Emu Plains Convict Farm

The Emu Plains Government Agricultural Establishment – 1819 – 1832

The Emu Plains Agricultural Establishment operated from 11 September 1819 until 31 August 1832. It was established by Lachlan Macquarie to take the high number of surplus convicts in the colony as well as new arrivals. The agricultural station holds an important place in the history of convict administration in New South Wales, with hundreds of convicts processed through the farm. Some had just arrived on transport ships, some were reprocessed and re-educated in agricultural work, and some remained there to give service as overseers, gardeners, watchmen, butchers and clerks.

The farm played an important economic role in the Nepean district, providing a source for the sale of goods, the employment of clearing gangs and individual assignment of convicts to local settlers. It was ideally placed to not only benefit from its agricultural richness, but also to overseer movements of convicts, settlers and stock over the mountains.

Its first Superintendent was Richard Fitzgerald, an ex-convict of exceptional administrative and agricultural talent. He was well respected by the highest dignitaries in the colony like John Macarthur and especially by the early governors, in particular Lachlan Macquarie, who called him ‘this excellent man’. Fitzgerald set up the farm and remained as its Superintendent until February 1822. Constant criticism and legal challenges by Sir John Jamison of Regentville marred his time at Emu Plains. Commissioner Bigge, in his report, considered Emu Plains successful in its original purpose and was one of the best places of punishment in the colony. Macquarie thought that ‘Emu Plains succeeds even beyond my most sanguine hopes’.

Lieutenant Peter Murdoch was appointed in April 1822 and remained there until December 1824. He was a Scotsman and a friend of Sir Thomas Brisbane, the new governor. Murdoch implemented the changes suggested by the Bigge Report. Emu Plains was increased and at times held 500 convicts. Discipline and punishment were important aspects of convict administration during this period. Although Brisbane’s administration came under criticism for sending female convicts to Emu Plains, his purpose was founded upon his desire to employ the women productively. Brisbane thought Murdoch a most moral man. In 1823 a newspaper report stated that ‘The grandest sight that has ever exhibited itself in the colony, in harvest time, is the amazing field of wheat on Emu Plains…we shall not fail to notice the excellent discipline of this place, and the consequent wonderful reformation…of the most abandoned of the human family’. Murdoch left Emu Plains in December 1824.

After Murdoch, the Kinghorne family, father Alexander followed by his son James, were Superintendents of the farm from 1825 to September 1829. Alexander remained for just twelve months on the farm before his appointment as Civil Engineer of the colony. During his superintendence convicts performed the first plays at Emu Plains. Brisbane was impressed by the farm for it turned an ‘idle disorderly vagabond…[into] a regular industrious servant’. Emu Plains flourished under Alexander Kinghorne’s superintendence, which exhibited ‘a picture of comfort, regularity and discipline’.

James Kinghorne was appointed in February 1826 and remained there until September 1829. He oversaw a period of great production on the farm of wheat, maize and tobacco. The movement of great numbers of government stock were important aspects of the farms activities. In July 1826 there were 392 bushels of wheat in the granary, 4000 bushels of wheat in stacks, 6256 bushels of maize in the stores at the farm. Although under Kinghorne the farm was highly productive, it also went through one of the worst droughts in the colony’s history during 1827-1829. During this period, Emu Plains was responsible for supporting many of the agricultural and penal settlements in New South Wales especially Rooty Hill, Moreton Bay and Norfolk Island.

John Maxwell took over from James Kinghorne who replaced Maxwell at the Wellington Valley station. Maxwell had been Superintendent of Government Stock at Bathurst and Wellington Valley. By the time of his arrival in early 1830 the farm had gradually changed its focus from an agricultural to a stock station. He was responsible for all government stock in New South Wales. His primary responsibility was wider than just the station at Emu Plains. Problems with sharing the station with the Mounted Police led to his resignation.

James Smith, the Superintendent of the Grose Farm and Longbottom agricultural stations, replaced Maxwell in August 1831. Smith was to overseer the closure of the farm under the direction of Governor Richard Bourke. Bourke was an agent of change for he also was influential in the decision for Transportation to end in New South Wales. The final twelve months was tied up in deciding if and when the farm would be closed. From January 1832 Smith was struggling to maintain the station, even down to his lack of stationery. From June 1832 the wind-up fully began with the movement of stock and men from the station. A full inventory was undertaken, which included knives, forks, spoons and the three combs left on the station. This inventory was a sad reflection of its vibrant past and a reminder of just how important it was to convict administration in New South Wales.

Soon after the farm closed, H. F. White surveyed the land for a town. White followed the contours of the agricultural station, laying out the village and streets along roads and paddocks created by the convict farm.

Lorraine Stacker

Author of:
Chained to the Soil on the Plains of Emu: A History of the Emu Plains Government Agricultural Establishment, 1819-1832
Published by the Nepean District Historical Society, 2000.