Centenary of Yass, Discovery of the Plains

By Frank Walker, F.R.A.H.S.

The Sydney Morning Herald

28 February 1921

Yet another centenary will be celebrated to-day - the discovery of the Yass Plains - and once more the courage and enterprise of the early explorers will be passed under review.

The story of early Australian exploration is one of the most fascinating and interesting in our history. It needed courage and determination of no mean order on the part of those brave men, who have helped to fill the blank spaces in the map of Australia, and who, a hundred years later, are to receive, and have already received, that recognition which is only their due. Who amongst them, when first setting foot in a newly discovered piece of territory, where now a thriving town or city exists, over dreamed of the changes that were to take place in after years?

Probably they were the first white men to look upon the scene since its creation, a province' given over, up till then, to wandering native tribes, or the ordinary denizens of the bush. Danger there was, and plenty of it, either from the attacks of hostile blacks, the ever present fear of losing their way amongst these wild and untrodden solitudes, or the certainty of a dreadful and lingering death, should their provisions give out. And yet such disabilities and threatened dangers never once succeeded in daunting that noble band of Australian explorers, to whom, we of the present generation, owe more than we think.

Therefore, the celebration of a centenary, which brings into prominence the lives and works of the men who were willing to "do and dare," and whose record is one of which any nation might be proud, bears an educative value which is far reaching in its influence, and is in the best interests of a true appreciation of Australian history.

The man whose memory will shortly be honoured is Hamilton Hume, one of Australia's own sons, who first saw the light in the little, but "ancient" (according to Australian standards) town of Toongabbie, on June l8, 1797. He was a son of Andrew Hamilton Hume, his mother before her marriage being Elizabeth, second daughter of Rev. John Kennedy. The father was an employee of the Commissariat Department, and was stationed at Toongabbie.

At the early age of 17, young Hume, in company with his brother, John Kennedy Hume, commenced his career as an explorer, and with a black boy from the district of Appin, was the first to discover the country where Berrima, Moss Vale, and Bowral are now situated. This district, accordingly, has long since passed its hundredth birthday. In the present name of Bong Bong, for the region beyond Bowral, we have a corruption of the original native name and Toom Bong.

Three years later, in the company of Surveyor Strahan and at the request of Governor Macquarie, Hamilton Hume proceeded on an exploring trip still further south, and discovered the Upper Shoalhaven, Lake Bathurst, and the Goulburn Plains. For this good work the Governor bestowed upon him a farm of 300 acres near Appin, where he lived for some years, though he was frequently absent from home on one or another of his numerous exploring trips.

In 1819 he went with Messrs. Oxley and Meehan by land to Jervis Bay, and accompanied the latter on his return trip by way of the Bong Bong country. The following year we find him associated with Dr. Throsby in a second visit to the Goulburn district, and in 1821, with his brother and two others, he discovered the Yass Plains.

In 1822 he was off again on a trip down the coast with Lieut. Johnson and Mr. Alexander Berry, in a cutter named the Schnapper. They sailed up the Clyde River, and landing, Hume and Berry struck inland and eventually found the beautiful country around Araluen and Braidwood.

The explorer's greatest work, however, was performed in 1824-5, when he and W. H. Hovell with a party of six assigned servants, made the first overland journey to Port Phillip. The party started from Appin on October 2, 1824, and reached the Yass Plains, the furthest previously known spot, on the 18th, and camped on the banks of the Murrumbidgee on the following day.

Three days later they discovered Tumut and pushed on further south, until on November 17 they crossed the upper part of the Murray River- but which the explorers named the Hume - and so entered into the province of what is now known as Victoria.

After many adventures, further embittered by continual disputes between the leaders of the expedition, the party finally reached the shores of Port Phillip, about six miles from what is now known as Geelong, on December 16, and after a short spell returned by the same route, reaching Hume's station on Lake George on January l8, 1825.

The results of this expedition were more far-reaching than any other of this intrepid explorer's work, and it seems a lamentable thing that the only feature of the country called after him, namely, the Hume River, was afterwards changed to the name it at present bears.

Three years later, viz., in 1828, we find this indefatigable man again pursuing his activities, this time in an attempt to follow up the course of the Macquarie River, that mysterious stream whose meanderings and final outlet were exercising the minds of the officials in his day. The party met with many adventures, and suffered intensely through lack of water.

Soon after his return once more to civilisation he settled down to home life and married a Miss Dight. He died at his residence, Cooma Cottage, near Yass, on April 19, 1873, at the age of 76, leaving no descendants. Although Hume was never honoured by having any distinctive features of the territory he discovered named after him, the residents of the Albury district placed a memorial in the local gardens, the inscription on which sets forth the date of the discovery of the Murray River, and many old residents of the district still persist in calling it the "Hume."

The town of Yass is situated on the Yass River, and is distant 197 miles from Sydney by rail, whilst a matter of about 40 miles separates it from the future capital city of Australia- Canberra. It is the centre of a very fine tourist district, the site of the town, being elevated 1657, feet above sea level, an altitude sufficiently high to ensure salubrity.

The incorporation of the town took place in 1873. There are nearly 40 miles of roads, and the rateable property represents an annual value of 15,560. The surrounding district is rich in copper, silver, and lead, but its great stand-by and support are afforded by its agricultural and pastoral interests.

Yass is the seat of a circuit court, a court of petty sessions, a district court, and a small debts court. Three of the leading Australian banks are established in the town, and the enterprise of the people of Yass has resulted in the erection of many fine edifices. Four denominations are represented amongst the churches, and the townsfolk have the use of a fine mechanics' institute, with a library of over 4000 volumes. The town is lit with gas, and possesses many fine residences and, places of business.

As to the origin of the name of Yass there is much controversy. By some it is supposed to be a native name, whilst others re- late a rather dubious story of a convict servant being sent to climb a tree at the time of the discovery of the district, and on being asked if he could see anything, replied, with a long provincial drawl, "Y-a-a-s-s, plains," and Yass Plains they have been ever since.

Some very interesting reminiscences of the district, related by an old colonist, who came to reside at Yass in 1841, were recently published. This gentleman remembers the great flood of the 'Fifties, which swept way the town of Gundagai, and did infinite damage, to the surrounding country. In the church register of St. Clement's Yass, are the names of 73 people who were drowned at Gundagai in the flood of 1852. He also relates how on one occasion he had supper with the notorious Frank Gardiner, on the road side, prior to the sticking up of the Eugowra gold escort.

The centenary celebrations commence today, and continue until March 6, and the intervening days are filled with various events for the entertainment and instruction of visitors, combined with due honouring of man whose famous work as an explorer deserves the fullest recognition.