The convict story in the Cowpastures
The story of European settlement in the Cowpastures is intimately connected to the story of the convicts and their masters. This story has not been told and there is little understanding of the role of the convicts in the Cowpastures district before 1840. Who were they? What did they do? Did they stay in the district?
Part of a global story
The convicts were a form of forced labour, with a global history that goes back to Roman times. Amongst those who were landed were human souls who were part of the dark story of banishment and exile. The story of convicts and banishment is an integral part of the European colonialism from the 16th century and the rise of labour camps. The story parallels that of slavery. Convicts came to New South Wales after the British lost the American colonies in the revolutionary wars in the 1780s.
Convicts in the Australian colonies
The convicts that ended up the in Cowpastures district were part of the 160,000 who were transported to the Australian colonies from England, Wales, Ireland, and the British colonies. Convicts were usually employed in several ways by the colonial authorities: assignment; government work gangs; Tickets of Leave; Conditional Pardon; and an Absolute Pardon with complete freedom to do as they wished including returning to Britain.
Generally speaking, most convict women could be classified as domestic servants, while male convicts had a host of skills with town trades dominating over rural workers. The literacy rates and skills of convicts were the same or better than the English and Irish working classes.
The Cowpastures district
The Cowpastures district was an ill-defined area that included Governor Hunter’s government reserve from 1795. The reserve covered an area that generally south of the Nepean River between Stonequarry Creek (Picton), The Oaks and Menangle to the east. By 1840 the Cowpastures district had become a general locality name that extended north of the Nepean River to include Narellan and Bringelly.
Stories of Convicts
The best short reference of the convicts in the Cowpastures is Ken Williams’ 1824 Cawdor Bench of Magistrates Population, Land and Stock Book (2011), where he lists the names and masters. Williams indicates that in the Cowpasture in 1824 there were 430 convicts and of them, 15 were women, who were listed as domestic servants. Elizabeth Villy indicates that the stock books indicate 29 landholders, who were mostly absentee landlords.
The best account to date of the activities of the convicts in the Cowpastures is Elizabeth Villy’s The Old Razorback Road (2011). She states that in the 1820s in the last days of the Cowpastures Government Reserve there were around 550 convicts assigned to settlers including around 100 at Camden Park Estate. These men were employed as shepherds and labourers, who were clearing land, and preparing the ground for ploughing and growing pasture.
Convicts and civil works in the Cowpastures
The Great South Road was one of the major civil engineering projects in the Cowpastures district that employed convicts. A major bridge (Cowpasture Bridge) was constructed by convicts across the Nepean River mid-way between the river crossings at the Home Farm at Belgenny and the Hassall’s at Macquarie Grove. Villy details how the bridge was built by a team of convicts between 1824 and 1826. The construction was supervised by convict Samuel Wainwright, a Cheshire carpenter, who arrived on the Neptune in 1818. Villy lists 24 convicts who worked on the bridge construction between 1827 and 1829.
The other major project was The Great South Road itself and in the Cowpastures section Villy estimates that around 400 men worked on the road. Her research indicates that they left no surviving records and many just ‘melted into society after their sentences’ (p.67). The ethnography of the convicts up to 1828 was mainly English, with smaller numbers of Welsh and Scots. From this time as more Irish were sent out the ratio English to Irish was around half and half. If the convicts misbehaved they were punished by whipping and the Cawdor Bench imposed punishments up to 50 lashes. Mostly they involved insolence, absconding, drunkenness, and laziness. On the Camden-Stonequarry road section, there were no portable stockades or vans. Villy provides interesting accounts of the activities of individual convicts, their punishments and the convict lifestyle of the road gangs. 
Convicts were part of the John Oxley’s Elderslie enterprise and when John Hawdon leased it in 1828 off Francis Irvine he was impressed with the range of trades amongst the 30 ‘government men’ who worked on Elderslie. He was not deterred by dark Gothic notions of the penal settlement and expressed his frustration with the attitude of his countrymen in a letter home. Hawdon felt that the dark stories and fear about the colony were over-rated. He wrote:
‘I am aware of the feeling you all have at home about us having so many convicts around us. Your fears, I can assure you are most unfounded’.
Elderslie according to Alan Atkinson supported 9 convicts when Oxley sold the grant to Francis Irvine in 1827. At Macquarie Grove under Samual Hassall, there were 30 convicts with 3 families of children.
Reverend Thomas Hassall who purchased Denbigh in 1826 on the death of Charles Hook had 20 convicts, according to his son James Hassall in his In Old Australia, Records, and Reminiscences from 1794. The worked from six in the morning in summer and from eight in winter until sundown. The convicts were managed by a Scottish overseer and they carried out the farming activities on the property. The rations included tea, sugar, meat, flour or when which they ground for themselves on a small steel mill.
At the time of the 1828 Census at ‘Kirkham’, which had 54 people including 44 convicts. (SRNSW NRS 1273 1828 Census).
Birling’ was a 1000 acre granted to Robert Lowe in 1812. According to the 1814 muster, Robert Lowe employed seven assigned convicts which had increased to 21 by the 1822 muster, while by 1828 this had dropped to 12 convicts. (SRNSW)
The Cowpastures Convict and Settler Database
Some members of the Camden Historical Society drew together a database of names of convicts and settlers in the Cowpastures in the early part of the 19th century in the 1990s. The data was drawn from a variety of sources including convict musters. On extracting the names of convicts the following information is now available for several gentry properties in the Cowpastures District before 1840 and include: Brownlow Hill – 44 convicts between 1823 and 1828. In 1823 there were 11 convicts assigned to Peter Murdoch who had the Glendaural grant, which later became part of Brownlow Hill; Denbigh – 8 convicts in 1828; Kirkham – 103 convicts between 1814 and 1830 with a mix of skill including ploughman, shepherds, millers, and general labourers; Macquarie Grove – 28 convicts in 1828 with skills including ploughman, wheelwright, labourer, and house servants; Matavai (Cobbitty) – 14 convicts in 1828 who included blacksmith, sawyer, labourers and house servants; Wivenhoe – 6 convicts in 1828 who included a cooper and shoemaker. The database is located at the Camden Museum.
 Ken Williams, 1824 Cawdor Bench of Magistrates Population, Land and Stock Book, A Biographical Register of the Inhabitants residing in the Cowpastures, Picton & District Historical and Family History Society, Picton, 2011.
 Elizabeth Villy, The Old Razorback Road, Life on the Great South Road between Camden and Picton 1830-1930, Rosenberg, Dural, 2011. p. 35.
 Villy, The Old Razorback Road, pp. 34-35.
 Villy, The Old Razorback Road.pp. 62-65
 Villy, The Old Razorback Road.pp. 66-90.
 The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 26 October 1929, p 13.
 The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 26 October 1929, p 13.
 Alan Atkinson, Camden, Farm and Village Life in Early New South Wales, OUP, Melb, 1988, p.20. Peter Mylrea, Camden District, A History to the 1840s, Camden Historical Society, 2002, p.34.
 James S Hassall, In Old Australia Records and Reminiscences from 1794, RS Hews, Brisbane, 1902 (BiblioBazaar, 2015), pp. 4-5
The Cowpasture Project
More information about the Cowpastures can be found on the Cowpastures project blog page. Click here
6 thoughts on “Convicts in the Cowpastures, an untold story”
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Thank you, Chris
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