Further Clues … What do the documents say?
As is mentioned above, one of the fascinating aspects of The Australian Agricultural Company for historians is the paper trail that was left. Not only were despatches regularly sent back and forth from Australia to London, but also the various participants often wrote accounts of their experiences and many of their diaries and letters have been published. Both Robert Dawson and Sir Edward Parry have left detailed accounts of their activities.
Information about No.1 Farm can be discovered either directly or by inference from these sources or from commentaries by scholars in the interim.
It is fascinating that our view of No.1 Farm is still being coloured by a dispute that led to the final dismissal of Robert Dawson, the Chief Agent of The Company and the instigator of work at the No.1 Farm site.
Of No.1 Farm, Dawson reported in 1828 that “No drainage has been performed there beyond an open ditch on two sides at the foot of the Hills, and several drains in the bottom to carry off the surface waters of the Hills above……. A small quantity of land amounting to about 30 acres has been reclaimed by means of a very slight embankment and a small tide sluice…. The estimated expense for draining does not exceed one hundred and forty pounds.” 1This being an excerpt from Dawson’s Report to The Colonial Committee of Management sent to investigate his activities at Port Stephens.
One member of that Committee was James Macarthur who has written comments in red in the margins of Dawson’s Report and who subsequently made his detailed commentary on Dawson’s work and this report in particular.
Before referring to Macarthur’s words though, it needs to be borne in mind that Macarthur was not unbiased about Dawson. Under Dawson, many AA Company sheep were lost. This may have been due to Dawson’s mismanagement, but in his Reports, Dawson continually refers to the fact that sheep he had bought from the Macarthur family and from other members of AA Company’s Colonial Committee had turned out to be diseased and or very old. In 1828, Dawson had refused to purchase any more sheep from these sources.
It was therefore in his own interests for James Macarthur to blacken the name of Robert Dawson. Indeed, Dawson’s choice of a site for No.1 Farm and his expenditure of resources and labour on the site played into Macarthur’s hands. So, Dawson may well have been guilty of downplaying the expenditure on No.1 farm while James Macarthur may well have been exaggerating it.
“The next subject to which I could call your attention is The Farm, about three miles from Carribeen, termed by Mr Dawson No.1 Farm. Much labour and expense have here been thrown away upon clearing and draining a saltwater swamp. This appeared to be about one hundred and twenty (120) acres on which the trees are felled and partly burned off. The drains are still incomplete. This greatly to be lamented that the heavy expense which has been incurred upon this (in my opinion) unclaimable Desert, had not been devoted to the cultivation of some of the alluvial flats near Stroud. According to every received principle either of Agricultural or Political Economy, this should have been the course.”
This Report not only assists in positioning No.1 Farm, it also gives an estimate of the work done.
The placement of the site at 3 miles from Carribeen (Carrington) and in a salt marsh agrees with the discovered site. Macarthur disagrees strongly with the expense suggested by Dawson above, and he strenuously criticises Dawson for his choice of a site. A number of academics including Damaris Bairstowe3 and J F Atchison4 have written about the rights and wrongs of Dawson and Macarthur’s arguments and most have expressed sympathy for Robert Dawson, given the difficult and crucial decisions he was continually forced to make. However, Dawson’s Report to The Committee of management is often short on detail and weakly argued. The Committee was certainly provided with sufficient ammunition to replace him. They chose James Macarthur to fill in and later the position was given to Sir Edward Parry.
Macarthur admits that he can’t definitely refute figures suggested by Dawson, but he says:
“I am informed there have been at times as many as Eighty men at work upon this waste and that the cost in labour etc has been enormous. But in the absence of regular returns which have not been kept there would be no possibility of ascertaining it correctly.”5
The extent of the enclosure with the outer drain and the Creek is 150 acres. The poor soil on the verge of The Farm was not enclosed for cultivation, but with a view only to make the enclosure more complete. The greater part of the soil I consider will be valuable in as much as it is the only place near the Establishment at Port Stephens that is susceptible of cultivation….. The number of men employed there is eight and one Overseer.
So, in summary, Dawson is suggesting that around 180 acres of land has been worked upon and that eight convicts and on Overseer are employed. When Macarthur visited No.1 Farm early in 1828, he saw six men and the Overseer, John Folkard at work burning off. However, according to Macarthur, he had been told that … “there have been at times as many as Eighty men at work upon this waste and that the cost in labour etc has been enormous.”7
It seems that the 180 acres suggested by Dawson is likely, but that the costs for No.1 Farm have been understated. In April 1827, the Establishment at Port Stephens comprised 301 workers plus family members and aboriginal residents of the area.8
In April 1827, Dawson recorded 24 workers as being specifically employed on No.1 Farm. However, he also lists numerous others who could have been employed in associated activities. There were for instance 12 employed under the principal Mason in quarrying etc; 14 employed in fencing; 20 employed in sawing; 4 employed in hurdle making; 10 employed as bullock drivers including overseer; 10 employed at burning off timber, road making etc including overseer and 4 employed in the chain gang, quarrying stone etc. This gives a total of 98 workers. The figure of 80 persons suggested by Macarthur’s informant may have been only a slight exaggeration on occasions when it included roadworks, fencing and clearing.
Given that in the intervening 180 years, no one has seen fit to attempt any sort of agriculture in the Yalimbah Creek precinct (excluding fishing and oyster farming) and that there was almost universal condemnation of Dawson’s attempts to create No.1 Farm the question arises …. Why did Dawson do it?
One fairly obvious answer lies in the number of workers he had at his disposal and the need to keep the convicts under some sort of control, given that he was still exploring the country and developing projects. As mentioned, No.1 Farm was 3 miles away from the Establishment and “men returned each night to Carrington from No.1 Farm”9. This travel ensured that the men would be exhausted at the end of each day’s work, thus lessening the likelihood of misbehaviour.
The more likely explanation though is Dawson’s background.
JF Atchison points out that: “There can be little doubt that Dawson’s English background led him to incline towards a hasty decision to take all, instead of part of the grant in this coastal region. His English training had inculcated in him the importance of having salt water rivers close to sheep pastures. The Port Stephens area satisfied this criterion.”10To Dawson, the salt marsh that characterises Yalimbah Creek was no big disadvantage. Indeed, Atchison sees Dawson as being attracted to the site:
“Dawson’s earlier experience caused him to follow approved English practices of placing these sheep on what he described as “salt water runs”. These were pastures subject to inundation at high tide. Instead of placing sheep on the dry pastures north of Stroud, around the Avon and Gloucester river valleys, Dawson kept most near the base of operations around Port Stephens and along the lower Karuah River. Closer supervision of the Agent’s actions (by The Committee) during these early months would have prevented this mistake – a fairly obvious error for an English sheep man to make without prior experience of Australian conditions.”11This reveals another source for Macarthur’s concern about Dawson’s actions. The Committee had not been monitoring what was happening at Port Stephens and could be held responsible by the authorities in England for their shortcomings.
Dawson continued to deny that he was mistaken in the potential of No.1 Farm. Macarthur says “Mr Dawson maintains that great advantages are to be expected from this farm.” and Dawson says: “there can I think be no question of its capability and usefulness to grow clover and other English grasses.”
However, James Bowman Chairman of the Committee sent to Port Stephens to assess the situation in 1828 was dismayed at the situation. As Atchison states: “Bowman was particularly distressed at the diseased state of the sheep at No. 1 Farm….. Bowman felt it his painful duty to suspend Mr Dawson from that moment from his situation as Agent to the Company. No defence from Dawson was heard.”12
There is here, documentary evidence that a significant amount of work was expended upon No.1 Farm at the site evident at Yalimbah Creek. It is reasonable to conclude that the bulk of the work was on roads, ditches, bridges, channels and clearings. These are the things that are evident today.
That such works are still visible today is due to a number of factors:
The land is (ironically) of very limited agricultural or commercial worth and therefore there has been no attempt to develop it for farming
Yalimbah Creek draws fresh water from a very limited area and therefore is not subject to serious flooding that could wash the works away
Yalimbah Creek is tidal for almost its entire length, a fact which has preserved much woodwork beyond its expected life
The stone work put in place by the assigned convict labourers has limited weed and tree growth where it is situated
The No.1 Farm site has become isolated by a ring of dense undergrowth
While there is evidence that locals up to around 80 years ago occasionally used the roads as a thoroughfare, other roads such as The Old AACo Road and later the current main roads soon took over, leaving No.1 Farm deserted as it is now.
8Australian Agricultural Company Despatch Book Australia to London (Distribution Return … shewing the manner in which the Australian Agricultural Company’s Men are employed on their Grant “Port Stephens” 30th Aril 1827)