With Sydney surrounded by mountains on three out of four sides, getting out of the city area has, until fairly recently, been tricky. This was particularly the case in the colonial period. In the west the Blue Mountains were viewed as an almost impenetrable barrier by the British.
Aboriginal people had been coming and going over the mountains, by a multitude of routes for hundreds of generations, but it was not until 1813 that the British finally managed it. The ‘discovery’ of the Bathurst Plains in the west set many a farmers heart racing and new attempts to reach it were soon being made from the Hawkesbury settlements around Windsor.
In 1817 and 1818 two failed attempts to reach the Bathurst Plains were made by settlers at Windsor, the first by Benjamin Singleton, farmer and convict son, and the second by ex-convict surveyor William Parr. Both got as far as Putty, about 150km north west of Sydney, but became lost in the steep valleys and rugged country. Singleton gave it another go late in 1818, but despite taking an Aboriginal guide with him, still failed.
In 1819 another attempt was made by settler John Howe.
Howe had been living at Windsor since 1802. In 1804 he was speared in a raid on his farm during the first wave of frontier clashes on Sydney’s fringe. He later became a constable and during the 1816 frontier war that culminated in the Appin Massacre, Howe was in charge of escorting Aboriginal prisoners captured during the fighting. At the height of the troubles, Governor Macquarie released a list of the ten most wanted Aboriginal leaders of the resistance. Number 2 on the list was a man from Richmond identified as Myles.
Howe set out from Windsor in late October 1819 with five settlers and two Aboriginal guides, one of whom was Myles, the Richmond resistance leader.
After about ten days they came into a wide valley with a fresh water river. This, although they did not know it yet, was the Hunter Valley. The relatively quick trip through the mountains was due in no small way to Myles. Instrumental to the success of the expedition, he led the group, he liaised with Aboriginal people they met on the way, he secured local guides as they went and he avoided a potential fight when they arrived in the Hunter.
When the party returned to Windsor, Myles and a larger group of Aboriginal men were again provisioned under Macquarie’s orders and sent back to investigate an easier route, as suggested by a local Aboriginal man they met on their way back. Myles returned within the week and confirmed the way through. Howe went again, this time with thirteen others and again with Myles and another Aboriginal man called Mullaboy as guides. The route was shorter and easier, and Howe marked a path all the way to Maitland.
The section through the mountains became the Putty Road and is still in use as one of the main routes out of Sydney’s west today.
Mark’s book ‘The Convict Valley: the bloody struggle on Australia’s early frontier‘ has just been published by Allen & Unwin. The story of the second British penal settlement in Australia, where a notoriously brutal convict regime became the template for penal stations in other states, the book explores relations between the white settlers and the local Aboriginal landholders, and uncovers a long forgotten massacre. It’s available to purchase online and at all the best bookstores now.
Mark will be speaking at a number of online events in the next few weeks – see details for bookings below, and keep an eye on social media for more as they become available.
- Wednesday 17 June 2020 6.30pm at Gleebooks http://www.
- Thursday 18 June 2020 6pm at Sydney Mechanics School of Arts https://smsa.org.au/
- Thursday 25 June 2020 11.30am at Newcastle Library, in conversation with Professor Grace Karskens https://newcastle.
nsw.gov.au/Library/Whats-On/ Events/Book-Launch-The- Convict-Valley-by-Mark-Dunn
- Thursday 25 June 2020 6.30pm at Better Read than Dead, in conversation with Dr Paul Irish https://www.
- Tuesday 7 July 2020 11am at State Library of NSW, Scholar Talk https://www.sl.nsw.gov.
au/events/scholar-talk- bungaree-burigon-and- aboriginal-newcastle
You can read the Dictionary’s review here too.
Mark Dunn is the former Chair of the NSW Professional Historians Association and former Deputy Chair of the Heritage Council of NSW. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of NSW. You can read more of his work on the Dictionary of Sydney here. Mark appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Mark!