Saturday, 3 November 2018

#52Ancestors - Week 44 - Frightening

This prompt is meant to tie in with Halloween including family ghost stories. However there are many occasions when life could be frightening, perhaps even more frightening than ghosts, for the settlers trying to make a living in the Hawkesbury area of NSW during colonial times.

We all know that Australia is a land where you can expect droughts, floods and / or bushfires somewhere in the country each year however this would have been unsettling for newcomers in New South Wales at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The land in which they were attempting to make a new home was definitely foreign and could be considered threatening compared to the natural environment of their former homeland.

Many former convicts had moved to the Hawkesbury area to establish small farms and associated businesses in the settlements that were gradually established. However in order to create land suitable for farming the land needed to be cleared and accommodation of some sort constructed from available materials for landholders and their families. They were surrounded by thick, alien bush. Large cliffs and mountains formed a barrier to the west. Then there was the river which meandered through the landscape, often a source of transport as well as a food source providing fish. However the river could turn into a destroyer during heavy rains forcing torrents of water downstream, covering the land and destroying all in its path.

Such a flood occurred in the Hawkesbury area in 1806. The river flooded the surrounding land frequently - there had been substantial floods in 1796, 1799, 1801 and 1806 and this pattern continued over the years. With five years between 1801 and 1806 some of the residents would not have experienced the effects of major flooding and in many cases were devastated when they watched much of their livelihood float away. Five people died due to the floods.Crops that had recently been harvested disappeared down river. Buildings were wrecked and livestock drowned.

The chapter, 'Seeding and Breeding', in Grace Karskens' book, The Colony: the history of early Sydney, provides a useful account of life in the early Hawkesbury River settlement including the effects of the floods with the rivers suddenly rising fifteen metres or on one occasion 19 metres. In 1806 the valley flooded three times. These floods were not only catastrophic for those living near the Hawkesbury River but also for those in Sydney relying on the crops grown in this region.

A search in Trove for newspaper articles about Hawkesbury flood published in 1806 provides 33 articles. A search generally for Hawkesbury flood 1806 provides many more articles looking back at the devastation of the floods in 1806.

Novels can also convey the experiences and feelings of people living in settlements along the Hawkesbury River in the early nineteenth century. In 2005 Kate Grenville published her novel, The Secret River, detailing the story of William Thornhill as he attempted to make a new life in the colony. (Reading and other pursuits blog).  This year historian Peter Cochrane has published a novel - The Making of Martin Sparrow - where the 1806 flood is the background for all that follows. (Reading and other pursuits blog). Cochrane graphically describes the devastation of the flood on the small community situated along the river.
Recent armyworm invasion in Tasmania - ABC 11 Dec 2017
Of course the European settlers on the Hawkesbury in Colonial times also experienced other challenges to their survival apart from floods. Karskens describes concerns faced when rains required for the crops did not come on time, when the wheat crop was affected by blight (a plant disease often caused by a fungus) or when there were plagues of insects  such as flymoth or armyworms (caterpillar plagues). Problems could also exist between 'types' of settlers - free men, convicts, former convicts, officers who often did not get along. Settlements were also on Aboriginal land which could result in conflict. Bushrangers also roamed the area.

Consequently there would have certainly been times when our ancestors living in the Hawkesbury region of New South Wales may have found life frightening.

Hawkesbury River Floods - Hawkesbury Heritage and Happenings

The Hawkesbury River Floods of 1801, 1806 and 1809 by JCH Gill Royal Historical Society of Queensland vol. 8 no. 4 (1969) pp706-736.

Hawkesbury March 27, Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 30 March 1806 pp2-3

Peter Cochrane novel The Making of Martin Sparrow set in the Hawkesbury - Hawkesbury Gazette 13 July 2018

Kate Grenville, The Secret River, Text Publishing, 2001

Peter Cochrane, The Making of Martin Sparrow, Viking, 2018

Grace Karskens, The Colony: the history of early Sydney, Sydney, Allen & Unwin 2009 pp 98-157.


  1. So many differences in their new country and frightening things to face. They must have wondered what they had come to. Good story of the Hawkesbury area.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Yet so many of the settlers stuck it out and learned to adjust to the new environment, many eventually creating a much better standard of living for their families to what they would have had living in England or Ireland. Still I think they must been strong characters to have persisted with all the challenges facing them.