Agriculture in the District.

The National Geographic Society says that ‘agriculture’ is the art and science of cultivating the soil, growing crops and raising livestock. The publication Australian Historical Statistics, includes under agriculture data on land cultivated for crops (but not orchards); wheat; together with beef & dairy cattle and sheep.

Generally, it can be said that growing cereals and root crops (with a consequential settling in communities) commenced anywhere in the world around 11,500 years ago.

How you define ‘agriculture’ is important, especially for us, because for the last 200 hundred years this district has been renowned for timber, orchards, poultry and nurseries. That these were significant undertakings across the district can be seen in our photographic heritage especially those images of what was being transported from the district by train, road and boat – the latter, often down Marden Road to Ermington wharf. But despite this volume of trade, as a result of how ‘agriculture’ has been defined, most of these activities have been excluded from this section.

Pre-colonial agriculture

While many non-Aboriginal people have been dismissive of any ‘agriculture’ happening in Australia prior to 1788, there has been a contrary view. In 1982 one anthropological study by Williams & Hunn said: “We can firmly reject the stereotype of hunter-gatherers as passive ‘food collectors’ in opposition to active, food-producing agriculturists.” Other studies have subsequently supported this conclusion: while noting that food was gathered for consumption (even if sometimes stored) rather than for planting, and so would fall outside of a definition of ‘agriculture’ that required this to meet the definition. It can be difficult to decide whether this arises from a pedantic adherence to white man definitions or a proper truth-telling narrative of the importance of indigenous endeavour.

In this district (of roughly modern day Beecroft, Cheltenham, Carlingford and Pennant Hills) we know that, apart from the gullies closer to what we would now call Lane Cove National Park, during the pre-Colonial period there was open grassland. In 1900 William Midson and James Sonter, by then two of the oldest and long-standing of the local inhabitants, were reported as saying that the district had in their early memories been one of open forest country with only a few immense trees to the acre. As elsewhere, this landscape was not accidental but was nurtured by the use of fire to encourage the growth of grasses upon which animals, like the grey kangaroo, grazed. The native grasses were the kangaroo grass (Themeda australis), wallaby grass (Danthonia) and weeping rice grass (Microlaena stipoides). The grass was so thick that young saplings found it hard to grow.

On the sandstone slopes wallaby and possum were hunted. Traps were used to capture possums and on the sandstone slopes to snare birds.

A stone edge-ground axe was located at Beecroft and presented to the Australian Museum by local resident Charles Wheeler, in 1899. An excavation took place in 1995 of the same Devlins Creek rock shelter where this axe was found. This excavation found some 620 artefacts recovered from two 50×50 metre test pits with the base excavation dated to c. 1400BP. The majority of the artefacts comprised quartz and silcrete.

Similar axe heads were found in large number near present day Duncan Park, Seven Hills. Not too far away from this district.

With a favourable climate in the 1,000 to 2,000 years before 1788, the need to make finer tools for cloak making had dissipated because around this time there had been an intensification of the El Nino Southern Oscillation. As a result the hafted axe that was found might have been one of the last remaining specialised stone tools being used locally. This demonstrates adaptation by Aboriginal people over time. It is also a salutary reminder that history is rarely a linear progression but rather, as argued by Sutton & Walshe in 2021, demonstrates that Aboriginal people had their own ways, which met their needs and as such should be celebrated rather than considered as the beginning to a higher form of agriculture that did not mature. The same broad conceptual underpinning is important to remember when we discuss agriculture in the district by the Colonists.

If indigenous men hunted, then the women collected. They collected figs, lilly pilly, geebung, yams and the nuts of the burrawang which were ground into a flour. Native bees provided honey and flowing banksia, grevillea and waratah provided nectar.

In a rock shelter near Killara, just the other side of the national park, a net bag with four pebbles and two quartz bipolar cores has been found. It has been suggested that it belonged to a woman and the pebbles used for crushing food. Seed grinding implements have also been found elsewhere – but largely of a smaller type than elsewhere in Australia which implies that they were used mostly for foraging for daily consumption.

This land is thought to have been the country of the Wallumedegal, who were primarily a fishing people, and so obtaining much of their daily protein from fish and shell fish. Governor Phillip found evidence of oysters and muscles being consumed as far away from major water ways, as at Prospect Hill. Middens have been reported at Cheltenham. The men fished with multi-pronged spears shafted from the flower stalk of the grasstree (Xanthorrhoea) and tipped with sharpened bone and the women with crescent hooks made from shell (Ninella torquate). The shape of these hooks has inspired a stunning, contemporary sculpture by Judy Watson in the Botanic Gardens, overlooking the Opera House. Both men and women used canoes made from bark, usually from the she oak. It was bunched and tied at each end.  Unlike the men, when women fished, they tended to use hooks and lines from canoes and sometimes rock platforms.

Also eaten were eels “which they procure by laying hollow pieces of timber into the water into which the eels creep, and are easily taken” and platypus caught as “the native sits upon the banks, with small wooden spears, and watch them every time as they rise to the surface, till they get a proper opportunity of striking them. This they do with much dexterity and frequently succeed in catching them.”  

One other point to mention is that agriculture is not necessarily a ‘higher form’ of land usage to hunter/gathering. Captain Cook noted how rich a life was had by Aboriginal people and indeed, Jared Diamond has demonstrated how agrarian cultures can shift away from agriculture to hunter/gatherer where this provides the same, or even better quality of life with less exertion – See his Guns, Germs and Steel (1998) when discussing the Maori on Chatham Islands.

The extent to which this period saw the management of an estate or highly skilled hunting and gathering is subject to much contemporary debate.

The period from the Colonists until Federation

Post 1788, in very broad terms there were two types of Colonists – those arriving as convicts who had small holdings of 30 acres with little capital and those who arrived free (or were born here) with larger holdings of 100 or more acres. The 1828 census shows that the 30 acre holdings were largely subsistence with small areas under cultivation and a few livestock. For example, when John Martin, who had arrived on the First Fleet, died on his 30 acre holding near to present day James Ruse High School despite, by all accounts, years of labouring on his property he left very little to his family apart from his land.

Similarly, Thomas Thompson, of Thompson’s Corner arrived as a convict in 1815. In 1821 he was convicted of working a private still in a cave at North Rocks which implies that he had access to fruit. It wasn’t until 1824 that he received his first grant, so that by 1828 he had 50 acres but of this only 8 had been cleared and cultivated. He had 2 horses and 12 cattle. His son Henry was initially apprenticed as a bootmaker but went on to become a successful orchardist. Another son, Thomas Jnr commenced the shop on the corner of Castle Hill and Pennant Hills Road. Neither boy therefore continued with agriculture.

The struggle being felt by the small landowner was evident as early as 1804 by the third Governor of New South Wales, Philip Gidley King, who created a number of Commons because as his Order published in the Sydney Gazette on 12 August 1804 said that he was creating Commons:

“Whereas it is necessary, for the Preservation and Increase of the Breeding Stock, that Portions of Land should be reserved adjoining those Districts where a number of Settlers have been fixed in small Allotments bounded by others: And it being impracticable to locate larger Allotments to all who now possess, or may hereafter possess Stock.”

By way of contrast to the majority of small holders, on the western side of the district around North Rocks and Baulkham Hills, there were two notable emancipist families who started small but did manage to expand and become profitable in the process. John Pye was an emancipist supplying wool to the Government Factory in Parramatta while George Best in 1828 had 70 acres under cultivation, 340 cattle and 1140 sheep. In each of these cases Pye and Best expanded their initial grants by purchasing their neighbours land as the neighbours failed as farmers. Best, in particular, was critical of Governor Macquarie in failing to give him subsequent grants with more assigned convicts. As a result Best was one of the petitioners for a Commission of Inquiry into Macquarie’s administration of the Colony. Best’s evidence to Commissioner Bigge was critical to Bigge’s conclusion that damned the experiment of having small farmers grow wheat or breed cattle. He was not alone in making these comments and his conclusions were supported by the disappearance into bankruptcy of these small holdings and the diminishing flocks of breeding cattle. This was a significant criticism of Macquarie’s agricultural practices and his policy of assigning convicts to public works rather than to pastoralists.

One of the free settlers of the same locality was the MacDougal family. They struggled even though they had received a much larger grant. By 1900 when their former property “Roxborough Hall” was sold, the advertising said that of the 200 acres for sale, 42 were planted with orchards, 27 under crop and 110 used for grazing. By way of contrast, George Suttor was also an early free settler who became successful, was a fore-runner of the orchardists in the district and whose family largely grew in their wealth by agricultural farming land west of the Blue Mountains.

Like the MacDougalls or Suttors, Dr Thomas Arndell was one of the earliest of people granted 100 acres or more in the district who actually lived on his property “Home Farm” near Thompson’s Corner, West Pennant Hills. He may have lived there from 1796 to 1802. Earlier, in 1792 another of his homes had been destroyed in a bushfire. At that time he lost not just his home but also 30 bushels of wheat – which demonstrates that he had achieved early farming success. Recovering from this fire, by 1800 he had 186 stock on his farm. In 1842, Thomas Mealy appears to have been a tenant at “Home Farm” and he reported that he had 6 acres of wheat, 6 of maize, 4 of oats and 1 of potatoes. By 1900 “Home Farm” was owned by George Thomas Smith who ran an orchard and dairy but also had 80 sheep with “the idea to convert the lean sheep into fat sheep and sell them at a profit. The dual purpose seemed to be that they would keep the weeds down and at the same time manure the farm.” From this one property the general trend of moving from crops to orchards and dairying can be seen.

On the most eastern part of the district, land was owned by Captain William Kent. While he has largely been forgotten as was one of the earliest innovators in agriculture, especially with sheep and cattle, but this was on land outside of the district as he seems to have done little of this work on his Beecroft and Epping lands – which remained largely timbered and so was pre-dominantly noted as being used for timber-getting. This mention of the timber industry in the district does have consequences for agriculture. Firstly, following English and North American traditional methods when land was being cleared for farming the Colonists initially cleared the land and left the stumps in the ground. Early paintings show the land spotted with stumps. This allowed the land (back in England and in North America) to be rapidly converted to other purposes without the intensive labour of grubbing out the stumps. This, like the practice of allowing timbered land between grants, was soon accepted in the Colony as bad practice – because our trees re-shoot from the stumps and fail to die gracefully. One consequence was that the clearing of land for agriculture was far more resource intensive.

A second consequence of timber getting was that once the tall timbers were logged the grasses growing in conjunction with the tall timbers died. This then diminished the feed for cattle grazing in areas that had been logged – both on grants and in the Field of Mars Common.

In this district the most intense agriculture took place from Thompson’s Corner in the north to Carlingford in the south. At Thompson’s Corner was the site of a grant of 100 acres in 1799 to Rev Samuel Marsden. His property was called “Mount Wilberforce” after his great patron the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce.  Initially, he planted this land with wheat and maize but after only a few years he shifted from these cash crops to sheep and (to a lesser degree) cattle. In the 1806 muster, across all of his holdings he had over 1400 sheep. He purchased Spanish sheep imported from the Cape by Henry Waterhouse. His fleece was already fine when he showed it to Governor King in 1804. He continued to crossbreed the Spanish flock with Southdown rams to not only produce fine fleece but also build solid bodyweight. His stated intent was to “improve the constitution of the sheep, the weight of the carcass, and the quality of the wool.” For a Colonist farmer, dependant on a long sea voyage for export, the sale of meat provided an immediate return and about 4 times the value as gained from the export of wool.

In 1805, the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture in London wrote to Sir Joseph Banks:

“Mr Marsden’s wools & management are very interesting: and the specimen of linen (from his flax) equally so. The wool improved is so fine with so small a power of selection in breeding that I think N S Wales bids fair in putting down the Spanish flocks in England provided fleeces can be pressed like trusses of hay without injury.”

In this short comment it is possible to see the extent of Marsden’s efforts (as flax would not have been grown at “Mount Wilberforce”), the difficulties to be overcome by shipping his produce and his salesmanship in gaining such praise from the other side of the world.

From his over 1400 sheep across, when Marsden travelled in 1807 to England he took with him enough wool to weave a suit – which he then wore when he was presented to King George 111 – ‘Farmer George’. The King responded by giving him 5 rams from the Royal Spanish flock. Four years later, Marsden sent some 2000 kilograms of wool to England. In 1813 his wool was bringing 60d per pound in comparison to only 20d per pound obtained by Macarthur. Putting this into context, however, in 1815 wool formed less than 1 per cent of the Colony’s exports. Fish and meat far exceeded it. As time passed Marsden’s agricultural leadership role diminished. There is a dialogue between historians Stevens, McCarty and Fletcher as to whether this loss was primarily due to Marsden maintaining multiple outcomes for his farming rather than just concentrating upon the quality of his fleece. He did also have a day job for which he also gained notoriety.

But even within agriculture, Marsden was not just involved in directly improving meat and fleece. In 1804 he was proudly reporting how in response to the native grasses being too long and coarse he had started introducing turnips and imported grasses like clover and rye to help better fatten his sheep. In 1808 he imported 20lb of clover to further improve his pastures. In 1811 he wrote “I have got most of the artificial grasses now growing which are cultivated in England. One field, all English grass, I have mowed and made into hay.” At the same time he commenced importing ploughs. Marsden allowed neighbours like Hassell and Arndell to use his rams for breeding. In 1810 he brought books on agriculture back with him from England and he leant these books to any who requested them. It is not surprising that when the Commission of Inquiry earlier referred to tendered its report, while critical of the general lack of innovation within the agricultural sector, Marsden was one of the few to be identified as a counter example. 

Unlike neighbours like Macarthur, Marsden (as Arndell had done before him) also managed his land by leasing it to people such as William Bellamy, rather than engaging them as employees.

Apart from his sheep and pasture improvement, when travelling in England in 1808 he sent back ahead of him a Poll Suffolk bull and cow to improve his dairy stock. He also interbred with a Bengal breed (closely related to the buffalo) to improve his production of meat from his cattle.

The role of Marsden in developing Colonial agriculture has often been minimised – but it should not be so readily dismissed.

At the same time as these developments by Marsden, John Macarthur purchased his first parcel of land, a locality we now call Carlingford. It straddled the ridge line, now occupied by Pennant Hills Road, from the M2 down to near the intersection of Pennant Hills and Marsden Roads. Macarthur and his wife Elizabeth, are far better known as leading developers of the Colonial agricultural sector than others in the district and they stayed with agriculture for longer. Macarthur’s original purchase was of 325 acres but by 1800 he had grown it to more than a 1000 acres. He called it “Cornish Hill Farm.” Later the expanded farm was called the “Pennant Hills Farm.” It is thought to have been given the original name in honour of where his wife’s family came from. By 1798 this farm alone grazed over a thousand sheep and 50 head of cattle. Macarthur, unlike Marsden, largely concentrated on improving the fleece of his sheep. By 1802 (with John absent on one of a number of overseas trips) Elizabeth was managing a flock of almost 3000 sheep across all of their holdings. She wrote to Captain John Piper: ‘The management of our concerns gets troublesome to me in the extreme and I am perpetually annoyed by some vexation or other … God grant me Health and patience, for indeed my good friend, I have need of both to keep my mind in tolerable frame.’

In 1821 John surrendered his Pennant Hills Farms in return for another 5000 acre grant to add to his pre-existing holdings at Camden.

Another significant achievement of John Macarthur was the importation of young men. One of these was James Milsom and another the Scot, Andrew Murray (1793-1858). Until he was 20 years old Murray worked as a gardener for his uncle, Sir Walter Scott on Scott’s estate Abbotsford. From 1813 Murray worked in the nursery of Thomas Gibbs & Co, Half Moon Street Piccadilly to gain experience with plants. In 1817 John Macarthur visited the nursery to seek assistance with potting grapes and olives for sending to New South Wales. Macarthur convinced Murray to travel to the Colony and to work on Macarthur’s estates. Murray sailed on the Lord Eldon where he tended 120 potted plants, arriving in September 1817. On board he made a lifelong friendship with James Milsom.

Milsom went on to be a significant land owner across the North Shore (down as far as Milsom’s Point) and his home was, for a period, “Dartford Park” Thornleigh. He married a daughter of First Fleeter David Killpack had received a grant of 30 acres near modern day Carlingford Court but only held it for a short period of time before he sold his land to John Macarthur and stayed on as one of the Macarthurs’ farm managers at Pennant Hills Farms.

His friend, On 13 July 1810 Murray married the second Killpack daughter, Eleanor Margaretta on 13 July 1810. The family story is that Murray met Eleanor while he was shepherding sheep on the “Cornish Farms” where she too was living. Following their marriage, the Murrays moved to Camden where Murray worked for a time on the Macarthur estates.

Following Macarthur’s surrender of his “Pennant Hills Farms” Murray purchased in 1823, 280 acres from these farms. The purchase included the land and overseer cottage formerly occupied by his wife’s father. He built on this land a two room ‘log’ house and a barn 40 foot long. He then divided this land into 30 acre farms which he rented out. In 1830 he purchased a neighbouring 110 acres and in 1856 a further 155 acres to the east of his land and running down to Devlins Creek. Murray divided this land into 30 acre allotments that he leased to tenant farmers (many being Scots and former convicts) who engaged in general small agriculture.

Murray died on 21 May 1858 and left his Pennant Hills land to his daughter Elizabeth Sophia. She (and her Estate) eventually subdivided her inheritance into small farmlets.

From the southern part of the Macarthur holding down to Victoria Road was the “Brush Farm” of Gregory Blaxland. In 1810 Governor Macquarie described this as “a very snug good farm and very like an English one in point of comfort and convenience.” He ran a mixed farm with little under crop in comparison to, say, Marsden. But on the lower part of his estate he did plant a vineyard. In 1822 and then again in 1828 he exhibited his wine in England to much praise. Grapes were a very labour intensive crop and this deterred many smaller landholders. Blight was a difficulty for vines in the district resulting from our warm, humid climate. Then in 1875 grape phylloxera struck across the Sydney basin (as well as elsewhere). This disease destroyed the roots of the vines. While resistant varieties were developed very few were planted in our district as farmers moved away from grapes.

At what is now Mobbs Hill, William Mobbs Snr started with a 30 acre grant in 1802 and by 1823 had 80 acres under orchard. As noted at the beginning the development of the citrus industry is outside of this section, but this pioneering start should be remembered.

From the mid-1850s to Federation, timber-getting was ceasing and the large landholdings were either let as small holdings or else were sub-divided and sold. As we have noted, within this district this included the land of Andrew Murray. These smaller farms became dairies, poultry and egg farms and a number became nurseries and orchards. As with any farming this shift would have been driven by a range of factors including the value of the land, whether labour was needed from outside of the family, the monetary return that could be obtained for the produce and the impact on cash flow from the timing of being paid from produce that is sold locally versus export.

Within Beecroft one of the most successful dairies was located around what is now 73 Hannah Street, and was thehome of the Byrne family. Thomas and Margaret Byrne commenced the dairy. In 1893 they leased part of this land but purchased a larger parcel in the same location in 1896. The roads were in such poor repair that the family often damaged both horse and dray doing daily milk deliveries. Thomas died in 1924 (aged 65) and the dairy continued to be run by his widow, Margaret. Following the death of their mother, the family (with Patrick living at 73 Hannah) continued to run the dairy until the land was sold and largely used as a nursery.

The gentleman farmers and small holdings

In the first half of the twentieth century there were a number of wealthy residents particularly (but not exclusively) in Beecroft and Cheltenham who had acreage around their home. Some of these included William Chorley, William Harris, Charles Churchill Tucker and Lesley Herring. These, with of course others, often maintained significant orchards. Some like Henry Rawes Whittel grew a wide variety not of citrus and stone fruit but exotic fruit trees that were not always grown for eating. He became Secretary of the Horticultural Society of NSW.

There were also across the district small holdings used for orchards, poultry and nurseries.

Sir Garfield Barwick’s father came to live in Beecroft in 1944 and owned a 15 acre farm in Mahers Road on which he commercially grew potatoes, sweat corn, oats and millet. This land had been purchased nearby to the land that Barwick used to graze horses that Barwick used for riding. William Harris at Edensor in Cheltenham also kept horses for not just riding but also for racing.

Consistent with rural activities in the district when Carlingford Public School, established in 1883, became a rural school in 1925 with its main practical rural activity was poultry. It had regular egg laying competitions and there was correspondence with the Department as to whether new stock (and I shall resist making any joke about chicken stock) was to be paid for by the Department or instead by the school being self-sufficient! Cost shifting has ever been. Beryl Lewis, daughter of one-time local Mayor Eric Mobbs, remembered that when she attended Carlingford Public School between 1929 and 1937 her view from the school was one of never ending orchards.

While Sam Shield was described as having a dairy as early as 1883 in West Pennant Hills the growth in the number of dairies did not take place until the early 1900s. The Taylor dairy, in Eaton Road, was one of the last in the district – closing in the 1950s.

By the mid 1950s agriculture on a commercial scale had largely ceased across the district. The transition from agriculture to suburbia, which had started from 1886, was truly completed over the next 100 years.