The Settlement at Port Jackson, by Watkin Tench


The arrival of the ‘Supply’ from Batavia; the State of the Colony in November, 1790.

Joy sparkled in every countenance to see our old friend the ‘Supply’ (I hope no reader will be so captious as to quarrel with the phrase) enter the harbour from Batavia on the 19th of October. We had witnessed her departure with tears; we hailed her return with transport.

Captain Ball was rather more than six months in making this voyage, and is the first person who ever circumnavigated the continent of New Holland. On his passage to Batavia, he had discovered several islands, which he gave names to and, after fighting his way against adverse elements and through unexplored dangers, safely reached his destined port. He had well stored his little bark with every necessary and conveniency which he judged we should first want, leaving a cargo of rice and salt provisions to be brought on by a Dutch snow, which he had hired and freighted for the use of the settlement. While at Batavia, the ‘Supply’ had lost many of her people by sickness, and left several others in the general hospital at that place.

As the arrival of the ‘Supply’ naturally leads the attention from other subjects to the state of the colony, I shall here take a review of it by transcribing a statement drawn from actual observation soon after, exactly as I find it written in my journal.

Cultivation, on a public scale, has for some time past been given up here, (Sydney) the crop of last year being so miserable, as to deter from farther experiment, in consequence of which the government-farm is abandoned, and the people who were fixed on it have been removed. Necessary public buildings advance fast; an excellent storehouse of large dimensions, built of bricks and covered with tiles, is just completed; and another planned which will shortly be begun. Other buildings, among which I heard the governor mention an hospital and permanent barracks for the troops, may also be expected to arise soon. Works of this nature are more expeditiously performed than heretofore, owing, I apprehend, to the superintendants lately arrived, who are placed over the convicts and compel them to labour. The first difficulties of a new country being subdued may also contribute to this comparative facility.

Vegetables are scarce, although the summer is so far advanced, owing to want of rain. I do not think that all the showers of the last four months put together, would make twenty-four hours rain. Our farms, what with this and a poor soil, are in wretched condition. My winter crop of potatoes, which I planted in days of despair (March and April last), turned out very badly when I dug them about two months back. Wheat returned so poorly last harvest, that very little, besides Indian corn, has been sown this year. The governor’s wound is quite healed, and he feels no inconveniency whatever from it. With the natives we are hand and glove. They throng the camp every day, and sometimes by their clamour and importunity for bread and meat (of which they now all eat greedily) are become very troublesome. God knows, we have little enough for ourselves! Full allowance (if eight pounds of flour and either seven pounds of beef, or four pounds of pork, served alternately, per week, without either pease, oatmeal, spirits, butter, or cheese, can be called so) is yet kept up; but if the Dutch snow does not arrive soon it must be shortened, as the casks in the storehouse, I observed yesterday, are woefully decreased.

The convicts continue to behave pretty well; three only have been hanged since the arrival of the last fleet, in the latter end of June, all of whom were newcomers. The number of convicts here diminishes every day; our principal efforts being wisely made at Rose Hill, where the land is unquestionably better than about this place. Except building, sawing and brickmaking, nothing of consequence is now carried on here. The account which I received a few days ago from the brickmakers of their labours, was as follows. Wheeler (one of the master brick-makers) with two tile stools and one brick stool, was tasked to make and burn ready for use 30000 tiles and bricks per month. He had twenty-one hands to assist him, who performed every thing; cut wood, dug clay, etc. This continued (during the days of distress excepted, when they did what they could) until June last. From June, with one brick and two tile stools he has been tasked to make 40000 bricks and tiles monthly (as many of each sort as may be), having twenty-two men and two boys to assist him, on the same terms of procuring materials as before. They fetch the clay of which tiles are made, two hundred yards; that for bricks is close at hand. He says that the bricks are such as would be called in England, moderately good, and he judges they would have fetched about 24 shillings per thousand at Kingston-upon-Thames (where he resided) in the year 1784. Their greatest fault is being too brittle. The tiles he thinks not so good as those made about London. The stuff has a rotten quality, and besides wants the advantage of being ground, in lieu of which they tread it.

King (another master bricklayer) last year, with the assistance of sixteen men and two boys, made 11,000 bricks weekly, with two stools. During short allowance did what he could. Resumed his old task when put again on full allowance and had his number of assistants augmented to twenty men and two boys, on account of the increased distance of carrying wood for the kilns. He worked at Hammersmith, for Mr. Scot, of that place. He thinks the bricks made here as good as those made near London, and says that in the year 1784, they would have sold for a guinea per thousand and to have picked the kiln at thirty shillings.’

Such is my Sydney detail dated the 12th of November, 1790. Four days after I went to Rose Hill, and wrote there the subjoined remarks.

November 16th. Got to Rose Hill in the evening. Next morning walked round the whole of the cleared and cultivated land, with the Rev. Mr. Johnson, who is the best farmer in the country. Edward Dod, one of the governor’s household, who conducts everything here in the agricultural line, accompanied us part of the way, and afforded all the information he could. He estimates the quantity of cleared and cultivated land at 200 acres. Of these fifty-five are in wheat, barley, and a little oats, thirty in maize, and the remainder is either just cleared of wood, or is occupied by buildings, gardens, etc. Four enclosures of twenty acres each, are planned for the reception of cattle, which may arrive in the colony, and two of these are already fenced in. In the centre of them is to be erected a house, for a person who will be fixed upon to take care of the cattle. All these enclosures are supplied with water; and only a part of the trees which grew in them being cut down, gives to them a very park-like and beautiful appearance.

Our survey commenced on the north side of the river. Dod says he expects this year’s crop of wheat and barley from the fifty-five acres to yield full 400 bushels. Appearances hitherto hardly indicate so much. He says he finds the beginning of May the best time to sow barley,* but that it may continue to be sown until August. That sown in May is reaped in December; that of August in January. He sowed his wheat, part in June and part in July. He thinks June the best time, and says that he invariably finds that which is deepest sown, grows strongest and best, even as deep as three inches he has put it in, and found it to answer. The wheat sown in June is now turning yellow; that of July is more backward. He has used only the broad-cast husbandry, and sowed two bushels per acre. The plough has never yet been tried here; all the ground is hoed, and (as Dod confesses) very incompetently turned up. Each convict labourer was obliged to hoe sixteen rods a day, so that in some places the earth was but just scratched over. The ground was left open for some months, to receive benefit from the sun and air; and on that newly cleared the trees were burnt, and the ashes dug in. I do not find that a succession of crops has yet been attempted; surely it would help to meliorate and improve the soil. Dod recommends strongly the culture of potatoes, on a large scale, and says that were they planted even as late as January they would answer, but this I doubt. He is more than ever of opinion that without a large supply of cattle nothing can be done. They have not at this time either horse, cow, or sheep here. I asked him how the stock they had was coming on. The fowls he said multiplied exceedingly, but the hogs neither thrived or increased in number, for want of food. He pointed out to us his best wheat, which looks tolerable, and may perhaps yield 13 or 14 bushels per acre**. Next came the oats which are in ear, though not more than six inches high: they will not return as much seed as was sown. The barley, except one patch in a corner of a field, little better than the oats. Crossed the river and inspected the south side. Found the little patch of wheat at the bottom of the crescent very bad. Proceeded and examined the large field on the ascent to the westward: here are about twenty-five acres of wheat, which from its appearance we guessed would produce perhaps seven bushels an acre. The next patch to this is in maize, which looks not unpromising; some of the stems are stout, and beginning to throw out large broad leaves, the surest sign of vigour. The view from the top of the wheat field takes in, except a narrow slip, the whole of the cleared land at Rose Hill. From not having before seen an opening of such extent for the last three years, this struck us as grand and capacious. The beautiful diversity of the ground (gentle hill and dale) would certainly be reckoned pretty in any country. Continued our walk, and crossed the old field, which is intended to form part of the main street of the projected town. The wheat in this field is rather better, but not much, than in the large field before mentioned. The next field is maize, inferior to what we have seen, but not despicable. An acre of maize, at the bottom of the marine garden, is equal in luxuriancy of promise to any I ever saw in any country.

[*The best crop of barley ever produced in New South Wales, was sown by a private individual, in February 1790, and reaped in the following October.]

[**As all the trees on our cleared ground were cut down, and not grubbed up, the roots and stumps remain, on which account a tenth part of surface in every acre must be deducted. This is slovenly husbandry; but in a country where immediate subsistence is wanted, it is perhaps necessary. None of these stumps, when I left Port Jackson, showed any symptoms of decay, though some of the trees had been cut down four years. To the different qualities of the wood of Norfolk Island and New South Wales, perhaps the difference of soil may in some measure be traced. That of Norfolk Island is light and porous: it rots and turns into mould in two years. Besides its hardness that of Port Jackson abounds with red corrosive gum, which contributes its share of mischief.]

The main street of the new town is already begun. It is to be a mile long, and of such breadth as will make Pall Mall and Portland Place “hide their diminished heads.” It contains at present thirty-two houses completed, of twenty-four feet by twelve each, on a ground floor only, built of wattles plastered with clay, and thatched. Each house is divided into two rooms, in one of which is a fire place and a brick chimney. These houses are designed for men only; and ten is the number of inhabitants allotted to each; but some of them now contain twelve or fourteen, for want of better accommodation. More are building. In a cross street stand nine houses for unmarried women; and exclusive of all these are several small huts where convict families of good character are allowed to reside. Of public buildings, besides the old wooden barrack and store, there is a house of lath and plaster, forty-four feet long by sixteen wide, for the governor, on a ground floor only, with excellent out-houses and appurtenances attached to it. A new brick store house, covered with tiles, 100 feet long by twenty-four wide, is nearly completed, and a house for the store-keeper. The first stone of a barrack, 100 feet long by twenty-four wide, to which are intended to be added wings for the officers, was laid to-day. The situation of the barrack is judicious, being close to the store-house, and within a hundred and fifty yards of the wharf, where all boats from Sydney unload. To what I have already enumerated, must be added an excellent barn, a granary, an inclosed yard to rear stock in, a commodious blacksmith’s shop, and a most wretched hospital, totally destitute of every conveniency. Luckily for the gentleman who superintends this hospital, and still more luckily for those who are doomed in case of sickness to enter it, the air of Rose Hill has hitherto been generally healthy. A tendency to produce slight inflammatory disorders, from the rapid changes* of the temperature of the air, is most to be dreaded.

[*In the close of the year 1788, when this settlement was established, the thermometer has been known to stand at 50 degrees a little before sunrise, and between one and two o’ clock in the afternoon at above 100 degrees.]

‘The hours of labour for the convicts are the same here as at Sydney. On Saturdays after ten o’clock in the morning they are allowed to work in their own gardens. These gardens are at present, from the long drought and other causes, in a most deplorable state. Potatoes, I think, thrive better than any other vegetable in them. For the public conveniency a baker is established here in a good bakehouse, who exchanges with every person bread for flour, on stipulated terms; but no compulsion exists for any one to take his bread; it is left entirely to every body’s own option to consume his flour as he pleases. Divine service is performed here, morning and afternoon, one Sunday in every month, when all the convicts are obliged to attend church, under penalty of having a part of their allowance of provisions stopped, which is done by the chaplain, who is a justice of the peace.

‘For the punishment of offenders, where a criminal court is not judged necessary, two or more justices, occasionally assemble, and order the infliction of slight corporal punishment, or short confinement in a strong room built for this purpose. The military present here consists of two subalterns, two sergeants, three corporals, a drummer, and twenty-one privates. These have been occasionally augmented and reduced, as circumstances have been thought to render it necessary.

Brick-kilns are now erected here, and bricks manufactured by a convict of the name of Becket, who came out in the last fleet, and has fifty-two people to work under him. He makes 25,000 bricks weekly. He says that they are very good, and would sell at Birmingham, where he worked about eighteen months ago, at more than 30 shillings per thousand.

Nothing farther of public nature remaining to examine, I next visited a humble adventurer, who is trying his fortune here. James Ruse, convict, was cast for seven years at Bodmin assizes, in August 1782. He lay five years in prison and on board the ‘Dunkirk’ hulk at Plymouth, and then was sent to this country. When his term of punishment expired, in August 1789, he claimed his freedom, and was permitted by the governor, on promising to settle in the country, to take in December following, an uncleaned piece of ground, with an assurance that if he would cultivate it, it should not be taken from him. Some assistance was given him, to fell the timber, and he accordingly began. His present account to me was as follows.

I was bred a husbandman, near Launcester in Cornwall. I cleared my land as well as I could, with the help afforded me. The exact limit of what ground I am to have, I do not yet know; but a certain direction has been pointed out to me, in which I may proceed as fast as I can cultivate. I have now an acre and a half in bearded wheat, half an acre in maize, and a small kitchen garden. On my wheat land I sowed three bushels of seed, the produce of this country, broad cast. I expect to reap about twelve or thirteen bushels. I know nothing of the cultivation of maize, and cannot therefore guess so well at what I am likely to gather. I sowed part of my wheat in May, and part in June. That sown in May has thrived best. My maize I planted in the latter end of August, and the beginning of September. My land I prepared thus: having burnt the fallen timber off the ground, I dug in the ashes, and then hoed it up, never doing more than eight, or perhaps nine, rods in a day, by which means, it was not like the government farm, just scratched over, but properly done. Then I clod-moulded it, and dug in the grass and weeds. This I think almost equal to ploughing. I then let it lie as long as I could, exposed to air and sun; and just before I sowed my seed, turned it all up afresh. When I shall have reaped my crop, I purpose to hoe it again, and harrow it fine, and then sow it with turnip-seed, which will mellow and prepare it for next year. My straw, I mean to bury in pits, and throw in with it every thing which I think will rot and turn to manure. I have no person to help me, at present, but my wife, whom I married in this country; she is industrious. The governor, for some time, gave me the help of a convict man, but he is taken away. Both my wife and myself receive our provisions regularly at the store, like all other people. My opinion of the soil of my farm, is, that it is middling, neither good or bad. I will be bound to make it do with the aid of manure, but without cattle it will fail. The greatest check upon me is, the dishonesty of the convicts who, in spite of all my vigilance, rob me almost every night.

The annexed return will show the number of persons of all descriptions at Rose Hill, at this period. On the morning of the 17th, I went down to Sydney.

Here terminates the transcription of my diary. It were vain to suppose, that it can prove either agreeable or interesting to a majority of readers but as this work is intended not only for amusement, but information, I considered it right to present this detail unaltered, either in its style or arrangement.

A return of the number of persons employed at Rose Hill, November 16th, 1790.

How Employed | Troops | Civil dept |     Troops       |      Convicts         |
             |        |            |Wives  |  Children| Men | Women | Children|
Storekeeper                 1
Surgeon                     1
Carpenters                                              24
Blacksmiths                                              5
Master Bricklayer                                        1
Bricklayers                                             28
Master Brickmaker                                        1
Brickmakers                                             52
Labourers                                              326*
Assistants to the
provision store                                          4
Assistants to the
hospital                                                 3
Officers' servants                                       6
Making Clothing                                                50
Superintendants            4
Total number of
persons   552|  29    |    6       |   1   |      3   | 450 |  50   |    13   |

[*Of these labourers, 16 are sawyers. The rest are variously employed in clearing fresh land; in dragging brick and timber carts; and a great number in making a road of a mile long, through the main street, to the governor’s house.]

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04