Chapter 14

Some of the white men settled the question of ownership of the land by brutal methods. This was not William's way. They could see smoke in the distance, so William put guns within reach and looked for the tobacco and other gifts they had brought.

Magdalen had lit a fire for tea although it was early in the afternoon and they had finished their mid-day meal only an hour before. They had to decide where to make camp, and needed time for exploration and reflection. William walked to the water's edge and walked up and down. Not nearly as mighty as the Clarence, not as powerful but the banks were thickly covered with mangrove swamps and jungle. This river had been discovered and explored years before. In 1828 Captain Rous had crossed the bar and sailed up the river for twenty miles, naming it after a family friend, the Duke of Richmond of the Lennox Line, and a headland just north of the bar Lennox Head. These had been mapped long before the Big River was discovered by Richard Craig. Captain Rous had had to cut the foliage from the mast of the 'Rainbow' before he could proceed up the river.

Magdalen had made a damper to have with the tea, and was dusting off the ashes before cutting it when everyone became aware of being watched. A tall well-built Aborigine stepped out from behind a tree. William signalled to John who was the best shot, to shoot a bird. The black man jumped but he had seen and heard guns before.

William stepped forward and offered the man a plug of tobacco, cutting shavings off with his clasp knife, indicating to him that he should chew it. The black man took it with a nod, then pointed to Magdalen kneeling before the fire with the children petrified at her side. John aimed just above his head, holding his fire for another signal from William. The native continued to point and Magdalen suddenly realised that he wanted her damper. Obviously he knew about the white man's food. She smiled and gave him the warm damper. He smiled back broadly, a smile only possible for a man with white teeth and shiny black skin. He broke off a large piece and returned the rest. Then he pointed along the river, pointed to Magdalen, the children, the men, the dray and bullocks, and again pointed along the river.

"I think he's saying there are white men further along," said Magdalen.
"Ah! You're right!" William relaxed and gave the stranger another shaving of tobacco, nodding his understanding.

Magdalen offered him a mug of tea and as soon as everybody was refreshed, William headed the bullock team in the direction indicated by their companion. Other shadows, behind trees, followed them getting bolder and more curious as the bullocks plodded on. The shadows and their companion all disappeared as the party came in sight of the cedar-getter's camp.

William made brief contact with the men in the first hut, while the rest of the party began to make camp for the night.

"Tomorrow we will start making some huts and use the tents to store our provisions," said William when he rejoined the men. "They say the natives are friendly, as we have already found out. We don't want their food or their huntings grounds, only the timber, and they even help find the best cedar trees, which they call 'Widgie-Widgie'. So there's no need to worry," he told Magdalen and Jane.
"The last time we'll be unloading all this," said John as he dragged the ever-damp mildewy tent from the dray.
"For a while at least," said Magdalen.

* * *

Within sight of the other huts, William selected a spot along a tiny creek. He chose four suitable trees for the corner posts, brought them down neatly, trimmed off the branches and cut one end to a point so that he could drive them into the ground. Four more saplings tied across the tops with rawhide, and the single room was ready for the roof. He carefully took sheets of bark from stringy bark trees, laid them out to flatten. The sheets were then put on as walls and roof, fastened with wooden pegs in the middle only to allow for shrinkage, and fastened to the ridge pole with strips of rawhide. Logs were laid on the roof to stop it flapping in the wind. A single doorway and simple bark door completed the tiny dwelling.

The four men built their own hut nearby with the tents in between. For the first time everything from the dray was accessible. The children were delighted to locate some of their almost-forgotten treasures.

* * *

A few days later Magdalen was putting the bread to rise when she became aware of a man at the door of the hut. Jane was outside feeding the animals. Eliza darted behind her mother's skirts and clung there nearly tripping Magdalen as she turned toward the door.

"Good afternoon ma'am," said the stranger politely. "I would like to speak to your husband."

The man was well-dressed although he appeared to have travelled a long distance. Hospitality was the invariable custom, but a woman on her own had to be sensibly cautious. William was away cutting and hauling logs and would not return for another day, but Magdalen did not think it judicious to say so.

"He is not here at the moment. Can I help you?" Her thoughts went to Jane within calling distance, who could run if necessary to her nearest neighbour's hut visible through the trees. Only the women and children would be home.

The man looked to be a gentleman, but she had been warned that some convicts stole clothing and could deceive a woman by their appearance.

"This is William Yabsley's place? I have heard that he is a shipwright."
"He was a shipwright in Plymouth six years ago, and he worked on two vessels on the Clarence. But he has been working as a timber-getter and hauler." Magdalen stopped short, wondering if the stranger might guess William was away, as there were no signs of bullocks nearby. She thought that she must see that Jane did not come into the house. Baby William was asleep in the corner and Eliza still clung to her skirt. Could she carry both children and run to the next hut? Or should she leave the little ones and lure the man away? Would he follow her or was he more interested in food and firearms?

"My name is Burnett. I am a Government Surveyor. I need a boat for tracing the river. Your husband has a reputation as a ship-builder. I have come looking for him."
He seemed genuine but Magdalen's fears were not yet allayed.

"I can't speak for Mr Yabsley, you must discuss it with him when he returns. He finds great satisfaction in boat-building I know."
"I need only a small boat but strong enough to negotiate all the waterways in the district. As you say I must speak with Mr Yabsley."
"Come in Mr Burnett," said Magdalen still a little uneasy, but unable to allow a visitor to lack refreshment. The evening meal was almost ready. It was not a large meal for herself, Jane and Eliza, but what there was must be shared with the newcomer.
"How far have you travelled?"
"I have come from Brisbane. I have cut a dray track down the valley of the Logan River and then across the McPherson Range." He drew out a map and showed her. "It goes round Mt Lindsay, and down to the Richmond. You people have been in urgent need of a track to bring stock out. My dray is across the river now."

Jane came in with the milk and two eggs.
"This is Mr Burnett, Jane," said Magdalen. "He is making a map of the river. He has just made a dray route from Brisbane. Fetch some more water Jane dear, while I serve the meal. See if Eliza will go with you."

Jane could not prise the two-year old from her mother's skirt.
"She never sees anyone for days at a time," explained Magdalen as she set the table and got out the tin plates.
"Is your husband away for long periods, "he asked. Then seeing Magdalen's change of expression he added quickly "I beg your pardon Mrs Yabsley. You must think me very tactless. Your husband may be away for several days and you would not dare to admit it. Mrs Yabsley I would greatly appreciate a mug of tea, then I will go back to my men. You could ask Mr Yabsley to contact me when he is ready."
Magdalen laughed with relief.
"Mr Burnett that is most thoughtful of you. Now here is your tea. And do have a little of our food such as it is in these parts. Tonight it's fish from the river."

Eliza soon overcame her shyness when her mother relaxed and presently was sitting on Mr Burnett's knee, examining his beard. Jane remained timid but polite.

* * *

William was glad to have the contract as it had been an unusually wet year and hauling was slow in the muddy conditions. He put up a bark shelter so as not to be interrupted by the weather, and worked day and night, building the boat. He selected a cedar log, felled some time before, pulled it to his 'ship shed' with his bullocks, dug a pit and got John to help him in the evenings. John was the 'pit' man, on the lower end of the pit saw, while they cut the log into lengths, then sawed it into boards. William then hired his team to John to haul timber, while he fashioned the boards into a sturdy boat.

While clamping a plank, he tried to make an adjustment, and the rope broke, the plank hit his chest and flung him across the shed. Winded for a few moments, he got up and with enormous strength, pulled the plank back into place and retied it.

Mr Burnett was more than satisfied with the skill and speed with which the boat had been built.

But he paid with an order which had to go to Sydney to be cashed. There was nothing else to do but give it to the captain of one of the small schooners which took the cedar to Sydney. It was three months before he returned to the Richmond. The cash was not very useful to William, as all trade was done on credit, but he made a point of taking the first opportunity to send the half sovereign he owed Mr Noud for the dray wheel, in care of some men going back to Woolport. It had weighed on William's mind for nearly a year.

Mr Noud was astonished!

* * *

The cutters were able to trade with Henry Barnes, exchanging cedar for beef. Henry Barnes was the overseer of 'Cassino' when the unfortunate Clay and Stapleton became insolvent. Mr Clark Irving bought it and renamed it 'Tomki'. He made a very wise decision allowing Henry Barnes to remain as manager although he was then only twenty-five. He came from a background of generations of keen cattlemen in Cumberland, England. When he had decided to migrate to the Colony the parson and other worthies had recommended him as a sober lad with practical experience as a farmer. He had done some wrestling and could beat Alex Mackellar, the local champion at calf-throwing, in spite of a great difference in build. He had arrived on the Richmond just before William and had been able to cross the river with dry feet. He had made the journey from Woolport in April when it had been unseasonally dry.

The wet season began very late, in June, when William had set out, and there had been a lot of rain ever since. One day as Henry Barnes stood at the door of his bark hut on an outstation, a bearded man came and introduced himself as William Yabsley.

"How can I get to the Heads with a dray and team? I'm going to form a station north of the Heads."
"That's difficult indeed. On the North Arm there is no crossing at all. And if you got across, the scrub between there and the Heads is quite impassable, it's called the Big Scrub and even the Blacks seldom disturb it. They get all the wildfowl, wallabies, fish and shellfish they can eat on the lower river. Your best move is to go via Pelican Tree. Have you seen your station?"
"No, I applied for the depasturing licence from Mr Fry some time ago. I chose the sight mainly because it will be much quicker to get the cedar shipped from there. The station is only secondary, but I hope it is good grazing land and forest."
"Not exactly. It's mostly dense scrub and swamps from what I've heard. The natives call the place Bullinah 'Mouth of a river, where oysters are plentiful'."
"Mm. That's not so good. Some stock would have been a good sideline. I had thought of running some cattle."
"I believe you have done some ship-building? That would be profitable."
"I have a notion of building another ship, but I don't have the capital and I wouldn't go into debt even if I could get a loan. I pay my way, that's why it has taken me six years to get a team and enough money for a lease."
"I am extremely lucky to have a good employer. I'm as good as my own boss. He trusts my judgement and gives me a free hand. He knows I can pick the best of anything on four legs, and I never take second best. I was only used to small scale farming in the Old Country but I've managed to adapt to a different scale of operation."
"You'll probably end up a property owner yourself if you are thrifty and ambitious."
"I am free to do a certain amount on my own behalf now. But I don't mean to work for someone else all my life. So many men go through life never getting anywhere. Not me. You know people see this unfortunate nose of mine and often take me for an intemperate man, but I rarely touch liquor." His eyes were bright and his expression was kindly and humorous. William could see past the large red nose which so embarrassed his host.
He said "People soon get to know who they can trust and who is dishonest. Of course there is often no choice. Take Billy Wright for instance."

William and Henry agreed that Billy Wright who had formed a depot at Rocky Mouth in the early 40's was a bit of a rogue like so many of the men with whom they were forced to deal. William went on.
"I don't feel I can trust him, but there's no choice. He is so free with his favours, but only when he can see something in it for himself. He takes more than his share of the profits, but the men can't see it because he's such a jolly good sport, and grog is plentiful at the depot. If only they knew it they'd be better off taking their rafts down to the port instead of dealing with the depot. That's why I want to get down there myself."

William was not a man who found small-talk easy. A lot of camp-fire conversation did not interest him in the least. But here was a man, six years younger than himself who had the same sort of ideals and determination, a man to be trusted, too intelligent to be tolerant of affectation or false pride. The relationship between these two men was bound to be sincere and lasting.

Henry Barnes had arrived in Australia with ten shillings and a wooden chest. Now he was able to send a little money back to his mother occasionally. He also made a point of treating the Aborigines with respect as friends and assistants. William admired him for this. The two men conversed until well into the night. In the morning Henry Barnes indicated the route to Pelican Tree. There he met Donald Campbell who agreed to take charge of William's bullocks and the dairy cows, while they proceeded by raft. William constructed a cedar punt then returned to the camp for his family and their possessions. The large animals were left with Donald Campbell as arranged and the Yabsley Family began the journey down the Richmond on the punt, tying up when the tide was coming up, and sleeping at night on land or on the raft depending on the tide.

Magdalen had learned to trust William's judgement and kept telling herself that William was a strong swimmer, but she could not stop her nightmares about the children falling into the water. It was a fear she never overcame. While they were on the raft Magdalen tied Eliza up with a piece of greenhide and did not take her eyes off her for a moment. Baby William, now a toddler was not as active or impulsive, but still had to be tied and watched. A small fire could be lit on a patch of earth at one corner of the raft, but Magdalen preferred to cook ashore if possible.

At last they reached the mouth of the river and William put up the tent on the north side of the bay, near a spring and another hut belonging to two young men. They took time to climb the headland and look at ocean and survey the area. William noticed the colour of the water indicating shoals and deeps, the children were enthralled with the sensation of height, while Magdalen observed the flight of the pelicans, their heads drawn back into their bodies, before they came to rest on the calm water of the bay.

"Look out there," said William pointing far out to sea. "Whales. You'll often see them here at the right season."

* * *

There was no time for relaxing. William left Magdalen his gun although there was no ammunition left, and he started to drift back up-river with the tide to collect his animals. As explained by Henry Barnes, the only way for the team and Jessie and her calf was to make their way across Clark Irving's outstation, dotted with tea-tree swamps and scrubs of tea-tree until they reached the creek, swim them across Bungawalbyn Creek, a tributary of the Richmond, then follow the creek up to Moonibar, make for the beach, follow the coast to the Richmond Heads, crossing Evans River at low tide and finally swimming them across the Richmond.

* * *

William had been away for a month. When he had eaten and rested Magdalen talked to him about the station he had chosen. It was not suitable for cattle, being swampy and windswept, but Magdalen said she found the headlands and beaches just south of the property gave her much pleasure.

"From the headland we have often watched ships coming in and out of the river, or waiting until they think it is safe to cross. The bay will be the place to trade with the captains. Jane said she saw a ship outside the Heads this morning. Did you know Steve King is not far away?"
"I heard something about it. There'll probably be a settlement here later. Well I'll have to forget about the idea of cattle, but I'll start negotiating with the captains of the trading vessels, to trade timber for food and provisions. Our stores are very low."
"By the way I've been waiting for a chance to tell you I expect we'll have another baby about next April."

The news did not seem to penetrate. Magdalen left him and stirred up the fire. When she returned he asked "Will you go to Stonequarry?"
"No. Not from here. Trading vessels to the Settlement were reasonably regular, but from here it's another matter. And too risky to take Eliza and young William on a cedar boat across that bar. I'll manage when the baby comes. Jane will help with the housework while I'm laid up."

* * *

The ship which Jane had seen, waiting outside the Heads crossed in a day or so later, but the captain was not familiar with the shoals, and lost his bearings, and drifted into a blind channel. There the vessel was stuck and the passengers were quickly taken ashore in the boat. William hurried down to the spot and suggested that perhaps his bullocks could pull the vessel to deeper water at the turn of the tide. He then hurried away to locate his team, yoke them up and bring them to the ship. The two men from the other hut Pearson Simpson and Tommy Service arrived back from timber-getting in time to lend a hand. The strategy proved successful and the ship was freed at the next high tide. Meanwhile Magdalen had made refreshments for the passengers, William and Jane Wilson and their five young children. Their eldest daughter Theresa was seven, three years younger than Jane Yabsley, and the youngest was two. William Wilson had been born in Aberdeenshire thirty-nine years ago and had been a man of some wealth and his wife had been a London Belle. He and his brother-in-law had had the first cauldron in New South Wales for boiling down, situated at Fivedock, Sydney. When they had been declared insolvent they had come north on the small trading vessel, although they knew nothing of pioneering.

"We arrived in Australia in '42," said Pearson Simpson. "We came up here because we wanted to make our fortunes. We soon realised we had to go back for gear and equipment and a bit of practical experience. But there was something about this spot we couldn't resist. We were regarded as complete 'New Chums' but we've learnt, and we're still 'ere."
"I've heard this called New Chums Bay," said Magdalen. "It's such a pretty place with so much sand for the children to play in. I've never seen anything like it. I was completely 'green' myself when I went to the Settlement. By the way," she turned to Mr Wilson "Are you related to the surveyors there, William and Christopher Wilson?"
"I don't believe so," said Mr Wilson who was a fine-looking gentleman, strongly built, but with a stern expression. He commented on some stones which Eliza had collected. Jane Wilson said "He's always looking for rocks and fossils and things. He's interested in geology as a hobby."
Magdalen said "I love to watch the ocean waves. I never get tired of it and the birds, especially the pelicans. You should see the pelicans making a circle to catch fish."
"We'd like it even more if it didn't rain so much."
"The season seems all wrong since we left the Clarence."

* * *

Magdalen made another attempt at gardening. She felt confident after her first limited experience at the Settlement, and now set out a more extensive vegetable garden and ordered seeds from Sydney, although she knew the soil to be salty and sandy. Fishing here would also be different from further inland. When she began fishing there was not a gull in sight, but as soon as she began to clean her catch she was surrounded by gulls squabbling over the scraps. William put up a hut and organised himself, then began hauling timber for the cutters who had their huts in the Big Scrub, where many rare trees grew in the red basalt soil. He brought the logs to the Heads, which saved the vessels a lot of time. Dealing directly with the ships' captains had some other advantages for William. He got more profit than dealing with agents like Billy Wright, who had his own ships and gave his own prices for the timber.

When the floods brought down the rafts of logs, the cutters came down and exchanged timber for rum, and drank for days, then began to fight with the seamen. There was brisk rivalry between the forest-hardened sawyers and the sea-hardened sailors. Occasionally there were serious injuries before the cutters went back to the forest.

The ships also brought news of the outside world. They learned that William's ship the 'Providence' had been launched in Woolport. Magdalen hoped it would come to the Richmond so that they could see it. Everyone described her as a fine sturdy vessel which carried a large cargo for her size. The first iron boat 'The Great Britain' built by Brunel had sailed across the Atlantic although everyone watching the launch had predicted it would go straight to the bottom. At Woolport a boiling-down works had been established by Joseph Sharp, which would give some stability to the cattle and sheep industries when meat prices were low. Every scrap of news was passed on to everyone in the area.

William got to know most of the captains personally. From time to time he was able to do small repair jobs on damaged vessels. There was still no use for money on the river. Trade was done with I.O.U.'s or with direct barter. William ordered provisions and stock from the captains with whom he dealt, and refused to accept rum in exchange, apart from a small quantity he kept for special occasions.

The number of animals was slowly increasing. There were cows for milk, butter and cheese, pigs and poultry to be attended to. Jane had learned how to set the milk in flat, round pans and put them on bark shelves in a lean-to. The cream was skimmed off and placed in a wooden churn. Everyone took turns at the labourious task even four-year old Eliza. Now that they had a licence for a grazing block, they could legally grow fruit and vegetables and have a more substantial dwelling, although there was still no certainty of renewal of licence each year. They could not make full use of the land, as the animals needed only a few acres. The pigs and chickens were kept in yards near the hut. Jessie and her progeny did not wander far and came back each day to be milked. The bullocks sometimes roamed further away while William was not using them. But he felt an enormous satisfaction in being legally able to build what he wanted and plant what he wanted. Like most men he did not consider permanent buildings.

Governor Gipps tried to introduce laws that were fair to all but he met with great opposition from large land holders who held enormous runs for the £10 fee. The Governor wanted to limit the stations that one man could hold to an area of land which could depasture 4000 sheep or 500 cattle, and he also wanted to give longer leases and some security of tenure. He said that Crown Land belonged to the Queen and should not be monopolised by squatters, but should be preserved for future generations. The licence question was so onerous that the Governor was now a sick man fighting a growing opposition from land-holders.

William completely agreed with what he read about the Governor's Homestead Policy. But the squatters had a majority in the Legislative Council, and they sent a letter to the Queen with signatures of stockholders, merchants and exclusives, denouncing Gipps' ideas.

* * *

Jane, Eliza and young William spent a lot of time with the young Wilson children. Once again Jane found there was no-one of her own age, Theresa Wilson being the nearest in age, and Jane tended to prefer adult company.

In January 1845 the Wilsons decided to float up to their new home. They knew that William had brought his family down the river on a raft, and that William had floated back up-river on the same raft. Rafts of logs came down regularly, a hundred logs tied together, the rafter sleeping, cooking and eating on the raft for nine or ten days. Mr Wilson was determined to float up the river with the tide and to take his cow on the raft as well as all their possessions. William helped him to construct a large raft with a shelter against the sun and rain, and a bail for the cow.

"What a sight that is!" said Magdalen as they farewelled their friends. "I can hardly believe it's real! How long do you think they'll take to get there?"

Two months later they had news that Mr and Mrs Wilson and family and cow had arrived safely. Their journey had taken seven weeks. When Mrs Wilson saw her new home on the banks of the river, surrounded by green fields and hills, she thought of her honeymoon on the island of Lismore in Loch Linnie in Scotland, and called it Lismore. They were the first squatters to arrive at the Richmond River by sea. Mr Wilson continued to collect geological specimens, fossils and minerals from the district.
At Bullinah William had begun a slab hut, of split slabs on end, held at the top by a wall-plate on which the roof rested. The roof was formed by sheets of bark, the size of a large door, carefully flattened then laid on small poles crossing the rafters. The sheets were nailed only in the centre to allow for the shrinkage, and fastened to the ridge pole with strips of hide. Logs laid on the roof held in place with strong wooden pegs helped to protect the hut from violent tropical winds. It was larger and more solid than a bark hut, but in other ways not much different. The floor was the bare earth, there was a single shutter window and a bark door. The wind whistled through the cracks in storms, and the sand came in during dry weather. He dug an area for the dairy, where the milk could be set in pans on shelves below ground-level and the whole room was roofed with saplings, bark and earth for coolness.

Jane, Eliza and Young William shared the original bark hut, all three sleeping head to toe in the bed that their parents originally slept in, the short corner posts driven into the ground, a simple frame of saplings held together with strips of rawhide, sheets of bark laid across the frame, a few bags on top of that. This room adjoined the new slab room, and was partly protected from the worst of the weather. William's and Magdalen's bed was a replica of the other, next to it was the cedar cradle, empty for the time being.

Magdalen wished that Mrs Wilson was still at the Heads in April when she gave birth to their next baby. By that time two other families had arrived and one of the women attended at the birth, but she was a stranger and Magdalen didn't feel too confident in her abilities as a mid-wife. She thought of the two previous confinements with Aunt Ann in attendance, and called her daughter Ann.

As soon as she was strong enough Magdalen again supervised the feeding and watering of the animals, the butter and cheese making, helped Jane with dress-making and soap and candle-making, attended to the garden, the house, the baby and supervised lessons in the evening. William hauled timber, made arrangements for deals with ships' captains, repaired the chains and other gear for his team in a makeshift forge, made boots of rawhide, so Jane and Eliza could collect wood and firewood. Most of the time the children were barefoot, and even Magdalen saved her footwear for necessary occasions. In the hut and yard she wore a pair of 'shampoos' made of a piece of calfskin drawn around the foot with a thong.

When Magdalen had used up all the cloth she had brought from Woolport, she began to cut the best pieces out of her oldest dresses for the children's clothes and when they wore out she used the bags their supplies came in. She had ordered more cloth from Sydney but the ship it was on was lost and it was months before more could be ordered and delivered. Baby Ann wore the same clothes as Eliza and young William, and slept in the same cradle, made with such care for Eliza and strong enough to last a whole generation, in the days when some leisure-time could be found for carving and decoration. It was the only item of furniture they had brought from Woolport.


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