Place of Many Crows (Part 4)

By Eric Irvin  

18 August 1953 Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga)

A brief history of the foundation   of Wagga Wagga

This is the fourth of a series of articles, to appear daily, tracing the history of the foundation and early growth of the (own of Wagga Wagga. The complete history will be published in book form later.

Wagga was born at a time when the world was full of social injustices, and it is as well to know something of the background against which it was conceived and grew. 

The juxtaposition of assigned servants and free laborers (hired servants) in the same employment field led to some strange anomalies, and masters, used to having their own way with convicts, succeeded in having legal machinery set up which gave them nearly all their own way with free labor as well.

A case in point was an Act of the Legislative Council of N.S.W. on Masters Servants, 1828, which was for many years afterwards in force. 

Under this Act, it was comparatively simple to cook up charges against a hired servant, and to have him sentenced to gaol or hard labor, deprived of whatever money might have been owing to him, and branded as an unreliable or untrustworthy servant.

It was an Act which left some remarkably wide loop- holes for unscrupulous employers, a fact of which many were not slow to take advantage. 

This Act was amended in 1840, and further amended five years later - in each case, ostensibly, to lessen the punishment and guard workers against malpractices by masters - but the balance of power was still in the hands of the employer. (1).

Enormous holdings

Hand in hand with the exploitation of convict and free labor went the development of enormous holdings. Of the sixteen signatories to the petition for the establishment of a court at Wagga, E. W. Hood held 76,800 acres at Narrandera; George Hill 57,600 acres at Yanco; Benjamin Boyd 700,000 acres at Deniliquin, 22,000 at Poon Boon, an unspecified number at Nyang, 12,000 acres at Neimer; John Dallas 42,200 acres at Golgeldrle and William Wentworth 200,000 acres at Tala - all this in the year 1848, when "stations in the pastoral districts were clearly described and their boundaries defined" for the first time. (2)

Four years later Riverina stations, their stock and surroundings were described in a newspaper report: "Among the more extensive squattages may be enumerated the four stations of the Royal Bank Company numbering between them one hundred thousand and two hundred, thousand sheep, and those of Mr. Wentworth numbering at least forty thousand, while squatters possessing fifteen to twenty thousand sheep are by no means rare.

Perhaps the number of sheep on the plains watered by the Murray, Wakool, Neimer, Edward, Billabong, Yanko, Murrumbidgee, Lachlan and lower Darling may be hazarded at 500,000 sheep and 60,000 cattle. And all this country is not without population, far from it, the banks of these rivers are studded at certain distances with head stations, in which are accumulated many comforts, and not a few elegancies of life; at each of which are congregated six or seven men, besides, in many instances, women and their consequences, plenty of children, and which are surrounded by a little group of out stations in which are a hut keeper and shepherd; but in very many instances a married shepherd and family dwell. A chain of decent inns, too, runs over all lines of travel." (3). 

Both ruthless The Royal Bank stations were sold on the collapse of Benjamin Boyd's top-heavy financial undertakings. Of Benjamin Boyd and John Peter, to mention but two of the sixteen signatories to the petition, there are many things which could be said, and few of them to their credit.

They were both ruthless in their pursuit of money and power, and both regarded the assigned and hired laborer as little more than a chattel. 

"The assignment system was an arrangement whereby convicts, on arrival at Port Jackson, were sent direct to service on the properties of settlers, who thereby acquired an authority over their servants which - in spite of the subtle legal sophistry which drew a distinction between "property in person" and "property in services" was perilously near to the chattel-slavery against which Britain somewhat inconsistently set her face elsewhere in the world.

Under the assignment system the convict, though theoretically not in confinement, was actually so." (4).   

John Peter, if reports are to be believed, was a land pirate and opportunist of the worst type.

Starting with nothing (he was managing a station for Alexander Macleay) he laid the foundation of his fortune by marrying the widow of the original owner of Gumly Gumly station in 1847. 

(Gumly Gumly, a river frontage property of 30,000 acres, was established in 1832 by James Bourke). 

By 1871, Peter owned twenty one stations in the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan districts, and an unspecified number elsewhere in the State and in Victoria. 

Peter's method of gaining what he wanted is best illustrated by the Gumly Island incident.

Gumly Island, an area of about 220 acres set in the Murrumbidgee River, was occupied by the Macnamara family at the time when Peter first "acquired" Gumly, station by marrying the owner's widow.

He decided that the island was part of "his station," and was successful in calling on the Commissioners of Crown Lands of the time, who ordered his men to burn down the Macnamara home, destroy all livestock, and drive the family from the island. Peter got his island. (5). 

Impressive retinue 

E. M. Curr, in his "Recollections of Squatting in Victoria" has left a firsthand description of the power and pomp of Crown Lands Com- missioners of this time.

They travelled beyond the boundaries with an impressive retinue, the one Curr describes consisting of an orderly, a sergeant, three troopers and a man in charge of a spring-cart.

The troopers were arm- ed with carbines and pistols, the sergeant with a cavalry sabre.

The Commissioner rode a horse accoutred in the manner of a cavalry officer's charger. 

He bad many duties, the most important of them having reference to the Crown lands of his district, on which he issued licences to squat. 

"He also settled disputes about boundaries. Disagreements on this score, which in later times would have taken a judge, with his jurors, barristers, witnesses and attaches of the court, a week to dispose of - Bah! the Commissioner settled them in half-an-hour, or less; sometimes probably hearing only one of the claimants, and sometimes neither." 16). 

Of Benjamin Boyd, leader of the "haughty, selfish, gentlemanly class" of the squattocracy, who at one time had two hundred shepherds, and stockmen, two steam-boats, built a port at Twofold Bay and owned a steamer yacht, little more need be said than that he once stated "he despaired of the colony's future unless shepherds" wages could be brought to 10 per annum (3/10 per week).

Anything over that, in his opinion, did harm by sending the shepherds to the public house." (7). 


(1) Select Documents in Australian History, 1788-1850, by C. M H. Claris, 1950.

(2) Royal Australian Historical Society. Journal and Proceedings Vol XXXVIII. Parts 1 to 5. The Western Riverlna, a History of its Development, by James Jervis. 

(3) Sydney Morning Herald, January 3, 1852. 

(4) Men and Manners in Australia, by J. Alex Allan, 1945. 

(5) R. J. E. Gormly in the 'Daily Advertiser.' 

(6) Same as (1).   

(7) Same as (4).