Billy Blue came to Sydney in 1801 as a convict after stealing raw sugar for his confectionary business in London.
There are conflicting accounts of his origins and age in the historical records, but he was probably born in the suburb of Jamaica in New York City and may have been an ex-slave. He claimed to have served in the British army in the American War of Independence (1776), which would explain how he got to the UK.
He was sentenced to seven years transportation but after spending several years in the prison hulks in England, had less than two years left of his sentence by the time he arrived in Sydney before being freed.
It seems Billy had the gift of the gab. After serving his sentence he married, lived in the Rocks and worked as a waterman on the harbour, where he became known for his genial manner, wit and light-hearted banter. As a waterman he operated the kind of service we know today as a water-taxi, taking fares to ferry people across and around the harbour and Sydney’s other waterways, like the Parramatta River.
Billy’s passengers included Governor Lachlan Macquarie and his family. He became a favourite of the governor, who appointed him Harbour Watchman and Constable in 1811. The appointment included a home for him and his family in a little octagonal building in the area we now think of as East Circular Quay. This was included in the spectacular panorama of the city on the Sydney Punchbowl (left).
In 1817 Governor Macquarie granted him 80 acres of farmland on the North Shore promontory, where he built a villa and had a farm. It became know as Billy Blue’s Point and is still to this day called Blue’s Point.
From here Billy established a regular ferry service and operated several boats. Macquarie light-heartedly dubbed him ‘Commodore’ and Billy Blue became known around town as ‘The Old Commodore’.
Billy Blue raised the ire of other settlers – such as Edward Wollstonecraft and William Gore – due to his success and his entrepreneurial ferry service that dominated the north shore. He was also convicted of harbouring a prisoner and smuggling rum, but managed to maintain a hold on his farm and ferry service.
Billy Blue died in 1834 at his North Shore home. Obituaries, like this one in the Sydney Gazette (below), recalled his humour and valorised him as a key Sydney character who opened up the North Shore.
At least three portraits of Billy Blue exist including this etching (left) by convict art teacher Charles Rodius from the National Library of Australia and the oil painting by JB East above, which is held in the State Library of NSW. It shows him down at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and was exhibited shortly after his death.
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North Sydney Council: Billy Blue’s Villa, Blues Point