Thursday, December 7, 2017

The mystery shaft in Somers Street, Lawson

Top of the shaft with protective grill, 2017 author photo
  The structure in question is an open vertical shaft, some seven metres deep by two metres in diameter, cut into the top of the sandstone cliff at the end of Somers Street, Lawson. A domed, iron grill protects the top; the bottom of the shaft is accessible via a narrow tunnel about 0.7 m in diameter and 1.6 m from the base of the cliff. It has been dug by hand, as the pick marks show in a series of concentric cuts, each about the depth of a pick blade, so it predates mechanical excavation methods. The land is located on portion 22, Parish of Lawson, comprising 50 acres taken up by Frederick Somers in the 1870s. Below the cliff is a large area of cleared, mostly level land with several small streams. Its local name is the ‘convict pit’, but was it a convict lock-up or something else?

No records of the shaft being used as a convict lockup or for storage of supplies or of it even existing have been located in the official reports of the colonial surveyors, police, superintendents of the iron-gangs, the journals of William Cox the road builder, Sir Thomas Mitchell the Surveyor General and supervising engineer on the Western Road, the account of Governor Macquarie’s journey over the new road in 1815 or any of the accounts of early 19th Century travellers over the Blue Mountains to Bathurst (Mackaness 1965), not does it appear on the 1878 Parish of Linden survey (Dept. of Lands 1878).

Portion 22 Frederick Somers 1870, road reserve for Somers St
visible on eastern boundary, no evidence of shaft shown   
Historical records show the convicts who laboured on building William Cox’s 1815 road across the Blue Mountains were skilled workers and tradesman – masons, cobblers, smiths and carpenters, they welcomed the chance to earn a pardon, their ticket of leave or emancipation (Yeaman 1983). By the 1830s there were well established convict stockades at Springwood, Mt Victoria and Cox’s river. At Mt Victoria in addition to a tall stockade fence built from upright stakes to enclose the convicts, there were barracks for the soldiers, constables' huts, a cottage for the officers, a Commandant's house and a store house on this major site. So there was already an efficient stockade system in operation and troublesome men were punished by being put in leg irons and chains. The surviving contemporary accounts of life in these stockades emphasise the fact that the convict road gangs moved on as the road building progressed, and all wore distinctively marked convict clothing to discourage escaping (Karskens 1984).

Top view looking down shaft, author photo
Would the shaft have been an efficient way of holding convicts? The mean height of male convicts around 1820 was 168 cm - about 5 foot 5 inches (Nicholas 1988 p. 81). Even allowing for their smaller size, three or four men lying down would be a cosy fit and five or six standing in the narrow space would be pretty squishy but with more than five metres of waste space above them. The ‘convict hole’ is a myth, a piece of local folklore and the idea is untenable.

The shaft would also be impractical for the storage of supplies because of its narrow vertical nature; it is simply the wrong shape. There is a small, partially excavated earth and rock chamber at Bull’s Camp, also known popularly as the ‘convict hole’ which in fact was used by the road builders for storage of tools, equipment and explosives (Merriman 2014). 

Another suggestion has been that it was a kiln for producing lime for building or tanning and that the tunnel at the base was for air draft (Fox 2009). However there are no commercial deposits of limestone in the area, the nearest being at Wallerawang or Portland. The common feature of early calcining kilns was a wide, shallow egg-cup shaped burning chamber, with an air inlet at the base known as the "eye", all constructed of brick. This type of brick kiln occurs at Hill End and there is even a brick, shale processing kiln at Mt Victoria at the Asgard Swamp Mine (Higginbotham and Jack 1982). Heap and pit burning were used from the early days of settlement to produce lime from shell, and where simple shaft kilns were used they incorporated a separate brick firing chamber and ash boxes with brick or iron fire bars (Pearson 1990). None of this is in evidence at the Somers Street shaft and close inspection of the interior shows no evidence of intense heat such as soot accumulation, and spalling of the rock face. In fact, allowing for normal weathering, the internal pick marks are still fairly sharp and display the natural sandstone colouring. Nor is there any evidence of charcoal, ash, lime waste or limestone rubble in the vicinity, something to be expected if it had been a calcining kiln.   

Roasting kiln at Hill End, 2015 author photo
There are however a number of clues that reveal what may be the true nature of the shaft. It is adjacent to land on which a former dairy operated, and the 1985 study located the nearby remains of a dairy building, as well as rusty discarded milk churns, and recorded that traces of oat grain had been found inside the shaft at the base level. There are also surviving remnants of improved pasture in the cleared land below the shaft site, including subterranean clover varieties and rye grass (Merriman, 1985).
Milk churn located during the 1985 survey, 1985 author photo 
This area at the end of Somers Street below the cliff line has some of the best grazing land in Lawson and from the 1840s when the first settlers arrived in the area, was known as the Cow Pasture (Bratby and Stockton 1986). It was probably the site of a dairy from the 1880s when the local population began to increase following the arrival of the railway in 1867. The Mechanic’s Institute opened in 1896, and the town soon became a significant population centre in the Mid-Mountains between Springwood and Katoomba. Lawson was also the seat of local government for all of the Blue Mountains, apart from the Katoomba and Blackheath urban areas, from 1907 to 1947 (Bentley, 1986).

Aerial view in 1943 showing the dairy, shaft and cow pasture.
Photo courtesy SIX maps
Since the 19th Century milk production in much of SE Australia has necessitated supplementary feeding of stock due to the low soil fertility and the short growing season (Atkinson 1826). There were many small dairies operating in the Blue Mountains in the early 20th Century. They were often family run operations that may have employed two or three people and milked between ten and twenty cows. They delivered their own milk products and often sold from the dairy as well. There were as many as 20 small dairies operating in Katoomba in the 1920s-30s.

Geo. Whitte's dairy Katoomba 1912
Many of the guest houses of the period advertised the availability of fresh milk and local dairies were trusted suppliers. In 1946 Blackheath Council voted to oppose the introduction of the Milk board to regulate local dairies, not only due to the costs of meeting health regulations including pasteurisation, but “it was pointed out, in no uncertain manner, that the milk produced locally is far superior in quality to that imported into the area” (Blue Mountains Advertiser 1946). Blue Mountains Shire Council correspondence files record twelve dairies operating in Wentworth Falls in 1930 with two in Leura, four in Megalong, four in Mt Victoria and two in Mt Irvine (Local Studies files - Dairying) and see images.

The link between the shaft and dairy farming is confirmed by the minutes of Blue Mountains City Council’s Town Planning committee for 18 February 1970, which contains the following report from The Town Planner:

Proposed Historical Site, Lawson
Mr W Deverall of 70 Military Road, Dover Heights, has written to Council offering part of his land in Somers Street providing it is retained permanently as a historical site. His letter reads as follows:
“On portion of my property at Lawson there is, I think, one of the most historic mountain emblems.  It is not mythic but definitely this deep stone well has been hand-chiseled out by convicts.  I have studied this matter hard and after a good deal of research, I feel convinced this well has been used as an ensilage pit. At the bottom it has an opening enabling the contents to be drawn therefrom during the crossing of the Mountains or the making of the road.
This has become somewhat sacred to me and I would not like, at some future date for this historic emblem to be lost. If the Council should think the same as me about this matter, I would be pleased to dedicate this portion of my land to the Council to be kept in perpetuity.”

The ensilage pit was inspected by the Town Planning Committee in May, 1968, when the Lawson/Bullaburra Town Planning proposals were under consideration. It has not been possible to verify Mr Deverall’s statement that this is an ensilage pit but the Historical Society will be contacted before the Meeting to this end. It is considered that Council should accept Mr Deverall’s offer with a surround of approximately one acre as illustrated in the accompanying sketch No.D2357.

Map identifying the silo from the 1970 Council report
As well as confirming the stock feed hypothesis, this document gives us 1970 a possible date for the installation of the protective grill covering the top - Council would have been quick to recognise the safety issues presented by the open shaft. However the supposition that the shaft dates from the crossing of the Mountains cannot be supported. It is certainly true that a shortage of suitable stock feed was identified as a problem by early travellers; Blaxland’s 1813 journal of the first successful crossing of the Blue Mountains records the explorers’ daily search for feed and water for the party’s horses.

Before we turn to a further source of evidence for dairying on the site, let us look at milk quality and how it was determined. In the early 20th century there were two relatively simple tests for quality available in small dairies. One was a basic test of specific gravity using a lactometer to determine adulteration; this would reveal watering down of milk. The second was the Babcock test, invented in the 1890s, which was the first inexpensive and practical test that could measure the actual fat content of milk. A manual cream separator would be used to extract the cream that was either churned into butter or when combined with milk protein produces cheese, both were value added products for the dairy farmer or milk processor. The Babcock test was also utilized by farmers to selectively breed for cows producing milk of higher butter fat content.

Milk inspection records 1924 showing James Linton and
Miss McBriar among the Lawson dairies
Blue Mountains Shire Council rate records show that in 1914 the owner of Portion 22 was James Linton a saddler from Sydney who operated the Glen Dairy there until around 1922. Blue Mountains Shire Council milk inspectors records show butter fat testing was carried out at the dairy from 1915 to 1924 and fines of 20/- and 40/- were imposed for adulteration - another reason to use supplementary feeding to maintain milk quality. A Miss McBriar operated the dairy in the 1920s and in 1939 a Mrs Ross was operating the dairy after her husband deserted her (Bentley pers. Com.). In 1945 on the death of James Ross the property was left to the Sons of Temperance, Sydney. The dairy and residence existed until they were lost in the catastrophic December 1957 bushfires.

Dairy listing 1930
The capacity of the shaft may be calculated to be about 16 tonnes of grain or ensilage. Ensilage is made from pasture plants cut when green, which is compacted, sealed and allowed to ferment without air, forming a material similar to sauerkraut; cattle relish it once they get used to the taste (Woods 1883, Sutherland 1980). Grain may also have been delivered by cart or truck down Somers Street from the highway or railway to the top of the silo from where it could then be removed at the base as required for stock feeding. A full silo of grain would by my calculations feed a dozen cows for six months and so ensure security and continuity of milk production.

The economics of dairy farming easily demonstrate that supplementary feeding was a worthwhile investment to maintain production. A small dairy of 15-20 milking cows producing an average of two gallons (9 litres) each per day over two milkings, much less than today’s breeds, could return around £40.0.0 per week, before costs, based on milk prices of around 4 pence per pint. The weekly basic wage in the 1920s was around £4.5.0. In today’s values £40.0.0 is equivalent to over $2,500 based on the CPI from 1920 to 2015, not a bad living, but a hard one, (see note for calculations below). Ken Porter whose family operated a dairy in north Leura in the 1930s with a milking herd of 80 cows, recalled in an oral history interview for Blue Mountains Library in 2010, that his father would get up at 2.30 am to begin milking at 4.00 am, seven days a week and his grandfather would still be making deliveries at 9.00 pm, no wonder he would often fall asleep at the dinner table; Ken began helping with the milking at age six, with his two brothers, and would often not arrive at school until 11o’clock in the morning (Levido 2010).

The cow pasture below Somers St, remains of The Glen dairy on right, 2017 author photo
Supplementary feeding came into sharp focus during the 1890s when Australia was in a grip of widespread drought, known as the Federation Drought . Ensilage was promoted as a secure means of fodder conservation by the principal of the Hawkesbury Agricultural College, who toured rural areas delivered lectures on silos and ensilage for dairy farming (Sydney Morning Herald 1891). It is quite possible that this raised awareness and prompted the building of our silo.

There are other early examples of pit silos, including the seventeen grain storage silos located in the sandstone bedrock on Cockatoo Island, these date from the 1840s, and  have a small top entrance opening up to a cavity six metres deep and seven metres wide. Earth silage pits are found on dairy farms along the Nepean River at Castlereagh and may also date from as early as the 1840s (Godden et. al. 2008). The Somers Street shaft may be seen as part of an established tradition of on-farm fodder conservation and storage. Ensilage and chaff were also widely available from commercial suppliers (Maitland daily Mercury 1910) and may have been stored in the silo for protection from weather and vermin. Oats and barley were also grown locally for stock feed (Freemans’ Journal 1903).
Lawson guest house advertising pure local Jersey milk and cream, 1905
Based on average feeding rates of 3.5 kg of silage per day for a lactating Jersey cow weighing 450 kg and producing 13 litres of milk a day, a full silo containing 6 tonnes of fodder would provide continuous supplementary feeding for around a dozen cows for at least six months, and so ensure security and continuity of milk production. The limiting factor in milk production is actually water, with up to 4 litres of water required for every litre of milk produced (La Grange 2007). The nearest natural water source to the Glen dairy  is Cataract Creek a short distance away on the valley floor, in dry times water may have had to be carted and there may have been a well.

Beginning in the late 1860s there were camps of fettlers and navvies throughout the Blue Mountains as the railway line was pushed westwards from Penrith to Wentworth Falls by 1867 and over the Great Zigzag to Bowenfels by October 1869 – here were men used to cutting through rock and they were not in short supply.  In fact the labourers who worked on the Mountains line, with their families, contributed significantly to the growth and development of the towns along its route (Croft 1982).

Interior of the shaft showing pick marks, author photo, scale is 10 cm
2017 author photo
Construction of the shaft itself would have utilised traditional manual methods for road construction and rock cutting used throughout the Blue Mountains and elsewhere in the 19th Century. The work was usually done by a two man team with one man holding a long, sharpened steel jumperbar that was struck by the hammer man and rotated a quarter turn after each blow. This resulted in a series of holes from about 40 cm to 80 cm deep, the weakened rock could then be broken away with chisels or wedges. In a hand boring contest attended by 1,000 people in August 1888, five teams competed and the winners achieved bore holes 33 cm deep in hard granite in less than seven minutes, at a striking rate of 91 hits per minute, this would need two hammer men striking successive blows on the jumper.

Interior view of the silo showing access tunnel, 2017 author photo
The rock face was then cleaned up with a pick axe swung alternately from right and left, this produces the familiar angled cuts seen on many of the local railway cuttings and in our shaft. The space needed to swing the pick also determined the minimum diameter of the shaft. Although black powder and dynamite were available and used in the bigger road and rail cuttings, (Convict Trail 2017), it is unlikely they were used in our shaft for fear of shattering the cliff face. There is some evidence of coarse sandy, rock spoil in crevices on the cliff top, but most is visible as a mound at the base of the cliff outside the lower entrance tunnel, see photo.

Exterior view showing access tunnel in relation to cliff face and
mound of spoil 1985, author photo
So to summarise, the shaft post-dates the convict period and was probably excavated by skilled rock cutters employed on the numerous railway gangs living and working in the area, during the railway construction period of the 1880s and early 1900s. It is further proposed that it was the need to maintain milk production, perhaps prompted by the severe drought of the period 1896-1902, that prompted the significant economic investment in providing supplementary fodder storage, either grain or ensilage and perhaps both, that is the origin what can now be identified as the rock silo in Somers Street, Lawson.

Ossie Smith's dairy Katoomba c. 1920
The Glen dairy below Somers Street with its associated silo was part of a wider picture of many small, township dairies in the Blue Mountains and elsewhere. Apart from using a cream separator and the Babcock tester, they showed little evidence of the technological changes that would transform the dairy industry in the 20th century, now Australia’s third largest agricultural industry with a gross value of over $4 billion annually.

The Mountains dairies continued to operate into the 1950s due to the demand for fresh milk by the local community that valued their local milk and wanted nothing to do with the so called ‘imported’ stuff. Before their eventual demise they were the last remnant, on a human scale, of a cultural adaptation that stretches back into prehistory and still survives in many rural and small scale societies in parts of Europe, Africa and Asia, where milch animals have included not only cows but sheep, goats, camels, donkeys, horses, buffalo and reindeer.

Ossie Smith's milk cart c. 1920
The importance of milk was apparent from the beginning of European settlement 1788. When the First Fleet arrived at Sydney cove, it brought one bull, four cows and one calf. These animals were to supply milk to the new colony and to serve as foundation stock for future herds. There were many setbacks in the first year (poor soils and pastures being a major concern) and within the first four months of settlement the original herd had wandered off in search of better food. Seven years later the herd was found near the Nepean River, numbering 40 cows and 2 bulls. During those early years, famine, drought and a lack of farming experience meant that many of the initial shipments of dairy cattle were slaughtered for meat. After these initial difficulties, the herd increased from 200 cows in 1796, to 1,044 in 1800 and rapidly to 34,500 head by 1825, and went on to form the basis of the dairy industry as we know it. (ABS, 2004).

Full fat cow’s milk is recognised as a good source of nutrition for brain development and generations of school children have been nurtured on milk with clear health benefits (Adee et. al. 2017). The difference now is that most children will never know the warm, rich smells of a milch cow chewing her cud, or experience the drama of a busy dairy at sunrise. Milk products are now consumer items that come from supermarket cabinets via a supply chain. The standard of nutrition of most Western countries is now so high that cow’s milk is probably unnecessary in our diet (ibid.) and is just as likely to be enjoyed in a latte or a yogurt smoothie, yet in the not so distant past the village dairy formed an essential part of small town life.


Stan Bentley for personal conversations during the 1985 research, Stan was a member of Springwood Historical Society and as a young man worked in various Blue Mountains dairies; he supplied many of the personal details of the Lawson dairy operators.

The pioneering Blue Mountains archaeologist, Fr. Eugene Stockton first alerted me to the shaft and reported finding oat hulls in the interior; he has resided in Somers Street for many years and first explored the silo in the 1960s.  

Images from Blue Mountains Library Local Studies Collection and the author unless otherwise noted

Historical prices and modern values

Historic currency value calculator - 

References and further reading

ABS - Australian Bureau of Statistics, Year Book Australia, 2004. History of milk production in Australia. Retrieved from

Adee, Sally et. al. 2017. Milk, New Scientist No 3116, 11 March.

Atkinson, James 1826. An Account of the State of Agriculture and Grazing in New South Wales. Holborn, London, J. Cross.

Bentley, Stan 1986. Christmas Swamp, a history of Lawson. Springwood Historical Society.

The Blue Mountains Advertiser (Katoomba, NSW : 1940 - 1954) Blackheath Council To Oppose Milk Board (1946, April 12) , p. 6. Retrieved December 6, 2017, from

Blue Mountains Encyclopaedia1926 -7. Where to Stay and What to Do. Local Govt. Sydney, NSW Tourist Agency.

Blue Mountains Shire Council. Inspector’s Record of Inspections, 1915-1928. Lawson, Shire Chambers.

Bratby, D. (interviewer) and Stockton, J. (interviewee). 1984, February 18. Interview
with Julie Stockton by Diana Bratby [Audio file]. Speaking of the Past, Blue
Mountains Library. Retrieved from

Convict Trail: Formation of the Great North Road - . Accessed 28 November 2017.

Croft & Associates with Meredith Walker 1982. Blue Mountains Heritage Study – Final Report, for Blue Mountains City Council.

Fox, Brian 2009. One of Lawson’s Mysteries. Hobby’s Outreach vol. 20, no. 5 December 2008-January 2009. Wentworth Falls, Blue Mountains Historical Society.

Freeman’s Journal 1903. 'THE SETTLER', Freeman's Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1850 - 1932), 7 November, p. 12. , viewed 29 Nov 2017,

Godden McKay Logan 2008.  Archaeological Management Plan, Penrith Lakes Scheme -

Higginbotham E, and R Ian Jack, 1982. The Asgard Swamp Mine and Kiln near Mt Victoria, New South Wales: An Archaeological Report. Australian Archaeology No. 15 (Dec., 1982), pp. 54-66

Hughes Turnbull, Lucy 2008. The End of Transportation, Dictionary of Sydney.

Karskens, Grace 1984. The Convict Road Station Site at Wisemans Ferry: an Historical and Archaeological
Investigation. Australian Historical Archaeology, 2, 1984.

La Grange, Robert et. al. 2007. Nutrition Management for Tasmanian Dairy Farmers. Department of Primary Industries & Water Tasmania.

Levido, Trish (interviewer) and Porter, Ken (interviewee) 2010. Leura Dairy 1930s, interview with Ken Porter by Trish Levido for Blue Mountains City Library.

Mackaness, George 1965. Fourteen journeys over the Blue Mountains of New South Wales: 1813-1841. Reprint ed. Sydney, Halstead Press.

Maitland Daily Mercury (NSW: 1894 - 1939), 1911 'AGRICULTURE.', 25 November, p. 5. , viewed 29 Nov 2017,

Merriman, John 2014. From Linden Bluff to 20 Mile Hollow: the Western Road 1814-2014. In Eugene Stockton ed., This Tortuous Ridge, Linden to Lawson. Lawson, Blue Mountain Education and Research Trust. 

Merriman, John 1985. A rock silo in Somers Street, Lawson: an archaeological and historical investigation. Armidale, University of New England, Dept. of Archaeology and Paleoanthropology.

Nicholas, Stephen, ed. 1988.  Convict Workers: Reinterpreting Australia's Past. Cambridge University Press.

Pearson, M 1990. The Lime Industry in Australia: an overview.  Australian Archaeology No. 8, 1990, pp. 28-35.

Somers Street, Lawson.  Pamphlet file, Blue Mountains City Library, Springwood.

Sutherland, JA 1980. Fodder Conservation in: Introduction to Agriculture. Sydney, McGraw-Hill.

Sydney Morning Herald 1891. COUNTRY NEWS, (NSW: 1842 - 1954), 26 August, p. 8. , viewed 29 Nov 2017,

Wikipedia. Federation Drought -  accessed 4 October 2017.

Wikipedia. Silage - accessed 4 October 2017.

Woods, Henry, 1883. Ensilage: its origin, history, and practice, a lecture. -

Yeaman, John 1983, 2010 and 2014. Footsteps in time, a road across the mountains. Accessed 29 November 2017.

John Merriman, Local Studies Librarian, Blue Mountains City Library, 2017

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

William Dawes: The first white man on the Blue Mountains


The Author has lived in the Blue Mountains all his life born at Katoomba and moved to Springwood in 1949.  In his early years he gained an intimate knowledge of the region as a bushwalker. He gained experience of topographic survey and photogrammetry while working for the Forestry Commission and is an experienced cartographer and surveyor. 

In preparing this booklet acknowledgement is made of the help and guidance given by Jack Maddock, President of the Springwood Historical Society and the staff of the Local History Centre of Braemar, Springwood.


The Bi-centenary of the founding of Australia in 1788 established an awareness of our heritage.  From now on we will celebrate a succeeding series of such events and I think it is important to highlight some of the more notable firsts so that, if for no other reason, we can establish the roots of our Australian civilisation.

We owe some deference to a man who struggled through some of the most difficult mountain terrain in the country, carrying provisions such as salt meat and flour, camping gear, and probably firearms too.

Lieutenant William Dawes was able and intelligent, respected by all who knew him.  His story is one of an ordinary man who did his duty and acted with responsibility.  There are few records of Dawes except those available in the writings of others.  Unfortunately all of Dawes' personal writings were destroyed.

The story of this man and his adventurous journey is commemorated in this, the bi-centennial year of his attempt to cross the Blue Mountains, December 14, 1989.
Lindsay Paish.
Map by Lindsay Paish 1989
showing Dawes' probable route


By 1813 the infant colony was expanding to the north in the vicinity of the Hunter River and to the south-west through the Cowpastures towards Picton, Camden and over most of the Cumberland Plain.  Land grants were easily obtained by free settlers, the Military and ticket-of-leave men who had completed their sentences.  But the few agricultural areas within the plain were hardly sufficient to feed the colony and it was with some desperation that successive Governors had required that some break be made through the wild country surrounding the County of Cumberland. The trio of Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth, noting the information gathered by previous explorers, determined that the only practical course must be along the ridge tops (as the success of Caley in 1804 to Mt. Banks indicated) and it was this deduction that led to their 1813 achievement.

Prior to the successful crossing a number of attempts were made to surmount the barrier which, as was evident to the earlier settlers, was very broken and precipitous in the most part, only becoming easy in the areas of " wianamatta shale" which makes up the comparatively good land around the Rose Hill - St. Marys district and also a small patch on the Blue Mountains around Springwood.  The broken sandstone cliffs which surround the Hawkesbury River and the Lower Blue Mountains were extremely hazardous and dangerous to the men who had not the advantages of our present day footwear and clothing.  It was over this treacherous country that early mountain explorers had to travel -vertical cliffs, deep gullies, rough, broken creek beds, rocky outcrops and barren ridges.  The appearance to the English was aptly described by Surgeon White in a letter to Mr. Skill of The Strand, London: "... the country, my Lord, in past dispute a wretched one ..."

Governor King sent a party over the region to the north of the Grose River in November 1805.  They set their course from the junction of the Grose and Hawkesbury Rivers, headed due west for a distance of forty  miles (64 km) and rose to the summit of the first range and traversed some of the rich country around Bilpin and Mt. Tomah.  They reached a high prominence and saw at a distance of about 12 miles (20 km) another tall mountain (probably Mt. Banks).  On this first mountain they discovered a cairn of stones which King believed to be erected by Bass, who had journeyed in that vicinity some nine years earlier.  King described the mountains as a "stupendous barrier".

Caley reached Mt. Banks on the 22nd of December 1804, twelve days after setting out from the junction of the Grose and Hawkesbury Rivers, travelling W.W.N.W.  For the first three miles the country was good grazing land, but the rest of the land traversed was rough and barren. His view from the crest of Mt. Banks, to the westward, was of further mountainous country but no great gorges such as the Grose were in evidence.  After his return, his opinion was that the limit of cultivation was the foothills of the mountains.

 Most of the country was so sterile that Caley described it as -"the roughest of the country I found, beyond description -" and, referring to the lack of wildlife on the more barren ridges -"one of Caley's men remarked that they must have lost their way when they saw two crows - "
(In respect of the Linden monument, no record of Caley's shows of his attempt in this direction, though he does note an effort to cross by horseback.  If he had reached this point, however, he would have made some record of it, because of the nature of the terrain and the distance.)

The exploring trip by Ensign Francis Barrallier, to a point in the vicinity of the Jenolan Caves in November 1802, is far enough out of this district not to warrant any expansion here, though the reason for his trip was the crossing of the mountains. Similarly, the trip of John Wilson, southward through the Cow Pastures does not need expanding upon here.

In 1796 Surgeon George Bass crossed the Hawkesbury and proceeded westward to the rich area of Bilpin and Mt. Tomah.  At the terminus of his journey he erected a cairn which was later noted by Governor King in his journey of 1805.

An attempt at a crossing was made through the Lower Blue Mountains by the former quartermaster of the "Sirius", Henry Hacking in August 1794. He reported that his path crossed eighteen or nineteen ridges of high rocks.  David Collins mentioned in his "Account", 
—they saw but one native in the desolate region, and he fled from their approach, preferring the solitary enjoyment of his rocks and woods, with liberty, to any intercourse with them.  These hills appear to extend very far to the northward and the southward.  An impossible barrier seems fixed to the westward and little hope was left of extending cultivation beyond the limits of the County of Cumberland.— 
The terminal point of Henry Hacking's attempt to negotiate a passage of the Blue Mountains, was submitted for record to the Department of Lands, Sydney in November 1903, as being defined by the cairn discovered by Blaxland and party in 1813.

“It is assumed that the cairn as submitted for record is the one known as Caley's Repulse - at Linden.”  The original location of the cairn, noted as Kealey's Pile (Blaxland) may never be accurately determined due to the extensive and varied works associated with the Highway and the Railway.  It can be said, however, that the original monument was in this immediate vicinity.

Captain Paterson touched on the north side of the Lower Blue Mountains when he tried to gain access to the western country by way of the rivers.  He followed the Hawkesbury as Phillip had done, but took with him boats of shallower draft than the Governor's and so was able to travel over the rapids that stopped Phillip in 1789. After leaving Richmond Hill:
... this part of the river carried him to the westward and into the chasm seen to divide the high land, with some difficulty and some danger, meeting in the space of ten miles, no less than five waterfalls.  Above this part the water was about fifteen yards from side to side ...
It was supposed that he had travelled ten miles further up the river than before, naming the "Grose River" and a high peak they had in view in the chasm, the "Harrington Peak".  This was in September 1793.

A series of stupendous achievements considering the alien nature of the country. Achievements which culminated in the 1813 crossing overland that, to the European mind, was desolate, infertile and of unbelievable roughness.  Land which was first traversed by an indomitable Lieutenant of Marines - William Dawes.
Portrait of William Dawes
image courtesy Rocks Discovery Museum


William Dawes was somewhat of an enigma, a man who left little of his own work, but who ought to have given so much information about himself.  Many of his personal papers and letters have been destroyed and most information about the man must be drawn from the writings of many of his contemporaries.  There is no man among our founders who has provided so little about himself and his views.  What we know about him is through the statements of others.

Dawes was born 1762, the eldest son of Benjamin Dawes, a clerk of works in the Ordinance Office at Portsmouth, England.  In 1779 he was gazetted as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Marines and served on the "Resolution".  He saw action in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, in the War of Independence where he was wounded in 1781.

Upon his return to England he pursued skills of surveying and engineering and became a competent astronomer, a firm friend of Dr. Maskeylyne, the Royal Astronomer.  Dawes was a gentleman in the true meaning of the word, he was much respected by his contemporaries, and was skilled and conscientious in all tasks he undertook. "To give you his character in a few words, he is a most amiable man, and though young, truly religious, without any appearance of formal sanctity.  He is kind to everyone.  He has a great share of general knowledge, studious, yet ever cheerful, and the goodness of his disposition renders him esteemed and respected by all who know him " and further in reference to his skill as an astronomer Mrs. Elizabeth Macarthur says " - he is so engaged with the stars that to mortal eyes he is not always visible."

When the First Fleet was being prepared Lieutenant Dawes volunteered for service.  Due to his contact with Dr. Maskeylyne and his ability as an astronomer, Dawes was charged with the task of observing a comet which was supposed to reappear in the Southern Skies in 1788.  To this end he was instructed to set up an observatory, and a great deal of technical and valuable equipment was made available by the Board of Longitude.  Dawes was such an able person that it was his responsibility to maintain these delicate astronomical and meteorological instruments. The "Timekeeper", one of the most important pieces, particularly for navigation, was under Dawes' management and he, Captain Hunter or Governor Phillip were always to be present for the 'winding' at noon each day.
McAfee stated that - "For work in Australia it was indeed fortunate that such a conscientious and thorough scientist as Dawes was given these tasks."

On the voyage out Dawes continued to follow his readings and studies and at every opportunity made contact with local astronomers at each landfall.  In November 1787 Governor Phillip, Lt. King and Lt. Dawes transferred from the "Sirius" to the "Supply" as the latter was a faster ship and Capt. Phillip wished to reach Botany Bay first.

Upon reaching Botany Bay Lieutenant Dawes was among the first to explore the interior and found the country unattractive and unsuitable for settlement.  The results of these investigations prompted Phillip to move to Port Jackson.

Dawes was not drafted ashore until July 1788 and in the intervening time worked incessantly to complete the construction of an observatory to house the precious astronomical and meteorological instruments entrusted to him by the Board of Longitude.  The building was constructed on the western point of Sydney Cove and consisted of a small lean-to shed attached to an octagonal building designed to allow observation of the stars through the roof.

This building became the cultural and intellectual centre of the infant colony and the area around it became known as Dawes Point. However, at Dawes' request, Capt. Hunter - "was pleased to honour this Point by calling it Point Maskeylyne" after the Astronomer Royal who had delegated Dawes to make observations.  However, the popular name of "Dawes Point" has remained to this day.

The early struggles of the new colony demanded much time and energy from the resident astronomer and unofficial meteorologist.  Apart from his duties as an officer to the Royal Marines as well as his observations of Astronomy and detailed recording of meteorological data, Dawes was involved in laying out the first streets and allotments in Sydney and Parramatta.  In addition, Dawes participated in several expeditions accompanied by Watkin Tench.

 Dawes' participation in these expeditions was of great importance, Captain Tench stated in his complete account of the settlement of Port Jackson:

Our method on these expeditions was to steer by compass, noting the different courses as we proceeded;  and counting the number of paces, of which two thousand two hundred on good ground were allowed to be a mile.  At night, when we halted, all these courses were separately cast up, and worked by a traverse table in the manner of a ship's reckoning is kept;  so that by observing this precaution we always knew exactly where we were, and how far from home;  an unspeakable advantage in a new colony, where one hill and one tree, is so like another that fatal wonderings would ensue without it. This arduous task was always allotted to Mr. Dawes who, from habit and superior skill, performed it almost without a stop or interruption of conversation;  to any other man, on such terms, it would have been impracticable.

This man, this scientist and recorder, was responsible for the early exploration of the Colony of N.S.W.   A man of great general knowledge and skilled application of his abilities, was liked by all who knew him and, as would later be revealed, a man of great compassion.  William Dawes was the first recorded white man to penetrate the Blue Mountains.

Dawes' map drawn 1791, image: nla.obj-230635598


In the early days of settlement the infant colony depended for its subsistence almost entirely on that which was brought in;  no reliance could be placed on early agricultural efforts, animals could not be considered suitable to supplement the diet for upwards of five thousand souls.  Although cultivation was begun under the direction of Governor Phillip almost immediately after the first settlers landed, it was soon found that the soil was so inferior that the crops were not nearly as good as was expected.  It was with these troubles on his mind that Phillip started out on his trips of discovery.  On his first journey to the north, past what is now the Narrabeen Lakes, he had a full view of what he called "The Blue Mountains".  He was determined to reach the summit of those mountains with the object of extending the area of cultivation.  In the meantime, the area around Rose Hill was discovered and it was from this area that further exploration was carried out.

Governor Phillip, accompanied by Admiral John Hunter, travelled to the north west discovering the Hawkesbury River which they crossed and, on the north side on the 5th July 1789, reached an high hill which he called "Richmond Hill".  It is recorded in Hunter's Journal of that date - "this range of mountains we supposed to be those which are seen from Port Jackson and called "The Blue Mountains" - in that range of highland there is a remarkable gully or chasm, from which we appeared to be distant about five miles !  It was at this point that Phillip named the high basalt hills (Mt. Hay, Mt. Irvine etc) to the north of this chasm, the "Carmarthen Mountains" and those to the south the "Landsdowne Hills" (the Lower Blue Mountains).

 There is little doubt that these mountains held a strong attraction for Phillip as is borne out by his repeated attempts and his instructions to others to reach and cross them.
Tench remarks:

 . . . at a distance of sixty miles inland a prodigious chain of lofty mountains runs in a nearly north south direction, farther than the eye can trace them.  Should nothing intervene to prevent it, the Governor intends shortly to explore their summits and I think that there can be little doubt that his curiosity will not go unrewarded.

By this time conditions in the colony were nearly chaotic; discipline in the Marine Corps was falling off and control of the convicts was almost non-existent.  Many of the convicts and a number of officers and men were taking up land grants and establishing farms on the more arable lands around the settlement, but their extensive attempts at cultivation were not succeeding because of the extreme climatic conditions. More convicts were expected each day and the meagre supplies were not considered sufficient to cope even with the relief by the establishment of Norfolk Island.

The Governor aided the taking up of land by making free grants of land to settlers and in lieu of fees or quit rent, these settlers undertook to take charge of and feed a number of convicts, thus relieving the strain on the Government Stores.  It was in this early period of land-grabbing development, that David Collins stated "—-a knowledge of the interior parts of this extensive country was anxiously desired by everyone — "

In December 1789, Governor Phillip charged Dawes with the task of reaching the western mountains from a freshwater stream that Tench had found earlier and believed to be a tributary of the Hawkesbury, Collins' statement continued "—with a small party taking with them as many provisions as they could conveniently carry, set off in an attempt to reach the western mountains.  This excursion he returned on the ninth day without accomplishing his design."

Tench records that the party was made up of Lieutenant Dawes of the Marines accompanied by Lieutenant Johnston and Mr. Lowes.

Emu Ford on the Nepean River 1958, image Blue Mountains Library
Dawes' small party left the ford at Emu on the Nepean and began his journey to the mountains.  From the available information on this trip, it is obvious that the objective of the trip was Round Hill (Mt. Hay) either by Dawes' own design or direction of the Governor.  It could easily be conceived that this hill was the crest of the range and that an extensive view could be gained from the summit which would no doubt aid in the formulation of a more concrete plan to result in an ultimate crossing.  Dawes headed directly for that hill.

On the first day of the journey, as the foothills obscured a view of Round Hill, the party headed west until reaching the crest of the first ridge (about the location of Mt. Riverview). From here there is a good view of Round Hill and Dawes altered course slightly to head directly to it.

 With Round Hill as a landmark, Dawes headed directly for it and crossed the main ridge, dividing the waters of the Grose and Nepean, at a point somewhat east of Warrimoo Station.  Continuing, at least six major creeks that drain southward from Valley Heights were crossed - an arduous task requiring considerable effort in climbing into and out of them.  In fact, the whole of the journey involved ascending and descending the gullies of the Lower Mountains.

Dawes crossed the ridge south of Springwood near the last house in Farm Road, next to the Bee Farm Road ridge which was crossed near the Rifle Range.  Down into Sassafras Gully onwards to the main ridge about Faulconbridge Station.  After crossing the main ridge the second time, Dawes’ party made their way down a succession of deep gullies, including Linden Creek and the Woodford Creek gullies, which are about 700 feet deep (215 metres).  They crossed Woodford Creek about two and a half miles (4 km) below the Linden Dam (or Woodford Tank).

The next major gully after Woodford Creek presents a long unscaleable cliff on its western flank.  This caused the expedition to take a long, looping deviation northward around the head of the ridge.  On returning to their line of march a saddle was encountered that led to a bold ridge 2200 feet (670 metres) above sea level.  This ridge was the terminus of Dawes' journey and he named it Mount Twiss in honour of an officer in the Royal Engineers. This point appears to be a hill on the ridge north of what is now known as "Blue Mountain".

From the summit of this ridge which was reached on 14th December, an extensive view of the Carmarthen Mountains is gained, whilst at its foot is Wentworth Creek, some 900 feet (275 metres) deep and the roughest gully in the mountains.  Being confronted with this formidable barrier and considering the increased wildness of the country already traversed Dawes was forced to turn back.
To sum up the journey the statement of David Collins refers to Dawes:

- - meeting with nothing after quitting the river, but ravines that were nearly inaccessible.  He had, notwithstanding the danger and difficulty of getting through such country, reached within eleven miles of the mountains by computation.
In this journey, Lieutenant Dawes' line of march, unfortunately and unpleasantly for him, happened to be, nearly from his setting out, across a line of high and steep rock precipices, which required such caution in descending as well as labour in ascending.

It is interesting to compare the line of travel covered by Blaxland and the route Dawes took.  Dawes covered 15 miles (24 km) with an average grade of 1 in 2 descending and ascending 800 feet (244 metres) into and out of the mountain gullies, while Blaxland travelled over 22 miles (35 km) to reach a point as far west, along the crest of a ridge that had an average grade of 1 in 15, with the only steep parts being those of Emu Hill and the Bluff Ridge at Linden.

 It is highly improbable that there is any cairn or monument to mark the terminus of Dawes' journey and the many investigations that have been undertaken to establish the location of Mount Twiss have all been inconclusive due to the lack of an accurate description. However, logic and learned interpretation must locate this Mount Twiss on the Blue Mountain ridge.

Dawes continued to be included in the early reconnaissance of the settlement, because of his surveying skills, and in August 1790 accompanied by Captain Tench and a man named Morgan travelled southward towards Pyramid Hill and named a river discovered on this trip -the Morgan.
Again in the winter of 1791, with Tench, Dawes verified the unity of the Nepean (located by Tench in June 1789) and the Hawkesbury, discovered by Governor Phillip and Captain Hunter in July 1789.


In October 1788 Dawes had applied for three years’ service in the colony and until 1791 he had seriously considered settling in New South Wales.  He was totally committed to his astronomical pursuits as well as recording the weather.  He also had official responsibilities in his capacity as an officer of the Royal Marines.

Late in 1790 there was an altercation between the local Aborigines and one of Phillip's wardens who was speared to death.  Phillip was enraged and ordered a punitive expedition against the tribe, instructing Captain Tench and Lt. Dawes to take and execute ten natives in reprisal. There was some suspicion that the Warden had fomented the trouble with the natives and perhaps had deserved the spearing.  Lt. Dawes' doubts appeared to be deeper and he refused, at first, to participate in the punitive expedition at all.  However, at the behest of Tench and Collins he eventually relented and obeyed the Governor's order. 

On returning from the expedition Dawes informed the Governor that he was sorry he had been persuaded to comply with the order and very clearly showed that he would not obey a similar order in the future.  Lieutenant Dawes' expressions were such that would have subjected him to Court Martial should the Governor have been inclined.  Dawes' past service and his character were in his favour and the Governor did not proceed with any disciplinary action.   However, it meant that Dawes was no longer welcome in the colony and he returned to England on the "Gorgon" in December 1791
Dawes' movements after he returned to England are not very well documented but it is known that his compassion led him to be involved in the anti-slavery campaign.

Dawes married in 1799.  His son, William Rutter Dawes, became a well-known astronomer.  After his first wife died, Dawes married again and a daughter of this second marriage, was a Mrs. Jones, a well-known slave abolitionist.

 Dawes was involved in the Sierra Leone Company and served three times as Governor.  The company was an anti-slavery organisation, an appropriate choice for this man of compassion. Dawes died in 1836 at Antigua. There was, however, no death certificate available for a Lieutenant William Dawes;  his death, like most of his life, remains undocumented.
Zachery McCauley, Governor of the Sierra Leone Company in turn with Dawes wrote in 1796 - "Dawes is one of the excellent of the Earth"


Footnote 1.

It would appear that the commonly accepted first crossing of the Blue Mountains by Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson could have been a matter of political expediency.  The accounts of Governor Hunter refer to the expedition of John Wilson who travelled a distance of about 116 miles (186 km) in a south-westerly direction to a river flowing from the S.E. to the N.W. Planning out this journey gives an approximation to the headwaters of the Lachlan River. The trip was undertaken in the first months of 1798.

John Wilson was an ex-convict, a vagabond and spent some time living with the natives. He was expert in bush craft and bush travel, had great powers of endurance and proved himself adept in sustaining the lives of his party unencumbered by heavy burdens.
In his transcription of his journal he mentioned a "cliff of salt" which was later disproved by Henry Hacking.

This mischievous untruth, without doubt, did much to destroy credence of the land travel undergone. The evidence justifies the conclusion that the passage of the Blue Mountains in 1798 becomes a matter of historical fact.

One wonders if John Wilson had been a respected landowner and a member of the colonial aristocracy like Blaxland, instead of an ex-convict gone native, would his discoveries have been heralded as the breakthrough out of the encircling mountains.
However, as proclaimed in the history books - Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson were the first to cross the Blue Mountains in 1813.

Footnote 2.

The main record of Dawes' mountain journey is the map of the area contained in Watkin Tench's "Complete Account of Settlement". The excellent drawing of the map with the accurate depiction of the major features of the country that it shows, the outline of Sydney Harbour and the relative positions of the hills and rivers, leave no doubt as to the authenticity of the diagram of his mountain trip.  So we may rightly assume that this area, as shown, was as he saw it.

Numerous attempts have been made in search of Mt. Twiss, among the most notable was a comprehensive, detailed and exhaustive analysis of the evidence undertaken by F.A. Craft and R. Else-Mitchell in 1941, in which they say –
...we are therefore able to conclude in the light of the researches and investigations which we have carried out in the field, that we have located and identified Mt. Twiss.

In assessing the route, Dawes followed the only information available which was this map of the area, printed in 1791, on which a diagram of the traverse is shown in remarkable detail although small in scale.  The only other snippet is the statement that he reached a point fifteen miles from the river.  Putting these two factors together and relating them to the modern ordinance map a basic approximation of the route can be determined. As previously mentioned, Dawes was meticulous in his recording of journeys and there is no reason to believe that this diagram would be in error. Clarke and Mitchell, in their analysis of the journey, finally assumed that in the actual distance travelled and, on this assumption, determined Mt. Twiss to be located on Linden Ridge.

However, utilising the available information and accepting it as correct, the writer has set the line of traverse in direction and distance.  The critical determination of the correctness of this line is then based on a comparison of each different feature from the ordinance map and from Dawes' 1791 map.  The shape of each feature crossed, as defined by Dawes, is in the form of ridges and the line of the ridge towards its head.  The comparison shows that the number of ridges crossed related to the actual features is in order.

Without creating any further controversy and, indeed, the simple fact that Dawes did record the first traverse of a white man into the mountains is achievement enough and his precise terminal point has been and will be a matter of conjecture and is really of no consequence.

The mountain located by Craft and Mitchell lies about 2 miles due north of the Woodford Dam Reservoir on a spur from the Linden Ridge.  This location has been officially adopted by the Geographical Names Board.

·         Complete account of Settlement at Port Jackson in New South Wales -1793 - Watkin Tench.
·         N.S.W. - Historical Records Vol 1 pt. 2
·         Historical Journal of Admiral John Hunter  Page 151
·         Historical Records of Australia         Series 13 Vol 1
·         History of New South Wales - G.B. Barton Vol 1
·         Account of the English Colony of N.S.W. - David Collins
·         Guide Book to the excursions to the Blue Mountains and Lithgow3 19233 Pacific Science Congress - Exploration by H.R. Cambage, F.L.S.
·         First Crossing of the Blue Mountains (Newspaper Clipping) F. Walker3 Royal Australian Historical Societies Journal Vol 25 page. 475-519
·         F. Arnold Wood "Lt. William Howes and Captain Catkin Tench" Journal, Royal Australian Historical Society - 1924 p.p. 1-24
·         Letter of Daniel Southwell April 1790
·         Historical Records of New South Wales 1892 - 1901 Vol 1 pt. 2
·         S.M. Onslow (ed) Some early records of the Macarthurs of Camden -Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1914
·         Jones - Historical Records of New South Wales Vol 2 pp.19 Wood - Historical Records of New South Wales  Vol 2 pp.12
·         Letter of 25 November 1926 to Mitchell Librarian re Lieutenant W. Dawes from Colonial Secretary of Leeward Islands (West Indies) Mitchell Library Sydney M.S.S.
·         In Search of Dawes' Mount Twiss - Frank A. Craft and R. Else Mitchell -Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 1941
·         Dawes' Meteorological Journal - Robert J. McAfee
·         Department of Science and Technology - Australian Government Publishing Service – 1981

Originally Published by:  Braemar 530A Committee, Local History Centre, Macquarie Road, SPRINGWOOD  2777

Copyright (c) 1989: Lindsay Paish


Dawes' portrait
Dawes' Map
Dawes, William (1762–1836) ADB 

"MOUNT TWISS CONTROVERSYThe Blue Mountain Echo (NSW : 1909 - 1928)22 October 1926: 1. Web. 15 Aug 2017

Edited by John Merriman, Local Studies Librarian, 2017

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