcome, especially in the rum trade,[15] and Chief Justice Spigelman also seems to have taken a similar view in his Australia Day Address last week[16]

The two petitions prepared in 1809 are markedly different, being signed only by the free settlers, stating the terror there are living under, and seeking help.  They were also made and sent to Bligh after he had left Government House Sydney, perhaps in the hope that the Usurpers did not control Hobart and he could get help.  The petition of 1810 marks the post-rebellion settlement: a new untainted magistracy and new towns above the floodwaters.

The Terror in the Hawkesbury

Petitioning, however, did have its consequences.  The Usurpers could not let the settler’s constant challenges to their pretended authority go unnoticed, especially when they had so boldly and publicly signed their names to every petition, and published the pre-usurpation petitions in the Sydney Gazette for all to see.

Masthead of the Sydney Gazette, two years before the Usurpation began.

Masthead of the Sydney Gazette, two years before the Usurpation began.

The changes in the magistracy noted by Bowd are important, for the magistrates of this period not only presided over the local courts.  They were also the agents of the civil government.  They were often consulted collectively by the governor of the day, forming a sort of privy council.  The replacement of Arndell by Bell symbolised the power of the Usurpers, further reinforced by Bell’s known alignment with Macarthur’s ‘Exclusive’ faction (Thompson was an emancipist), and the granting of land to him that included Richmond Hill, the highest point in the district, again symbolically bringing the whole district under the gaze of the Usurpers, reinforced their ‘Exclusive’ approach to governance.  The replacement of Thompson (an emancipist) with Fitzgerald (an emancipist sympathetic to the rebels) strengthened their hand.

Under the governments of Bligh and King, the Hawkesbury settlers has a role in the governance of their district through their control on the local Commons trusts, and in the colony through the inclusion of their magistrates in the vice regal ‘privy council’.  Government House at Green Hills had been the centre of public authority since the mid-1790s, and during the Usurpation it was the local command centre for their administration under Commandant Bell and the new magistracy.  It was a place where proclamations and orders were issued, musters were organised and sometimes held, official business was transacted, and official functions held.  It was the seat of government in the district.

Bligh had his own large property near Pitt Town named ‘Blighton’, which was operated as a model farm, intended to demonstrate to the settlers new methods of agriculture to help improve their farming practices.  Bligh’s Overseer, Andrew Thompson, wrote in 1807 of Bligh’s “…wisdom and attention to farming and improvement, which the Sovereign was pleased to practice at Home, … as an example to all others…”[17].  It was a practical contribution to supporting the local settlers, and something of a cause célèbre for the Usurpers, who claimed the farm was evidence of Bligh’s corruption as he used public resources, such as convicts, livestock and stores at the Crown’s expense for his private gain[18].  It stood as a symbol of the resistance, a model of orderly, productive husbandry in the community, in stark contrast to the illegality and repression that emanated from the rebel-controlled Government House.

Sketch map showing the location of 'Blighton' (upper right) in the Hawkesbury District.  Historical records of New South Wales, Vol. VI (1898).

Sketch map showing the location of ‘Blighton’ (upper right) in the Hawkesbury District. Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol. VI (1898).

The Usurpers were well known by their redcoat uniforms, their use of the Union flag and Royal Arms, and their too-frequent toasts and shouts of God Save the King.  Their use of the Public Seal, with its depiction of convicts landing at Sydney Cove, was limited – party because Bligh had managed to sequester the Public Seal to prevent its capture by the Usurpers until they forced him to reveal its location, but also because the promise of convict redemption alluded to in its design was anathema to the Exclusives among the Usurpers.  Bligh issued a proclamation from his exile in Hobart which states in part “That I only am empowered to keep and use the public seal for sealing all things whatsoever [in] the territory and its dependencies”.[19]  The hijacked symbols of Royal authority failed to impart the legitimacy the Usurpers craved.

The resisters also had their symbols, the most notable (I believe) being the ‘Bowman Flag’.  The flag, made by the women of the Bowman household, shows a shield with the entwined rose, shamrock and thistle of England, Ireland and Scotland, supported by a kangaroo and emu, with two motto ribbons: the upper reading ‘Unity’, and the lower Nelson’s great signal at Trafalgar ‘England Expects Every Man to do His Duty’.  On one level, the flag celebrates Nelson’s victory.  The news had reached New South Wales in April 1806, six months after the battle[20].  It was four months before Bligh’s arrival, but already the tensions that would lead to the Usurpation were building up.  In the context of the Usurpation, the flag takes on a different meaning.

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

The Bowman Flag, symbol of the Hawkesbury Resistance. Image NSW Heritage

Nelson was a naval hero and true patriot who fought for his king and country, unlike the Usurpers who overthrown the duly appointed governor for their own personal ends.  Unity amongst the settlers was vital if they were to resist the rebels, as it was their duty to do.  The intertwined floral emblems suggest the mixing of nationalities among the settlers, and placed upon a shield further suggests that this diversity gave them strength, just as the recent union of England, Scotland and Ireland had created a newer, greater Britain that Nelson had defended.  The kangaroo and emu supporters, their heads turned warily over their shoulders, indicate the new country into which the settlers were putting their roots, and were ready to defend.  The flag invokes the settler’s loyalty to resist the Usurpers, its imagery patriotic without being obviously subversive.

Thus our stage has been furnished: the scenes of good and bad have been painted, the building props set up, and all embellished by the contested heraldry of reds, whites and blues.  Now its time for the actors to make their entrances and exits.

The main leaders of the Hawkesbury settlers, going by the principle signatories on the various petitions and the work of Brian Fletcher, were Andrew Thompson, Thomas Arndell, George Crossley, Martin Mason, John Bowman, William Cummings and Thomas Matcham Pitt.  In Sydney, Robert Campbell, John Palmer and William Gore were prominent supporters of Bligh; as was George Suttor at Baulkham Hills.  Fletcher states that after leaders such as Thompson and Crossley had been silenced under Johnston, settlers such as Mason and Suttor took over the leadership of the loyalists.[21]  I have not yet identified any Norfolk or Vandemonian leaders, but note that Lieutenant Governor Collins in Hobart issued an Order in April 1809 prohibiting the newly arrived Norfolk settlers “..and other persons…” from addressing letters and petitions to Bligh while he was in the town, on pain of being bought before a magistrate to answer for their actions.[22]  Presumably the addressees were leaders in their communities, and were approaching Bligh for a reason.

A brief look at how some of the Hawkesbury leaders fared during the Usurpation is illustrative of the repressive nature of the rebel administrations.

Thomas Arndell, English free settler who married his convict wife Elizabeth in 1807, was a resident magistrate appointed at the Hawkesbury by 1802.  During the usurpation, he was dismissed from the magistracy, and his pension was discontinued without explanation.  In 1809 he wrote to Viscount Castlereagh, praising Bligh and stating that he had been forced to sign a petition following the Usurpation supporting Johnston, and that “…artifice and threats” and been used to force the “…frighted inhabitants” to sign the same petition.  Macquarie restored his pension in 1810.[23]

Andrew Thompson, Scottish emancipist, was appointed a constable in 1796 and succeeded Thomas Rickaby as Chief Constable in 1804, a Trustee of the Nelson (Pitt Town) and Richmond (Ham) Commons in 1805, shipbuilder, store and inn keeper, farmer and brewer, overseer of Bligh’s model farm; he was dismissed as Chief Constable during the Usurpation under Johnston, although he later received grants of land in Sydney under Foveaux and at Minto under Paterson; appointed by Macquarie as a magistrate, he was the first emancipist to hold this office.[24]

George Crossley, English emancipist, a lawyer, acquired a farm at the Hawkesbury in 1801, acted as a legal advisor to the Provost-Marshall and the Judge-Advocate, and to governors King and Bligh, although he was prevented from formally working as a lawyer because of his conviction; he helped the Judge-Advocate prepare a case against Macarthur, and was at Government House Sydney advising Bligh on his correspondence when the rebels surrounded the House and captured Bligh; he may have been the author of some of the Hawkesbury petitions; he was arrested by the rebels, and tried by them for practising as an attorney, convicted and sentenced to 7 years transportation to Coal River.

Bligh gave his version of Crossley’s trial: “McArthur used every endeavour to win over Mr George Crossley to assist him … but when [he] found that he could have no influence over Crossley, he endeavoured to injure him, first by attributing to him such situations as he did not hold; and secondly, by his influence over the Military Officers, procuring a Sentence of Transportation to the Coal-Mines for seven years against him for giving his assistance to the Government”.[25]

Macquarie released Crossley from the mines, and when he petitioned the new Governor for compensation he stated that he had “retired to his farm at the Hawkesbury [and would]…endeavour to recover from the ruin in which he is now involved …humanity cannot compensate for your memorialist’s two years’ imprisonment in the sixty third year of his life, but it is in Your Excellency’s power to assist him to forget that past by extending to him your protection, advice and assistance…”.  Crossley was allowed to sue the rebels that sat in the court which convicted him, and was awarded £500.  However, he was unable to practice as a lawyer again, despite several attempts to do so.[26]

Martin Mason, English surgeon and free settler, farmer at South Creek, was forced to sell his farm in 1809 after publicly stating that he was prepared to take a settlers address to England to present Bligh’s case.  Gore wrote to Viscount Castlereagh in 1809, nominating Mason as an illustration of the lawless state of the colony under the rebels.  Mason had been apprehended on the road to Parramatta “…by men armed with naked cutlasses…”, and taken before the Commandant at that town “…who grossly insulted and examined him on the subject of a letter…” Mason was writing to Castlereagh.  He was then taken to Sydney, where he was examined by ‘rebel justices’ “…as to his motives for writing the intercepted letter…”.  The letter was detained by Paterson and its contents suppressed, indicating how the loyalists were being “..persecuted with unrelenting severity”.  Gore asked Castlereagh to forgive the badness of his writing, as in avoiding the “…miscreant traytors …[and] revolutionary partisans…”, he had had to write“…in the woods … by stealth and piecemeal”.[27]

John Bowman, Scottish free settler, farmer at the Hawkesbury since 1798, Trustee of Richmond (Ham) Common in 1805; sued by Nicholas Bayly in 1808 for calling him a rogue, he was imprisoned, and in 1809 his property was seized and auctioned by Bayly as Provost-Marshall.  This apparently destroyed his financial security, and in 1813, long after the Usurpation had ended, he had to sell most of his property to pay further debts.  The settlers petitioned Viscount Castlereagh in 1809 to show that they had no hand or part in the Usurpation, and mentioned Bowman’s case as an example of excessive punishments meted out by corrupt rebel judges: “When your memorialists applyed for protection they are frequently treated with insult, and if they presumed to appeal to the [rebel Lt Governor] they are liable to be dragged to prison by convicts and locked up without meat, drink, fire or candle, or even straw to lye on, with the most abandoned thieves.  [John Bowman] was locked up in the same cell with three malefactors under sentenced of death, tried, fined, and imprisoned without being taken before a magistrate, remanded, and again confined with the above malefactors.  His offence was unguardedly saying that Nicholas Bayly was a rogue in recommending and promising to support his (Bowman’s) servant in prosecuting his master for false imprisonment … tho’ the servant had acknowledged his [original] offence”.[28]

Thomas Matcham Pitt, English free settler and relative of Lord Nelson, farmer at the Hawkesbury since 1802.[29]  Pitt is the only one of the resistance leaders who does not seem to have suffered any retaliation – perhaps his connections with Lord Nelson protected him?

These individual biographies reflect the language and methods employed by the Usurpers to break the resistance.  One response to this persecution, symbolic in its application but with real consequences, was refusal by the loyalists to acknowledge the legitimacy of the rebel courts.

In March 1808, Provost-Marshall Gore, whose office Nicholas Bayly had now usurped, was tried for perjury.  His response to the charge was an emphatic “I will not plead; I deny your jurisdiction”.  The rebel magistrates sentenced him to be transported for seven years to Coal River, to which Gore responded: “You have conferred on me the greatest Honor you are capable of conferring, the only Honor I could receive from such Men. Loyalty and Treason could not unite”.[30]  Similarly, a charge against George Sutter of seditious libel was met with Sutter declaring “I deny the legality of this Court; you may do with myself as you please”, for which he was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment and a fine of one shilling.[31].  A similar case of seditious libel against John Palmer and Charles Hook was met with a similar refusal to plea, and they were fined £50 and imprisoned for three months.[32]

It also appears that Bligh was not the passive recipient of the settler’s adoration.  By the spring of 1808 Foveaux was complaining that Bligh “…was exerting every means in his power to inflame the minds of the settlers by sending emissaries among them, who promised in his name that in the event of his restoration to the Government he would make them rich and happy.  I thought it my duty to inform him that if he persevered … I would send him to England … [and] remove him from Government House and be obliged to impose additional restraint on his person…”.[33]  Foveaux later tried again to remove Bligh to Government House Parramatta, but he again refused to budge.[34]

The botanist George Caley visited Bligh in October 1808, and described the repressive atmosphere inside Government House Sydney:  “Meeting him [Bligh] in the hall, expressing as he went into the parlor, “You see how they have served me; they might have well as done the same to the King of England.”  Having shut the door, he desired me to sit down in a corner of the room, where I perceived the sentinels could not see me.  He began his discourse (which was mostly whispered) by wishing me to write to you [Banks]. … I conceived [this] of but little use, for I was strongly persuaded by my own mind that the letters would be intercepted [as both ships in the harbour were under Macarthur’s control]. … about the conduct of Lieu’t-Gov’r Foveaux – as he styles himself …When he had the command of Norfolk island he was spoken of as a very severe man, but here at present it evidently appears he is aiming at becoming popular.  But what is the use of the popularity of convicts? … he is acting a very sly, cunning part.”[35]

Government House Sydney floor plan in 1808: note the parlour where Bligh and Caley met, on the right.  Historical records of New South Wales, Vol. VI (1898)

Government House Sydney floor plan in 1808: note the parlour where Bligh and Caley met, on the right. Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol. VI (1898)

The Terror elsewhere – Baulkham Hills and Norfolk Island

The settlers around Baulkham Hills tended to support those at the Hawkesbury, notably George Suttor, a free settler who had been farming at Baulkham Hills since 1802.  Bligh had promised him another land grant, but the overthrow prevented the grant being made.  Suttor was a leader of the settlers, and selected to go to London with Mason in 1808.  He refused to attend a muster being held by the rebels, and was ordered to court in Parramatta, then taken to Sydney.  While he was away, five convicts were sent to his house, he claimed by Foveaux, where they abused his wife, and drove away his cattle.  Suttor had to give them two bottles of wine to get the cattle returned.  The next week he was jailed for six months, as were four others men who had refused to muster, including Martin Mason.[36]  Like the refusal to recognise the jurisdiction of the rebel courts, the refusal to attend musters was another form of resistance employed by the loyalist settlers.

The situation on Norfolk Island during the usurpation is unclear.  The British authorities were prevaricating between closing the island and keeping it open.  Foveaux had returned to Sydney in 1807 with instructions to maintain the settlements, but by August 1808 had commissioned the ‘City of Edinburgh’, through Macarthur, to evacuate half the population to Hobart.[37]  The majority of the Islanders did not want to leave, some of them having spent 20 years establishing their farms and families, and they had no great love for Foveaux who had been Commandant on the island between 1800 and 1804.[38]  Nevertheless, 224 settlers and all their possessions and livestock were removed from the Island in September, arriving in Hobart on the 2nd October.  Lt Governor Collins reported to Foveaux that the voyage had been longer than expected, provisions were running low, and “Several of the settlers complaining, some that their property had been plundered on the voyage, others that it was not forthcoming”.[39]  Collins directed the magistrates to investigate, and their report seems unsurprising: while much property had gone missing, they were unable to fix responsibility on any individual.  Bligh wrote later that same month “Concerning the poor settlers of Norfolk Island”.  The evacuation had not been approved by him, and the ‘City of Edinburgh’ was “…the infamous ship which sold and distributed her liquors to McArthur and his emissaries at the time of the insurrection”.[40]

Collapse and Restoration

By the end of 1809 the Usurpation had dragged on for two years.  The initial excitement had long dissipated and been replaced, for the loyalist settlers at the Hawkesbury and elsewhere, by sullen acceptance punctuated by acts of civil disobedience such as not attending musters or denying the authority of rebel courts, petitioning for the restoration of Bligh, and managing their farms as best they could.  They, like Bligh, new that eventually relief would arrive from England and, like Bligh, they firmly believed that the lawful order would be restored.

On the 28th December 1809 Major Lachlan Macquarie and the 73rd Regiment sailed into Sydney Harbour.  The Regiment landed on the 31st December, and on the following New Years Day Macquarie issued the proclamations and orders by which he took control of the colony.[41]  There was no resistance from the Rum Corps or Paterson’s administration.  Macquarie reported that on his arrival he had “…found the colony in a state of perfect tranquillity, but in a great degree of anxiety for the long expected arrival of a new Governor.”[42]

He found the public stores almost empty, and the hoped-for harvest from the Hawkesbury destroyed in the flood of August 1809; the public buildings in a state of decay; and Bligh exiled in Hobart.  Within the first week of his government, Macquarie undid all that could be undone of the rebel administration: all public appointments were declared invalid, and the former officials were restored to their offices; all land grants and leases were declared null and void; all trials and investigations were declared invalid; all official papers and records were to be returned to Government House within one week; all grants and leases were revoked, specifically including grants to soldiers.  However, by another proclamation he prohibited the settlers from taking actions against rebel officials unless they had committed illegal acts of oppression and injustice, and called upon the inhabitants to demonstrate “…forbearance, and the importance of that union, tranquillity and harmony in the present crisis” rather than “…the constant recourse to a vexatious and obstinate system of litigation”.  Wrongs would be righted, but there would be no general retaliation and purging of the Usurpers.

Macquarie made it a priority to visit the Hawkesbury, and already had formulated a plan for relocating the settlements to high ground.  But that’s another story, suffice to note that of the five towns he established in the district, three he named after Whig reformers, although two are now remembered as Tories.  Wilberforce was named after the great anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, Castlereagh commemorated Viscount Castlereagh, Colonial Secretary, now remembered as a reactionary but at that still committed to Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform, Pitt Town recalled Britain’s first prime minister who supported parliamentary reform, Catholic emancipation and abolition of the slave trade, and was also a friend of Wilberforce and patron of Castlereagh.  Pitt and Castlereagh were key figures in the union of Great Britain with Ireland in 1801, which they believed would overcome sectarian differences, and in the wars with revolutionary and then Napoleonic France.  I think the names were intended as a tribute to the beliefs the settlers had stood for in their resistance to the Usurpation: the rule of law, progress through reform, resistance to arbitrary rule, and freedom of trade and commerce.

Bligh did not hear of Macquarie’s arrival for some days, and it took him nearly three weeks to get back to Sydney.  He landed in Sydney Cove in the afternoon of the 17th January “…to the great satisfaction of the people, expressed by their cheering…” he later wrote to Castlereagh.[43]  Bligh spent the next few months in Sydney, gathering evidence for the trials of the Usurpers in England, finally leaving on the 12th May.  The Hawkesbury settlers do not seem to have drawn up an address of farewell.

Legacies

I began with some questions to which some answers can now be attempted.

Who were the Hawkesbury settlers?  Fletcher probably answered this question in 1968.  They comprised most of the landholders in the district, emancipist and free, as well as some of the small business people. Fletcher considered they were a representative cross-section of the community, concluding that on “…a balance of probability … there was strong support for Bligh at the Hawkesbury”.

How did the settlers show their support for Bligh?  Their petitions are the obvious answer, and they have been the main evidence cited since 1811 and earlier.  However, there are other ways: ‘Blighton’ is associated with their support for Bligh and the royal authority he represented (remember Thompson’s analogy with King George, who was also known as ‘Farmer George’); and the Bowman Flag can be read as the real symbol of their resistance to the Usurpers.

How did the settlers resist the Usurpers?  Firstly, we have two waves of their leaders, all prepared to publicly engage with the rebel regimes, often a great personal cost.  The tactics of civil disobedience were employed in denying the legitimacy of the rebel courts, and in refusing to attend musters held by the rebel magistrates, again at great personal cost.  There were also visits to the detained Bligh, often under a cloak of subterfuge; and the surreptitious writing of letters to authorities in England telling them of what was happening.  And there were the ‘pipes’ such as A New Song … of the Rebellion, softy but surely subverting rebel authority.

What did their loyalty cost the settlers?  For the leaders, the costs included fines, foreclosures, imprisonment and transportation to Coal River; while their supporters endured abuse and humiliation from the soldiery and packs of convict ‘let off the stores’, theft of their property, a general failure of law and order, and sights such as the drunken burning of effigies that reminded them of the excesses of the French Revolution, and made the men fear for the safety of their womenfolk.

By the time of the Restoration under Macquarie two years of the rebel regime had been endured.  There could have been a viscous counter-revolution, and may well have been had Bligh still been in Sydney.  However, Macquarie brought with him a policy of reconciliation, and was able to have this in place by the time Bligh returned from Hobart.  His most notable example was the rehabilitation of Foveaux, something that Bligh could neither understand nor stomach and, I suspect, neither could the settlers.  However, worn down by the long Usurpation, and once again devastated by floods, I suspect that their relief at the Restoration overcame much of the accumulated bitterness.

The local histories now speak warmly of the Bells and Fitzgeralds, with no reference to the bitter circumstances in which these families were planted in the Hawkesbury.  Little mention is made of the dark days of the usurpation.  The effects of Macquarie’s policy of reconciliation appear to have lasted long into the present day.  In this sense, the Hawkesbury is probably a microcosm of the healing that had to take place in Sydney and Parramatta, Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land, even at the Coal River.  Perhaps it has worked so well that today we are not really sure of the importance of the rebellion to our history as Australians?

In their resistance, the settlers reflected a tradition of actively building a better or new society in English history through ‘parliamentary’ means, not violence, which itself had developed as a response to several centuries of civil wars and Saxon/Celtic and Catholic/Protestant conflicts.  Other ways had to be developed to effect social and political change, and were sealed in the compact of the Glorious Revolution only 120 years before.  It was part of the ‘invisible baggage’ they brought with them to New South Wales, that distant maritime country on the far side of the globe, and which is also part of our history.  It was Usurpers who were the reactionaries, contrary to the loyalists use of allusions to the French Revolution.

To oppose a tyrannical or unjust government is the right thing to do.  That is what a commoner or citizen does.  The actions of the Hawkesbury (and other) settlers, especially under the ‘second wave’ of leaders such as Suttor and Mason, and the Portland Head Presbyterians, demonstrated their claims to be morally and legally right, and ultimately it was their resistance that was vindicated, not the usurpation.

The Rum Rebellion was not just a colourful colonial curiosity.  We have had no military coups, no civil wars, since that time.  We can reflect on this Australia Day, and on this bicentenary of the Usurpation, that we should in no small measure give thanks to the Hawkesbury settlers and their courageous resistance for what Macquarie might have called “…the importance of that union, tranquillity and harmony” in our Commonwealth today.

The signature of Governor Lachlan Macquarie: symbol of the Restoration.  Image SRNSW

The signature of Governor Lachlan Macquarie: symbol of the Restoration. Image SRNSW


[1] Title taken from ‘Address of Hawkesbury Settlers to Bligh’, 29th January 1807, in Historical Records of New South Wales, Volume VI, Government Printer, Sydney 1898: 237

[2] Evatt, HV., Rum Rebellion: a study of the overthrow of Governor Bligh by John Macarthur and the New South Wales Rum Corps, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1938

[3]Fletcher, B., ‘The Hawkesbury Settlers and the Rum Rebellion’, in Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 54, Pt 3, 1968: 217-237

[4] Bowd, D.G., Macquarie Country: a history of the Hawkesbury, the author, Netley SA 1969: 8-10.

[5] Wilson, E., & Richmond, T., ‘The Saga of Peter Hibbs’, in Powell, J. & Banks, L. (eds), Hawkesbury River History: Governor Phillip, exploration and early settlement, Dharug & Lower Hawkesbury Historical Society, Wisemans Ferry 1990: 91

[6] Bligh to Castlereagh, 30 April 1808, HRNSW, Vol. VI: 432

[7] Evatt, op. cit.: 141-142

[8] Bligh to Castlereagh, 30 April 1808, HRNSW, Vol. VI: 438

[9] Bligh to Castlereagh, 30 April 1808, HRNSW, Vol. VI: 431, 435

[10] Mackaness, G., (ed), A New Song, made in New South Wales on the Rebellion, by Lawrence Davoren, Edited with an Essay on Historical Detection, Notes and Commentary, Review Publications, Dubbo 1979

[11] Fletcher 1968, op. cit; 230

[12] Evatt, op. cit: 69-71

[13] Duffy, M., ‘Captain Bligh’s Other Mutiny’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19-20 January 2008: 34

[14] Cochrane, P., ‘Bligh’s Bounty of Disputes: Review of the Week: “Captain Bligh’s Other Mutiny”’, by Stephen Dando-Collins, Sydney Morning Herald, 29-30 December 2007: 27

[16] Spigelman, J., ‘Coup that paved the way for our attention to the rule of law’, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 January 2008.

[17] Thompson to Bligh, 26 March 1807, HRNSW, Vol VI: 263

[18] Fletcher, 1968: 220

[19] Proclamation, 29 April 1809, HRNSW, Vol. VII: 109

[20] Huxley, J., ‘Going Into Battle for Nelson’, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 October 2005: 11

[21] Fletcher 1968, op. cit.; 231

[22] General Order, 25 April 1809, HRNSW, Vol VII: 101

[23] Fletcher, BH, ‘Arndell, Thomas (1753 – 1821)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, Melbourne University Press, 1966: 27-28; Arndell to Castlereagh, 7 February 1809, HRNSW, Vol VII: 19-20.

[24] Byrnes, JV, ‘Thompson, Andrew (1773? – 1810)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, Melbourne University Press, 1967: 519-521.

[25] Bligh to Castlereagh, 30 April 1808, HRNSW, Vol. VI: 427

[26] Allars, KG, ‘Crossley, George (1749 – 1823)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, Melbourne University Press, 1966: 262-263; Fletcher 1968, op. cit.; Crossley to Macquarie, 15 February 1810, HRNSW, Vol. VII: 288-289

[27] Bowd, op. cit.: 10; Gore to Castlereagh, 25 March 1809, HRNSW, Vol VII: 90-93

[28] Fletcher, BH, ‘Bowman, John (1763 – 1825)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, Melbourne University Press, 1966: 138-139; Settler’s memorial to Castereagh, 17 February 1809, HRNSW, Vol VII: 33-34

[29] Walsh, GP, ‘Pitt, George Matcham (1814 – 1896)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, Melbourne University Press, 1974: 446-447; Bowd, op. cit.,: 135.

[30] R. v. Gore, Court of Criminal Jurisdiction, Grimes AJA, 21 March 1808, Decisions of the Superior Courts of NSW, 1788-1899, http://www.law.mq.edu.au/scnsw/html/CoupagainstBligh.htm,  accessed 25 January 2008

[31] R. v. Suttor, Court of Criminal Jurisdiction, Kemp AJA, 8 December 1808, op. cit.

[32] R. v. Palmer, R. v. Hook, Bench of Magistrates, 18 March 1809, op. cit.

[33] Fouveaux to Cooke, 21 October 1808, HRNSW, Vol VI: 783-784.

[34] Foveaux to Paterson, 27 October 1808, HRNSW, Vol. VI: 786; Bligh to Castlereagh, 28 October 1808, HRNSW, Vol. VI: 789

[35] Caley to Banks, 28 October 1808, HRNSW, Vol. VI: 795-799

[36] Suttor to Bligh, 1 January 1809, HRNS, Vol. VII: 1-4

[37] Foveaux to Cooke, 21 October 1808, HRNSW, Vol. VI: 784

[38] Hoare, xxx; Britts, MG, The Commandants: the tyrants who ruled Norfolk Island, KAPAK Publishing, Norfolk Island 1980: 48-58

[39] Collins to Foveaux, 23 October 1808, HRNSW, Vol VI: 785, and footnote

[40] Bligh to Castlereagh, 28 October 1808, HRNSW, Vol. VI: 788; also Bligh to Castlereagh, 30 April 1808, HRNSW, Vol VI: 424

[41] Proclamation, General Orders, HRNSW, Vol. VII: 252-254.

[42] Macquarie to Castlereagh, 8 March 1810, HRNSW, Vol. VII: 303

[43] Bligh to Castlereagh, 9 March 1810, HRNSW, Vol. VII: 309

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:

GENERAL ORDER
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:

Remembrances
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?

References

  • 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.