Thursday, 4 April 2013

1. William Cox and the Road through Warrimoo--1814-15

A ‘Questionable’ Past

As with George Evans, William Cox had an unfortunate early association with the NSW Corps, but was, at least partially, rehabilitated by Governor Macquarie’s faith and astute judgement of character.

Cox and his family arrived in NSW in 1800. He was a lieutenant in the NSW Corps and succeeded John Macarthur in becoming its paymaster. He bought a farm from Macarthur at Dundas and began investing in it to build up its stock and improve its overall yield. This included the assignment of skilled convicts and the construction of their quarters. To pay for these capital improvements Cox ‘borrowed from the till’.

William Cox--paymaster of the New South Corps, and embezzler of its funds?

In 1803 he was found to have ‘overstrained his credit’ to the tune of 7,900 pounds and was dismissed from his post. Over the next three years Cox set out to repay his debt, which he largely achieved by selling his property. Nevertheless, in 1806 he was obliged to sail for England to stand trial, despite the fact that the British government was not particularly interested in prosecuting transgressors from its far-flung colonies.

It must be remembered that at this time Britain was embroiled in an ongoing struggle with Napoleonic France and the nation needed all the positive morale it could muster. The NSW Corps was, after all, a ‘volunteer’ detachment formed for the specific purpose of a posting in the penal colony and it really was not politic to have officers in His Majesty’s army being prosecuted in the courts for embezzlement—besides which, the debt had been repaid.


Thus, William Cox was never brought to trial. Instead, he resigned his commission in 1809 and sought to return to NSW to pursue honest civilian life. When he arrived in 1810 the new Governor, Macquarie, showed the extent of his faith in Cox’s good character by appointing him Magistrate of the Hawkesbury, at that time the richest and most productive district in the colony.

Cox repaid his superior with a singular devotion to his son’s extensive property near Richmond, which he called ‘Clarendon’, as well as a notorious dedication to the construction of a new society. He became renowned for freely issuing ‘Ticket of Leave’ passes for deserving convicts, these earning the nick-name: ‘Captain Cox’s Liberties’. He oversaw the construction of a host of new buildings in Windsor and Richmond, focussing on the use of a sandstone for which the region became famous. Schools, churches, gaols and other public buildings were constructed, the most notable being Windsor District Courthouse, designed by Francis Greenway and still standing today.

Getting The Job

As soon as George Evans had returned from his crossing of the Blue Mountains and Bathurst Plain in January 1814, Governor Macquarie was anxious to build a road along the trail he had blazed to expand the colony. In this context, Cox’s name wasn’t simply plucked from the air. Firstly, once hearing of Macquarie’s interest in the project, he volunteered for the task. Secondly, Cox had earned the trust of the Governor for a number of reasons:
·                  he had a demonstrated ability to use resources with maximum speed and efficiency, having already built several roads in the County of Cumberland
·                  he had built a reputation for ‘dealing’ with the local Aborigines. Despite the history of violent resistance that the Hawkesbury District had endured, the level of conflict seemed to have subsided under his watch, and he had developed friendly relations with some Darug people
·                  he had a history of fair-dealing with convicts and extracting constructive effort from them.

Macquarie’s Instructions

So Cox was chosen to build the road. In his official Instructions to him, Macquarie set out the following:

Government House Sydney
14th July 1814

1. Having some time since determined on having a carriage road constructed from Emu Plains, on the left bank of the river Nepean, across the Blue Mountains, to that tract of open country, to the westward of them, discovered lately by Mr. Evans, and having recently received from you a voluntary offer of superintending and directing the working party to be employed on this very important service, I now most readily avail myself of your very liberal and handsome offer of superintending and directing the construction of this road; and do invest you with full power and authority to carry out this important design into complete effect, Government furnishing you with the necessary means to enable you to do so.

2. The number of artificers and labourers--namely thirty--and the guard of eight soldiers you have already selected, or required, shall be allowed and furnished to you forthwith for this service, and they shall be supplied with a plentiful and adequate ration of provisions whilst employed upon it.

3. Herewith you will receive a list of the number of artificers and labourers allowed for this purpose, together with a scale on the back thereof of the weekly ration of provisions they are to receive...You will likewise receive here for your information a general list, or schedule, of the provisions, stores, slops, tools, implements and other necessaries intended to be forwarded to you from Sydney by the two separate conveyances or convoys, including one horse, two new carts (with harness), and two yokes of well-broken-in bullocks, it being my intention to send off the first convoy from Sydney tomorrow morning for Emu Plains, and the second convoy in a fortnight afterwards.

4. I am in hopes the provisions, tools, and other necessaries will arrive on the banks of the Nepean in time to enable you to commence the construction of the new intended road on Monday, the 18th inst....

I remain with regard, Sir,
Your most obedient and humble servant,
Governor-in-Chief of NSW [1]

Starting Out
So, with a troupe of thirty selected, trustworthy, hard-working and skilled convicts, all of whom were promised emancipation if they completed the road within six months, Cox commenced a crossing of the Nepean on July 18th, 1814 and thence continued road-building across Emu Plains to the foot of the Mountains.

Accompanying them was a “Guard” of 8 soldiers, assigned for the threefold purpose of ensuring the obedience of the convicts, blocking interference from sticky-beaking colonists and protecting the party from attack by Aborigines—mainly the latter, because Governors since Phillip had been haunted by the possibility of a united rising of Indigenous people, and recently (1813-14) there had been further outbreaks of violence along the Nepean River.

William Cox--roadbuilder, radical liberal, respected landholder, ambitious political commentator--racist?
From the start, Cox’s journal professed high satisfaction with the work of those under his charge. He never referred to them as ‘convicts’, but as ‘workmen’, ‘smiths’, carpenters’ ‘fellers’ (treefellers) or by their individual names. He rewarded them with rations of cabbage which, he told them, would prevent scurvy. The central diet consisted of bread, salted pork, porridge, whatever vegetables Cox chose to use from ‘Clarendon’ as supplements, and whatever game could be found (‘roo, ‘pheasant’—lyre bird or bush turkey--and fish--and this was all frequently gained by dogs, soldiers and Cox himself).

By July 26th the road-builders had begun to ascend the escarpment,

Made a complete crossing-place from the end of Emu Plains to the foot of the mountains, and began to work up them. [2]

Confrontation near Warrimoo?

Subsequently Cox set up his first “Depot” on the Mountains, next to good forest, fodder, and ample water. It was here, at Glenbrook Lagoon, just prior to felling timber in the country towards Blaxland/Warrimoo, that the Superintendant had his first taste of insubordination. The incident is interesting for a number of reasons...

August 2nd
The workmen go on with much cheerfulness, and do their work well. Gave them a quantity of cabbage as a present. After dinner I gave directions to Lewis to inform Burne he was to take the three forward fellers to fire-making. Soon after he came to me and said he would not receive any orders from Lewis, but would obey any I gave him, on which I told him I would send any orders I had to give to him by whom I pleased. He went away, but soon returned again, and said he would leave, on which I ordered the constable to receive his gun and ammunition, and he went away. Ordered him to be struck off the stores, and informed the party he was discharged from being a superintendent under me, and had nothing more to do with me or them. [3]

Firstly it was more than likely that the initial glamour of the project was already wearing off for some of the working party, most notably Burne, a noted kangaroo hunter and guide, who refused to do as Cox’s foreman, Lewis, bid him. A ‘personality clash’ had occurred, but Burne was at pains to point out that he would still take orders from Cox himself. While making it clear that most of the men were ‘cheerful’, Cox was not about to brook any divisiveness and gave Burne short shrift—he was roundly sacked, and his chances of a fruitful future in the colony had just shrunk considerably.

Cox’s authority among the work-party was confirmed in that short confrontation, and little of such trouble was to follow. But a new situation developed as his advance party approached the bush around present-day Warrimoo—were the two occurrences linked? (ie, was Burne afraid/concerned to go further?)

August 3

Sent the two working gangs, with their bedding, etc., two miles ahead. Heard the report of a gun, and soon after heard the chattering of natives, on which they returned and reported the same. Gave notice to the sergeant to provide a corporal and three men to go forward and take up their quarters with the working men...[4]

This journal entry is a fascinating and ambiguous one. Cox said nothing of the consequences of the “report of a gun”—was it a warning shot, contested game, or a confrontation with the Darug? Was one of the natives shot and/or wounded? There is no evidence of spears being thrown. Clearly, the convicts in the advance party were trusted to be in possession of weapons, but generally their attitude towards Aboriginal people was renowned as being hostile. At the same time, Cox could barely afford trouble if he was to complete the road as required by Macquarie. He sent a small military detachment ahead with the men, and tried to make light of the whole incident.

The road-building continued, but this was not the end of the story. The next five entries detail the construction of the road through present-day Warrimoo and Valley Heights (around the approximate “9 mile” distance mentioned in the journal by Cox).

August 4

Removed the depot to seven and a-half miles forward, as also the corporal and three privates. Lewis got leave to go to Richmond and return again on Sunday next. The men at work in a very thick, troublesome  brush. A fine day, but close. The wind in the evening got round to the south.

August 5

Timber both thick and heavy, with a thick, strong brush, the roots of which are very hard to grub up, making it altogether extremely hard work.

August 6

Timber and scrub brush the same as yesterday, but got through it this evening, and measured the new road and found we had completed nine miles. Marked the trees at the end of each mile. Went forward, and found a good-sized piece of forest land, with good water, to the right of the intended road, about one and a-quarter mile ahead. The men all healthy and cheerful. Mr. Hobby joined me last evening. The people all moved forward to the end of nine miles.

August 7

Removed to the nine miles on the road. I sent a man from last camp to the depot to draw their rations. Wrote to His Excellency the Governor.

August 8

Timber and brush very thick from ninth to tenth mile. Thos. Kendall ill, unable to work. Mr. Hobby, with R. Lewis, went forward with John Tye about four miles, and marked the trees. Two natives from Richmond joined us; one shot a kangaroo. [5]

It is important to interpret all these entries together, in light of the incident with the gunshot. It would appear that the two to three miles between Glenbrook Lagoon and Sun Valley was some of the slowest and most difficult the road-building party had encountered thus far. Cox was at pains to describe the obstacles in grubbing roots and clearing brush, but did not address the issue of the natives seen earlier. Maybe progress was being slowed by precautions having to be taken to avoid ambush...(?)

Meanwhile, Cox’s trusted foreman, Lewis, was given leave to visit Richmond, and a letter was sent to the Governor, with no suggestion of its content. At the end of the 9th mile, Cox mentioned a valley with a good piece of forest land and good water—this more than probably was Sun Valley, an area now established [6] as an important ceremonial and meeting point for the Darug people, and conceivably a place that they might wish to preserve, and fight for.

Finally, in the August 8th report, “two natives” from Richmond suddenly turned up at Cox’s camp, out of the blue. These men were later identified in the journal (August 27th) as “Coley”, of the Boorooberongal clan—the same clan as Yellomundie (‘Yarramundie’)—from the Richmond/Castlereagh area, and “Joe”, a Mulgoa clan member who came from the area of the same name. It is relevant to note, that as well as his property, ‘Clarendon’, near Richmond, Cox had also acquired a large parcel of land in Mulgoa. Clearly, he had already had dealings with these men over previous years, maybe as employees, and feasibly Lewis had been sent to fetch them.

In most publications Joe and Coley* have been designated as ‘guides’. This is puzzling because Evans had blazed a clear trail and there appeared to be no trouble thus far in establishing the route of the road. Possibly it was due to the loss of Burne (Burns? Byrnes?), who had guided Blaxland’s party, as well as Evans’—but why would these men be capable of guiding the road-builders when their “country” was on the Eastern side of the range?

The incident with Aboriginal people, however, was serious, and it would have been commonsense for Cox to notify the Governor of the encounter, and to take whatever precautions he deemed necessary. Joe and Coley would have been important intermediaries with other Darug people.

At the end of his ‘Journal’ Cox sets out a summary ‘Memo for watering and feeding stock’, and the third of fourteen stops on the road’s route is designated as follows:

…3rd—Nine and a-half miles (from the starting point at the Nepean River—Ed), grass and water in a valley to the right of the road, about a quarter of a mile; entrance to it between two rocks (The Valley) [7]

Already, what is contemporary ‘Sun Valley’ was known as ‘The Valley’ in Cox’s diary. Clearly, it was a valuable stopover for readily accessible grass and water. Being the source of Fitzgerald’s Creek and reasonably close to the Nepean probably meant that white settlers had already found it and used it to hunt wildlife and graze stock when feed was scarce, as it had been in the years  prior to 1813. Cox himself may well have used it thus. We also know that this was important land for the Darug, who had established shelters there. It would surely have been logical for them to be upset at the prospect of an intrusive road being built in their direction and for them to have shown their feelings towards the advance party.

All this is in the realm of supposition because Cox did not elaborate any reasons for the ‘gunshot’ and the ‘chattering’ of the natives. He was not alone in being reticent to explain incidents that occurred between Aboriginal people and British scouting parties—it was a common method of non-description, the reasons for which will be investigated further in this work, later.

The Road is Built—January 1815

Suffice it to say, there were no further incidents involving local Aborigines for the rest of the project. The road-building proceeded apace, and by November 3rd Cox had reached his biggest geographical/logistical hurdle: the descent from Mt. York. Building a satisfactory road down this steep precipice was a challenge indeed, such that Cox had to concede…

I… made up my mind to make such a road as a cart can go down empty or with a very light load without a possibility of its being able to return with any sort of load whatever; and such a road will also answer to drive stock down to the forest ground…It is a very great drawback to the new country, as no produce can be brought from thence except fat bullocks or sheep. The sheep also will be able to bring their fleeces up, and be shorn on the mountains…[8]

Thus, stock would be able to descend and climb the slope at Mt. York, but heavy loads would remain a problem for many years to come—the ‘Road over the Blue Mountains’ commenced its tortuous history of perpetual repair and modification from this date onwards.

On completion of the road all the way to Bathurst, in January 1815, Cox and Macquarie were both good to their word: the convicts who had worked so hard to construct the thoroughfare and its bridges won their freedom. The feat had been achieved in six months, through some of the most difficult terrain imaginable. Careful management of diet and resources had meant no loss of life to members of the working party, the one exception being Sergeant Bounds, who had died of an unspecified illness while Cox was briefly absent back at Clarendon.

The Governor was well pleased with Cox’s efforts and awarded him a further 2,000 acre block, to become known as ‘Hereford’ at Kelso, just outside Bathurst. Here, the renowned Commissioner Bigge visited Cox in 1820 in the process of writing his ‘Report’.

Bigge found 5,000 sheep pastured, farm buildings erected and experimental work with artificial grasses in progress. [9]

He became one of the largest landowners in NSW, erecting mansions across the length and breadth of the colony. However, William Cox never received the 300 pound reward recommended by Macquarie from the British government, and was furthermore denied access to the colony’s Legislative Council, despite his eagerness to pursue a political career.

Regardless of Governor Macquarie’s enthusiasm for the man and his deeds, which were undeniably impressive, His Majesty’s government in London still retained serious doubts about the suitability of Cox for high office. Possibly this derived from his earlier record as Paymaster for the NSW Corps, or even more likely his professed public attitude towards Aboriginal people, reportedly uttered at Bathurst in 1824 and recorded in Bruce Elder’s Blood on the Wattle:

The best thing that can be done is to shoot all blacks and manure the ground with their carcasses. That is all they are fit for! It is also recommended that all the women and children be shot. That is the most certain way of getting rid of this pestilent race. [10]

In his time Cox the Roadbuilder had the profile of a radical liberal, espousing tolerant policies towards convicts, demanding a widening of the franchise, representative government and trial by jury. Yet this astonishing confession of William Cox’s innermost ambitions requires us all to re-evaluate the uncritical process of lionizing ‘Pioneers’ simply on the basis of being ‘the first’ in achieving this or that—history is also a method of judging the moral worth of our ‘heroes’.

[1] MACKANESS, G., ed  Fourteen Journeys Over the Blue Mountains, 1813-1815,-- Number Three--Memoirs of William Cox, J.P., Review Publications, Dubbo, 1978 p 41 and, Facsimile reprint published 1979 by Library of Australian History, reproduced in, 2004 Chapters 8, 9, 10
[2] Ibid, July 26, p43
[3] Ibid, August 2, p44
[4] Ibid, August 3, p44
[5] Ibid, August 4th-8th
[6] CAMERON, B., Sun Valley and Long Angle Gully—A History Cameron, Springwood, 1998 pp. 2-5
[7] MACKANESS, G., op. cit., ‘Cox’s Journal’, January 6th, p.69
[8] Ibid., pp. 52-3
[9] Ibid., p.41
[10] ELDER, B., Blood on the Wattle, Child & Associates, Sydney 1988, p 50

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