Australia in the 1800s

Macarthur's vision

Sheep may have arrived in the New South Wales colony on the First Fleet, but it was the vision of Captain John Macarthur (1767–1834) that developed a flourishing and successful wool industry. Initially sheep were used for food and their potential, in terms of trade and their monetary value, wasn't realised. Captain Macarthur was a member of the New South Wales Corps and one of the first to take possession of land and call it his own. He had been granted gifts of land and stock, and unrestricted convict labour in order to establish Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta. He soon became one of the foremost 'landholders' in the colony, selling produce to the government, which returned several hundred pounds. Macarthur turned his hand to fleece production due to Governor King's suggestion.

In 180, there were 6,000 sheep in the colony. Governor King (1758–1808) sent eight fleeces from Captain Macarthur's flock to Sir Joseph Banks for an evaluation. Two fleeces were found to have great potential for wool production and one of them was deemed to be of excellent quality. There were shortages of raw materials for clothing manufacturers in England due to the Napoleonic Wars. By 1801 John Macarthur had become the largest sheep owner in Australia; his domination of the industry was as much due to his wife Elizabeth (1766–1850), who continued the sheep- and wool-breeding program during his absence. Macarthur spent many years overseas, having been recalled and reprimanded for indiscretions and infractions. Eventually, he was allowed to leave the army.

Macarthur promoted the idea of an Australian wool industry supplying Britain tirelessly with raw materials. He wrote a pamphlet titled Statement of the Improvement and Progress of the Breed of Fine Woolled Sheep in New South Wales, which outlined his vision. In 1804, Macarthur bought seven rams and two ewes from the merino stud of King George III with the intention of setting up his own merino stud farm. He returned to the colony with a commission from Lord Camden (1714–1794) to establish a wool industry, and was granted 5,000 acres of the best pasture land. Governor King approved 30 convicts to work for him and in 1807 Macarthur's first bale of wool was sent to England. The Reverend Samuel Marsden (1765–1838) and John 'Little Jack' Palmer (1760–1833), also owned merinos and merino crossbreeds and were breeding sheep at the time. The first commercial shipment of merino wool was sent to England in 1812.

The sheep industry had a devastating effect on the environmental sustainability of land and its vegetation. Sheep populations vied for the same grassed areas as the many native animal species that supported Indigenous economies. The expanding grazing areas meant that bush was cleared and Indigenous groups were displaced from their lands thus losing their traditional lifestyles. Traditionally fire was used by Indigenous peoples to clear undergrowth and encourage new growth and game (later known as 'firestick farming'). This practice was stopped as land became the domain of the grazier.

Macarthurs vision_1800

A snapshot of 1808

  • January
    • The governor, Captain William Bligh, was deposed and placed under house arrest.

  • May
    • Thomas Livingstone Mitchell became surveyor-general following the death of John Oxley.

  • September
    • The first medical diploma in the colony was issued to William Redfern.

  • October
    • The colonial office in London announced the recall of the New South Wales Corps to England.

  • November
    • The Cascades Female Factory for women convicts opened in Hobart Town.


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