Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Across the Blue Mountains

‘Reached the summit of the Highest land we have yet been, ... and Encamped by a fine stream of water. Here we had a fine view of all our Settlements, our progress was here stoped by an impassable Clift from going either South or West.’ This is from a journal written by the pioneer William Lawson while he and two colleagues were crossing the Blue Mountains for the first time in Australian colonial history. This journal, and others he kept during explorations, are held by the State Library of New South Wales - some have been digitalised and are freely available online. He died 170 years ago today - by which time he had built up one of the country’s most successful cattle and sheep enterprises.

Lawson was born in 1774 at Finchley, Middlesex, England, the son of Scottish parents. He was educated in London and trained as a surveyor, but in 1799 he bought a commission in the New South Wales Corps for £300. After arriving in Sydney he was soon posted to the garrison at Norfolk Island, where he married Sarah Leadbeater, and they had two sons. He returned to Sydney in 1806, was promoted lieutenant and served for a time as commandant at Newcastle, a position he again occupied in 1809. A couple of years earlier he had bought a small property at Concord, and by 1810 had extended it to 370 acres. Subsequently, he was appointed aide-de-camp to Major George Johnston before accepting a commission as lieutenant in the New South Wales Veterans Company. He received a grant of 500 acres at Prospect, where he built a 40 room mansion called Veteran Hall.

In 1813, Lawson accompanied Gregory Blaxland and William Charles Wentworth in the first successful attempt to find a route across the Blue Mountains. From 1819 to 1824 he was commandant of the new settlement at Bathurst, where he also had gained a large grant of land, which he used for sheep. He also made several further journeys of exploration. After 1924, back in Prospect (having left his sons to manage the inland sheep farms), he became a successful breeder of horses. A stock return for the 1828 census revealed he had 10,000 sheep and 1,200 cattle, though biographical sources suggest he (and his sons) may have had as many as 84,000 sheep and 15,000 cattle. Later in life, he entered politics, becoming a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council for County of Cumberland from 1843 to 1848. He died on 16 June 1850. Further information is available from the Australian Dictionary of National Biography, Wikipedia, and The Dictionary of Sydney.

During the first expedition to cross the Blue Mountains, all three of the explorers kept journals - see the State Library of New South Wales - but only Blaxford’s account was ever published, as Journal of a Tour of Discovery Across the Blue Mountains. The State Libary holds Lawson’s unpublished journals of three expeditions (digital copies are available online for the first and last): Journal of an expedition across the Blue Mountains, 11 May - 6 June 1813; journal of a tour into the country north of Bathurst, 8-24 November 1821; and Journal of an expedition from Bathurst to the Liverpool Plains, 9-24 January 1822.

Here are two of the longer extracts from Lawson’s Blue Mountains journal (a full transcript is available here).

22 May 1813
‘Reached the summit of the Highest land we have yet been, ... and Encamped by a fine stream of water. Here we had a fine view of all our Settlements, our progress was here stoped by an impassable Clift from going either South or West- Mr. Blaxland Wentworth and Self left our Camp with a determination to get down some parts of this broken land. But found it impracticable in some places 500 feet perpendicular here we saw the course of the Western River and that broken Country at Natai the back of the Cow pasters. No doubt this is the Remnant of some dreadful Earthquake -Prospect Hill bore E. Groce Head NE Hat Hill S.E. by S. the appearance of Hat Hill from this Situation has Two Heads-’

31 May 1813
‘At nine oclock proceeded S W 3 miles west 2 miles. We are now traveling in a fine grazing Country Crossed two fine streams of water One of them running from the west to other from the NE There is no doubt but these two Streams run into the Western River- Traveled on NW ¼ NNE ¼ SSW ½ Encamped on the side of a fine stream of water it running very fast here is a great Extent of fine Forest land and the best watered Country of any I have seen in the Colony went five miles to the westward- our shoes worn out and provisions nearly Expended Obliged us to Return home the same Course we came this Country will I have no doubt be a great acquisition to this Colony and no difficulty in making a good Road to it, and take it in a Political point of View if in case of our Invasion it will be a safe Retreat for the Inhabitance with their Familys and that for this part of the Country is so formed by Nature that a few men would be able to defend the passes against a large body- and I have every reason to think that the same Ridge of Mountains we traveled on will lead some distance into the Interior of the Country and also that a Communication can be Easily found from this to the Head of the Coal River where to my knowledge is a Large extent of fine grazing Country and it having water carriage from thence to Portjackson which will be a great consideration’

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