1790 to 1800

By 1790, the focus of almost everyone was on building the township at Sydney Cove and establishing farms to feed themselves. 

Watson’s Bay had mostly sandy soil and only enough to grow small amounts for the early settlers there. The government would look to Paramatta and the Hawkesbury to be the food bowl for the colony.

The closest farm to Watsons Bay was planted by prisoners under the supervision of Lieutenant Ralph Clark on an island called “Billong-olola”, and later, Clark Island.  He planted potatoes, onions and corn in November 1789 however gave it up after just one season claiming that aboriginals, convicts and marines were stealing the produce

By that time, half the indigenous population was dying of smallpox and none of these crops would have appealed to them anyway.  They wouldn’t have had any shortage of daisy yams to eat, and they had four times the nutritional value of a potato.

It would seem that the real culprits were prisoners and marines, and if the purpose was to feed the first settlers, it was serving that purpose, however they obtained the food.  As it was, 12 people were hung in the first two years of the colony.  Six of them were marines, and the crime simply recorded as “theft of government stores”.  Apparently, they had been stealing food for several months, and at the same time bush rats ate almost the entire crop of corn which had been grown to feed the pigs and cattle.

As well as ships sent to bring food from Cape Town and China, and attempts to grow crops on Norfolk Island, they primarily awaited the arrival of the second fleet which they expected to carry supplies. 

Having set up the message board on Bare Island at Botany Bay, Phillip, and acted on the advice offered by Captain John Hunter, Phillip established a signal station at south head.  It is also highly likely that he sent messages to the Cape of Good Hope, to advise the following fleet that the colony had been established in Port Jackson not Botany Bay.  Hunter sailed on this trip between September 1788 and May 1789.  These messages would also have provided instructions on how to navigate past the Sow and Pigs and up the harbor to the township which was hidden from view behind Bradley’s Head.

Just 11 days after the French Revolution riots at Versailles and,12 days after George Washington delivered the first state of the union address, in which he felt, “great satisfaction from a cooperation with you in the pleasing though arduous task of insuring to our fellow citizens the blessings which they have a right to expect from a free, efficient, and equal government.”,  Captain John Hunter and his party rowed down the harbor to Watsons Bay.

He had observed back in July, that there were bodies of aboriginals around all the beaches and caves down the harbor as smallpox wreaked havoc and killed as many as half of their population. The convicts and marines were also in danger as rations were reduced by half, and they estimated that they only had enough food to last till mid-1890.  

A flagpole would help the 2nd fleet identify Port Jackson and allow a signal to be sent to Phillip when a ship was sighted.

They pulled the boat up on the beach, most likely near where the wharf is today.  Two small streams ran down to the harbor, entering the bay through beds of reeds. Just as Rushcutters Bay was given its name because of the reed beds, Watsons Bay had reeds around the fresh water sites.  The streams ran down from the cliffs, on either side of what is Robinson Park today, then down to the harbor through park like land.  The sandstone of south head is like a giant sponge and soaked up water which then seeped into these streams, as well one at the northern end of Camp Cove.

Hunter most likely would have walked up to The Gap and then followed the cliffs upward till he reached the site where he decided to erect the signal pole on the 20th January 1790. With the two surgeons, John White and George Worgan and six men, they pitched tents in the park next to the southernmost stream and in the course of ten days, erected a flagpole on the cliffs and built a stone cottage beside the stream.

Having established a residence and signal station, Hunter handed it over to Lieutenant William Bradley and a new team on the 29th January. Bradly recorded that on arrival they saw a large black kangaroo and not much more until six days later when he received a visit from Arthur Phillip, Bennelong and his party. Once again, Bradley has little to say about this visit other than that Bennelong threw a spear that traveled for 98 yards into the wind.  We can only assume someone measured the distance. 

He does not say how his relationship with Bennelong was, given that he was the one who had kidnapped Bennelong and Colebee at Manly Cove.  He does however report that on the way back to Sydney Cove, Bennelong saw Barangaroo fishing on one side of a headland near Rose Bay.  It’s highly likely this was on the Nielsen Park side.  Barangaroo was the most significant of all fisherwomen in the harbor.  Her husband and two children had died of smallpox and was 40 years old.  Bennelong was 29 years old, and perusing her as a partner.  Barangaroo was a fierce opponent of the foreigners and Bennelong was accommodating.  They fought verbally and physically throughout their relationship, however on this occasion when they met, Phillip offered some clothing to the women Barangaroo was fishing with, and she informed Bennelong that Colebee was fishing on the other side of the headland. 

While Colebee and Bennelong had been captured and put into leg irons at the same time at Manly Cove, Colebee escaped after some months when his irons were removed.  Bennelong was still in irons.

Four days later, on Sunday the 7th Bradley had his most interesting visitor.  A young boy named Nanbarry was only 9 years old and a nephew of Colebee.  They and one other man were the sole Gadigal survivors of the smallpox epidemic.  Nanbarry contracted smallpox, however he recovered after treatment by the surgeon John White, who adopted him and named him Andrew Sneap Hamond Douglass White, to honour his patron, Captain Sir Andrew Snape Hamond, commander of HMS Irresistible.  When White returned to England, his estate at Kissing Point was taken over by James Squire the brewer, who raised Nanbarry and arranged for him to be trained as a mariner which saw him sail the east coast of Australia with Matthew Flinders.

At this time however, as a nine-year-old, he was visiting the cliffs of South Head.  He told of the country to the south where the Macquarie lighthouse stands today being the site of fierce battles in the past.  It was also known as a burial ground and on this occasion, he gave a demonstration of burial techniques.  Bradley wrote “…he went through the ceremony of a Burial; which he did by first digging a Grave, put into it a quantity of dry sticks: the body was laid at length in green brush which he tied at both ends & placed it upon the dry sticks, then piled sticks over it above the surface of the ground & signified that they set fire to the pile & threw ashes & earth all together leaving the ground in shape of the Grave usually met with: That part of the ceremony of lighting the fire he was obliged to omit not being strong enough to get it. He shew’d us the manner in which it was done by two sticks, one placed horizontally, the other pointed is applied to this which by constant friction, makes a small hole through which fire is communicated to some very dry stuff placed under for that purpose, it appears to be rather tedious & laborious.”

It’s not surprising Nanbarry couldn’t create fire to complete his demonstration.  Another journal record describes how a group of men sat in a circle and took it in turns to generate a fire.  It took so long that they observed that it must be why aboriginals always seemed to carry fire with them.

Several days later, Bradley recorded seeing the ship “Supply” making for the harbor.  The winds must have been a north westerly because she couldn’t make it into the harbor and had to sail on down to Botany Bay and wait for several days for favorable winds to come back up to Port Jackson. Reading the journals of Bradley and Collins, you can sense how desperately they were awaiting the arrival of a ship from England with supplies and disappointed when it was just the Supply returning from Norfolk Island, where they seemed to be faring better than at Sydney Cove.

On the 14th of February, Midshipman Daniel Southwell was appointed superintendent of the post, and Bradley returned to the Sirius.  Supplies had dwindled to the point where Phillip thought it best to send the Sirius to China, however two days later decided to send it and “Supply” to Norfolk Island loaded with convicts, to reduce the burden on Sydney Cove.  The Sirius would return to Sydney Cove and if no relief had arrived from England, then sail to China.

With the winds against them, and with 62 officers and marines and 211 men, women and children on board the two ships, they waited off Camp Cove for a change in wind direction before setting off for Norfolk Island.  It would appear that in sending these people off shore, Sydney Cove now had less than two thirds the number of convicts that had arrived in January 1788.  All he had achieved was to shift the responsibility for feeding around 550 people from Sydney Cove to Norfolk Island.

Southwell wasn’t at all pleased to be sent to the signal station.   He had served as a “mate” on the HMS Sirius for the last four years, and was now missing out on a voyage to Norfolk Island.

He had joined the navy at the age of 16 in 1780, and within six months was promoted to ordinary seaman, He was immediately transferred to a 12-gun cutter, and within a month saw active service fighting a seal battle with a French privateer.  It was on HMS Sirius on the way to Botany Bay that he was promoted to “mate”.  He then sailed on her back to Cape Town for emergency supplies and on every voyage over the next two years, except for the one just days after his appointment as officer in charge of the lookout station.

While Southwell was at South Head, HMS Sirius was wrecked on Norfolk Island and that probably coloured Southwell opinion of Phillip.  When HMS Supply returned with the news that HMS Sirius had sunk, morale at Sydney Cove also sank. 

Southwell had written to his family and in his journal with praise of Captain Arthur Philip for several years.  He had called him “one in a thousand” and “very kind and considerate” Now he wrote the he was one of those ‘people whose ill-nature sometimes get the better of their understanding’, and questioned how he had got him so wrong. 

Perhaps the stress of a starving colony which was on half rations, with only one ship left, had caused Phillip, Southwell and a number of his fellow officers to lose confidence in each other. Southwell made a point of expressing his displeasure to Captain Hunter who was captain of HMS Sirius.  He felt he was under appreciated.  Hunter assured him that Philip was in fact very appreciative, and that he should be grateful for his appointment to the signal station as Philip regarded him as the most senior officer to assist with the arrival of the 2nd fleet.

Southwell wrote to his family that he had received an invitation to have dinner with Phillip, however lied to him, and said he wasn’t feeling well, only because another friend offered him dinner and was serving roast goat.

Southwell served a year at South Head and wrote very little about it other than the occasional letter to his mother, such as “Here, at the Look-out, where I am stationed, we have a garden, but in its infancy. However, the ground is tolerably good, and we are now and then supplied with a few greens from a garden that was intended for the ship’s use. A boat is also allowed us, and we have good opportunities to try our luck at fishing. There are likewise musquets and ammunition for the defence of the place, and the situation, though so retired, has its advantages.”    And

“Our numbers lately were eleven; my companion, self, and seven men, are all upon this little settlement; one man looks out for the expected Gorgon, and is relieved in turn at every four hours between the dawn and setting of the day. Mr. Harris and myself occasionally go up thither when led by hope or inclination to walk. It is up a craggy eminence about a mile from this spot, where are the houses, or rather whitewash’d cottages, in a valley adjoining to the garden, and near the beach. The ground for a good space about here is unusually clear, with here and there a shrub, and at a distance in passing looks like a pleasant lawn. We have a rill of fresh water at a stone’s throw on each hand, and if our situation was but seconded with more attention and civilty we might feel less solicitous for our return hence. Indeed, we are consider’d as much negl’d by many kind friends who now speak with reserve, and who on their return will probably speak with less. In the meantime, I shall pursue such a conduct as my best judgem’t can suggest, in short (G—— P——) is universally censur’d, and that by many cool, nay charitable gents, and I begin to regard him as a reed of Egypt.”

In late August, John Ferguson, a midshipman of HMS Sirius, was at the signal station hut at Watsons Bay and accepted an offer to return to Sydney Cove on a punt commanded by Lieutenant Poulden.  It had been used for casting fishing nets.

Several days earlier a whale had entered the harbor and had been pursued by several boats from the recently arrived transport ships of the second fleet. They had been unsuccessful, although the whale had been wounded.  Despite the men on the punt throwing their fish catch and luggage into the water to distract the whale, it overturned the punt and Ferguson and several others were drowned; their bodies recovered from Rose Bay several days later.  One of them was James Bates and Southwell wrote glowingly of him and claimed that he had never been guilty of pilfering stores.

After five convicts had used a punt to travel down to South Head and stolen a boat before heading out to sea and up the coast, Phillip decided that there wouldn’t be a boat based there.  Southwell wrote about having to walk from South Head to Sydney Cove and this explains why Ferguson had had to use the punt.

The five convicts who stole the boat were recaptured four years later at Port Stevens.

On the 7th September, Phillip decided to visit South Head to supervise the construction of a thirty-foot-high brick and stone column beside the signal pole.  He had probably been advised by the captains of the second fleet that the signal pole alone wasn’t easily seen when out at sea. 

When he arrived, he was given a parcel of whale meat and told that both Benellong and Colebee were at Manly Cove where they were feasting on the whale.   It’s highly likely that this was the whale that had been injured a week earlier however while some journals say they were at Manly Cove, Collins recorded that the whale was on the surf beach. 

Phillip set out for Manly, hoping to reestablish his relationship with both men who had escaped from Sydney Cove.  The gathering at Manly consisted of men from various Dharawal clans from around the harbour.  They were there to share in the whale meat but also to discuss what punishment of Philip was appropriate for his having captured and chained Colebee and Bennelong.  The decided upon a ritual spearing, and that was carried out when Phillip stepped ashore at Manly.   It was a spearing to punish rather than kill.

With the wreck of HMS Sirius, the entire crew returned to England on board a Dutch ship, and Southwell went on to be promoted to Lieutenant and in his early 30s, killed in a battle off the Portuguese coast.

They didn’t depart until some time after the arrival of the 2nd fleet and Southwell was of the opinion that the colony would struggle to become self sufficient and might always be a drain on the government.

Finally on the 3rd of June, flags were run up the pole at South Head.  David Collins recorded “About half past three in the afternoon of this day, to the inexpressible satisfaction of every heart in the settlement, the long-looked-for signal for a ship was made at the South Head. Every countenance was instantly cheered, and wore the lively expressions of eagerness, joy, and anxiety; the whole settlement was in motion and confusion.  Notwithstanding it blew very strong at the time, the governor’s secretary, accompanied by Captain Tench and Mr. White, immediately went off, and at some risk (for a heavy sea was running in the harbour’s mouth) reached the ship for which the signal had been made just in time to give directions which placed her in safety in Spring Cove. She proved to be the Lady Juliana transport from London, last from Plymouth; from which latter place we learned, with no small degree of wonder and mortification, that she sailed on the 29th day of last July (full ten months ago) with two hundred and twenty-two female convicts on board.”

As well as the 222 female convicts on board, there were a number of children born onboard and another 30 or so children were born in the following months. The 20 barrels of flour was ruined and not fit for consumption. Infamously known as “The Floating Brothel”, the death rate was less than 2% and the women land fit and healthy. 

On the 20th June, the supply ship Justinian also made it into Port Jackson.  She had been off the heads the day before the Lady Juliana on the 2nd however the wind and current carried her away to Black Head, 250 km to the north, where she had to weather a gale and almost sank.  Just as well she made it to the colony as it was the only ship with supplies, the Guardian having foundered after hitting an iceberg.

Finally, on 26th, 27th and 28th the other three convict transport ships arrived. The men and women on the other four ships were in a pitiful state with a death toll of over 40%. They continued to die in the weeks following their arrival.

The convicts on Neptune 421 men and 78 women were deliberately starved, kept chained and spent little time on deck in fresh air.   The death toll was never accurately reported.

Of significance to Watsons Bay, passengers on board the Neptune was D’Arcy Wentworth and his convict mistress Catherine Crowley and, on the Scarborough, Elizabeth Macarthur, her son Edward and husband, a young lieutenant John. On their ship, 73 of 253 convicts had died on the voyage, one of the highest death rates on any transport ship during the entire transportation period.

Very little seems to have happened at South Head during 1791 It was primarily signaling the arrival of ships returning from Norfolk Island or Batavia.  Aboriginals on one occasion stole the flags from the signal pole and they were sighted being used as coverings in their canoes and Elizabeth Macarthur made a day trip to South Head.

Mid-year, three soldiers were tried for stealing spirits from the stores.  One was found guilty and sentenced to 400 lashes and discharged from the military.  It is recorded that he received two hundred of the lashes on the evening of his trial.  There was insufficient evidence to convict the other two, however on the assumption that they were in fact guilty, they were assigned to the signal station at South Head where there was nothing for them to pilfer. One of them was James Bates

It was also decided to replace the original flag pole as it was too short.  A new one was erected right beside the existing one, to a height of 60 feet. It was used to signal the arrival of the Active, Admiral Barrington, Albemarle, Atlantic, Britannia, HMS Gorgon, Mary Ann, Matilda, Queen , Salamander, and the William and Ann, with 1,885 convicts in the later half of the year.

Collins recorded that in January 1793, the first use of a fire at South Head was used to signal the location of the harbor for an unknown ship sighted off the coast at sunset.

“At six o’clock in the evening of Tuesday the 15th, the signal which always gave satisfaction in the colony was made at the South head; several boats went down, but when night closed it was only known that a ship was off. A large fire for the information of the stranger was made at the South head; and at about ten o’clock the following morning, the Bellona transport, Mr. Mathew Boyd commander, anchored in the cove from England; from which place she sailed on the 8th day of August last, having on board a cargo of stores and provisions for the colony; seventeen female convicts; five settlers, and their families”

On Tuesday 12th March, “the signal was made at the South Head, and by the noon of the following day two Spanish ships anchored in the lower part of the harbour. An officer from one of them arriving at the settlement, we learned that they were the two ships of whose expected arrival information had been received from government in the year 1790; and to whom it was recommended that every attention should be paid. They were named the Descuvierta and Atrevida (the Discovery and the Intrepid); the former commanded by Don Alexandro Malaspina, with a broad pendant as the commander of the expedition, and the latter by Don Josè de Bustamante y Guerra. They had been three years and a half from Europe on a voyage of discovery and information; and were now arrived from Manilla, after a passage of ninety-six days; touching in their way hither at Dusky Bay in New Zealand, from which they had sailed about a fortnight.”

They had visited Dusky Bay less than 6 months after Watson had been there, and now were anchored of what was to become Watsons Bay.

Alexandro Malaspina was an Italian Marquis and Knight of Malta who had served in the Spanish navy for many years.  He was glowing in his praise for Captain Cook and commented on how accurate his observations had been. 

When he returned to Spain in 1794, after 4 years of exploration and observation of “all the Spanish possessions in South America and other parts of the world, ascertaining with precision their boundaries and situations; gaining much information respecting their customs and manners, their importance with regard to the mother country, their various productions commercial, agricultural, botanical, and mineral.”, he began work on publishing his journals, charts and drawings.  Instead of being as highly regarded as Cook, he was imprisoned on a fortified island for ten years.  His offence?  A misguided advocacy of a new form of government and a new administration for Spain and its empire.  He had seen resistance to Spanish administration in all their colonies and possessions and suggested greater autonomy.  He had been away from Europe and failed to appreciate the fear of most countries following the French revolution.

20 convict and supply vessels brought an additional 4,500 convicts to Port Jackson between 1792 and 1800. There would have been a few vessels plying between Norfolk Island and other Pacific ports during this time, however not enough to keep the signal station busy and there might have been up to ten people at a time based on south head.  No particular person has been recorded as commanding them after Southwell left.  He had written that he had a co-commander who was a “gunner”, so it is likely that a marine unit was based there. 

The only other person named as living at South Head during this time is a settler by the name of Barton.  He was assigned to catch fish to feed the sick at a time when hundreds of newly arrived convicts were sick and dying, and the colony had little locally grown food.  He was also appointed as the pilot, the board and steer all arriving ships into Port Jackson.  It was listed as his previous profession, however it is not recorded where, if he was a free settler and how long he had this position at South Head.  As no other pilot is recorded, it was very likely up until Robert Watson took up the position in 1805.

Edward Laing was a surgeon on the convict transport HMS Pitt which arrived in March 1792 and just after a year was given a number of land grants.  Phillip received instructions from the government to distribute land to as many officers and men as possible.  Laing’s Clear (Stanmore) and Roddam Farm (Laing Point) were two of them. Eighteen months later Laing sold Roddam Farm and one wonders why his name should have been given to Green Point.

The land passed into the hands of Thomas Laycock who also owned 80 acres at Parsley Bay (later the site of Vaucluse House).  By 1805 he owned some 1,655 acres around Sydney.  He had a controversial life in Sydney both personally and professionally.  While a quartermaster he was charged with the shooting of a pig, charged with using mutinous language, highly regarded for his role in putting down the Castle Hill uprising, dismissed as quartermaster, refused appointments to various offices and eventually declared mentally incompetent and his affairs managed by D’Arcy Wentworth.

On Christmas Day 1797 two seamen belonging to HMS Reliance discovered the body of a soldier with his hands and head cut off.  He had been missing from the signal post for two days and had last been seen in an argument with another soldier.   That soldier was tried for the murder on the 30th December however wasn’t convicted but ordered top bury the body.

David Collins made the observation that when on the 18th April 1798 the Signal station announced the arrival of the HMS Bardwell, the male convicts were the worst of the worst as they couldn’t even be used in the army when England was at war putting down the Irish rebellion.  124 of the 307 convicts were to serve life sentences, and the average was 8 years.

During this time, one of the first permanent settlers at Watsons Bay was making his way there.  Patrick Humphries was born in County Wicklow near Dublin, Ireland and baptised on 4 May 1767.  In March 1791, Patrick was convicted of possessing lead sheeting and sentenced to 7 years transportation.

He arrived at Sydney Cove aboard the Convict Transport ship “Boddingtons” on 7 August 1793 and was assigned to the prison farm at Toongabbie near Parramatta. His sentence ended in March 1798, and the New South Wales Corps (102nd Regiment of Foot) records show Private Patrick Humphreys enlisted on 14 March 1801 and soon after was posted to Watsons Bay.

There Patrick met young widow Catherine McMahon who had been born on an adjoining farm in County Wicklow in 1772.  Catherine married Private Terence Francis McMahon in 1796. Catherine arrived in Sydney on 11 January 1800 on the “Minerva” with her husband who was part of the NSW Corps contingent guarding the convicts aboard.

She had three children with McMahon before he tragically drowned near South Head at Watsons Bay on 7 September 1801.

Patrick and Catherine were married on 28 February 1802 by the infamous colonial priest and magistrate Reverend Samuel Marsden at St Phillips church, Sydney with the permission of Governor Phillip King.

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