Corporal Wixtead and the fate of Newcastle’s first settlement in 1801

For many years we’ve wondered about the early settlement of Newcastle in 1801 under the command of Corporal Wixstead.

We first found out about him in Huntington’s serialised history of Newcastle published in the Newcastle Morning Herald of 1897:

Corporal Wixstead arrived at Hunter’s River aboard the schooner Francis on the 23rd July 1801, accompanied by eight privates and 12 prisoners. He soon became unpopular through favouring some of the convicts more than others. A letter was forwarded to Governor King containing a numbers of charges against the Corporal as to the free indulgence of spirits and the bad behaviour of some women who had been allowed to accompany them. (Huntington, H.W.H. History of Newcastle and the Northern District. Dec 7, 1897 Number XXXVI)

The Court of Inquiry into Corporal Wixstead’s conduct was held in October 1801, presiding magistrates were Ensign Barrallier and Dr. Mason. The corporal was found guilty of imprudence, but acquitted of a charge of converting spirits to his own use. He had appropriated a large quantity of spirits, and had distributed the liquor at different times within a few days, giving everyone an equal share. What spirits remained he kept, agreeable to the wish of the soldiers and prisoners. At first every one of the settlers disavowed any knowledge of a letter to the Governor containing the charges, but the corporal found the culprit and brought him forward to deny the charges. The prisoners wanted a new commandant, but never contemplated they would get a worse task master than the corporal, whom the magistrates considered too quiet a man to govern such a set as he had to deal with. When they discovered that the corporal’s successor was going to be Dr Mason they applied to the corporal to know if he would join them in “jacketing” Mason should he prove too severe. The conduct of one of the women, Harriett Woods, was so incorrigible that even the soldiers had drummed her out of society. (Huntington, H.W.H. History of Newcastle and the Northern District. Dec 10, 1897 Number XXXVII)

We were always frustrated that we could never find an official record of the incident until now. The problem has occurred because of the variant spellings of his name. Huntington refers to him as “Wixstead” while other variants exist such as “Wixtead, “Wixted” and Mason’s own misspelling as “Wextead” have located pay dirt within the official Historical Records of New South Wales which we share with you now.

Thanks to recent additional information by historian Jen Willets, David Murray, and the local treasure the late Jack Delaney who tracked down as much as he could find on Newcastle’s early settlements in his final book “Newcastle Its First Twenty Years; The Irish Rebellion and the Settlement of Newcastle, NSW 1804” (Stockton NSW 2004).

[Jack Delaney writes:] In a letter written in the last days of June or July 1801. (See the copy held in King’s Papers at the Mitchell Library, Sydney and also HRNSW, Vol. IV pp.428-429.) King informed Paterson that he intended to open a small military post at Coal River. For this purpose he was sending Corporal J. Wixted and five privates of the N.S.W. Corps. He went on to state that he was also sending a young man named Cole, recently arrived as a convict soldier guard on Earl Cornwallis on Wednesday, 10th June, to be the store keeper at the new Coal Harbour military post. King also advised Paterson in his letter that he, the Governor, had endeavoured to supply the immediate wants of the military post for building huts etc.. Lieutenant James Grant in his own published account says that he had his seamen construct a convenient hut for the colliers:

We were now growing short of provisions, and no vessel ar riving from Sydney, we set about making preparations for our return thither. There was now a small establishment made for the colliers : I had built them a convenient hut to shelter them ; I left them a boat and seine, with what provisions I was able to spare, besides arms, ammunition and tools. We took our de parture for Sydney on the 22d of July, 1801, and arrived there on the 25th following, having met with nothing worth recording during this passage of three days.  – Grant, James. The narrative of a voyage of discovery performed in his majesty’s vessel the Lady Nelson of sixty tons burthen, with sliding keels; in the years 1800, 1801, and 1802, to New South Wales p.166

[Thanks to Jen Willets for the following reference from the Historical Records of Australia]

Acting Governor King to the Duke of Portland
(Despatch marked “Separate,” per whaler Albion: acknowledged by Lord Hobart, 29th August 1802.)
(Historical Records of Australia Vol III pp. 167-169

(Extract  – 21 August 1801 pp. 168-169)But it is much to regretted that the entrance into the harbour is so very shallow and difficult, as the wind and time of tide must always be consulted in going in or out; and even under the most favourable circumstances there is the greatest cause for being more than commonly careful. However, notwithstanding this disadvantage, the other advantages respecting the very great quantity of coals to be got there, and the immense quantity of shells for lime, being so highly spoken of by those who went on that survey, I have established a small post there, * consisting of a trusty non commissioned officer and eight privates, with twelve prisoners to collect coals for such Government vessels as can got for them.

*Note 66 (pp.772 – 773)

A brief attempt at settlement at Coal Harbour (now the port of Newcastle) was made by Hugh Meehan, of the Anna Josepha, on a voyage to procure coal and timber. He constructed a saw-pit at Freshwater Bay, within the north head of the harbour, and after obtaining a cargo, he returned to Port Jackson on the 29th May 1801, after a stay of nearly a month.

In the month of June following (1801), a detachment was taken to the harbour in the Lady Nelson and Francis, and settled at Collier’s Point on the south side of the harbour. The site was chosen by Lieutenant – Governor Paterson, after hearing the reports of two miners, named Broadbent and Platt. The detachment consisted of corporal Wixtead, in command, five privates, and twelve convicts. The method of mining was very crude; three of the convicts were employed getting coal, whilst six were employed in carrying it to the seaside in baskets, the output under these conditions being three tons per diem.

Wixtead was soon involved in disputes, and, about three months after the commencement of the settlement, Martin Mason was appointed magistrate and superintendent. Before the 14th November the population had been increased, and included Mason, a corporal, five privates, and sixteen convicts. On the 21st November, Mason reported that he was raising nine tons per diem with the labour of three miners and three carriers working five hours a day. Four mines were then opened, one being 34 yards underground, a second 31 yards, a third 27 yards, and a fourth 10 yards. All were working on a seam 36 inches thick, containing 14 inches of clay and rubbish, and overlying this was a seam of 18 inches good coal.

In the meantime regulations and royalties to govern mining by private individuals had been issued in general orders, dated 3rd July, 1801 (see page 257)

Mason shortly afterwards misconducted himself, and before the end of the year all were withdrawn excepting the five privates. Shortly after the settlement was abandoned.

The locality was then known as Coal Harbour, but the following quotation from the Christian Observer, dated July 1802, is curious, and may have suggested the modern name:- “Governor Hunter had formed a small settlement at Hunter River for the purpose of working the coal, which is of the same nature with that of Newcastle.”

According to Governor King, Corporal Wixtead was recommended by Captain McArthur:

[Draft in King’s handwriting, not dated, but evidently written on or about July, 1801.]

GOVERNOR KING TO COLONEL PATERSON. (King Papers.) Excerpt:

…From your representation, and the two gentlemen with you, I guard. am so anxious to hope for great advantages from that river that I have sent Corporal Wixtead and five privates to take post there. Wixtead is recommended by Captain McArthur, and the privates are of his own choice. I knew him formerly, and his character was always good. Among the soldiers who came out in the Earl Cornwallis is a young man named Cole, brother to a captain in the Navy and a clergyman of that name who is chaplain to the Duke of Clarence, from all whom I have received letters about him. He is also brother-in-law to Major Creswell. When he came here soldier I put him into the store with Captain McArthur’s concurrence, and now, I think, is a fair opportunity of putting it in his power to merit the esteem of his superiors here and his friends at home. I have, therefore, requested Captain McArthur to allow him to go as storekeeper and to issue the provisions. I have recommended Wixtead and him to be together. By the enclosure you will see that I have endeavoured to supply their immediate wants, for building huts, &c. The situation I will thank you to fix on, and in addition to the instructions I enclose you will be so good to add any other you may judge proper and necessary. As a great many coals may be ready, I hope soon to see the schooner back again, and however much the public service has and will benefit by your discretion and assistance, and that of Mr. Harris, where you are, yet I beg you will make your stay or departure quite convenient to yourself. But in the event of your remaining until the survey is completed, I am well assured that every arrangement you may desires see proper to make will be not only judicious but highly beneficial to the public service, and to that particular part that you are now engaged in. – HRNSW Vol IV pp. 428-429

[Jack Delaney writes (p.42-44)]: John Wixted, whose surname appears in the records under a variety of spellings, was born circa 1760, possibly at Plymouth. The name “Wixted”, as shown on the N.S.W. Corps pay sheets is used here. John Wixted was in the Marine Corps when he traveled on board Sirius in the First Fleet, as a member of the convict guard. Lieutenant Phillip Gidney King was the second lieutenant on this vessel, and went on to spend time at Norfolk Island.

Wixted was sent to Norfolk Island on Thursday, 4th March 1790 and returned to Port jackson to enlist as a corporal in the N.S.W. Corps on Friday, 13th April 1792. His service appears to have been chequered by a pattern of promotions to corporal and his reductions to the rank of private. The N.S.W. Corps pay sheets show that Wixted has been transferred to Captain Thomas Prentice’s company on Monday, 17th February 1800 and later show that on Tuesday, 9th June 1801, Private John Wixted was again promoted to corporal, and that he had been ‘detached” from his company on the same date for special duties. Corporal Wixted and his detachment travelled to Coal River on the Colonial schooner Francis to establish a small military post, departing Port Jackson on Saturday, 25th July 1801. (Ref: Cumpston, J.S., Shipping Arrivals and Departures, 1788-1825.) Also on board were twelve convicts being sent to Coal River to collect coal.

[The N.S.W. Corps pay sheets], May to June 1801, show that Corporal John Wixted and sex privates in the period May-June 1801 had been selected for special duties and in this period were awaiting “boat transport” from Sydney. These same soldiers’ names appear on the pay sheets and all are shown as “Detached” for the periods: 1801 June to July; July to August; August to September; September to October.

In the period October to November 1801 all these same soldiers, on a “corrected notation”, are shown as “Detached to Hunter River”. It does seem reasonable to assume that this was their situation from June 1801 to October 1801.

In the period November to December 1801 a change of personnel was made. Privates Thomas Lawrence, Robert Cardwell. John Curry and Jerimiah Smith were replaced by Privates George Hazler, Michael Murphy, George Platt and Thomas Rowden, all four from Captain Thomas Prentice’s Company. This maintained the detachment strength of a corporal and six privates.

[Jack Delaney writes (p.44)]: In the period December 1801 to January 1802, Private George Platt was withdrawn and not replaced. This meant that the detachment strength was reduced to a corporal and five privates.

The period January to February 1802, Private Francis Kiskalls was withdrawn and not replaced. This withdrawal of another private soldier reduced the small detachment to a corporal and four privates. This strength was maintained with the same individuals, namely, Corporal John Wixted, Privates William Hamilton, George Hazler, Michael Murphy and Thomas Rowden, until the end of the period, April to May 1802. The N.S.W. Corps pay sheets show that all the members of the small military detachment had been returned to their respective Companies for the N.S.W. Corps pay sheets period May 1802 to June 1802.

Unfortunately, by October 1801 something had gone awry with the settlement, Corporal Wixstead was accused of converting spirits to his own use, through an anonymous letter, and Mr Mason and Ensign Francis Barrallier were quickly tasked to look into the matter of a potential court martial. Mason reported that their investigation had found that Corporal Wixstead had allowed the entire settlement of soldiers and convicts to be given their spirits in equal share, at different times, and this quantity was all consumed in a few days. They must of had a party and Harriet Wood was singled out as having made a spectacle of herself and sent packing. Obviously the ring leaders through the letter wished to ‘jacket’ Wixstead (i.e. remove him by underhand means – see Vaux’s Flash language), who was described by Mason as being too “too quiat a man to govern such a set as he had to deal with.” But, to their dismay, upon finding that Mr Mason would be his replacement, they had second thoughts and approached Corporal Wixstead to see if he would join them to ‘jacket’ Mason instead if the new commandant proved too severe. Severe he was, and justifiably Wixstead wouldn’t have a bar of the conspiracy.

MR. M. MASON* TO GOVERNOR KING. (King Papers.) Hunter’s River, 24th October, 1801. 24 oct.

Sir,

The reason assigned for not having more coals at hand—the men were allowed nine days for extr[a] labour in loading the Schooner last voyage, and four days geting fustic and propping the mines. With three minors and six carriers they have got three tons p’r day, often not so many. With the same number of minors I can get nine tons, and when we have wheelbarrows three carriers will be sufficient, and the other three can be emploied in taking them to the beach where the boats load. Can set three more minors to work immediatly, and in fourteen days six or eight more. If the mines are to be worked on an extensive scale, much may be done at a small expence to reduce labour by having a way laid with slabs from the pits, and a wharf run out upon a bank of stones and sand where boats may load at any time of tide without the men going in the water. As the men get farther under ground the coals are better in quality. Small candles, from twenty to twenty-four in the pound, are what is commonly used in coal-mines. They answear every purpose of large candles.

We want large scales and weights to weigh a basket or barrow load of coals, to know what quantity is got every day ; three hammers, seven pounds each ; six box barrows that hold two hundred weights each ; large and small baskets ; a blacksmith, with his tools, and some steel. The minors tools are badly constructed, and wants repairs. If we had boards and ironwork we can make the barrows here. The carpinter wants one broad ax, one adz, one long plain, jack do., smoothing do., compasses, two-foot rule, oilstone, and chalkline. J— M— returns by the schooner. H—-t W–d’s (Harriet Wood) behaviour has been such that even the soldiers have drummed her out of their society. The charges against Corporal Wextead at my first arrival every man disavowed any knowledge of the letter. Wextead himself found out the author and brought him forward. Mr. Barralear and myself investigated the business in the most deliberate manner. We let them have the sperits, agreeable to the wish of the soldiers and prisoners. It appears they had it at different times, everyone an equal share, but all in the course of a few days, and every man was well satisfied at the time. We disaprove of his imprudence, but acquit him of converting the sperits to his own use, and consider him too quiat a man to govern such a set as he had to deal with. It was fixt business, and some of the prisoners had gon so far as to say who would be appoint to command here if they jacketed him. Three weeks before my arrival a letter was sent to inform them of my appointment, which made them all good friends, and they had actually before my arrival applied to Wextead to know he would join with them to jacket myself if severe. They have got a change, but not the change they wished to have. Fred. Kirkwold is gon up the river with Mr. Grimes and Barrallear, to see where the cardjang* [sic] (Kurrajong) is found. The weather hath been against any attempt at curing fish, and I have not men to spair from other duty. The old net that was left here is not fit for anything. The situation of the settlement is unfavourable for cultivation ; the soil is poor and sandy, and the winds cut off everything.

Permit me to request some lines and fish-hooks may be sent for  the people, and at the same time the men your Excellency is pleased to allow me. I left the names of three of them with Mr. Thompson, and there is one man I spoak to Mr. Marsden for. I brought but one man with me, and cannot with properiety take any from public duty here for my private concerns.

Inclosed is an acc’t of provisions and stores received from Corporal Wexstead. A list of the civil, military, and prisoners victualed from the stores herewith, their rank, and how emploied, with the monthly return, which in futer will be made up to the first of every month, and accompanied with a return of how the people have been emploied the preceding month.

Permit me to subscribe myself, &c.,

M. MASON

Mason’s account is also interesting as it reports that Ensign Francis Barrallier, who is responsible for the June-July 1801 Survey has again gone up the river with Fred. Kirkwold and Mr Surveyor (C. ) Grimes (whose report dated the 11th December 1801 adds his title as ‘Acting Surveyor General’). This may have been the opportunity for Barrallier to chart the present day Paterson’s River, which he was unable to achieve during his first visit.

Mr Mason again mentions Wixstead, this time in allowing him to keep a woman that was brought with him, and with that he fades into the mists of time.

Mr. M. MASON TO GOVERNOR KING. (King Papers.)

Sir, Hunter’s River, 21st November, 1801.

I am sorry to hear of your Excellency’s indispition, and sincerely wish you better. I have 3,820 baskets of coal at hand, or 190 tons, if the baskets hold one hundredweight each. With three minors and three carriers I rais 180 baskets, or 9 tons a day. They can do this in five hours. One mine is 34 yards under ground ; one do., 31 ; one do., 27 ; one do., 10. I can set nine more minors to work immediatly, and with one drawer for each can rais 190 tons per week. The strata of coal we are now working is 3 foot high, out of which there is 14 inches of clay and other rubbish, so we have but 22 inches of neat coal ; over this there is a strata of 18 inches good coal. In Fresh Water Bay I can open a mine where there is a strata of 3 foot neat coal under the above two stratas ; the coals are of supereor quality. I send one cask as a specimen by this conveyance. I can open mines to set twenty men to work in Fresh Water Bay ; if there are not minors in the colony then many ruffens may be made good minors, and a wharf may he run out to reduce labour, that the schooner may be laden by twelve men in twelve hours if she can lay in the same situation where Mr. Palmer’s sloop loads. Plat is a good working minor ; I believe him to be a good man, but he cannot see much further into the ground than his pick cuts. Leveling and dialing are two necessary accomplishments for exploring those hills and conducting mines to save labour and carrey of the water. In boath I am deficient ; but if your Excellency will allow me James Meehen (who is with Mr. Grimes) for two or three months when Mr. Grimes can best spair him, I can acquire it, and at the same time learn to survey either a known or unknown country. I have not mentioned this to Mr. Grimes least he may supose I wish to interfear with his department. That is not the case ; it is to serve myself and inable me to asertain where to open any of the hills to the most adv’t’g. Nothing can be done at fishing with hooks and lines worth the loss of time. The aidagong [aid-de-camp] Kirkwald went up the river with Mr. Grimes and Barallear ; he returned sick. The small boat is still emploied in the survey, so we have but one boat, and if the schooner returns cannot load her without it ; here are but eight working hands, so that nothing bath been done. If lime be an object I can have a shipload at any time, without the ashes being mixt with it. The report of the country is rather unfavourable. Mr. Grimes and Barallear has found the natives disposed to be hostile. Between sixty and seventy came in here (men, women, and children) without spears, and manifested the most friendly disposetions. I fel in with a party some distance up the river who seemed to oppose our landing. I ordered the boat to pull from them, and called to some in their knoes [canoes], one of which had paid us a visit. We landed with him, and soon had an interview with his friends, about thirty men, women, and children, but many of them trembled when they shook hands with me. They saw we would ground the boat, and two of them came after us and paddled before us in their knoes [canoes] to shew us the deep water, and then pushed the boat over a small bank of mud. One of them came in here and stoal two blankets ; he had been drinking sperits when he came in. The mistry is where he got the sperits. The soldiers went after him. I posatively charged them not to shoot him ; we suspect there are white men with them. We have about eight days’ provisions in store after this day’s issue. I have issued forty-eight pounds of flour and twenty-four of pork to Mr. Palmer’s men. The storekeeper has sent the receipt to the Commissary’s Office. I put two of them to public labour one week, as they were not at work for Mr. Palmer. We are in want of lamps with covers to prevent spilling the oil when they are upset in the mines, oil and candles, soap, a whip saw, door locks and hinges, bricks for chimneys, unless your Excellency directs them to be made here. The soldiers have applied to me for grates and a man to fetch them coals and water. I have allowed Corporal Wextead the woman he brought with him, and the privates one woman to wash for them. George Plat, one of the soldiers, has applied for two blankets in lieu of them stolen by the natives. I wish to have for my own use a fusee, if there are any in the store, two pounds of gunpowder, six pair of small brass hinges and three small locks, 200 brads, a little glue, and a pair of scrues to make a press for flowers.

I have, &c.,

M. MASON.

It appears that Mason’s command of the settlement at Coal River came to an end with a mutiny.

[Jack Delaney writes p.45]: About the date of the above letter mason was promoting stronger efforts by the convicts. Floggings were frquent. The convict miners were again considering mutiny against Mason’s harsh methods. Only for Corporal Wixted’s intervention, it would seem that Martin Mason’s life was in danger. Finally, whilst there is no documentation for this information, it is said that Wixted at night smuggled Mason in a row boat to a small vessel, thought to be the Francis taking coal back to Port Jackson. Official records show that Martin Mason was recalled and that he left Coal River on Tuesday 8th December 1801. Corporal Wixted again took charge of activities at Newcastle.

On the  7th May 1811 Mr Mason provided evidence at the court martial of Lieutenant-Colonel George Johnson, major of the 102d regiment, late the New South Wales Corps, who was defending a charge of mutiny against him by the crown. It is within this evidence that he was questioned about what had occurred during his time at Coal River. The account is published in 1811

Paterson, G. The history of New South Wales, from its first discovery to the present time : comprising an accurate and interesting description of that vast and remarkable country ; and of the persons, manners, and customs of the natives; with a succinct detail of the establishment and progress of the English colony; including every important particular relative to the situation and conduct of the convicts : to which is added a description of Van Diemen’s Land and Norfolk Island, with reflections on the importance of the southern continent / compiled from the best and most recent authorities by G. Paterson. Newcastle-upon-Tyne : MacKenzie and Dent, 1811.

Mr Mason cross-examined by Lieut.-Col. Johnston.

You say you were once a magistrate: did not Gov. King dismiss you from the situation of a magistrate in consequence of a charge that was brought against you, of extreme inhumanity and indecency towards a female convict, named Elizabeth Hastings? It is a calumny: besides, I was never dismissed from being a magistrate; and here is my appointment to the command at Hunter’s River, after I had been withdrawn by Gov. King from Tongabbee, where the subject of this false accusation is pretended to have taken place.

Were you dismissed from the command at Hunter’s River.

I was not dismissed: I withdrew from It, assigning my reasons to Gov. King, who told me, that in consequence of the then state of the colony, and the opposition he was meeting with, he was unable to enforce his own measures: from this cause it was I withdrew, and never returned to the detachment at Hunter’s River: and here is the document be gave me on that occasion in his own hand-writing to resume my situation as a magistrate at Tongabbee.

Were you not removed by order of Governor King from your command at the Coal River in consequence of your very severe and cruel treatment of the convicts? I have answered that question already; I repeat again, that it is a calumny; if it will not be intruding upon the time of the court, I can relate the situation in which I found that settlement when I went there. It had been under the command of a corporal only, and it would shock humanity to give a precise detail of the circumstances in which I found it. It was a settlement consisting of the most desperate outcasts in the whole country, who were sent there, 100 miles distance from Port Jackson, as a punishment, and to prevent them from committing those rapes, robberies, and other enormous excesses, that had been greatly prevalent for a long period in the settlement of Sydney: that is well known to every gentleman from the colony who is now in England. In such a place, with such men as these to govern, and without any one person of a different description, but a corporal and six privates of the New South Wales Corps, myself the only person there who had gone out a free settler, it is easy to judge of the situation I was in when the convicts mutinied. When the soldiers had taken a boat-load of provisions and divided it among themselves and the convict women whom they lived with, under pretence of arrears, the convicts then demanded their arrears also; and upon my refusing to accede to their demand, which if I had done I should have been left without a week’s provision in store; there was a mutiny among the convicts, and through my own personal exertions I suppressed that mutiny: I held the ringleader in my left hand, while I defended myself with a pistol in the right, till he was secured and punished.
– Paterson, G. The History of New South Wales… pp. 578-579

[Jack Delaney writes: (p.45-46)]

Several sources indicate that after Martin Mason’s return to Sydney Governor King ordered an inquiry into his activities during his period of supervision at the small settlement of Coal River. The magistrates are said to have been Judge Advocate Atkins, Surgeon John Harris and Surgeon Thompson. Despite research at the Archives and in Governor King’s papers at the Mitchell Library the author was unable to find when and who Governor King appointed to conduct this inquiry.

One report records Dr Mason’s tyrannical character, plus criticism of him by Judge Advocate Atkins, the Rev. Samuel Marsden, Mr Palmer and other leading colonists of the time. Statements made by Martin offering his version, give a doubtful ring to his words (see Huntington). I found at State Records statements made by four convicts, Joseph Camer, Samuel Carr, Thomas Dillon and Charles Fallman, which are said to be evidence given by them to a magistrate’s inquiry on Saturday, 2nd June 1802, about Martin Mason’s treatment of the convicts at Coal River in late [1801]. The following is a precis of each of these four statements.

1. Joseph Camer states, “I was one of a part of prisoners at Coal River, carrying out Martin Mason’s tasks.” Mason had set a target of 60 baskets of coal each day. At first Mason gave some help to the miners but this was later withdrawn. In place of this help to Camer, Mason replaced it by an old woman. Soon after, she was withdrawn. Camer stated that alone and unassisted he struggled to meet the task set, under the threat of 100 lashes if the task was not met.

2. Samuel Carr deposed that he had been given too much work in the task required by Mason at Coal River. He was worked constantly on Saturdays and frequently on the Sunday. On one occasion he was sent to Rabbit Island for three days to gouge three tons of coal a day. He was not given any drinking water. Carr stated that he was given no reason from Mason for sending him thither.

3. Thomas Dillon’s evidence indicated that he, a convict miner, had planned to escape from Coal River, because of the starvation placed on them for the hard duty required from them by Mason. Dillon stated that he had become in a poor state of health, because he was weakened by starvation and overwork.

4. Charles Freeman’s evidence showed that he was required to work nine hours a day, and frequently in water for the whole of this time, until he produced the sixty bushels of coal set. When Freeman asked for the same provisions the soldier had, he was put in irons and his hands tied behind him for one night, and was flogged the next morning. Freeman swore the floggings were frequent.

During my research at State Records I did not find the decision made by these magistrates. I am at a loss to find how these convicts were sent to Sydney for the magistrates’ hearing, or the date they were sent.

There are further interesting aspects. Soon after his return to Sydney, Surgeon Martin Mason appears to have taken up private practice at Windsor and Parramatta, the first time this profession had been  practiced in Australia. When Governor Bligh was made to return to England, Martin Mason, a supporter of Bligh, left his wife and family and also returned to England to give evidence on Bligh’s behalf, and to support the ex-governor. After this very lengthly Bligh hearing, Mason remained in England, and died there.

On Tuesday, 3rd April 1810 John Wixted became a sergeant with the 102nd Regiment. John Wixted married Ann Price, and in April 1817, they returned to England on [the] Dromedary.

According to Jack Delany’s research it appears the military guard left Coal River sometime around the end of April/early May 1802. After this episode it is unclear what became of the settlement, it is generally assumed that it was abandoned, not to be re-established until March 1804. However, there is evidence that coal continued to be discovered, mined and transported from there during the years 1802 and 1803. For example the Sydney Gazette reported on the 8th May 1803 that a new mine had been found there by John Platt, so we can assume he was still there working. Under whose command was it under? Perhaps it is incorrect to say that the settlement was abandoned at all.

Gionni Di Gravio


12 thoughts on “Corporal Wixtead and the fate of Newcastle’s first settlement in 1801

  1. The plot thickens. Congratulations on adding another piece to the jig-saw of Novocastrian history.
    I’m glad to see Huntington’s history being used. It seems to me that he deserves more recognition than he usually receives for his contribution to our history at a time when it was impossible to access many of the official records.

  2. Doesn’t Governor King seeing fit to dispatch only a Corporal to oversee the new settlement, and King’s predecessor John Hunter ignoring Shortland’s coal discovery completely together with the apparent ‘blank’ years 1802-1804, indicate that initially little importance was attached to the discovery of coal. it would seem that at the time there was no concept of the benefits that Newcastle was able to offer and that the only purpose of the new settlement was punishment. Reading between the lines Wixstead may have been seen to be too lenient.

  3. A little more to add to the story……Corporal John Wixstead (also Winstead) probably arrived on the ‘Alexander’, part of the First Fleet in 1788. The Sydney Gazette on 5th March 1809 also has a John Wixsted at Newcastle on a list of people who were granted approval to hold licenses there.

    There seems to have been no commandant at Newcastle after the official settlement was withdrawn in 1802. ………
    Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, vol. III, p.406. Governor King to the Duke of Portland, Sydney New South Wales, 1st March 1802……
    ‘In my despatch No. 5 sent herewith I informed your Grace of my having formed a settlement at the Coal Harbour, the persons I had sent there, and two ships having taken a quantity to India and a vessel having taken a cargo to the Cape on their own account. That a quantity of fustick was found there, and that I had sent two officers to explore it further than Colonel Paterson had time to do, the surveyor’s opinion of that place and a small copy of the Harbour and adjacent country I have the honor to enclose – As the person who went there in the command, conducted himself improperly, I was obliged to withdraw him, and not having any person I could send there in his room, I withdrew the convicts and left only the guard – As the want of vessels to send coals to the Cape prevents that being done, and as coals can always be got from thence for the use of the Colony, I shall not send any more people to remain there until I can find a fit person to take charge of that settlement, which, except for the coals and fustick, seems to promise no other advantages than what we possess here.’

    The coal taken in 1802-1803 seems to have been by private enterprise. The vessels ‘James’ and ‘Raven’ owned by Thomas Raby (Reiby) brought coal from Newcastle which was loaded onto the ‘Cato’ bound for the Cape and England in June 1803. (SG 12 June 1803); and the ‘Edwin’ owned by John or Robert Campbell was also used to bring coal to Sydney. In February 1804 just a month before the convict uprising at Castle Hill, Messrs Kable and Underwood sent the schooner ‘Governor King’ for a load of coal. (SG 19 Feb 1804)

    1. Thanks Jen. Huntington uses an actual date for the arrival of Wixstead, I haven’t been able to find the source in the Historical Records of New South Wales, have you found a source for the date 23 July 1801?

  4. Sorry, I haven’t come across a source of Wixtead’s date of arrival at Coal River being 23rd July 1801.
    From James Grant’s account in ‘Narrative of a Voyage of Discovery, performed in his Majesty’s Vessel the Lady Nelson’. p. 153., the Francis returned from Coal River to Sydney with a load of coal on 26th June eleven days after arrival. James Grant on the Lady Nelson left Coal River on 22nd July and arrived back in Sydney on 25th July 1801.
    The Francis was in bad repair and very weak according to a return dated 30th June 1801. (HRA Series 1, vol.III p. 92.)

    In Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, vol. III………on p.168 in correspondence dated 21st August 1802 Governor King to the Duke of Portland –
    (Extract)….”But it is much to regretted that the entrance into the harbour is so very shallow and difficult, as the wind and time of tide must always be consulted in going in or out; and even under the most favourable circumstances there is the greatest cause for being more than commonly careful. However, notwithstanding this disadvantage, the other advantages respecting the very great quantity of coals to be got there, and the immense quantity of shells for lime, being so highly spoken of by those who went on that survey, I have established a small post there, * consisting of a trusty non commissioned officer and eight privates, with twelve prisoners to collect coals for such Government vessels as can got for them.”

    *Note 66 (p.772)…. (Extract)” In the month of June (1801), a detachment was taken to the harbour in the Lady Nelson and Francis, and settled at Collier’s Point on the south side of the harbour. The site was chosen by Lieut-Gov Paterson, after hearing the reports of two miners, named Broadbent and Platt. The detachment consisted of corporal Wixtead, in command, five privates, and twelve convicts……Wixtead was soon involved in disputes, and, about three months after the commencement of the settlement, Martin Mason was appointed magistrate and superintendent. Before the 14th November the population had been increased, and included Mason, a corporal, five privates, and sixteen convicts……..
    Mason shortly afterwards misconducted himself, and before the end of the year all were withdrawn excepting the five privates. Shortly after the settlement was abandoned.”

  5. Limited logistics and human numbers, along with prohibitive costs (the colony was still fundamentally an extended military operation in 1801), kept Sydney from keeping the camp active. Seems it was left to fishing vessels and timber cutters who worked for blokes like Lord (or men with access to Govt sweetheart contracts). Mason, from the extant available reports and letters, presents as a quintessential Englishman of the time (still in existence today) who thrived/thrives on the vanity of minor differences that was/is the English class system. For mine, Mason was a petty tyrant (or martinet to use the vocab of the time) after he was given temporary control of camp after Wixstead.

  6. Yes, David, I re-read the news report from 1803, and John Platt, the miner originally working on the 1801 Survey Mission, was now (i.e. 1803) in the employment of J. Palmer discovering a new mine there:

    1803, May 8 Sydney Gazette, 3a, a new mine is found at Hunter’s River and a sample will be sent to England on the Glatton.

    “A new Mine has been found at Hunter’s River, which is likely to yield an abundance of the finest coal that has ever been witnessed. The discovery was made by J. Platt, a miner in the employ of J. Palmer, Esq. and a quantity of the coal brought round by the Edwin. A sample will be sent home by His Excellency, in His Majesty’s Ship Glatton, and from the accounts given of the mine, we have every reason to affirm, that it will prove highly beneficial to the general interests of the Colony. The coal resembles that found in the Colony at Leith, near Edinburg, but more flexible, is of a rich appearance, and easy to be worked.”

    1. Yer right John. “The Gazette” makes numerous mention of boats freighting coal and cedar from Hunters River pre 1804 settlement.
      2 Oct 1803: “On Friday returned from Hunter’s River with a freight of cedar, the brig Nautilus”.
      12 March 1803: “On Monday came in, from Hunter’s River, the sloop John. T. Williams Master, with a quantity of very fine cedar plank”. (plank suggests they were milling the logs at Newy – tough work with rudimentary tools).
      It also seems to have been a known stopover for over optimistic pirate-convicts heading for the Asian trade routes:
      August 1803: “Druce and the other persons taken into custody at Hunter’s River, were re-examined on suspicion of the Burglary and Robbery committed in the house of Thomas Larkham at the Field of Mars; Larkham’s wife, who was on that occasion used with much cruelty being requested to survey the prisoners attentively, in order to ascertain whether any among them had assisted in the degradation, positively pointed out one of the parties and entertained a strong suspicion of two others among the number: In consequence they were all remanded to be further examined upon this charge”.
      All good stuff.

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