NSW Northern Rivers History: Cedar Getters on the Tweed & Brunswick Rivers

Cedar-getters on the Tweed River

                Although a timber exploratory voyage had been made to the Tweed River by William Scott in the Letitia in 1840, it was not until 1844 a party of sawyers arrived on the Tweed.

Tweed Valley

                William Scott was a cousin of Charles Steele, a cedar dealer and squatter on the Macleay River, who applied for a licence to cut cedar in the Moreton Bay district in 1840. It would appear Thomas Caffrey had business links with Charles Steele and was his agent on the Macleay, and  Clarence Rivers and later at Moreton Bay. Caffrey would buy the cedar from the sawyers , delivered to the ships, mostly owned by Steele and then transport the logs to the Sydney market.

                Although Caffrey was still shipping cedar out of Moreton Bay in 1844,  the easily accessible cedar at there had begun to run out, and  he decided to turn his attention to the untouched forests on the Tweed River. Accordingly he had a suitable whale or long boat made at Nerang Creek by a boat builder, James Beattie. On completion of the boat he sent a party to the Tweed River, which included Paddy Smith, Richard Keys, Jack Wright and three others.. When John Burgess of Moreton Bay heard that Caffrey had sent a party to the Tweed, he set out with his own small party of sawyers. However on arrival at the mouth of the Tweed River the Burgess party was surrounded by a large number of Aboriginals. Fortunately at that time a second party of Caffrey’s men arrived by ship, from Sydney, in time to rescue Burgess’ men. Most of the men had worked for Caffrey cutting cedar on the Manning and Macleay Rivers. This group included Hugh Feeney, John Collins, John Macomb, Robert Cox and others.

                In 1844 when Paddy Smith and his party arrived on the Tweed they set up camp on the Teranora Broadwater where cedars grew close to the water’s edge of the small creeks. The logs could be simple rafted to the main camp to be squared for shipping. This area was away from the main currents of the river and the ground immediately near the foreshore was above flood reach and there was a safe deep anchorage for the loading of cedar onto the ships. The Tweed River was more thickly covered by thick brush , than the Clarence and Richmond Rivers which didn’t allow the easy use of bullocks and there were little in the way of grasslands for near-by forage. The most essential equipment was the long or whale boat for the carrying of equipment and provisions. It was used as the means of transport when the men had to move up river, once the more accessible area around the camp had been exhausted.

                By the following year, the men had to move further up the river and creeks to gain the cedar. They came more frequently in contact with the Aboriginals. In the main it was a peaceful coexistence for the first year or so, although there were incidents, which began to sour the relationships It would appear that the more influential head men of the Tul-gi-gin Tribe wished to acquire the prized equipment of the sawyers such as axes, iron mallets and most importantly the whale boats. Stores such as flour, and the bags it came in, as well as ‘clothing’ in all manner was becoming a status symbol within the tribes.

                Many sawyers took stealing as a huge affront and thought the Aboriginals should be punished the same way as any  sawyer caught stealing from another sawyer, would be punished. Some sawyers employed Aboriginals to help haul their logs into the creeks to float them down to a main camp or to manhandle the squared log to a better site for collection. Payment was made with ’gifts’ of whatever the sawyer could spare in the way of clothes, stores and equipment. Some sawyers, believed that this arrangement could lead to problems over the value of payment when stores were low, and wouldn’t employ the Aboriginals. Some Aboriginals took this as a slur against them and plotted mischief. Other Aboriginals believed they could help themselves to the sawyers possessions under-cover of darkness or when the sawyers were away from camp. One sawyer, by the name of Jack Marcomb, a mate of Hugh Feeney and Jack Collin’s party took exception to the theft of goods and took matters into his own hands, and set out to find, and deal with the culprits. He later fell out with Feeney and Collins, as they felt he had taken matters too far, and ill-treated the Aboriginals, without due cause. Marcomb is thought to have then left the Tweed.

                In early 1845 Caffrey, is thought to have possibly made a trip to the Tweed, to see the progress and then made arrangements for the squared logs to be taken off.

                The Tweed bar like the river bars of the Macleay, Clarence and Richmond, was difficult, so all care had to be taken when bringing in the ships to be loaded.

                In 1845 Edward (Ned) Harper arrived at the Tweed from Nerang Creek to enter into the cedar- getting game. He was a loner and was one of the sawyers who employed aboriginal to find the cedar trees, carry water to his camp as well a other jobs he could not do on his own. In fact,  he later lived with some of the tribe and learned many facets of their culture. Many years later as an elderly man he was interviewed by a journalist from the Courier Mail. This interview is probably the most complete record we have of events on the Tweed in the early days of cedar- getting.

                In  1846 Hugh Feeney and his mate Jack Collins were killed by Aboriginals, although they had always been kind and friendly towards them. Ned Harper although not present at the time, heard the story from Aboriginals, who were involved. At the above mentioned interview records what he knew about the matter.[[1]]

This is what was reported in the Moreton Bay Courier, “Intelligence reached the settlement yesterday that Hugh Pheeny and a man named Collins, who were employed by Mr John Burgess in sawing timber on the Tweed, had been treacherously murdered by the natives about a month ago, for the sake of their rations. It appears that they were attacked while at work in the creek which connects the north and south arms of the river. The bodies were discovered by Thomas Gorsill, who immediately gave information to Mr Dollman, Mr Burgess’ superintendent. Mr Dollman and some of the sawyers subsequently went to the spot, and buried them. This dreadful transaction had created much confusion on the river. The blacks in this locality have been long known as the most ferocious wretches in the district, and it is deeply to be regretted that there is no means of bringing them to justice. The unfortunate men who have become their victims, were well known to many in Brisbane, as hard working peaceable individuals.[[1]]

                Although there were never the numbers involved in the cedar getting on the Tweed River as on the Richmond,  most of the men there were single. In 1846, John Benson, a sawyer from the Bellinger brought his wife and family to the Tweed and in 1849, William Bozier arrived there with his wife and daughter. John Boyd after deciding the Brunswick River presented too many dangers decided to establish himself on the Tweed.

Cedar-Getters on the Brunswick River

                Cedar cutters had been taking cedar from the Clarence River from 1838, the Richmond River from 1842 and the Tweed River from 1844, but it wasn’t until 1849 that cedar was shipped from the Brunswick River. Although it was known from 1840 that there was cedar on the Brunswick River the experience of Surveyor James Warner’s party showed the river bar, like all the north coast rivers, was shallow and very treacherous and so there appeared to be no reason to move to the Brunswick River.

Brunswick River

                However by 1849, the boom on the Richmond River was beginning to wane, and the river was being settled by an increasing number of people not interested in cedar, and with the arrival of government officials, the free unrestricted days were coming to an end.

                Steve King who had moved from the Clarence to the Richmond some seven years before, moved on again with other Cedar-getters to the Brunswick River, early in 1849. Young adventurers from Sydney such as John and Edward Boyd also moved onto the Brunswick.

                In early 1849, a series of gales swept the coast and several small craft were lost. Toward the end of March , the Louisa while sailing along the coast was hit by one of these gales and was swept ashore a few miles north of Cape Byron above the Brunswick River. No lives were lost but she became a complete wreck.

                By April sufficient timber had been felled on the Brunswick to ship to Sydney and the small schooner the  Midas under Captain Benaud was charted and left Sydney, with sundries on 21 April. The weather being fair, she sailed north and negotiated the bar safely. While she was in the river loading another gale swept the coast with terrible consequences. The schooner, Swift was washed ashore near the Louisa with the loss of several lives. The story of this wreck is told elsewhere, as is the story of other wrecks on the Tweed and Richmond,  which happened in this same gale.

                The Midas returned to Sydney on 21 May 1849 with cedar and the news of the terrible tragedy of the Swift. In August and September the Ops, under Captain Watts made two voyages, but when the Clara was stranded on the bar in early 1850, it would appear that the Brunswick camp was abandoned as the river bar was proving to be a major obstacle. Many sawyers, such as King returned to the Richmond, while others such as John Boyd went onto the Tweed River in 1849.


Extracts from ” European Settlement in the Clarence River District before 1850″, by Nola Mackey, 2001, Grafton, published by author.

An index and full references can be found in the publication.

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