Port Macquarie is celebrating the bicentenary of European settlement in 2021. The Port News is publishing a series of articles leading up to the event.
The establishment of Port Macquarie as a penal colony suffered an early setback: it took four weeks for the first convicts and their overseers to arrive by sea and they were given just six months' rations.
That inauspicious start meant that, on arrival, there would have been increased pressure for self-sufficiency.
A string of temporary huts was established along the waterfront near Horton Street, with the view that the main settlement would be erected back toward Allman Hill and the now-Port Macquarie Primary School.
Port Macquarie Historical Society members Clive Smith and Tony Dawson have written several books and authoritative papers on these early days of settlement.
They duo said early buildings were already constructed by November 1821, coinciding with a visit from Governor Macquarie.
Mr Smith said the commandant's quarters was among the first buildings started.
"There was also a timber yard and several other buildings about where the current caravan park is located while a granary and commissariat store were sited near the front of the police station," he said.
"The military were camped up on the hill (overlooking Town Beach) with the barracks established where the school is now situated.
"Later the prisoner's barracks were moved above the timber yard, basically on the northern side of the eastern end of Clarence Street, just below Allman Hill.
"At around the same time, the convict's hospital was built roughly where St Agnes' Church is now."
Mr Dawson said an 1826 painting showed the granary, commissariat store and other buildings at the end of Hay Street, as well as the church on the hill.
Mr Dawson said the drive to become self-sufficient saw wheat first planted on the river flats around Settlement Point.
"It was suitable for growing crops," he said "but as the land to the west was investigated further, it was realised that Rollands Plains would be much better as an agricultural site.
"Maize, wheat - to make flour - and possibly green vegetables would have been grown.
"Redbank was also identified and tried out as an agricultural station in the very early days too," he said.
Port Macquarie is also acknowledged as establishing the first sugar crops in Australia, some of the sugar being used to distil rum.
Sugar and rum in excess of local needs were to be returned to Sydney.
While most of the overseers' cottages would have had their own garden plots, most of the convicts were encouraged to tend their own vegetable plots too.
Timber was sought for the building phase but our early timber-getters soon found stands of valuable cedar.
Oyster shells were also burnt to produce lime.
There are reports of a settlement being established in late 1821 at Camden Haven where lime was produced while the North Shore was also pinpointed as a source - hence the name Limeburners Creek.
Newcastle was originally established as a penal colony for second offenders but it was soon realised the Hunter was an ideal place for free settlers, and land allocations.
Port Macquarie was then identified and subsequently established to take over from Newcastle.
Free settlers were not permitted to reside in the new penal settlement.
Despite the relative isolation of Port Macquarie, convicts still managed to escape.
Mr Dawson said about 10 convicts took control of a whale boat in August 1822. They had plans to reach Tasmania.
Nine eventually got as far as the Hawkesbury but some of those involved burnt the boat; all were eventually captured.
"Thomas Till was executed, one got off scot-free and was returned to Port Macquarie after he turned evidence against the others.
"The remaining eight were sent to Macquarie Harbour (Tasmania) which was opened as a penal colony in that same year - so they got their wish of arriving in Tasmania," Mr Dawson said.
The lure of viable land becoming available soon meant that Port Macquarie was to be opened up to free settlers.
Moreton Bay and a re-established Norfolk Island were next in line to take the colony's second offenders.
By 1830 Port Macquarie was opened up to free settlers with Major Innes and his wife the recipients of some major land grants.
The convict population was around 174 when the first free settlers arrived but many more were sent here in the 1830s to meet the settlers' demands for labourers and servants.
Mr Smith said the government decision to leave Port Macquarie, in 1847, left a void which took some years to overcome.
"The closure meant that any convicts considered effective or healthy were either shipped back to Sydney or to the other penal sites.
"The commissariat store closed - it was the place where grain and meats were sold by the locals to the Government - the weekly steamer service to Sydney stopped, leaving local farmers without a reliable servicee to transport produce to the Sydney market.
"In one of Annabella Boswell's diaries she paints Port Macquarie as "a deserted village" following the government decision."
The military barracks, prisoner barracks, commissariat store, the hospital and other buildings were considered "vacant possession", according to media reports of the time.
The prisoner's barracks was briefly used, later, as an asylum.
With a viable port, shipping was to remain the most useful form of transport for produce and visitors to travel between Sydney and Port Macquarie up until the arrival of the railway at Wauchope in 1915.
By the 1880s, media reports indicate that Port Macquarie was considered a great place for a holiday, a forerunner to our current standing as a destination.
Mr Smith and Mr Dawson have written several books and published papers on Port Macquarie's convict past.
Mr Dawson's topics have included Kooloonbung Creek, the Curious Case of Thomas Dick and a history of the School of Arts.
He has also written several papers for various organisations relating to Port Macquarie's history.
Mr Smith's most recent book is Port Macquarie's Last Convicts, which tells the story of the closing down of the settlement in 1846.
He also co-authored - with Trysha Hanly - transcriptions of baptisms, marriages and burials for the early years of St Thomas' Church.
His next projects include publishing excerpts from the diaries of Annabella Boswell, particularly from 1848 and 1853-4 and co-producing an authoritative list of all convicts brought to Port Macquarie.
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