FIRST PUNT ACROSS THE YARRA

[Yarra River at Melbourne]

Figure 1. Landing at Melbourne on North Bank of Yarra River 1840
(Source: Watercolour by W. F. E. Liardet, State Library of Victoria)

When my great great grandfather John Ross McNaughton arrived in Melbourne in January 1839 he was employed by Thomas Watt, who built and operated the first punt across the Yarra River.

In May and June 1835 the area that is now central and northern Melbourne was explored by John Batman, a leading member of the Port Phillip Association in Van Diemen's Land (now called Tasmania), who negotiated a purchase of 600,000 acres (2,400 square km) with eight Wurundjeri aboriginal elders. Batman selected a site on the northern bank of the Yarra River (Fig. 1), declaring that "this will be the place for a village." Batman then returned to Launceston in Tasmania. In early August a different group of settlers, including John Pascoe Fawkner, left Launceston on the ship "Enterprize." Fawkner was forced to disembark at Georgetown, Tasmania, because of outstanding debts. The remainder of the party continued and arrived at the mouth of the Yarra on August 15th. On August 30th the party disembarked and established a settlement at a site on the northern side of today's Flinders Street, between William and Queen Streets. There used to be a rock falls here that separated the salt water of Port Phillip Bay from the fresh water upstream. John Batman and his group returned on September 2nd and the two groups ultimately agreed to share the settlement.

The administration in Sydney, which at the time governed all of eastern mainland Australia, was nervous about the ad hoc settlement taking place at Port Phillip. Batman's treaty with the Aborigines was annulled by the New South Wales government, which compensated the association. In 1836 Governor Bourke declared the city the administrative capital of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales and appointed William Lonsdale unofficial superintendent. Lonsdale arrived in September. Bourke commissioned the first plan for the city, the Hoddle grid, in 1837. Later that year the settlement was named "Melbourne" after the British Prime Minister, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, whose seat was Melbourne Hall in the market town of Melbourne, Derbyshire. On April 13th the settlement's general post office was officially opened with that name [1].

The first official sale of land was held on June 1st when blocks of land between Flinders and Bourke Streets,King and Swanston were sold [2]. The second sale was held on November 1st. The block north of Bourke Street between Elizabeth and Swanston Streets backed onto a lane and was divided into nine strips, including a post office on the Elizabeth Street corner. Thomas Watt paid £36 for the second strip from the post office; John Batman purchased the next two. Charles Swanston bought a large corner allotment at Swanston Street.

When a census was held in March 1838 there were about 600 people in Melbourne. Thomas Watt was first on the list, as head of household at a house in Bourke Street with thirteen males and four females. Six months later there were 1,066 people in Melbourne and Williamstown, exclusive of military forces and government convict gangs - 675 male, 369 female and 22 bonded servants. The only Watt's were Thomas and two Margaret's, presumable his wife and daughter.

The Yarra River was essential to early settlers as an unfailing source of fresh water, but it caused difficulties in communicating with areas to the south and southwest (Fig.2). Two men, Johnson and Sharp, used a whaleboat to transport passengers and goods between Williamstown and Sandridge (Port Melbourne). Johnson was drowned in March 1837 when his boat capsized in a squall. Early in 1838 Thomas Watt constructed a punt to transport stock across the Yarra upstream from the falls. On June 4th Watt sent a petition to Sir George Gipps, who was Governor 1838-46, for permission to operate the punt. The petition was recommended and signed by sixty-five householders, including John Batman. Watt was married, with five children, and made a good case for the ferry. On June 29th the Colonial Secretary wrote to William Lonsdale, acknowledging having received applications for ferry service from both Thomas Watt and John Hodgson. The Colonial Secretary relayed the Governor's direction to establish a Government ferry across the Yarra. Until such service was established, any person would be allowed to operate a ferry.

[Sensis Map of Melbourne]

Figure 2. Modern Map of Melbourne, Built on the Original Plan
(Source: Whereis Map Courtesy of Sensis Pty. Ltd.)

On May 14th Thomas Watt had given evidence in a court case in which he testified that a "Mrs. Bowden came up with me from Williamstown in my boat, which we got to the landing place at Melbourne," so it would appear he was not confined to operating across the Yarra. On October 31st six men and one woman were fined for drinking in Joseph Moore's premises. Thomas Watt was summoned before William Lonsdale, acting as Justice of the Peace. Constable Thomas Clues testified that on the previous Sunday around five o'clock Watt was present with about thirty other people. Clues said that Watt was sober but most of the others were drunk [1].

There is a painting in the State Library of Victoria called "The First Punt" (Fig. 3) by Wilbraham Frederick Evelyn Liardet (1799-1878). Liardet was born in London and sailed for Australia in July 1839. In Melbourne he purchased a whaleboat and started a business carrying mail ashore from ships. In August 1840 he started running a mail cart to and from Melbourne three times a day. In October he opened the Brighton Pier Hotel and began a passenger coach service to Melbourne. Always a capable water colorist, in 1841 he turned to art as a way of making money. He took his family to New Zealand for some time but returned to melbourne in 1874 and painted many scenes of early Melbourne, doing a great deal of research to ensure accuracy. "The First Punt" was painted in 1875. On being reproduced the editors stated "Thomas Watt, a builder, was authorized to begin the first punt service across the Yarra River early in 1838. W. F. E. Liardet's later watercolor shows that the punt was large enough to transport stock, and was operated by pulling on ropes to trees on both banks . . ."

[The First Punt Across the Yarra River]

Figure 3. The First Punt Across the River Yarra 1838
(Source: Watercolour by W. F. E. Liardet, State Library of Victoria)

On the internet home page of Punt Road Wines it says "Our Yarra Valley winery, Punt Road was named after the famous Melbourne inner city thoroughfare that joins the northern suburbs to the south. The inspiration came from a photograph from 1856 which shows Punt Road as it meets the Yarra River . . . the only way across the river was via the punt, hence the road's name" (Fig. 4) Punt Road is about two kilometers upstream from where the falls were, between William and Queen Streets.

On 17 May 1838, my 23-year-old great great grandfather John Ross McNaughton left Greenock, Scotland with his 21-year-old wife Agnes (nee Stirling) and their one-year-old daughter Jane. They arrived in Port Jackson on September 26th after surviving the long journey, including a brush with pirates and a virulent outbreak of typhus. They were among a group of immigrants at the Bent Street barracks who had not been able to obtain work. These people were offered passage on the "Hope" to Port Phillip because of the buoyant state of the labor market there. John was listed as a gardener aged 24, Agnes as a servant aged 22 and Jane a child aged 1 1/2. The "Hope" departed Sydney on December 17th and arrived in Port Phillip on 3 January 1839. It was not easy to employ a family but the return for the families on the "Hope" showed the McNaughton family was engaged on January 12th by Thomas Watt, carpenter. We don't know if John helped operate the punt but it seems likely.

On March 22nd Lonsdale wrote to the Colonial Secretary "I have withdrawn the permission granted to Thomas Watt to have a punt upon the Yarra River opposite this town . . . in consequence of his having occasioned a great deal or irregularity in assembling a number of disorderly characters about his punt and making them drunk . . ." On April 19th the Secretary relayed the Governor's approval of Lonsdale's cation, noting that John Welsh would place a punt in a similar place. A government ferry was established by March 1840 and the first bridge was completed in 1844, at Swanston Street. We do not know if and how Watt's dismissal affected John McNaughton.

[Yarra River at Punt Road]

Figure 4. Photograph from 1856 Shows Where Punt Road Meets the Yarra River and the Punt for Which the Road is Named
(Source: Royal Historical Society of Victoria - S-118 detail )

We know John later worked at Heidelberg, an agricultural settlement far in the bush. He and Agnes had a total of ten children. Christina was born in 1840 and John, my great grandfather, was born in a tent in Brunswick on 28 January 1842 (Did they go without a house for the first three years?). John moved further into the interior and worked, possibly as a shepherd, for Mr. (later Sir) William Henry Fancourt Mitchell, who was making his place at Barfold on the Campaspe River north of Kyneton [3]. The children kept coming - James in 1844, Alexander 1846, Charles 1848 and Agnes in 1850.

On 22 June 1851 five of the children were baptised at Scots Church in Melbourne, so the family may have moved back to town by then. John's profession was "Waterman." This could mean he operated boats, like Thomas Watt, or it could also mean he carried water from the upper Yarra to townsfolk. He had a team of horses and developed a very profitable carting service to and from the goldfields, which boomed around this time. When his son Peter was born on 12 September 1857 John was described as a "Carter." In 1872 and 1885 he was a "Contractor." When his daughter Jane died in 1892 John was a "Gentleman." When his son John died in 1934 his father was described as a "Cartage Contractor."

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REFERENCES:
1. "Historic Records of Victoria, Foundation Series," Eds. Michael Cannon and Ian MacFarlane, Victorian Government Printing Office, Melbourne 1985, Volume 4: Communications, Trade and Transport 1836-1839, Part 1 Shipping and Customs, Chapter 7, First Punts and Ferries in Melbourne and Geelong.
2. Ibid, 1984, Volume 3: The Early Development of Melbourne 1836-1839, Part 1, Growth of the Township, Chapter 7, First sale of Melbourne and Williamstown allotments, 1 June 1837.
3. "Barfold Gorge" McNaughton, Ken (28 May 2014 - awaiting publication).

[Ken McNaughton]

Contributed by Ken McNaughton ( PPPG Member No. 1061 )

© COPYRIGHT This work is copyrighted and may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any medium without written permission from
Ken McNaughton, 3778 College Avenue, Ellicott City, MD 21043; phone/fax: 410-418-9340; kjmcn@comcast.net (20 April 2014).


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