2010 Conference – Emu Plains

Emu Plains – Success beyond sanguine hopes

Paper presented to the 8th Makings of a City History Conference,
Penrith, 14 March 2009

Lorraine Stacker

In his dispatch to Earl Bathurst in July 1821, the outgoing Governor, Lachlan Macquarie wrote that Emu Plains ‘succeeds even beyond my most sanguine hopes’. He was optimistic for the future success of the convict farm that he had created three years earlier for it had exceeded his expectations as an economically viable and productive farm, both in men and produce. My talk today will examine the circumstances why Emu Plains was created by Macquarie and the legacy that lingers in its different settlement, its streets and roads.

Emu Plains encompasses the flood plain along the western side of the Nepean River ascending partly onto Lapstone Hill. Its written history began when on 26 June 1789, Watkin Tench and his party set out to explore the western region beyond Parramatta and on the following day, discovered a river, which Governor Phillip later named Nepean. William Dawes then led a party in late 1789, forded this river and traversed the land we now know as Emu Plains.


It was named when these explorers sighted emus near the river. These large birds disappeared from the Cumberland Plain soon after the arrival of the new settlers who hunted them for meat. A survey map dated August 1790 is annotated with, ‘saw three cassowaries’ close to the ford on the Nepean River.

Henry Waterhouse, Captain of the Reliance, visited the district around 1797 and wrote, ‘I am at a loss to describe the face of the country other than as a beautiful park, totally divested of underwood, interspersed with plains, with rich luxuriant grass’. Settlement along the eastern side of the river at Castlereagh began soon afterwards. On the western side was a different matter. In 1806, Governor Bligh refused Dr Robert Townson’s application for Emu Plains and when he reapplied to the rebel government, the majority of land had been granted to George Johnston Junior and 500 acres to William Lawson. Upon his arrival, Macquarie revoked these grants and the land reverted back to the government, thus defining the boundary of settlement along the eastern side of the Nepean River.

At first, Emu Plains was known as Emu or Emu Island. Governor Macquarie on his tour of the district in November 1810 travelled up the Nepean River and observed the ‘very fine rich tract of country called Eemoo Island ’. From the beginning of 1813, the government prepared for the exploration and settlement of land beyond the Blue Mountains by first declaring the area west of the Nepean River out of bounds to all individuals, except on government business. In preparation for the critical crossing of the Blue Mountains in May 1813, government orders warned those who had stock grazing on Emu Island to remove them. The name Emu Plains first appeared in a government order issued in July 1814, which stated the construction of the road over the Blue Mountains was to commence from ‘Emu Plains (hitherto erroneously called Emu Island )’.

Macquarie ’s letter to William Cox indicated that a depot had been established at Emu Plains to receive stores. Cox and his team began their roadwork on 21 July 1814 and after Cox’s road was completed to Bathurst in January 1815, the government erected more buildings on Emu Plains, providing a base from which the journey to Bathurst would commence. The wild cattle that had grazed there for many years were rounded up and convicts Joseph Greenhatch and John Cronin cleared the land and constructed the stockyards. In April 1815, on his journey to Bathurst, Macquarie ’s party inspected the government herds of young heifers stationed there.

In October 1815 Macquarie, on his tour through Cowpastures, Mulgoa and Castlereagh, again inspected and was well pleased with the government stock including 480 heifers. At the same time, he was not so impressed by the lack of improvements made by the free settlers at Castlereagh. Macquarie concluded ‘There is no remedying these lazy habits during the existence of the present old generation’. So in this place Macquarie observed and compared the work of the convicts at the depot at Emu Plains and the free settlers’ farms at Castlereagh. In January 1818, a toll was levied at Emu Ford for Bathurst travellers and in the following year, Macquarie resolved to return to public farming.

The Australian colonies, accepted over 160,000 convicts between 1788 and 1868. The punishment, management and ultimate emancipation of these convicts required their colonial administrators to be astute, calculating and manipulative in order to keep the hundreds of men and women who were transported each year, submissive, yet at the same time optimistic about their future. On 11 September 1819 a government order announced an agricultural establishment would be formed at Emu Plains. It was one of several convict public farms designed as places of hard labour and agricultural re-education, becoming ‘the best school of reform in the colony’. Macquarie’s decisions on forming agricultural stations at Emu Plains, Longbottom and Grose Farm in 1819, however reluctantly made, were practical solutions to not only the overwhelming influx of male convicts but also the need for additional supplies of grain not fulfilled by free settlers.

Upon his arrival in the colony in 1810, Macquarie had abolished public farming in favour of assignment, arguing that there was no economy in keeping these farms going. However, the end of the Napoleonic War brought substantial changes to the British domestic economy and society. Many demobilised men were returned to civil employment, who in turn helped increase the crime rate. The number of convicts sent to New South Wales doubled between 1814 and 1820. Macquarie noted that between August 1819 and January 1820 over 2,500 convicts had landed in Sydney, putting an additional strain upon the colony’s resources. In his dispatch in February 1820, he stressed that he had employed as many convicts as he could, in improving Sydney ’s public buildings, streets and bridges. Furthermore, he pointed out that sending convicts to work for private settlers did not alleviate the cost to government.

Large landholders like Sir John Jamison opposed a return to public farming, believing it damaged the progress of private farming interests in the colony. They wanted more land grants, skilled convict labour and help in reducing import duties on their exports to Britain. Jamison twice applied for Emu Plains as a land grant even before he arrived in 1814. He achieved a small measure of success in 1815 in obtaining a grazing permit there. However, in 1819 this permit was revoked, owing to the needs of the then established convict farm. Jamison’s personal and public conflict with Macquarie is well illustrated by his attempts to reduce the powers of the governor. This decision to return to public farming was considered by the calculating Jamison as unnecessary and a waste of public money and good productive land. In addition to Jamison’s opposition, Macquarie’s decision to establish Emu Plains went against a general shift of opinion in Britain regarding convicts and their punishment. The British government, in particular Home Secretary Earl Bathurst, increasingly wanted to see the penal settlements of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land more as places of punishment to be feared, rather than as places of reform and benefit. Macquarie, who had been governor since 1810, was by 1819 increasingly criticised in Britain, and in the colony, for holding emancipist sympathies.

Macquarie chose as the first superintendent, forty-seven year old Richard Fitzgerald, who had a reputation as a proven administrator of government farms. Fitzgerald was a man of his times, blending in well with the society Macquarie had gathered around him; a mixture of free and emancipist self-made men. Although Fitzgerald had arrived as a convict in 1791, he brought with him considerable personal assets and a reputation of good family connections. In the colony, he demonstrated his superior administrative abilities, becoming superintendent of agriculture at Toongabbie and Parramatta in 1795, when he was only twenty-three years old. Macquarie called him ‘this excellent man’ who was able to claim the friendship of the most powerful families in the colony.

Fitzgerald’s commission as superintendent at Emu Plains was already in place by the time the official announcement was made on Saturday 11 September. In August, the government arranged for tools and carts with harnesses, bullocks, carpenters, a blacksmith, and twenty-four hand cuffs to be sent to Emu Plains. On 8 September Macquarie wrote to Fitzgerald officially appointing him to the position.

Macquarie informed Fitzgerald that 200 men were to be sent to Emu Plains and that he was to arrange appropriate accommodation for them. He was also authorised to negotiate with local farmers on the supply of meat and grain to the establishment. Fitzgerald reported ‘I have examined the whole of the land fit for cultivation on Emu Plains and found there are nearly 2000 acres of excellent land which is at this time very luxuriant in grass and I am sure when cultivated will yield abundant crops’.

Fitzgerald decided the depot would be located near the river where a sturdy log cabin, stables and stockyards were already located. He purchased the wheat that Greenhatch had grown there and left six men to begin building bark huts for the convicts on a small hill about a half a mile from the river (where St Pauls Anglican Church is today). When Macquarie visited Emu Plains a year later, he pitched a tent on the banks of the river and set the location for Government House on a ‘fine beautiful situation and commanding an extensive view of nearly the whole of the Plains’ (on the rise behind Lennox Shopping Centre).

Once the farm had been established, Fitzgerald visited Emu Plains no more than twice a week. He continued his duties at Windsor as superintendent of government works. In November 1819, Fitzgerald requested the appointment of an assistant and clerk to help manage the station in his absence. Ex-convict Joseph Greenhatch was appointed assistant superintendent, and Fitzgerald’s old clerk, ex-convict Barnabus Rix, was appointed commissariat clerk.

By early October 1819, Fitzgerald reported to Macquarie that good progress had been made. Six huts were completed and the frames of six more were soon to be covered. Fitzgerald needed more skilled men, however by November he had received only a gunsmith and a barber. Furthermore, Fitzgerald found only three convicts knew anything about farming. The implements were far from ideal and the men were selected more for their inability to do anything, rather than any skills they possessed.

One of the main purposes for establishing Emu Plains was to take the ‘useless and least robust’ from the system and place them in a situation whereby they would become useful agricultural workers. Fitzgerald found the convicts were far from helpful in establishing a viable farm. He also lamented that many of them ‘have a propensity for gambling and robbing each other’. The convicts, initially employed clearing away the bank of the river, were not familiar with labouring and found the work hard. Many of these men were from Sydney or immediately off transport ships, and were not accustomed to living in the bush. They suffered from the hot humid weather and were ill from the change of diet and water. Nevertheless, they cleared and burned off the land, built huts and cultivated the first crops. The first crop was maize, planted around November or December and reaped in April. Wheat was then sown and reaped around November 1820. Maize and wheat were ideal crops to grow together for they kept the land constantly under crop. Stubble was fed to the cattle and pigs. The farm yielded 30 bushels of wheat an acre and 80 bushels of maize an acre.

To achieve this agricultural success the convicts were relatively unhindered and not physically chained but worked in gangs and lived with some freedom on the station. Metaphorically speaking, they were ‘chained to the soil’ as the poet lamented insomuch as they were forced not only to remain there but also to work hard in order to create a viable and productive farm. They were not only chained to the toil of the soil, but also to the seasons, the weather and to their circumstances.

Within twelve months of its establishment, Emu Plains had a house for the superintendent and overseer, a store, rooms for the Commissariat clerk, barracks for the soldiers and huts for the convicts and the sick. Convicts lived in small huts accommodating from two to ten men. They slept on wooden trellises, off the ground on which they spread mattresses they had brought with them from the ships. Each convict received a weekly ration of: 7lbs beef, 10 lbs flour, 1lb sugar and a ¼lb salt and were encouraged to cultivate their own vegetable gardens. On alternate Sundays they received Anglican Church services conducted by the Reverend Henry Fulton.

superintendent's house

Commissioner John Bigge arrived on the John Barry on 26 September 1819, within days of the establishment of Emu Plains. His investigation attested to the level of criticism Macquarie was experiencing in Britain, as well as the increasingly divergent opinions between Macquarie and Earl Bathurst. Bigge’s investigation into Macquarie’s colonial administration was a re-appraisal not only of the colony’s future, but also of Macquarie . Bathurst impressed upon Bigge that the basic objective in establishing the colony was that it was to be a penal settlement first. Bigge was instructed to investigate how the colony was administered as a place of punishment, and how convicts were managed.

Macquarie visited Emu Plains for the last time on his final journey to Bathurst in December 1821. On Sunday 16 December Macquarie and his party crossed the Nepean and were met by Fitzgerald. They remained there long enough for Macquarie to write a letter to his wife, Elizabeth. They returned to Emu Plains on the morning of 26 December, remained a few hours and thus ending Macquarie ’s last visit to Emu Plains. The infant village of Penrith was now developing around its primitive courthouse and lockup.

Commissioner Bigge, in his report in 1822, acknowledged that Emu Plains was successful in its original purpose, finding that simple agricultural work beneficially employed these men and that, given the shallow river and easy route to Bathurst, surprisingly few escapes occurred. He concluded that the convict farm was ‘better calculated to meet the objects for which it was formed than any other that presented itself’. He also recognised Fitzgerald’s unique situation. Unlike other superintendents on government farms, Fitzgerald reported directly to Macquarie.

Macquarie valued Emu Plains not only for its agricultural fertility, but also as a place to instruct ‘the younger description of convicts in the art of husbandry’. He held an optimistic view of the colony, remaining convinced that reform was of a greater benefit to convicts and to the colony overall than punishment would ever be. He reported to Earl Bathurst that during 1821, 500 acres had been cultivated with wheat, maize, oats, barley, rye, and flax and tobacco. In this dispatch, Macquarie included a small tin box of tobacco grown at Emu Plains. He proudly proclaimed that convicts even preferred the tobacco grown at Emu Plains to the more commonly consumed Brazilian tobacco.

Fitzgerald’s position as superintendent at Emu Plains, however, lasted just two months after Macquarie left and he resigned on 12 March stating, ‘it is quite impossible to carry on the duty of the settlement in the manner I think it ought’. He also suggested that a superintendent should be permanently stationed at the farm.

In his report on his governorship made in July 1822, Macquarie provided Earl Bathurst with a glowing account of Emu Plains as an agricultural station well suited for its purpose. Personally, Macquarie appeared to have been especially fond of Emu Plains and when he departed the colony, he recommended his superiors never ‘permit this fine tract of land to be alienated from the Crown and to instruct the present and all future Governors accordingly’.

1826 Emu Plains map

By 1822, substantial permanent buildings at Emu Plains allowed for a well-functioning convict farm. There was now a one-and-a-half storey brick residence for the superintendent with rooms for the governor when he visited. Other separate houses with barracks accommodated the storekeeper and principal overseer. The military detachment had their own barracks and guard-house. These officials also shared a kitchen garden which was surrounded by a strong paling fence. A weatherboarded granary and store, and two barns with lofts, served to store wheat, maize and other produce. The convicts were housed in strong log huts accommodating up to 500 men with their own separate kitchens and gardens.

Macquarie’s chief assistant, John Thomas Campbell reported on Emu Plains on 12 February 1822, a few days before Macquarie sailed. His report indicated the different approach by the new administration of Sir Thomas Brisbane who had been instructed to implement recommendations from Bigge’s report. He gave an impressive report to Governor Brisbane on Emu Plains, stating that the station was the only agricultural station where ‘all kinds of cultivation may be pursued with advantage’.

Although Bigge recommended the closure of all agricultural stations, Emu Plains was nevertheless increased, endorsing it as an effective place of punishment and employment. The two governors after Macquarie endorsed his views on Emu Plains and its advantages to the government. However, by 1832 the Nepean district was a very different place from when Macquarie last saw it.

Macquarie ’s legacy? – Well, Emu Plains is a different settlement and is unique in our City. In contrast to the private development of the Nepean district, Emu Plains remained in government hands until the late 1830s. A government town was surveyed by Henry White in 1832, the second in the region, which again failed to prosper the way the government intended. Only a portion of land was gained through land grants and so those who settled there did so through purchase and not through gift or grant. Macquarie ’s legacy can be seen in the shape and feel of Emu Plains and its convict past lingers on in the line and contour of its roads and streets, parks and vista.

emu plains modern map

Lorraine Stacker

6 March 2010