The Murray Family – Chapter Five – Immigrant workers in the Illawarra in the 1830s and 1840s




Immigrant workers in the Illawarra in the 1830s and 1840s


A great number of the Irish who settled in the NSW Illawarra area came from Tyrone and Fermanagh.  Many had connections with the Osbornes.  Henry Osborne and his wife Sarah Marshall, emigrated from Tyrone. He was given a free land grant of 2,560 acres to the west of Lake Illawarra in 1829 that he named Mount Marshall. Henry’s brothers John and Aleck, who came to NSW during their naval careers also settled in Illawarra. Such land holders were paid bounties to sponsor emigrating married couples.

Some years before the Murrays left Fermanagh, Alick Osborne had written a diary of his travels in the Colony, which was published in London in 1833.  In it was a description of conditions at that time in the Illawarra area.  It included comments justifying the part that he and his brothers played in encouraging the Irish emigrants to join them as pioneers in the Illawarra.

“The admirable management of this young establishment, the healthy appearance of the children, and contented aspects of the parents (having realised to the utmost their anticipation of emigration) with their present prospect of peace and plenty, present a picture at once gratifying and delightful to every one interested in the perfect success of emigration.[1]


Alick was clearly the catalyst who influenced other members of the family to come to Australia.  Having already made three trips to Australia and back, he must have inspired not only Henry but John as well.[2] As a chain of migration, many more Irish Osborne relatives were to follow the original three to New South Wales.[3] 


Dr. John Osborne’s Garden Hill

          Dr. John made four trips with convicts before bringing out his wife and six of their seven children on the James Pattison in 1836.  His eldest son, Archibald, was already at Garden Hill, presumably managing it in John’s long absences.[4]  It was originally part of a parcel of 640 acres named Glen Gosh, which was dated 23/9/1831.  John later divided the grant into two parts, Garden Hill and Mangerton.[5]   Garden Hill was variously described as 1 square mile and as 300 acres, and includes the site of the present Wollongong Hospital.  John Osborne let it on clearing lease terms. 


          In 1841, on the fringe of Wollongong, one of the most densely populated estates in Illawarra, by this time, was John Osborne’s Garden Hill estate with 159 people living on 640 acres.[6] Garden Hill was variously described as 1 square mile and as 300 acres, and includes the site of the present Wollongong Hospital. John Osborne let it on clearing lease terms.

Charles Murray was a ‘clearing lease’ tenant employed by John Osborne at Garden Hill, with possibly a 7-10 year contract.   Charles would have been an ideal tenant because he had adult sons to assist him in clearing the land, as well as daughters useful for house and dairy duties


The 1841 NSW Census

          In 1841, a Census was conducted in the Colony.  From this Census, Return No. 187 confirms that Charles Murray and family – a household of six – were then living at Garden Hill.  Place of Residence is given as – Garden Hill near Wollongong; person in charge of house – Charles Murray; owner of house – J. Osborne.  The residence is described as wood, completed, inhabited, and the number of residents/free persons – 6.  Following are the details.[7] First names have been added by the author to show to whom the age ranges were likely to refer:

 Age 2-7  ………………………….Margaret.

Age 7-14 ………….Charles Jr and Elinor

Age 14-21………………………………Phillip

  Age 21-14…………Charles Sr and Susan.

RC. ……………Total 6

Arr. Free  ……….Total 6

Shepherds………Total. 2



In 1841, the year of the census, the ages of the Murray children would have been as follows – James (19), Phillip (17), Mary (15), Elinor (12), Charles (9) and Margaret (5)  It could be that, by 1841, James and Mary were not counted as of the household; As adults, 19 year-old James and 15 year-old Mary may have been working on other Osborne properties, at this time.


On Garden Hill, John Osborne not only had a complement of 6 male convicts (as well as 2 assigned women who were domestic servants), but more importantly there were about 30 families and 20 unmarried male labourers.  Of the married men, 18, including Charles Murray, were listed as ‘landed proprietors’, indicating that on this property, Garden Hill, there was a substantial number of families working individual parcels of land with a certain degree of independence.


Illawarra Aboriginals

          During her time at Kiama, Margaret Menzies had her first encounter with the Aboriginal people of the district.  In her diary, she observes them with a somewhat patronising admiration.

[One native] …  had a brass medal round his neck, which told he was William Roberts, King of Camberoo, & a piece of scarlet cloth across his forehead … Some more blacks came up & this morning 2 or 3 women came with some cray fish & got sugar from Mrs. Smith.  Roberts gave her 2/- for 1/4lb tea and 2lb of sugar and understood perfectly the quantity he should get for his 2 white monies … They are generally ugly creatures & yet very picturesque when seated roundtheir fires & the little children like imps running about.  Some of them have a gait that would serve a duchess.[8]



Some contemporary observations re the Osbornes


          The Menzies also met the families of Henry Osborne’s two older brothers.  After her first visit to Garden Hill, Margaret was not entirely impressed and observed that Dr. John Osborne was, ‘rather a gentlemanlike man but not so sterling as Henry & Mrs. John the most unladylike lady I have seen in a long time.  The children, bah! want civilization sadly’. It seems Margaret was a serious and gently-bred young lady with strong convictions about religion and the rules of proper conduct.  One of her preoccupations when she arrived in Illawarra was to seek friends and neighbours who shared and measured up to her own views of propriety.


          With a lack of any diaries or documentation concerning the lives of our Murray family after they arrived in the Illawarra, it is not easy to determine where they fell in the emigrant pecking order of the day.  It appears that Margaret Menzies considered herself a cut above everyone else.  Margaret penned some acid comments in her journal.

“There is no society here and I sometimes feel that we have left a great deal behind us.  There is some chance of our becoming savages …  Intercourse with well-bred people!  One!  Mrs. H. Osborne is the only lady near me I expect to enjoy. “


          Let us hope, in the years that followed, Margaret mellowed and relaxed her rigid standards somewhat to have a measure of social intercourse with ‘Mrs. John’.  Maybe, she eventually found congenial company amongst other emigrant women working to create for themselves and their families a new life, like Charles Murray’s wife, Susan, from Fermanagh.


Some other Garden Hill families

          During their time at Garden Hill Charles and Mary Murray (aged 14 and 17 years in 1844) were the baptism sponsors of Anne Maria Cosgrove [9] on 5th August 1844.[10]  Anna’s parents may have previously been acquainted with the Murray family in Fermanagh.   Thomas and Maria Cosgrove and their four sons – John, James, Thomas and Patrick – had come as emigrants from Irvinestown, Fermanagh, (near Kesh) and arrived in Sydney on the Herald on 15th July 1841, only two years after the Murrays. Henry Osborne, had, in that year 1841, sponsored a large number of Northern Irish to work on his estates, and his brother, John Osborne, had provided character references for the Cosgroves.


Also living and working at Garden Hill in 1841, in a house owned by John Osborne, were fellow 1839 Susan emigrants from Fermanagh, John and Ann Blow with their family.  The Blows moved to Avondale[11], another Osborne property near Dapto late in 1841.[12] 


Apart from the hard work on their clearing leases, there must have been lots of happy times and shared memories for the emigrants whilst living and working with other families formerly from neighbouring parishes and counties in Fermanagh.  It is very likely that the Murray, Cosgrove and Blow children became friends while living and playing together at Garden Hill.

Clearing Lease Men

          As the area was heavily wooded, to cope with the clearing problem most of the larger owners resorted to the clearing-lease system.  ‘In this district’, wrote Joseph Phipps Townsend, a visitor to Illawarra in the late 1840’s, ‘is to be found a numerous class of small settlers called “clearing-lease men”.’ It seems  Charles Murray was classed as  one of these.  Large trees had to be cleared by hand using axes and bullocks.


With a small piece of uncleared land (each about thirty acres) on condition of having it rent-free for six years, they would build a shanty.  There they lived whilst they clear and improve their little holding; replacing the shanty ultimately with a decent dwelling..

They have generally got on pretty well in the world, and can afford to pay about ten pounds a-year for their now reclaimed land.  Most of these men have a dairy cow and a mare, which get their own living under the mountains; and the sale of their butter and their crops, and the money they occasionally earn from the other settlers and labourers, keep the pot boiling.[13]


Townsend went on to suggest that a clearing-lease man must have some experience in the colony before he can commence operations, and he must have enough capital to support himself and family for one year.  He concluded, however, that most of the settlers in Illawarra, ’of whatever grade were comfortable and happy.’  As clearing-lease tenants, it must have been backbreaking work for Charles Murray and his sons. Whether they had first to improvise a shelter, or some sort of shack was provided, the living conditions for the family would have been very simple


Usually, slab or cabbage-tree huts were constructed, with bark or cabbage-tree roofs, earth floor, no windows.  A large wooden fireplace stretched the whole width of the room, protected by stones.  The fires were of great logs over which hung the pots and camp oven above, and suspended from an iron cross bar. The women soon learnt to make hats from the fans of the cabbage palm – hats worn by practically every man and boy in Illawarra.[14]


          The felling itself was very tough work.  At first, the vines and undergrowth had to be removed sufficiently to secure a proper fall.  The use of an axe from daylight to dark by one unused to such work meant blistered hands and hard sore muscles. As soon as a small area was burned off, it was planted with wheat, maize, potatoes and turnips.  When possible, the wheat was sent to a mill, but often the settlers had to be satisfied with meal ground on the farm.


          Working at Garden Hill, the Murrays would have earned £10-15 an acre to clear by contract and some of their older children were probably also getting wages for working on other properties.  Men were getting from £25-35 a year and single girls £20-25 a year as agricultural labourers and housemaids.  To the Murrays and other Irish emigrant families in Australia at that time, being able to earn regular and adequate wages for each adult member of the family would give them the ability to save money towards the Irish emigrants’ ultimate goal – land of their own.


Time to move on  – greener pastures


          The years between 1839-1847 would give the family eight years of earnings, sufficient to enable them to think about buying and clearing their own land. At the end of that time, they would then have to decide whether the Illawarra area was the place to stay and put down roots, or whether they should look further afield. 


          In 1841, the population of Wollongong was 841. In the early 1840s, the Governor, Sir George Gipps, was confronting major problems in New South Wales, including growing violence between Aborigines and colonists on the frontiers of settlement, a prolonged drought and a savage economic depression.  By 1843, Illawarra had prospered and was of such importance that the Governor constituted a District Council there, the first form of Local Government.[15]   Churches and schools, a court, gaol and business houses were established but several years later, the local economy would go into a decline.  The next few years were times of drought and economic depression in the Illawarra as in other parts of New South Wales.  By 1846, the population of Wollongong had fallen to 515.


          In view of this downturn, perhaps Charles Murray Snr decided the family’s future lay, not in the Illawarra, but further afield.  It appears that the family remained at Garden Hill until the eldest son, James, happened upon the Ulladulla area, where desirable farming land was at this time becoming available. Travelling on horseback between the various Osborne landholdings in the Illawarra area and Kangaroo Valley may have led to him happening upon such land.


          Also, by this time Charles and his adult sons may have decided that they had, between them, amassed sufficient capital to purchase some land.    They would have completed their clearing lease arrangement with John Osborne.  It was now time to put down permanent roots in their adopted country. With most of the six children now adults – from 12-year old Margaret to 26-year old James, another journey would soon take place, a shorter one this time – further south, down the New South Wales coast to the Shoalhaven.


 There, in the lush green coastal hills and valleys and forests of the south coast of New South Wales, a new pioneering chapter was about to start for the Murray family from County Fermanagh, Ireland.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1.  OSBORNE, A.  Notes on the present state and prospects of society in New South Wales, London, 1833,     p.278 (cited in Henderson 1983)
  2.  OSBORNE, Frank. ‘Osbornes in early Illawarra’, IHSB, March 1987.
  3.  See OSBORNE, Frank. ‘Osbornes in Early Illawarra’, IHSB, March 1987.
  4.  OSBORNE, Frank. Letter to J. Dawes dated 2 Jan 2000.
  5.  OSBORNE, Frank.  ‘Osbornes in early Illawarra’ IHSB, March 1987.
  6.  1841 NSW Census.
  7.  HENDERSON, K&T. 1983 p143.
  8.  HENDERSON, K&T. 1983, p.113.
  9.  Anne became a farmer in her own right, calling her property at West Dapto ‘Osborne House.’
  10.  RUDD, Jenny O’Neill. The flying Cosgroves. Sydney, 1996, p.32.
  11.   It is believed that Alick Osborne built Avondale for his daughter Anne who married Robert Marshall, a relative of Henry’s wife, Sarah Marshall Avondale was also the name chosen by Charles Murray for his first landholding in the Shoalhaven area.
  12.  SWAIN, Dell.  Blow by blow: the family of John Blow, Grose Valley  NSW:D. Swain, n.d.
  13.  McDONALD, W.G.  Nineteenth-Century Dapto.  Wollongong:IHS, 1976, p.30.
  14.  McD0NALD 1976, P.31.
  15.  Commonwealth Jubilee: Wollongong celebrations, IHS, 1951 (pamphlet).