In 1978, the year my youngest brother was married, my aunt commissioned June Keech to paint a picture of Breakfast Creek for a wedding present. I am not inclined to jealousy but I have always coveted that painting.
Perhaps the reason is evident in my first visit to Breakfast Creek in 1981, when my aunt pointed out where our Batten ancestors had first settled. It was a familiar scene: a rough dirt road, dry creek bed, scrubby bushland. I saw no evidence of cultivation or construction, just shadows, silence, rustlings. But overwhelmingly I felt a sense of connection. I belonged there. It was my territory. It contained my ancestry. I had sprung from this spot.
Over the years I have been drawn back to Breakfast Creek. How did two ex-convicts from the other side of the world come to choose that piece of land? And how did it transform their lives?
John Batten was a farm labourer, married. His skills were in ploughing, milking, reaping and sowing. He could read but couldn’t write. He was five feet nine with a ruddy freckled complexion, light brown hair and grey eyes; one of the “Machine Breakers” from the 1830s; a poor farm-hand who protested for a living wage and instead got a life sentence to Australia. Better of course than the death sentence he was originally given.
Hannah McCarthy was a twenty-year-old servant, five feet three, fair and ruddy, with a few scars and tattoos. Her sentence was seven years transportation for stealing 16 yards of printed cotton, value five shillings. She spent some time at the Female Factory at Parramatta, even 42 hours in the cells. And perhaps even then she smoked a clay pipe. She couldn’t write.
You wouldn’t say their prospects were all that good.
But this is a story about land – a new land, with lots of land. We know the main reason that Britain established the colony of NSW was to get rid of the riffraff, now that America had closed the gate. But Britain also wanted to colour in red, as much of the world as they could conquer. And conquering meant settlement. Governor Phillip was directed to make grants of crown land. He was accompanied by Surveyor General Alt, who was responsible for laying out the settlement. Thus were established the oldest surviving public offices in Australia.
Laying out a settlement meant planning towns and villages, measuring farms, outlining roads, exploring unchartered territory and designing maps. The Lands Office was born. And with it a team of surveyors.
Imagine one of those surveyors setting out from Sydney, over the mountains to the Central West, in the mid-nineteenth century. This gentleman is on horseback, for he is a gentleman, regarded highly for his knowledge and skills, fit and in good health, self-reliant and confident. He manages a group of convict assistants and a wagon of tools, equipment, tents and several months of provisions. It is challenging and at times dangerous, often through mountainous, impenetrable country, sometimes mapping uncharted territory, sometimes measuring blocks of land for settlers. He interacts well with the local Aborigines, often relying on their topographic knowledge and using Aboriginal place names. He is out there in the great unknown, assisted by his team, taking angles with a theodolite, bearings with a circumferentor, measuring boundary lines with a Gunters chain, making rough sketches and notes in his field book, putting in survey markers, and later, in camp, drafting plans and writing reports. Those last two had better be right if he wants to be paid. As you can tell I’ve been honing up on surveying though it’s mathematical mystery eludes me.
That brings us back to Breakfast Creek. In July 1856 surveyor Frederick Robert D’Arcy surveyed land on Breakfast Creek for John Batten. I don’t know why they came to Rylstone after living around Penrith for 12 years, except it must have been about land. Land at that time was a national obsession. Everyone, it seemed, wanted land – to settle on or raise stock or speculate in.
I know nothing of Hannah and John’s life at Breakfast Creek – a hard one no doubt. He died in 1868 at the age of 57 having been gored by a bull six weeks earlier. She lived on for fifteen years and died of natural causes. Their sons William and Daniel took over.
In 1861 the Robertson Land Acts were introduced making it easier for ordinary people to select, buy and lease crown land. They could buy 40 to 320 acre lots at one pound an acre, on deposit of five shillings per acre, and pay the balance in three years, or extend the loan. They had to live on the land and make improvements, hardly a problem for an agricultural labourer.
It was a system in which small land-holders could soon become large land-holders. I see in a thin exercise book, kept by son William and dated 1877, that between 1864 and 1878 he had acquired thirteen more blocks at Tommy Tommy, Shingal Flat, Stewart Gully, Horse Gully, Jimmy Jimmy and Washpen Gully. His brother and sons and daughter would buy other land in the area.
It is an unremarkable convict story. You probably have a story like it. But it is also an inspiring story, much like Cole Porter’s song:
Oh give me land lots of land under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don’t fence me in
The lucky country is not a misnomer.
The featured image is of the Australian bush near Rylstone taken by the author.