Captain Hovell

Australian Town and Country Journal

1 November1873

Captain Hovell.

Among those who have extended the bound of colonization in Australia, by their courageous efforts in exploring unknown territory, a high place is due to Captain Hovell, who is still enjoying a green old age in the midst of a generation that has been born and grown up to mature years since he accomplished his great feat.

William Hilton Hovell was born on the 26th April 1786, at Yarmouth, in the county of Norfolk, England. His father, Mr. Philip Hovell, was commander and half owner of a vessel trading between London and Leghorn.

While returning with a cargo from the latter port in 1794 he was captured by a French privateer and detained a prisoner of war for two years. In consequence of this disaster, the subject of our memoir was obliged, at the early age of ten years, to go to sea to earn his bread.

Young Hovell worked his way through the course of a seaman's life in the mercantile marine of England, and rose by energy and perseverance to the position of mate, and then of captain. When about twenty years old he was mate of the Zenobia bound to Peru.

In 1808 he was commander of the June, bound to Rio Janeiro; and in 1809 he commanded the ship Letitia to Brazil. In the year 1810 he went in command of the John and Thomas to Cadiz, at the time when Marshall Soult was endeavouring to storm that place, but found it too strong for him.

After many vicissitudes, Captain Hovell came out to this colony, with a wife and two children as a free settler in the year 1813. He arrived in Port Jackson on the 10th October in the same year. Shortly after his arrival he spent some time exploring that part of the country known as North Rocks, for the purpose of finding ground suitable for agricultural and grazing purposes.

Not finding any to suit his views, he returned, and as the pastoral and farming pursuits of the colony were not prosperous at that time, he was induced to join a party in the purchase of two vessels, in one of which he made a venture to the Shoalhaven River and went as far up as it was navigable, for the purpose of getting cedar.

Having obtained a very superior cargo, he returned to Sydney, where the greater portion of it was used in building the Government hospital in Macquarie street.

His next venture was to the Hunter for coal. After this he proceeded in the brig Trial, in company with the Brothers, to New Zealand, for the purpose of opening up commerce with the natives.

This was some few months after the Rev. Samuel Marsden had landed with the missionaries m the Bay of Islands in 1815. In this voyage he came into serious collision with the wily natives of Mercury Bay, a little south of where Auckland now stands. On the 20 th August, 1815, these Maories suddenly attacked them and got possession of the two vessels. The assailants kept the captain and crew under the hatches for four hours.

At last they succeeded in getting up, and fought for their lives and ship. Five of the crew were killed, and a good many of the Maories. In the end the indomitable pluck of the men and the skill of their commander won the day, the assailants were driven off the deck; and the vessels sailed away to Sydney.

His next trip was to Tasmania, in 1816, with returned prisoners from Sydney, and from thence to the south coast of that island for seal skins.

While trading at Kangaroo Island with the sealers, he heard of a large inland lake, which emptied an immense body of fresh or brackish water into Encounter Bay. Three men had been into the lake, and could discover no limit to its extent. Some years after, upon mature reflection on this phenomenon, be came to the conclusion that the eastern waters of the colony emptied themselves into the ocean at this point, which subsequent discovery has proved to be correct.

After his return he sailed to Launceston; and took in a cargo of wheat. When a few days from port the vessel sprung a leak, obliging them to put into Kent's Group, Bass's Straits, to have the damage repaired.

During the night the wind changed from north-west to south-east, and "blew a heavy gale, in consequence of which the vessel parted from both anchors, and was driven ashore on the West Island, and went to pieces immediately. The crew escaped and were kept alive by boiling the wheat, large quantities of which was washed ashore. At the end of ten weeks a vessel came in for skins, in which they all returned to Sydney. This was in 1817.

On his return he found the brig Trial preparing to sail for Tasmania. She had put into Watson's Bay, preparatory to leaving port on the following morning. Convicts at that time were building the lighthouse on South Head, and finding so favourable an opportunity, these men boarded her during the night, and made off with her. She was not heard of afterwards; but her boat was picked up at Trial Bay by Mr. Oxley.

He made one more voyage to the islands to the eastward, after which in 1819, he settled down on his farm at Narellan, where he remained for about ten years, during which time he occasionally travelled to different parts.

On one occasion he went to Ulladulla and Bateman's Bay by sea; and being desirous of seeing more of the interior, went overland with two blackfellows, Timothy and Solomon, from thence to Shoalhaven; where he found the vessel awaiting him in which he returned to Sydney.

On another occasion he penetrated Burragorang, which at that time was scarcely known, and had never been visited by a white man.

On the 2nd October, 1824, he set out with Mr. Hamilton Hume - a native of Parramatta, who had already made several discoveries in this country - on an exploring tour from the settled districts of this colony to Port Phillip. Concerning the territory which these two colonists undertook to explore, Mr. Oxley, the Surveyor-General of the colony had written thus;- "We have demonstrated beyond a doubt that there are no rivers falling into the ocean between Cape Otway and Spencer's Gulf; at least none deriving their waters from the eastern coast; and all the land south of the 34th parallel, and west of the meridian of 147 deg. 30 min. is uninhabitable, and unfit for the purposes of civilised man."

But Messrs. Hovell and Hume were not deterred by such discouraging conclusions. They had six "Government men" assigned them. The leaders, and each of the men were supplied with a musket a-piece. They started from Appin. On the 14th October they came to Lake George, which they found to be twenty miles in length, by eight in breadth.

Some days later they came to the Murrumbidgee, at a place where it was 30 to 40 yards wide, the water being level with the banks, and running at the rate of 5 or 6 miles an hour. They made a raft of one of the carts, and so got over their supplies.

On the other side of this river they found the country so mountainous that they were obliged to leave the carts behind them.

On the 3rd November they came to a river about a hundred feet wide, which they called the Medway [later called the Tumut Ed.]. There the natives were numerous; but could not be induced to approach them.

Three days after this, as they were descending a mountain side, a stone slipped from under a bullock's feet, and the animal rushed down the precipice, carrying with it the man in charge. A tree caught them in their downward course and saved the man's life.

On the 8th they were delighted with the sight of several cone-shaped mountains, covered with snow about one-fourth of their height, and forming a magnificent spectacle. To these they gave the name of the South Australian Alps.

A few days afterwards, in latitude 36, they suddenly arrived on the bank of a fine river, to which Captain Hovell, who first came in sight of it, gave the name of "Hume," in honour of his companion.

They travelled for two days along the northern bank of this river through a most luxuriant country, the grass being in some places as high as their knees. At the spot where they arrived on its banks Captain Hovell cut his name on a large tree of the eucalypti tribe, which tree, with the inscription upon it, still alive and vigorous on the banks of the river at Albury protected by a fence.

Mr. Hume also cut his name on a similar tree lower down the river, which has been destroyed, probably by fire. But a monument to Mr. Hume is erected there.

At a spot where the river narrowed about forty yards, they crossed it on a boat of wicker work, covered with tarpaulin. They had then a fine open country before them.

Within a few days they crossed two streams and soon after came to a third, which they named the "The Ovens," in honour of Colonel Ovens. The water at that spot was only three feet deep. On the other side, they met with abundance of kangaroos; but their dogs were in too weak a state to hunt them. They then came to another river - the ninth which they met with, which was called "The Hovell."

Shortly after crossing the Hovell, they found so much difficulty in getting their animals through the dense scrub, that Messrs, Hovell and Hume determined to leave them behind in charge of their men, and to explore the country on foot.

They set out on the 9th December with provisions for four days. They reached the summit of a high hill; from which they had hoped to get a sight of the sea; but it was so thickly wooded that they could get no distant view whatever. They were, in fact, about 35 miles north of the spot where Melbourne now stands; but being unable to make out their position, they gave the hill the name "Mount Disappointment," and retraced their steps to the place where they had left their men.

They set out again in a more southerly direction, and on the 11th, caught sight of the sea. This was Port Phillip.

They went along the shore for some distance in a south-westerly direction, and on the 16th December came to Geelong Bay. They went up a creek which they called Duck Creek. The Government of Victoria have since called it "Hovell's Creek." It is between Station Peak and Geelong. On the 18th, having marked their initials with a tomahawk on a tree, they set out homewards.

They kept Christmas Day on the Goulburn having previously killed one of their bullocks for a supply of beef, There Mr. Hume's mare was bitten by a snake, and they were delayed some days till she recovered.

After many hardships, they reached Mr. Hume's station, Lake George, on the 18th. January, 1825 within sixteen weeks of the day when they started from that place.

In 1826 Captain Hovell was requested by the Government to accompany the party who were sent to form a settlement at Western Port. He made various journeys to the eastward from Cape Patterson, where he found the coal, which has, of late, been frequently mentioned.

He also went westward to Port Phillip. Two or three years after this Captain Hovell migrated southward, and settled at Goulburn, which he has ever since looked upon as his home.

Having acquired a competency, he has since spent anything but an inactive life; much of which has been occupied in visiting all the different colonies of the group.

He also made a voyage to England, and within a week of his arrival in London he was invited to attend a committee of the House of Lords, then sitting, on the subject of transportation to the colonies. He was also invited by Sir Roderick Murchison to become a member of the Royal Geographical Society, of which he is still a member. He was presented to her Majesty Queen Victoria, on her birthday.

He visited many of the cities of continental Europe, and when in Florence was presented to the Grand Duke of Tuscany by the Marquis of Normandy. On his way he spent some time in Ceylon and India.

For very many years he has been a magistrate of this colony, and is also a magistrate of Victoria and Queensland.

Now in his eighty eighth year, he is still performing the duties of a citizen as vigorously as many who are considerably his juniors; this, in a great measure, is attributed to the regularity of his habits and the constant active outdoor exercises it is his wont to take.