Overland Route from Sydney to Port Phillip

Extract From a Bushman's Letter.

Melbourne, February 12, 1841

The Sydney Herald

6 March 1841

The road overland from Sydney to Port Phillip is very uninteresting.

On all this road, measuring upwards of six hundred miles, there is little to be seen but gum trees and public houses.

I defy anyone to fill up a letter from anything that he can see on this road.

There is really nothing to fill up a page in the journal of a tourist.

If you have seen a mile of it you have seen the whole road from Sydney to Melbourne,- for "Esse has the same case after it that it has before it."

The only difference is, that as you recede from Sydney, the grass for your horses improves, in the same ratio that the accommodation for yourself becomes worse in those towns, viz., Liverpool, Campbelltown, Berrima, Goulburn, and Yass, through which you pass, and in which Post Offices are established, there is a choice of accommodation; but from the time you leave Yass, until you reach Melbourne, a distance of four hundred miles, you are fairly in what is called the bush. In short, you are beyond the reach of civilization.

On this journey of four hundred miles, there is neither Post Office, Church Clergyman, nor Schoolmaster.

The consequence is what might be expected that a large proportion of the inhabitants are living like heathens.

The children of overseers and small squatters grow up in total ignorance of their duty towards God and man.

On one large establishment belonging to Mr. B----- the people had actually lost their reckoning in the days of the week so that they kept, (they knew not how long,) Friday for Sunday!

It is unnecessary for me to state, that the children born in this district, are with very few exceptions, unbaptised.

I know, however, of one case, where Mr and Mrs H----- brought their daughter to Melbourne, a distance of two hundred miles to receive the rite of baptism.

There being no public or appropriated place of interment, the dead are buried anywhere, generally on the side of a hill, near the hut once occupied by the deceased. In consequence of the great distance which the masters would have to travel to the nearest Bench of Magistrates, which is either Yass or Melbourne, which are four hundred miles apart,) it is seldom that servants are punished.

The master, rather than put himself to the expense and inconvenience of bringing a servant to court, is frequently obliged to submit to see his work neglected, and his property destroyed.

It maybe said of the convict population of this district in particular, that every man does that which is right in his own eyes.

One great, if not the sole cause of this crying evil, is to be found in the numerous public houses and "sly grog shops" that stare you in every direction.

These sinks of iniquity absorb all the wages paid in the district.

The only men who seem to be doing well in these hard times, are the publicans and sinners who deal in rum.

Two or three of these publicans on the road, whose names I feel strongly inclined to send in to the Bench of Magistrates, have no license; and yet they are allowed to go on, first robbing of their wages, and then poisoning Her Majesty's lieges with a mixture of rum and vitriol, as any dabbler in chemistry might easily prove.

When our party arrived at the Ovens, (a river you know, which is four hundred and fifty miles from Sydney, and one hundred and fifty from Melbourne,) all our servants got drunk, in spite of our threats and remonstrances.

Here we were detained for twenty-four hours, until our men, who commenced fighting, should become sober again. In the course of the night one of them was robbed of £5 in the public house.

I was not at all sorry for the loss, as it deprived the man, who was a notorious drunkard, of the means of getting drunk again.

Another of the men spent 30s. here before next morning, but this is in no way surprising if you bear in mind that he was charged 8s. for a pint of gin, and 4s. 6d for a bottle of ale. For a very plain and common wine glass broken by one of the men, he was charged 4s.

In these public houses a gentleman or anyone who does not get drunk is seldom a welcome visitor because the landlord expects but little profit from him.

It is the man that gets drunk and thus becomes half blind that gives the publican the chance of marking down every pint as two.

This is the man whom the publican delighteth to honour for it is in this way that such immense fortunes are rapidly made by keeping a public house.

You know that you have to cross only four great rivers on your way from Sydney to Port Phillip.

The first of these is the Murrumbidgee; the Hume is a hundred and forty miles farther on; the Ovens is fifty miles beyond the Hume, and the Goulburn is ninety miles beyond the Ovens and within sixty miles of Melbourne.

All these rivers abound with fish. They are at certain times of the year bank high.

I have known the Murrumbidgee to rise five feet in one night. That was in September last.

It was after much rain, which melted the snow on the mountains. There is either a punt or canoe at the crossing place of every one of these four rivers.

At the Goulburn, there has lately been built by Clark who keeps the Inn there, a punt sixty feet long and about fourteen feet wide, at a cost, as he says, of £450. In this punt a couple of loaded drays, with their full complement of bullocks, could cross together. But it so happens that Clark, by being in too great a hurry to become rich defeats his own object.

He charges 3d. a head for crossing sheep, and 30s. for crossing a loaded dray, with bullocks, in his punt. These high charges induce many travellers to dispense with his punt altogether, when the river is fordable.

Mr Brown, at the crossing place of the Hume River, is now building a splendid punt for the accommodation of the public. Hitherto there was only a rough canoe at this river, and in the time of flood, serious accidents have occurred.

Last time but one I had occasion to cross the Hume, the river was very high, and running rapidly, on that occasion a Mr Walker lost a fine horse in swimming him across.

My horse having not had so much practice in swimming the rivers has become a perfectly amphibious animal. I can swim him across any river, however broad and rapid.

Before you start on a journey overland from Sydney to Port Phillip, I would recommend to you, if you are at all fond of sport and of a good dinner, to provide yourself with a double barrelled gun and some powder and shot.

 All the way from the Hume to Melbourne, you will have an opportunity of shooting hundreds of wild duck and pigeons. We shot an immense number of them. You will see some lagoons literally covered with wild ducks, which will allow you to get close enough to them. Both they and the pigeons, which are very plentiful, are quite fat and are capital eating.

If you ride with your gun and dogs at a distance off the beaten road you may chance to start several kangaroos and Emus; but you would require very good dogs and fleet horses to run down any of them. I never knew an instance of one dog being able to kill an "old man kangaroo." It requires at least two good dogs to grapple with him.

Two years ago I formed one of a party that went out for the purpose of having a kangaroo hunt. We had four or five dogs. We soon started four kangaroos, they divided and so did the dogs, one of our dogs got hold of "an old man kangaroo," which no sooner felt himself seized than he put his back to a tree where he furiously fought and dangerously lacerated the dog.

It was just in time we arrived to save the life of the dog and terminate that of the kangaroo. It weighed upwards of 1 cwt. On another occasion we killed one whose tail weighed 18lbs. I need not inform you that these are excellent food. The soup made from them is even superior to that made from ox tail.

A regular kangaroo hunt is, however, a sport in which you are not likely to have an opportunity of engaging unless you take up your residence, as I do, in the bush. In case you do so, I promise you abundance of sport, emus and kangaroos will keep your dogs in employment, while oppossums, wild turkeys, ducks, and pigeons will afford constant exercise for your gun.

And if you are a disciple of Izaak Walton, you may catch in one hour as many fish, weighing from 2lbs to 20lbs, as will supply your table for days.

The squatters are too busy, and their servants are too lazy, to provide for their dinner tables either by hunting, shooting, or fishing , but I am convinced that a gentleman who had time and inclination for these sports might bring home daily more than any family could use.

On the Port Philip Road between Yass and Melbourne, there are three townships lately laid out by the Government. The first of these is "Gundagai" near the crossing place of the Murrumbidgee, sixty miles from Yass.

In this township there is no house of any description, neither is there any in its neighbourhood, except one public house, and a blacksmith's shop.

The next township is "Albury" situated (140 miles beyond Gundagai) at the crossing place of the Hume River, a more eligible spot than this could not have been selected for a township.

It is beautifully situated in the heart of an extensive and fertile district. It is on the bank of a splendid river. It is on the high road from Sydney to Melbourne.

It is surrounded by hundreds of sheep and cattle stations, in supplying the wants of which, a number of mechanics and tradesmen of all sorts will find constant employment, and there is no place within 45 miles of it, on which another town can be built.

As yet there are only two or three houses here, a public house (kept by a very respectable man named Brown), besides a blacksmith's shop, there are also Police Barracks here, where a few policemen are always stationed.

The wheat crops here this season were the finest I have ever seen in this Colony. And the rock and water melons are even superior to what you see in Sydney.

The third township is “Violet Creek”, known here only by the name of Honey Suckle Creek, situated about half way between the Ovens and the Goulburn Rivers, being nearly 50 miles from each. It is a miserable scrub in the midst of a barren wild, with not a human habitation near it. The soil is poor; the timber is stunted and perfectly useless, except for fuel, and the water, which is by no means in great abundance, has a very muddy appearance.

It is quite blue, hence, I suppose, the new name imposed on the place. With the exception of one water hole we could find no water for many miles on either side of it.

While our party was encamping here, I rode for several miles, at nearly right angles to the road, into the bush, when I had an opportunity of seeing the nature of the soil, and the aspect of the country.

And really I could not help wondering that your functionaries in Sydney, should have fixed for a township on a spot which possesses so very few, if any, natural advantages, but you will probably say that there is a still greater wonder than this, viz. that men should have been found foolish enough to buy at such high prices, allotments in a township so unfavourably situated.

 As I am no scholar myself, I wish I knew some clever fellow who, through the newspaper, would ask the Governor what has induced him to fix on such a place for a township? I almost forgot to tell you the price and live stock, &c.

A few weeks, ago wheat was selling at the Tumut River, near the Murrumbidgee at 8s., and on the Hume at 10s per bushel. Horses and cattle have greatly fallen in price, and for sheep there is no demand.

Now is the time for a beginner to mike a start as a sheep farmer; as prices of sheep are not likely t0 continue so low as they now are, especially when settlers are beginning to find their way with their surplus flocks to Swann River, where sheep are realising £3 10s. a head.

Although I fear that I have already extended this letter beyond the limits of your patience, yet I cannot conclude without making a few remarks on Melbourne.

As you approach within forty miles of the town the country gradually opens, presenting extensive plains naturally cleared, and I thickly covered with grass.

The soil is evidently rich and thousands of acres may be found in one block ready without any preparation for the plough. But then the great and most serious drawback is the want of water.

Water is exceedingly scarce, not only near the main road, but for several miles on each side of it. This is not all. When you have at last arrived at a waterhole, you will find it is brackish, so much so that our horses though very thirsty refused to drink of it.

When land in the interior is put up for sale, and auctioneer declares that the land is bounded by one or more sides by a never-failing supply of water it seldom occurs to the intending purchaser to put the question- "Pray Sir, is the water of which you now speak salt or fresh?"

Let me suggest, however, that if you intend buying land near Melbourne, say within twenty-five miles of it, such a question as the above is by no means irrelevant.

Seven miles from Melbourne at a place called Butler's Inn, on the Sydney Road, a considerable quantity of land has been lately sold in small portions at about £20 per acre.

It realized this high price, certainly not for the excellency of its soil but for its being contiguous to a long chain of deep water-holes. This water, however, is unfit for either man or beast to drink. Our horses would not drink of it, and such of our men as drank of it have ever since been troubled with disentery, a complaint which is at this moment quite prevalent in Melbourne, in consequence of the brackish water which the people drink.

You will undoubtedly ask why do they not send to the Yarra Yarra for their water? They do so, but even the river is brackish for a considerable way up and the town being almost entirely supplied with water by the carters who thus earn a livelihood, it is seldom these lazy fellows go sufficiently high up the river so as to fill their casks at a place not rendered brackish by the tide.

Though I dined and drank tea in several of the most respectable families in Melbourne, it has not hitherto been my lot, except in one instance, to drink any water that is not positively disagreeable to the taste. The only way in which you can have good water is to send jour own man with a horse and cart for it.

The land in the neighbourhood of Melbourne produces splendid crops.

The maze is which is now growing on the farm of Mr.--- late merchant in Sydney, would surprise you -  his potato crops for this year will pay the whole of the original cost of the land, and also the expense of cultivation.

I have seen several gardens here, which though but recently formed, prove the superior fertility of the soil and the genial character of the climate.

Vegetables, however, are scarce, and consequently dear in Melbourne. This scarcity is partly owing to the long drought, and partly to the people not having had time yet to attend to those matters, which are certainly of minor importance. Rock and water melons, turnips, cabbages, &c., are hawked about the streets; but the price is nearly double what would be asked in Sydney.

You complain of Sydney being very dusty, but Melbourne, let me tell you, is ten-fold worse.

It is only during a strong southerly wind, vulgarly called a "brickfielder" that your Sydney people are annoyed with dust; but here, every wind blows the dust, so as even to darken the light of the sun.

In consequence of the scarcity of money, everything except the dust has fallen in Melbourne. But the dust still continues to rise, move about, and insinuate itself into your eyes, nose, and mouth. In short, the only condition on which you can possibly walk out during dry weather in Melbourne is that you shall consent to swallow a bushel of dust.

Melbourne, as I have just hinted, is now severely suffering from scarcity of money.

The people here have nothing but bills for any goods they may require, and when these bills become, due they relieve them by others of a still longer, date.

But as for money, there is nothing of the kind in Melbourne. One instance, out of several which I could produce, will give you some idea of the scarcity of money here:- Capt. Berkenshaw of the Christina, has lately brought down here from one of your Sydney merchants, a £12 (twelve pounds) order for freight on a highly respectable firm in Melbourne. They could not pay it.

They told the Captain that they could not raise so much money as £12, but in order to save the credit of the firm they offered, him land in payment!

I saw working bullocks offered at £5 a head, but as the terms were cash, no purchasers could be found. The people here seem to have ruined themselves by their land speculations. Except what is done by bills, business may be said to be at a stand.

The pecuniary crisis, however, has already bad some good effect. It has lowered the price of labour, which has been extravagant. It was the Phillipians who were mainly instrumental in raising the wages of shepherds, stockmen, bullock drivers, and farm labourers, from £25 to £40, £50, and in some cases £60 a year.

The old settlers could not afford to pay these high rates. The consequence was that many of them lost their servants. I was much gratified to learn that a great number of shepherd stockmen, and labourers are now here, who would be glad to engage at about £35 a year.

The size and appearance of Melbourne would surprise you. It is really surprising to see such an extensive mass of fine buildings thus rapidly springing up in a wilderness.

The township, which is beautifully situated chiefly in and on the sides of a valley, is larger than Parramatta, and contains several shops, which would do no discredit to the most fashionable streets of the English metropolis.

The houses are chiefly built of brick; the streets, like those of Cape Town, are wide, straight, and cut one another at right angles. As yet there are but few public buildings.

The only respectable looking place for Divine Worship that I can see, is that belonging to the Wesleyans, it nearly adjoins the Bank of Australasia, which is also a fine building. The foundation stone of a Presbyterian Church has lately been laid; and judging from the plan of this building and its commanding site, this church when finished is likely to be a great ornament to the town until it is finished, the Rev. Mr. Forbes, the Presbyterian Clergyman who is a deservedly popular man, preaches in the adjoining school room.

An attempt was made some time ago to build on a grand scale an Episcopalian Church, but the work has been discontinued for want of funds. The walls which have for a length of time remained about half finished, present a dilapidated appearance, and forcibly remind you of the man who began to build a house and was not able to finish it.

In the mean time the Episcopalian Clergyman preaches in a weather boarded hut, which adjoins the unfinished walls of the intended Church.

It would delight you to witness the appearance of the town on a Sunday, the places of worship, all well filled; the people dressed in their best attire, the shops shut, the streets quiet as in an English town, and no visible symptoms of riot or drunkenness. T

his moral superiority of Melbourne over Sydney I can attribute to nothing else than the absence of convict influence. The only man that I saw drunk on a Sunday on the streets of Melbourne was a convict servant who was one of our own party.

The people of Melbourne have committed a sad blunder in placing their church-yard close to the town so close indeed, that it almost adjoins one of the already half finished streets. In my opinion, this is a thing which ought to have been particularly guarded against in this warm climate.

Should the town continue to extend so rapidly as it has hitherto done, this church yard will in a few years be situated in the very heart of it.

I suppose you are aware that the shipping is down opposite to William's town, winch is nine miles below Melbourne. Only small crafts can come up the river and the goods to and from al large vessels are conveyed by barges.

This is a great obstacle to the prosperity of the place for not to speak of the additional expense of this mode of conveyance, the goods owing to the carelessness of the men who work the barges, are not unfrequently injured by salt water, &c.

Much as I feel myself indebted to the kind and hospitable people of Melbourne, I shall consider it my duty to warn all the settlers with whom I am acquainted in the Port Phillip district, against coming here for their supplies.

I have been obliged to pay from 20 to 30 per cent over Sydney prices, on almost everything except tobacco, which I bought. The difference in the prices of these articles would more than defray all the necessary expenses of the teams, even of the settlers residing on the Goulburn River, to and from Sydney.

In my next letter you shall have a more detailed account of this rapidly rising town from your friend, Timothy Bushman.