Many of the early settlers in the Big Scrub, particularly the pioneers of dairying, came from the South Coast of NSW, and the Southern Highlands. On the South Coast, the area between the Minnamurra and Shoalhaven Rivers provided a considerable number of them.
But what caused such an exodus of families to the Richmond River area? To understand the reasons, it is necessary to briefly examine the way the South Coast and Southern Highlands were first settled.
The area between the Minnamurra and Shoalhaven Rivers was first settled in the 1820s. Alexander Berry established his estate at Coolangatta in 18221, and David Smith is acknowledged as being the first resident of what later became the town of Kiama, settling there in 18212. At Jamberoo, John Ritchie had settled prior to 18243, and at Gerringong Michael Hindmarsh settled at "Alne Bank" on a grant he had been promised in 18274.
Initially, the attraction was cedar, and this provided a good income for those arriving early enough in the area to harvest the masses of red cedar trees growing there. The result was that, by the 1830s, enough land had been cleared of trees to provide good grazing land, and beef cattle were run on many of the holdings.
The 1830s coincided with the Bounty Immigration Scheme, whereby a large number of immigrants arrived in NSW to satisfy a shortage of labour. The Bounty Scheme rules were gazetted in late 18355, and provided a payment ranging from £30 for a married couple aged 30 or younger down to £5 per child of such a couple. The payment was made to a settler who arranged for the passage of the immigrant, and many landholders (both on the South Coast and elsewhere) took advantage of the scheme. The result was that, by the mid-1840s, the population of the area between the rivers had increased substantially.
Many of the new settlers prospered enough to turn their clearing leases into their own landholdings. However, the sheer numbers of settlers presented a new problem: just how much land was required to support a family? We will address this issue shortly.
As the land between the coast and the escarpment became more closely settled, settlers began to start looking further afield. The passing of the Robertson Land Act of 1861 provided an incentive to open up new lands. The Act provided for the free selection of unreserved Crown Land at a price of £1 per acre, with payment of 5/- per acre to be made on application, and the balance payable over a long term. The selector was obliged to live on the property for at least three years, and to make improvements with a value of at least £1 per acre.
It was a very generous scheme, which led to settlers such as John Hanrahan and William Davis being the first to push up the escarpment behind Jamberoo and take up selection in the Yarrawa Brush (the area around the present town of Robertson). Many others followed in their wake, with the early part of 1862 seeing a "land grab" as selectors from the Kiama area were joined by others from the Albion Park and Dapto areas.
Thus was the land in the coastal region between the Minnamurra and Shoalhaven Rivers, and the eastern portion of the Southern Highlands, settled by the early 1860s.
To understand the reasons for the subsequent mass movement of families to the Richmond River area, a quick look at the mathematics of inheritance will provide a clue.
The original settler on his 320 or 640 acres was adequately provided for, in terms of having enough land for a viable farming venture. On his death the land was usually divided among his sons, and with families of 8 or 10 children common, even the 640 acre holdings became more like 125-160 acres when the first generation inherited. Applying this logic to the next generation, it becomes apparent that the grandsons of the original settlers could, in many cases, not expect to inherit a property of viable size. Thus, the search for somewhere else to live and raise a family was on.
1. W A Bayley, "Shoalhaven"
2. W A Bayley, "Blue Haven"
5. NSW Government Gazette, 28 October 1835, p769