On a cloudy day in March 1841, John Taylor and the other passengers from the barque Sterling gazed on the white sands of Fremantle. Feelings of anticipation or apprehension, or both, may have descended on them as they imagined their lives in the coming weeks, months and years. The ship lay at anchor in Gage Roads to the east of hummocky Rottnest Island, partly sheltered from the prevailing winds. Had it been the winter months, it would have been necessary to anchor in Cockburn Sound, Gage Roads being unprotected from the southerly gales and far too dangerous. It had already witnessed the grounding of several vessels over the previous 12 years. The refuge of the Swan River was denied to large ships because of a rocky bar across its mouth.
Each of the passengers had their own reason for leaving their homeland and loved ones, to sail for months on end and start a fresh life in a new, untamed colony. For 19-year-old John in rural Oxfordshire in 1840, there was one local event, which rippled across the county, that may have influenced him to board a ship bound for Australia.
John’s family – carpenter father George, mother Hannah, and eight siblings – lived in Rokemarsh, a hamlet located adjacent to the settlement of Benson in Oxfordshire. Benson was a flourishing stopover point supporting the stage coaches that ran from London to Oxford. Here, passengers obtained refreshments, horses were replaced, and coach repairs carried out. Quite an industry had been built up around the supply of broken-in, trained horses and their fodder. This area was perfect for this, being on the fertile flood plain of the Thames.
But, the good times didn’t continue; a monster was on its way. A branch line of the Great Western Railway was pushing closer to Oxford. Previously, the Chancellor and Masters of the Oxford University had managed to hold off the fire-breathing demon that they said would bring the students within easy reach of the vice and depravity of London. But in 1838, the Bill to connect Oxford to the Great Western Railway was defeated in the House of Lords, due largely to their pleas. The inevitable, however, was not averted.
One day in early June 1840, there was much excitement in Oxford. Streams of people caught coaches, or walked the 10 miles to Steventon, to see the opening of the new railway station and witness the departure of the first train from Steventon to London. To them, it wasn’t a monster; it was just progress chugging along. Thousands went from Oxford and other nearby places to be a part of the celebration. Hundreds filled the 4 carriages, 2 first-class and 2 second-class, hauled by the new engine Tiger. The engine, decorated with coloured flags and flowers, roared into action and set off to the festive cheers of the crowd.
A trip to London and back could now be achieved in one day, while still allowing a full eight hours in the capital. The fears of the Oxford professors had been realised. But what of the effect on John Taylor’s life?
It would be natural for carpenter George Taylor to want his eldest son to follow his trade, but whether John was a carpenter, or the equally possible farm labourer, the effect would have been the same. With the railway now within easy reach of Oxford, the number of coaches travelling to London via Benson plummeted. The progress of the town and surrounding rural areas was stalled and the work prospects of the young hobbled. The wane of coach travel also affected those associated with toll collection and the upkeep of turnpike roads.
Thomas Brown was such a person. He was a road surveyor who, along with Sir James McAdam (son of the man who pioneered the macadam road structure of compacted, graded stones), was employed by the turnpike trusts. While McAdam was a consultant surveyor engaged by many trusts across England, Brown shared the responsibility with him for those of Henley and Dorchester in Oxfordshire, and Chilton Pond and Fyfield in neighbouring Berkshire. Brown also had interests in the rental of a turnpike. Toll income had reached a maximum of over a million and a half pounds in 1837 before, to use Sir James McAdam’s term, the ‘calamity of railways’ fell upon the turnpike trusts and made them insolvent.
Turnpike Trusts Returns 1836.
This calamity poses the motive for Thomas Brown to relocate to the colonies as a farmer. So when Brown was hiring indentured servants to join him in his proposed farming venture in the Swan River Colony, John Taylor took the first step that would lead him to buy his own farm; he would work as a farm labourer in exchange for his fare. Sometimes, the greatest risk is not to take one. But John did take that risk when he stepped aboard the Sterling in November 1840. The ship reached the Western Australian anchorage 121 days later.
Gage Roads was the scene of frenzied activity. The Sterling had joined the brigantine Scout, recently arrived. The next day, the Colonial schooner Champion and the brigantine Eagle anchored close by. Four hundred sheep from Circular Head in Van Diemen’s Land, 12 days sail away, were offloaded from the Eagle, while two American whalers hauled up their anchors and departed. Smaller boats rowed back and forth, unloading passengers and cargo. Thomas Brown alighted into the first boat that pulled alongside the Sterling. His initial duty was to secure accommodation for his wife Eliza, two small children, and their seven servants.
Shipping Notice in the Inquirer for the Sterling Arrival
Thomas rode on horseback the 10 miles to Perth and then another 16 miles further over the alluvial river flats to Caversham Rise. Most of the land grants in this area of the Swan Valley were large – several thousand acres – and with their narrow frontages, they stuck out from the river like the legs of a millipede. They had been taken up by rich gentleman farmers, highlighting the social distinctions of English life in the 12 year-old colony. Caversham Rise was on the west bank, north of Guildford, and was leased by William Tanner. Thomas made arrangements with William for the Browns and their entourage to stay at Caversham Rise while Thomas purchased some land. He then rode back to Fremantle to meet them.
Fremantle about 1837 – Charles Dirk Wittenoom, Sketch of the town of Fremantle from the Court House – Arthur’s Head, Western Australia, National Library of Australia, nla.obj-137146207
1. “Thomas Brown (Western Australian Politician).” – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Brown_(Western_Australian_politician. [back]
2. Turnpike Trusts: An Abstract of the General Statements of the Income and Expenditure of the Several Turnpike Trusts in England and Wales (1836), electronic resource, digitised by Google, (The House of Commons: 1838), 8. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=6G41AQAAMAAJ&dq=%22turnpike+trusts%22+1836+%22an+abstract+of+the+general%22&source=gbs_navlinks_s [back]
3. “Shipping Intelligence.” (1841, March 17). Inquirer (Perth, WA : 1840 – 1855), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article65582067. [back]
Note: The Mr Taylor mentioned here in the passenger list is not John Taylor. He is Alexander Taylor, a draughtsman, artist and farmer who later moved to Melbourne. John Taylor of this story would be amongst the “31 in the steerage.” The 16 emigration boys were sponsored by the Children’s Friend Society.
4. Charles Dirk Wittenoom, Sketch of the town of Fremantle from the Court House – Arthur’s Head, Western Australia, National Library of Australia, nla.obj-137146207 [back]
Australian Corpus of English – Australian National Corpus, https://www.ausnc.org.au/corpora/cooee