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From CRHS Newsletter #13 - 25th May 1993.

The following story first appeared in the “Town and Country Journal” dated the 28 Nov, and the 5th Dec., 1874, and later in the Grafton “Daily Examiner” in its condensed form which is reproduced below. The story gives an excellent insight of the early days on the Clarence River.


In writing of the Clarence River district, and its chief town, although I have received much interesting information from several of the most intelligent and influential residents, not forgetting the oldest inhabitants, I scarcely know how to picture to the distant reader, without fear of incurring the charge of exaggeration, a district where the strides of settlement have been so rapid, and where Nature’s gifts are so abundant.

Imaginative readers may picture to themselves four panoramic views, showing; first, a fine river, on its borders dense brush or scrub, with here and there a few aboriginals encamped. Then there would be an interval of a few years, before scene the second. There would then be on the river a small schooner, with white people on board, and near it sawyers at work, in the opening of the cedar brush. Then another interval of a few years, and scene the third would be displayed. This would show the incipient gems of a township - a public house, a store, a smith’s shop, and a small craft building on the river, a few cattle and sheep grazing about, and a boiling-down establishment in full operation. Scene the fourth : a fine town of 3,000 inhabitants, with splendid banks, government buildings, hotels, stores, and in the distance, where formerly was a distant swamp, luxuriant crops of sugar cane, with the smoke stack of a sugar-mill rising above the tops of the trees; in the streets of the city, teams laden with wool or bags of tin, for shipment, in the river several fine steamships and numberless small craft.

This is the Grafton of to-day, and one might reasonably like to hear its history. Thirty seven years ago there escaped from the penal settlement of Moreton Bay a man of considerable intelligence, and great physical endurance and courage, named Richard Craig. After being out for a considerable time made his way through various tribes of blacks to the Clarence, which he discovered to be a magnificent river. Under the Clarence Peak he was astonished to come upon four working bullocks, which he supposed must have strayed from the penal settlement at Port Macquarie, about two hundred miles distant, Being very desirous of again enjoying civilized life, he made his way to Port Macquarie, succeeded in reaching it, and, for the discovery of the working bullocks, received his pardon. Craig then proceeded to Sydney where he made known his discovery of the Clarence country - then called the Big River - to Dr. Dobie, and Mr. Francis Girard, and other gentlemen - who being anxious to extend or to take up squattages, accepted Craig’s proffered services as pioneer. He satisfactorily accomplished what he undertook, and, in doing so, marked out the line of route.

Dr. Dobie and Mr. Girard accompanied their flocks and herds, and took up the stations respectively called Waterview and Ramornie. They were quickly followed by others in the enterprise, viz., Lieutenant Crozier, who took up land at Gordon Brook; Mr. J. H. Grose, who took up Smith’s Flat; the Hon. E. D. Ogilvie, who took up Yulgilbar; Mr. C. J. Walker, who took up Newbold Grange; Ginger - former poultryman in Sydney - took up Moleville; Mr. James Mylne, took up Etonswill; Mr. Thomas Small, Senior, took up Swan Creek; Mr. James Aitken, took up Bushy Park; and Messrs W. and A. Paul, took up Glenugie. Of all these early pioneers, it is not a very momentous question as to who won the race, and got into the Clarence District first. There was only the space of a few months between them. With regret; I may add that most of them have long since been gathered to their fathers.

The cedar cutters were soon on the river, for in consequence of the information conveyed by Mr. Craig, Mr. F Girard, who at that time had large establishments on the Macleay and Manning Rivers, but was a resident in Sydney, quickly dispatched a vessel for cedar which was the first craft that crossed the Clarence Bar. The schooner was called the 'Eliza'; and she was followed by the schooner 'Susan', which belonged to the late Thomas Small, then of Kissing Point, Parramatta River. The King William was the first steamer which came up the Clarence, and she was followed by the Sophia Jane, the James Watt, and others. The first vessel built on the Clarence was the 200 ton brig 'Clarence', by Mr. William Phillips of the South Side, who settled here in 1838. The brig was used for whaling purposes, and subsequently wrecked on the Brampton Shoals, north of Moreton Bay.

During these early days of cedar cutters, the aboriginals were numerous, though not of the dangerous character that some people were fond of representing. They were easily conciliated by proper treatment, and most of the outrages committed by them originated in retaliation for misconduct by the whites. It is said that the Clarence River blacks in their primitive state were remarkably moral, and most rigid in the observance of their marriage and other laws.

The cedar cutters did a large trade for a few years, when, having cleared off the best of the timber, they began to move on to the Richmond and Tweed. The excellent shipping facilities of the Big River were then brought into note. Wool began to come down from the Tableland of New England and in 1841 the Ulswater brig, took in wool for London, on the river. Mr. William Bawden, whose wife was the first white woman to come to the district, took up the greater portion of the present site of North Grafton, under the old squatting licensing system in 1841, but was drowned shortly after in the Clarence River, nearly opposite the township, by the capsizing of a boat. Mrs. Bawden sold the interest in the run to Dr. Traill, recently of Collaroy, who had settled in the Clarence District. He held it only for a short time, and sold it to Mr. Joseph Sharpe.

On the west side of Alumny Creek, the first settler was a man named Bentley, who opened a store there in the later part of 1840. He sold out his business to Mr. Thomas Hewitt, senior, in the later part of 1841. From another source I learnt that one of the first settlers on the site of the present city of Grafton was the late Mr. Joseph Sharpe who came up the Big River in 1840, and set up a small store a short distance from the shipbuilding establishment of Mr. Thomas Phillips. Early in 1841, Sharpe marked out the site for a store and a public house on the north side, where now stands the Clarence and Richmond River Steam Navigation Company’s store, which decayed building represents the store of former days. The old public-house being replaced by Mr. Ireland’s fine brick hotel. Mr. Sharpe acquired by purchase, a good deal of land, and with others introduced some Germans. He gave them land in payment for their labour and thus was the nucleus of the flourishing city of Grafton formed.

The first surveyors were the Messrs. Wilson and Burrows; the former were sent to measure the south, and the latter the north, sides of the district into parishes and sections. After these came Messrs Thorne and White of the Survey Department. Mr. W. W. Darke, whose name is well known as having laid out Melbourne, also laid out Grafton in 1849. He was stationed at Port Macquarie previously, and came over to do this work and to measure a large quantity of preemptive land for Mr. Ryan - who succeeded Mr. Girard - at Waterview.

The first land sales of town allotments in Grafton took place on the 31st July 1851. The township was named after the Duke of Grafton in compliment to his daughter, Lady Mary Fitzroy, wife of Governor Charles Fitzroy, whose unfortunate death at Parramatta shortly afterwards will be fresh in the recollection of many old colonists. The River and District was named in honor of the Duke of Clarence. Courts of Petty Sessions were held in Phillip’s ship-building establishment South Graf ton, then the principal place. The magistrate who presided was Major Oakes, the first Crown Lands Commissioner. He was succeeded by Mr. Oliver Fry, and he by Mr. Richard Bligh. Courts were held i n various parts of the Clarence by these gentlemen, notably at Red Rock, many miles above Grafton, and at Mr. Sharpe’s public house on the North Side. While there are records of Courts of Petty Sessions on the Clarence as far back as May 1841; the first record of a court held at Grafton is on the 5th April, 1847.

As the country began to attract population the veteran colonist Dr. Lang sought to enlist the sympathy of the people in the mater of separation along with the then projected colony of Queensland. The majority of the inhabitants were, however, opposed to it; but in the present day as grievances arise from time to time, ‘a separation movement’ is got up by some enthusiastic individuals who believe that the district is neglected or is suffering under some misgovernment for which separation will be sure remedy.

In 1862, the first land selections under Robertson’s Act took place. The first conditional purchase was taken up on the northern bank of the Clarence River. Before the end of 1862 two hundred selections were taken up; and up to the date of my visit the number was 1180. Most of the lands comprised in the early selections are now worth from ten to twenty pounds per acre.

On the 10th July, 1859, a municipality was established in Grafton.

The Mayor was Mr. J. E. Chapman. There are 52 miles of streets in Grafton, several of them two chains, and the majority one and a half in width.

In December, 1867, the Right Rev. William Collison Sawyer, the first Bishop of Grafton arrived, but to the great grief of the whole of the Clarence district he was drowned in the Clarence River, whilst returning from church, on Sunday evening, 15th March, 1868.

Like most communities the Clarence people have not passed their thirty-seven years of existence without their share of troubles. They have had floods and droughts which will long be remembered. The floods of 1840, 1841, 1848, 1857, 1861, and in the early part of 1863, when the highest took place will not soon be forgotten. for they were attended with great loss of property, and the one of 1863 with loss of life. There was also a flood in 1864. Between the floods of 1848 and 1857 there was a period of drought. The hottest day ever felt in Grafton was in the summer of 1847, when the thermometer recorded 142 degrees in the sun and 109 degrees in the shade, at an elevation of six feet from the ground.

The present position of Grafton and the resources of the Clarence River District must be dealt with in a separate article, but I may here state that the city statistician, Mr. Alfred Lardner, J.P. informs me that the exports this year of the two principal items will be : Sugar 3000 tons, and maize 650,000 bushels. The first maize for market purposes was grown in 1844 at Waterview.

Accompanying this sketch of the history of Clarence, was an engraving (see above) from an excellent photograph by J. W. Lindt. It shows a portion of Prince Street, including Osborne House, Examiner Office, Mr. Davies’ City Store, and Dr. Houison’s.


© Clarence River Historical Society Inc. PO Box 396, Grafton, NSW 2460

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