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.

In his report 2 to The Committee, Macarthur says:

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

Dawson appears to be minimising apparent expenditure on No.1 Farm by attributing it to other associated projects when he reports6

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

Macarthur decreed that: “No more expense should be incurred at No. 1 Farm as the alluvial flats around Booral and Stroud were adapted to raising grain.”13

Some Conclusions

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.


1Australian Agricultural Company Despatch Book Australia to London Reference B481

2Australian Agricultural Company Despatch Book Australia to London Reference B525(Report of Mr James Macarthur to The Committee of Management 13th March 1828)

3A Million Pounds, A Million Acres, Damaris Bairstowe, self published 2003

4Port Stephens and Goonoo Goonoo,A Review of the Early Period of The Australian Agricultural Company, (ANU Thesis 1974

5Australian Agricultural Company Despatch Book Australia to London Reference B525(Report of Mr James Macarthur to The Committee of Management 13th March 1828)

6Australian Agricultural Company Despatch Book Australia to London Reference B481

7Australian Agricultural Company Despatch Book Australia to London Reference B525(Report of Mr James Macarthur to The Committee of Management 13th March 1828)

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)

9A Million Pounds, A Million Acres, Damaris Bairstowe, self published 2003

10Port Stephens and Goonoo Goonoo,A Review of the Early Period of The Australian Agricultural Company, (ANU Thesis 1974 p.54

11Ibid p.70

12Ibid p. 101

13Ibid p.103

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On Sunday 20th November another successful KARUAH HERITAGE WALK took place.
Our congratulations and thanks to all who assisted in making this walk a special occasion. Special thanks to all the volunteers-those doing the many registrations, those preparing the food, those doing hidden tasks, the guides, the ferrymen, the Aboriginal Land Council for transport and first aid station, for Tahlee afternoon teas and tours and especially for the total organisation and smooth flowing day.
The approximately 114 people who registered enjoyed a sausage sizzle and then set off in groups of 10/12 to walk across the bridge, cross the Yarimbah Creek with the assistance of Holdom’s oyster punt, then walk along the original old road above the tidal water line before tracking through the regenerated bushland to Tahlee House, a distance of between 5-7 kms.
The guides expanded on what was set down in the free booklet that each registered walker was given, highlighting points of interest such as ‘the 3 bridges’, the corduroy road(probably the oldest in Australia), road formations, No 1 Farm and of course Tahlee House.
Once again on behalf of all the walkers who took part, our sincere thanks for an interesting and worthwhile walk through our own local Heritage. The photo shows quite clearly how well preserved this corduroy section of the road is even after 170 years. A Happy Walker

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The 2011 Walk Press Release

New Press Release – Walk

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The 2011 Walk to Tahlee

It’s on again!

This year’s walk will be on Sunday 20th November 2011. We’ll gather at Longworth Park, Karuah for a sausage sandwich while we register, then we’ll head off in groups under the direction of our guides. When you register, you’ll get tickets for the walk, the creek crossing, the devonshire tea at Tahlee and the bus ride home. Cost is $20.

You can book by contacting Dave at or phoning 0249975409. This year you can pay on line …. details by email or you can get more info by logging on to and following the prompts.

We reckon we’ll get to Tahlee around 2.00pm

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Here are some pictures that give a bit of perspective on the corduroy section of the road. The Google Earth view shows the corduroy section crossing the salt marsh to the site of the old Yalimbah Creek Bridge. It would be great to get an accurate date on the logs that make up the road here just to see how old they are.

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Figure 1:  c1830 convict built Tahlee to Karuah Corduroy road (PSC), photograph Garry Smith

Whilst remains of corduroy roads in Australia have been found, they are almost exclusively 20th Century in origin. If archaeological research indicates that this corduroy road is of 19th Century origin, it would be of great importance. It is certainly possible that given the twice daily dunking in salt water and the nature of the soils that form the salt marsh in which the road sits, the road dates back to the 1830s.

The following articles give some insight into corduroy roads:

A section of old road dating back to the early 1920s has been uncovered by workmen on the Mardi to Mangrove Dam water pipeline

A SECTION of road dating back to the early 1920s has been uncovered by workmen on the Mardi to Mangrove Creek dam water pipeline.

Known as a ‘corduroy road’, it’s made of sections of hard wood that were laid in boggy or swampy patches of roadway from as far back as 4000 BC to as recently as the mid 1900s.

While the Central Coast had many corduroy roads, especially in the swampy areas of the valleys, finding a large intact section in such good condition is rare.

The section of road was discovered late last week when pipeline crews were excavating near Kidman’s Lane off Yarramalong Rd. Work stopped immediately as required by the project’s approval until the find could be properly assessed.

The section is 6m wide and 10m long.

Archaeologist Andy Roberts, of Umwelt Australia, and two workers from the Conacher Environmental Group excavated the section and took photographs and other measurements for archival records.

Long time residents said they remembered driving over the old section of road which ran parallel to Yarramalong Rd.

Construction on the pipeline is continuing with about 8km of the 21km pipeline now in the ground and steady progress on associated works at Mardi Dam, Wyong River and the fishway at Lower Wyong Weir.


According to Wikipedia,


Excavation of a corduroy road from the 16th Century in Oranienburg


A corduroy road or log road is a type of road made by placing sand-covered logs perpendicular to the direction of the road over a low or swampy area.  The result is an improvement over impassable mud or dirt roads, yet is a bumpy ride in the best of conditions and a hazard to horses due to loose logs that can roll and shift.  This type of road was already constructed in Roman times.  It is known to have been used as early as 4000 BC with examples found in Glastonbury, England.[1] Compare the puncheon or plank road, which uses hewn boards instead of logs, resulting in a smoother and safer surface.

Roads can also be built as a foundation for other surfacing. If the logs are buried in wet, acidic, anaerobic soils such as peat or muskeg they decay very slowly. A few corduroy road foundations that date back to the early 20th century still exist in the United States

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Robert Dawson, the first Chief Agent of The Australian Agricultural Company was a man of great vision and perception. His wonderful treatise The Present State of Australia; a description of the country, its adavantages and prospects with reference to emigration: and a particular account of the manners, customs and condition of its aboriginal inhabitants contains his description of the first recorded journey by a European along the route of The Old AAco Road. This description is of a journey beside the Karuah River at a time when the first contacts between aboriginal people and AA Company were being made. Robert Dawson is at times patronising and superior to the aboriginal people with whom he made contact, but his respect and affection for many of them is clear as his understanding of their mastery of their environment.

………… we returned to Soldier’s Point, recalled the schooner on the following morning, and sent her again up the river (Karuah), where we appointed to meet her on a certain day. The next duty was to convey our horses across the harbour  to the shore immediately opposite (around North Arm Cove area) which we did with considerable difficulty, by the assistance of the government launch, and we then formed an encampment on that side, from which our whole party departed the next day to join the schooner at the head of the navigable river.

During this journey we passed over about twenty miles of country, some parts of which were of a very inferior description, and others of better quality. The forest every where open and grassy, and free from brushwood; but generally thickly timbered with tall trees, both in the vallies and on the tops of the highest hills.

The natives, Tony and Ben, accompanied us, and also two other natives: the first had his gin, (wife) who carried her little boy, about twelve months old, astride on her shoulders, while the little black urchin fastened his fingers in her hair to prevent himself from falling. They were all three as naked as when they were born, and appeared to suffer no inconvenience from the want of covering – such is the luxurious nature of the climate.

On our journey we fell in with a wild, fierce-looking man, about the middle age, with two slender, interesting looking youths, named Wandoman and Booramee, apparently about twelve years of age. The old man was armed with a long spear; his beard was short and bushy like his hair and his body naked; while he had placed in his girdle of twisted opposssum fur, which he wore around his loins, an iron tomahawk and a large piece of half roasted kangaroo flesh. The trio were wandering in search of the rest of their tribe, who had moved to the beach; and as Tony belonged to the same tribe, I requested him to invite the strangers to join us. This was done in their own language, they being unable to speak a single word of English. The invitation was immediately accepted, and we proceeded together on our journey. I was much pleased to find that every considerable brook and hill had a name; and as the old man was conversant with them all, I made memoranda of their names, shapes and positions, to assist my recollection if I should hereafter examine the country more minutely, or be at any time lost in that quarter of the forest when alone.

After two days’ journey we arrived at the station where we had left the party and found the schooner waiting for us.  Pages 15 & 16

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Tahlee in 1840

This simple pen and ink sketch – artist unknown still captures something of the sense of Tahlee today.

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