Sydney in 1801-02-03 - Part I

* This article first appeared in the Evening News on the 16th and 23rd December 1899

(By "Tackra.")

* "Tackra" was the "nom de plume" for Miss Muriel Hinton, a writer and poet in the early 1900s

View of Sydney Cove c. 1796 painted by Thomas Watling
View of Sydney Cove c. 1796 painted by Thomas Watling

THE singular and distant settlement of Sydney was in the years 1800-3 a most picturesque little seaside town lying between two well wooded hills, a rivulet running down the centre of the valley. This stream was crossed by a wooden bridge, and solid stone causeway; it then flowed into the bay beyond. The town spread from Macquarie-street to Miller's Point in a scattered irregular way, Brickfield Hill bounding it on the south side, beyond which stretched marshland, bush, and sand hills. 

Woolloomooloo was a forest of thick scrub and trees, with here and there a clearing, where some adventurous settler had started a farm, with great toil and anxiety, for it was so far from the town, and desperate convicts and savage natives who dwelt round the shores committed terrible ravages at times, killing the settlers, and stealing all they could find, while the soldiers were powerless to avenge them, for the impenetrable bush was a perfect hiding place. 

Mr. Palmer lived at 'Walamoula,' as it was then called, in a fine house and grounds, parts of which, I believe, still are to be seen. On the sides of the various hills brick kilns were to be found, for the red soil was very well adapted to brick-making, and the old buildings still to be seen in Sydney prove that they can stand wear and tear without a crumble or crack.

Walloomoolloo [i.e. Woolloomooloo] The Seat of Jno Palmer Esqre Port Jackson 1803
Walloomoolloo [i.e. Woolloomooloo] The Seat of Jno Palmer Esqre Port Jackson 1803

Darling Harbour was known as Cockle Bay, and but little used, as it was considered shallow and unsheltered, and lay absolutely outside the civilised community; the wilds surrounded the shores (where Balmain now is), with here and there smoke, telling of natives' camp fires. 

Dense scrub bordered the treacherous marsh between the water and Brickfield Hill, where the tiny hamlet of scattered cottages stood on the verge of the inland wilderness. A few ships put into Cockle Bay for shelter, and light repairs, but there was absolutely no communication with Sydney, the rocky scrub land, marshes, and rugged hills not even having a goat path over them. It was not until about thirty years later that a good road was made between Sydney Cove and Cockle Bay (Darling Harbour), when the Argyle Cut was begun, and thought to be a gigantic undertaking.

The North Shore was, in 1802, bush primeval, a tribe of aboriginals inhabiting Milson's Point, who encouraged picnickers to come over for a few hours, even going so far as to dance for them in return for rum, gay clothes, etc. Many a Saturday afternoon and Sunday were spent in this way at the Rocky Point and Lavender Bay. It was one of the sights of Sydney to see corroborees, and queer native ceremonies, with a certain amount of risk added to the pleasure. Sometimes the Governor went, too, and magnificent were the costumes, or rather skins, of the aborigines on these occasions, as it always meant a donation that kept them from hungering for days.

Circular Quay, or Sydney Cove, as it was then called, was an irregular bay, with several wharves jutting out from the beach. The tide ran up as far as the present Hunter-street, and met the main stream that watered the valley; the immediate surroundings were very marshy and unhealthy. In the cove all the ships lay at anchor, the objects of deep interest to all ashore, for it was often many months since supplies or letters had been received. In the evenings, and on spare afternoons the respectable townsfolk spent hours inspecting the ships at the wharves talking to the sailors, and watching the unloading. Ships came from all ports — China, Peru, Java, N. America, India, London, Otaheite, etc. — so that there was considerable information to be gained. Of course, the shiploads of convicts went on arriving as a matter of course, and thousands poured into the settlement, but their coming was not of so deep interest as the arrival of a cargo of sheep, pigs, or clothing. Provisions got so scarce that ships were dispatched to Otaheite, and the Friendly and Society Islands for food, good supplies of pork returning.

On the west side the Governor's garden takes up all the space, and the house stands a little above the shore line, a fine house for the days, though I believe the Governor grumbled at the draughts through the cracks. Bennelong's Point (now Fort Macquarie) was still a camping ground for the blacks, and many a corroboree has been danced there. Quite near this same point were to be found the remains of a salt pit, where, in 1797, some Americans had been allowed to settle to prepare salt for use in the colony.

Government House, Sydney, [1809?]
Government House, Sydney, [1809?]

In January, 1800, there were flourishing and begetting fine offspring — their one duty in New South Wales — a goodly company of domestic animals, the fine pasture lands this side of the mountains being available for their use. A wild herd was also growing apace in rather inaccessible country, the progeny of a few adventurous animals who went on discoveries rather recklessly. Eventually many of these animals were brought "home," apparently all the better for their sojourn in the bush. Very few animals were killed, as it was to their increase New South Wales looked for food for future generations. "Seven hundred and twelve cows and calves, three hundred and thirty-two bulls, oxen and calves, one hundred and forty-three mares, sixty horses, six thousand sheep, two thousand goats, four thousand and seventeen pigs," runs an official list, ending up with "five thousand acres of wheat."

The Governor had very hard times in these old days. It was necessary that he should be a soldier, a sailor, a gentleman, a farmer, a miner, a financier, a navigator, a diplomatist, a paragon of good temper, one to be obeyed, a "canny" and thrifty man, one to act on his own judgement, and one used to hardships and ingratitude. Perhaps a modern Governor's incessant activity in a social line is just as trying; but, anyway, he is well-fed and housed, which is more than the old Governors were. A labourer of the present day lives much better than did the representative of his Majesty George III. In fact, he would refuse to live at all on the fare often considered "good" in these olden days. 

Governor King writes to Sir J. Banks: "Since I arrived, sixteen months ago, I have spent the most disagreeable and provoking part of my life," and goes on to say that he is almost penniless through the extortionate rates charged for everything. Governor King was a man hard to satisfy, so to him are due many reforms, real reforms in a right direction, that got him much hatred in some directions. About this time coal was first found in the northern rivers — Hunter River owing its discovery and name to Lieut. Hunter — and small vessels used to go to the Hunter and load with the small coal to be transshipped at Sydney into the larger vessels — H.M.S. Porpoise or Buffalo, which were to take their coal cargo to Africa and bring back provisions. It was in the early part of this century that the Dutch, Spanish, and French were very lively, and Britain found opportunity to capture many vessels; so an occasional prize found its way to Sydney in convoy of a man-'o'war, and after being "sold off" would be turned into a provision-searching, coal-carrying drudge. 

Coal River N.S. Wales, 1807 / watercolour by I.W. Lewin painted from an earlier drawing c. 1801  This painting shows the entrance to the Hunter River, most probably the southern end of the Stockton (or Burrabihngarn) Spit looking across from the infant Newcastle settlement.
Coal River N.S. Wales, 1807 / watercolour by I.W. Lewin painted from an earlier drawing c. 1801
This painting shows the entrance to the Hunter River, most probably the southern end of the Stockton (or Burrabihngarn) Spit looking across from the infant Newcastle settlement.

In a dispatch it is stated that "there is only one miner in the colony," and he must have had a pleasant time taking testing trips, and following "leads" with a gang of assistants. 

Curiously enough, there seems to have been only one "printer," too, who was employed solely in printing Government orders and notices. 

The cattle and horse trade with India and Africa seems to have sprung up about now, for we find King asking again and again that there might be sent some "English cattle and horses fit for labour, the African and Indian ones being so small." One would think that having started this trade so long ago we might have done more at it than we have. The uncertainty of meat diet was a great difficulty to the early residents, as there were no animals to kill as yet, except pigs, and even of these there were not very many.

Two years salt provisions were asked for in England "as soon as possible" — that is, over two thousand full rations; but even that meant nearly a year's waiting. The Governor thought of a plan to obviate this, and offered the settlers six-pence a lb for swine's flesh for two years, which offer many jumped at, and began to value their half wild pigs, which used to root up the charming gardens in Old Sydney town, and unless "yoked and wrung," get "forfeited to the Orphans." Norfolk Isle offered to send plenty of pork over at 6d a lb, 2d cheaper than from England, if Governor King would supply salt and a ship. The salt was the difficulty, for very little was made, and that cost sixpence a lb. 

It may be well to note the ships that arrived in Sydney from November, 1799, to May, 1800. Although it only represents half a year, it gives a very fair idea of the commerce for 1800 and 1801. Of course, six months might pass by and no ship put in an appearance, but this was rare. The Government taking advantage of many ships that traded to India, China, etc., chartered them to call at Sydney with troops, convicts, and stores. Many vessels on their way to the whale and seal fisheries also called in with supplies of various descriptions. 

The Walker brought one puncheon of rum, twenty-nine hogsheads porter, one thousand pounds of tobacco, three boxes of Brazil cigar, three boxes of hats, three dozen pairs of stockings, one small box of knives, one pipe of port wine, twelve dozen men's and, women's shoes, one cask of cheese — a most welcome cargo. 

The Britannia arrived shortly after with one hundred and sixty tons of sperm oil; the Swallow, with dispatches for China; the Martha, with thirty tierces (sic) of seal oil and thirteen hundred seal skins; and the Reliance, with soldiers. 

The Thynne brought out a priceless cargo: "Forty bales, of cloth, five hundred and forty-two maunds of sugar, one hundred chests of tea, thirty-five maunds of soap, twenty-five maunds of black pepper, seven maunds of coffee, four maunds of saltpetre, five hundred pairs of shoes, one box of indigo, 9106 gal. of rum." 

The Minerva, a little later, arrived with four casks of iron ware, five casks of molasses, sixty pieces of Irish linen, four boxes of coffee, one hundred and fifty bales of Rio tobacco, two trunks of shoes, one hogshead of "nattes," twenty casks of provisions, fifteen firkins of butter, one box of hair powder, and four pipes of port wine. 

The Hunter arriving in the early part of 1800 was received with much joy as a godsend. Her cargo consisted of over 13,000 gal of spirits, over 700 gal of wine, 600 lb of sugar, 76 chests of tea, 30 boxes of candles, 27 boxes of soap, 31 boxes chinaware, 4 bags of coffee, 17,000 lb of tobacco, 200 bags of rice, 53 bales and trunks of muslin, 53 coils of wire rope, 30 bales of gunny bags. 

The Friendship brought 35 barrels of oil, 100 kegs of paint, 1 case of "hattes," 4 casks of Japan ware, 400 sealskins, 300 wood and tin canteens, 1 trunk books, 6 casks fish tackle, 6 cases window glass, 900 lb of tobacco, 2 cases gamblets, 140 jugs of oil, 10 pkts hardware, 2 boxes dresses, 6 cases of glass, 1,000 gal of spirits, 6 casts of mustard, 31 jugs of varnish, 1 trunk men's wear, 4 trunks of haberdashery, 3 cases looking glass, 2 cases of stationery, 1 cask of turps, 2 trunks of carbinanroos (?), 400 gal of wine, 7 cases of pictures, 8 cows, 4 bales shirts, 8 cases starch and blue, 4 horses, 10 ewes, 2 cases of tools, 2 pkts broadcloth, 5 pkgs boots and shoes, 1 bale cashmere, 1 bale nankeens, 1 case saddlery, 1 cask nails, 2 casks of Spanish juice, 35 barrels of oil, 367 sealskins. 

The Speedy brought 2 puncheons of rum, 6 trunks of haberdashery, 212 tierces of beef, 562 tierces of pork. 

The Belle Savage ends this list with 5 bales blue cloth, 93 barrels of beef, 54 barrels of pork, 12 barrels of Geneva, 16 hhd of rum, 10 pipes of brandy, 1318 lb of tobacco, also 700 lb of leaf tobacco and 2 boxes of soap. 

A view of the west side of Sydney cove, c.1803 / attributed to G. W. Evans
A view of the west side of Sydney cove, c.1803 / attributed to G. W. Evans

These were the days of wealthy monopolists, most of them "officers and gentlemen," who bought up cargoes at once, and sold them at their own prices to customers who were obliged to buy or go without. Many were the appeals made against these monopolies, but utterly in vain, although, a year or two later, the Government stores were so arranged that goods were procurable at moderate rates — this was after severe regulations and restrictions had crushed the fingers of the worst monopolists. 

Rum bought at 8s a gallon was sold at 20s, 30s, 40s, and even 60s a gallon immediately; tea bought at 10s a lb brought from 20s to 80s a lb; sugar bought at 8d sold at from 16d to 3s a lb; shoes worth from 10s to £1 brought 25s to 40s. Soap from 5s to 10s a lb, hats 20s (worth 2s), duck 20s, cotton 6s to 18s per yard, reaping hooks 5s, axes 5s, tobacco 8s to 12s a lb, muslins, etc., in proportion, all show from 100 to 1000 per cent, above ordinary price. 

No wonder a man writing home says: "I find that living is so expensive out here that, although I have a big income, I am penniless, and in daily dread of being imprisoned for debt; and I live like a church mouse." Of course, there were gluts in the market when several ships arrived together and brought similar cargoes, then goods came down quickly, and people could lay in a stock — this luck was rare. 

Whalers were always sailing into Port Jackson for repairs, etc., but very few ever brought any large cargoes to sell, and for a ship to come into this port without anything to sell was very disappointing, when they were so few and far between. A certain act prevented their trading south of the Cape — of course an old act, written before this Australia was anything but a "Terra Australis Incognita." The Governor suggested eagerly that the whalers should get a permit to bring items of useful trade.

Drink became such a curse, even in 1800, that Governor King took stringent precautions, and sent several ships back with their cargoes of spirits unbroached. One vessel returned to Bengal with 5400 gal. on board. A man who lived in 1800 wrote to London at this time: "To bad spirits the country owes its approaching and early ruin; many people, whoever can, are already leaving its shores forever." In a letter to Sir J. Banks, King speaks of "a water mole, fruit, a warratah, and a lack of paper for Cayley's scientific writings," for which he bought some "cheap, coarse stuff," but good enough, from a Spanish ship.

The full rations at this period were as follows:— 3 lb of flour, 3 pints of pease, 7 lb of salt beef, 4 lb of salt pork, or 7 lb fresh meat, 6oz sugar, costing 5 lb wheat, 2s 9d; 6oz of sugar, 6d; salt meat, 3s 10d; fresh meat, 5s 3d; total, 12s 4d a week. Clothing cost £2 9s per year, and was not very fine, as may be believed.

Cayley, Government Botanist, writing to Sir J. Banks, says: "I have nothing but a few old newspapers to dry specimens on, for the want of paper I am quite distracted, which has hurt my spirits very much. I cannot help thinking that I was fortunate in arriving here in the winter; had I arrived in the summer, it would have hurt me more. Five pounds in England is as good as £15 here." He goes on to say that iron abounds, tanning ought to succeed, tin is found, and other minerals promise to be found in plenty. He continues, "But it seems that Englishmen degenerate here, for, upon the whole, they turn out very bad work, and seem inactive. I want a pocket-knife, blow-pipe, fish hooks, pens, nests of boxes, barometers for mountain heights, small wide-necked bottles, various coloured thread, a gun and pistol 1cwt brown soap, a pistol, very needful for blacks and burglars, mostly old-fashioned guns in the colony. A good fowling piece, secondhand, is ten guineas, shot 1s a pound, coarse powder 5s, coarse thread 4d to 6d a skein, soap 5s a pound, slop shoes, (lasting two weeks) £1. I am allowed £40 a year." This is a picture in itself of a phase of life in 1800 here. Cayley did a lot of valuable scientific work.

The wages of convicts, servants of the Crown, were as follows: Falling forest timber, 10s per acre, one acre a week; burning off, 25s an acre, 65 rods a week; breaking new ground, 24s an acre, 65 rods a week; reaping, 8s an acre, 1 acre a week; threshing, 7d an acre, 18 bushels a week; pale-splitting, 2s an acre, two men doing 800 a week.

The regulation re the sale of spirits was severe, to the effect that none were to be sold between "taptoo" beating, 8 p.m., and noon the next day — but it seems that people managed some "sly-grog" selling, even in these good old days of "law and order." Another severe rule was that expired convicts (convicts who had served their time), were not permitted to travel from place to place without a pass, anyone so doing was subject to a penalty of one hundred lashes, and one year in gaol. Towards the close of 1800, garments were very scarce, and the settlers were allowed to buy "slops" for wheat, till "their sails came in," which, at last, they did, and brought quite an assortment of fine clothes other than "slope," but — they had to be paid for in cash at a very high percentage, though the law only allowed from fifty to one hundred. Some tumult was caused in the town by Orders as to what to do in case of a revolt, the political '98 men of Ireland being rather feared; how the able-bodied were to go to the barracks, the women and feeble to go indoors, the military to farm, etc.; while every day for the present, all who could and would help to quell an insurrection were to come to a certain place and give name, and what weapon they bore. 

Sydney Cove c. 1797-1806 / drawn by Philip Gidley King
Sydney Cove c. 1797-1806 / drawn by Philip Gidley King

These were thrilling days, when the arrival of a vessel meant wild excitement, especially when it was a convict ship, for it was the only thing that kept us in touch with the big world beyond. Sorrowful indeed were the scenes when the prisoners first found out how fearsome was their lot, and bitter were their first days spent in building our fair city up into her present beauty. Curiously enough, there was a great deal of beauty about Sydney, even in the old days; the gardens were a glory to behold, although useful products were only beginning to thrive.

Mr. G. Suttor says in one letter: "I have only been able to bring out one olive tree, six apples, twelve mulberries, four willows, eighteen Chili strawberries, two walnuts, two chestnuts, two oaks, four pomegranates, mint, two plantains, and seven kinds of vines." Only about a third of these lived to be planted, for Governor King speaks quite sadly over their demise, being much wanted in the colony. Mr. Suttor's letter expresses the most decided regret that with all his real solicitude the plants should die; but put it down to rough seas, storms, and a little ship.

In these times the garden of a ship was most important, as from Kew, London, were sent out things from the King's own gardens for the plantations of New South Wales, and a portion of the stern was built off, with sections and shelves for the pots, where the captain and botanist in charge spent many hours caring for their precious cargo that was to beautify and help to make prosperous little Sydney town.

  1. Sydney in 1801-2-3. (1899, December 16). Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 - 1931), p. 3. 
  2. View of Sydney Cove c.1796 painted by Thomas Watling; Courtesy: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
  3. Walloomoolloo [i.e. Woolloomooloo] The Seat of Jno Palmer Esqre Port Jackson 1803; Artist: John Bolger; Courtesy: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
  4. Government House, Sydney, [1809?]; Courtesy: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
  5. Coal River N.S. Wales, 1807 watercolour by I.W. Lewin; Courtesy: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
  6. A view of the west side of Sydney cove, c.1803 attributed to G. W. Evans; Courtesy: Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales
  7. Sydney Cove c. 1797-1806 drawn by Philip Gidley King; Courtesy: State Library of New South Wales

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