The history of Moruya: between the two rivers

The white settlement of the Moruya area and the pattern of its development have been driven by a number of factors:

  • the push for land by farmers and speculators
  • the availability of some reasonable agricultural land, particularly south of Moruya
  • the convenient assumption by Colonial administration that the land was
    not owned by the Aboriginal people
  • agriculture – dairy, beef, pork, and some crops – together with timber,
    for about the first 100 years but tailing off after that
  • the remoteness of Moruya from the markets of Sydney, and the difficulty
    of transporting goods to and from Sydney
  • gold, for the period 1840 to 1920
  • granite, for the period 1924 to 1931
  • tourism, from a trickle in the 1920s to a torrent by 2000.

White settlement along the coast south of Wollongong was fairly slow and sporadic by comparison with the areas north, west and south-west of Sydney, i.e. the Hunter River Valley, Bathurst and beyond, and Goulburn. The search for good land for farming or investment was vigorous and kept moving ahead of the resources of the Colony’s surveyors. By 1823, all available land in the strip bounded by Sydney, Penrith, Windsor and Appin had been taken up and the push outwards was well underway. Within the Limits of Location, title to land could be obtained, usually in lots of 640 acres or one square mile to a limit of four square miles. Beyond the Limits of Location, a licence to squat could be obtained but not title to the land. Up until 1828, the southernmost limit to the settlement was the north bank of the Clyde River. However, in 1827 and 1828 surveyors were sent to map out the area further south.

Moruya was approached from two directions. Settlers moving south from Goulburn to Braidwood were looking for further opportunity, and in 1827 H.S. Badgery and Henry Burnell took up a position in the Araluen Valley. Part of the brief to surveyor Robert Hoddle was to continue on from that point and follow the Deua/Moruya River to its mouth. He did that and then moved north to the Buckenbowra River where W. and G. Thompson had established a squat on four square miles and Burnell had another place of 1920 acres further downstream. In 1828, another surveyor, Thomas Florance, was sent down the coast to Batemans Bay, on to Broulee and to the Moruya River. It was he who adopted the Aboriginal names for Broulee, Tomakin, Candlagan Creek and Moruya, though his spelling of those names was subsequently modified.

Thus, in 1828, the southern boundary of the Limits of Location was moved to the north bank of the Moruya River. The same administrative action established the County of St. Vincent which ran from the Shoalhaven to the Moruya River. Surveyor Hoddle offered his opinion on the future prospects for the County. “It is very barren,” he said, “at least nine-tenths of it will be suitable for no purpose whatsoever.”

The first man to obtain a grant of land on the north bank of the Moruya was B.G. Raye. It is doubtful if he ever saw the block and he did not settle on it. The first settler was Francis Flanagan, an Irish tailor with a little capital, plenty of gumption, but a habit of getting at cross purposes with his neighbours and the Colonial administration. Nevertheless, he performed duty over a number of years as a local magistrate, census taker and distributor of government blankets to the Aboriginal people. In 1829, he was granted title to four square miles on the north bank of the river. It extended on either side of today’s Princes Highway along the flats. The area was referred to by him variously as Nullandarie — today’s Mullenderee — or Pergoga, a name he spelled at least three ways and which appeared on the maps of the time but has since disappeared. His property and homestead he called Shannon View. By 1838, he claimed to be running 800 cattle, 12 horses and 200 pigs.

Flanagan was followed by John Hawdon. Hawdon had arrived from England in 1828. He had property at Sydney and in 1830 set up a squat at Bergalia but, being 3—4 beyond the limits, could not gain title to the land. In 1831 he was granted land on the north bank of the river, upstream from Flanagan. He called the property Kiora and it too occupied 2560 acres or four square miles.

By 1840, the rest of the river flats land running along the north bank had all been claimed. Lt. Col. Phelps bought 940 acres on the eastern side of Flanagan. However, Phelps died within the year and the property was sold to James Staunton. James Ellis, a naval surgeon, bought 1100 acres on the eastern side of Phelps, and the remaining land, 980 acres between Ellis and the north head, was bought by James Garland. He, however, had it subdivided into a group of blocks marketed as Garland Town. The project failed but the name stuck to the area. In 1838, John Maclean bought Raye’s block and added a further 890 acres to it, forming the third largest run on the north bank. He called it Glenduart.

Across the river, opposite Flanagan, William Morris, in 1835, squatted a block he called Gundary. William Campbell took up as manager and bought the place himself in 1845.

These people were raising stock and growing crops but they had a significant problem in getting their produce to the Sydney markets. The Moruya River, while it offered a fine means of punting goods and chattels between the properties on the river bank, had a bad bar at the mouth and was chancy for boats big enough to ship goods to and from Sydney. As a result, in 1836, John Hawdon wrote to the Governor pointing out that the local farmers were dependent on Broulee Bay as their local port and its use as such was handicapped until Broulee was surveyed. In the meantime, goods would continue to be moved between ship and shore by small boats, but he himself was keen to build a wharf and store on Broulee beach as soon as he could obtain suitable land.

Surveyor Larmer was set to the task and in 1837 his lay-out of the Village of Broulee was gazetted. On the island it included eight streets and 55 blocks. On the mainland it laid out the area bounded approximately by Clarke to Albert streets and by Massey street to Harbour Drive. Once more the prognosis offered by the surveyor was not encouraging. In writing to the Colonial Secretary the Surveyor-General advised:

Browlee, which may be called East and West Browlee, being divided in two parts by a narrow neck of sand subject to be overflowed by very high tides, appears not to possess any favourable features for the formation of a town. The harbour is too open and the space for laying out streets is limited.—- the place seems too unimportant for any considerable expenditure on the erection of public buildings and without them a town would never be formed.

That, however, was not the way the speculators saw the prospects for Broulee, though neither John Hawdon nor anybody else ever pressed ahead with the notion of building a jetty and store, other than a very minor jetty for shell grit in the 1920s.

First in was the firm of Hughes and Hosking. John Hughes and John Hosking were both related to Samuel Terry, one of the biggest money men in Sydney, and their partnership was the biggest land holder both in NSW and the settlement of Port Phillip. They picked up a 1170-acre block at the north end of Broulee beach including all of Mossy Point as it stands today. In addition, they had two 640-acre blocks to the west of the Village, and when the Village lots went on sale in 1840 they took twelve of the blocks on the island. However, neither Hughes nor Hosking made any move to settle in the area and when the economic collapse of 1841–1844 arrived they featured as the Colony’s most catastrophic bankruptcy.

The other big mover into Broulee was Captain William Oldrey. In four lots of up to 1110 acres he acquired 4010 acres butting up to the village along the whole of its southern and western boundaries. In the auction of the village sites, he picked up three blocks on the island. Oldrey had been pensioned off from the navy. He was keen to speculate on Broulee and was not averse to putting his efforts into the development of the place. He built his home, Mt Oldrey Estate, on the western slopes of Broulee, running on both sides of today’s Broulee Road down to the beach, but put it on the market within the year. His lengthy advertisement in the Australian, in its description of the homestead, the infrastructure of Broulee and the boom that was about to arrive, was, to put it as kindly as possible, ‘enthusiastic’.

The collapse of 1841 on its own would probably have been enough to take out the over-stretched Captain, but it coincided with another event which took its toll on Broulee. In 1841, heavy rain and the consequential flood of the Moruya River washed out the bar at the mouth, opening it up to coastal shipping. The farmers on the river were delighted at the prospect of avoiding the trek to and from Broulee Bay by way of rough bush tracks. It was the beginning of the end for Broulee.

The first wave of settlers and speculators following the surveys of the land between the Clyde and the Moruya Rivers was largely complete by 1841. It was to be a while before further moves of any consequence took place for the investors of Sydney town were awash with tracts of land unsaleable at any price.

The following map from Baker’s Atlas of 1843–46, published with the kind permission of The National Library of Australia, shows the main holdings between the rivers at the time. The grid on the map is in square miles based on magnetic north — the basic building block of the Colonial surveying and granting of land.

It was a frail settlement, clinging to hope, battling with the Australian bush, with a lack of support from Sydney, and floods and fires the likes of which were unknown to people from Britain. Nevertheless, some of the early settlers were determined to make something of the place. Hawdon and Oldrey were particularly busy and badgered the Colonial Secretary to have Broulee set up as the centre of a Police District, the place for a Court of Petty Sessions and the centre for convict administration. They were successful and in 1839, at Broulee, the Police Station was established with three constables and the Court was set up with Oldrey and Hawdon as its magistrates. Later, Francis Flanagan, William Campbell and others were added to the Bench. There was a Clerk to the Court, a Scourger and a Pound Keeper/Postmaster. On the island, the Erin-go Bragh Hotel was built.

But, for all the beating of drums, it was not a significant place. The census of 1841 recorded that Broulee contained 6 buildings and 46 people, 40 of whom, including convicts, were working for Oldrey. In 1848, Broulee contained four buildings and 22 inhabitants. Up the Moruya River, the 1841 census recorded 40 people on Hawdon’s place, 39 on Flanagan’s and 34 at Maclean’s. Hawdon had 35 convicts working for him and Flanagan had 19, but the assignment of convicts ceased in 1840 and there was no transportation from the following year.

Cover photo 'Moruya Sunset' by Nathanael Coyne distributed under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons license. Contributed by Martin Ind from Moruya High School published in 2015.