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U3A Writing: Early Australian History

When Warren G York moved as a teenager to live in a Sydney suburb he found himself rubbing shoulders with Australian history.

Having done my first four years of secondary schooling at Goulbourn High School, I went onto Parramatta High School in early 1951, to undertake my Fifth Year studies. The reason for this move was that my father, Bill, was transferred by his firm (the National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Limited) from his position as Manager for southern N.S.W. to the State Head Office in Sydney. He was to occupy a senior sales executive role there, so all our family moved to Sydney with Dad.

Whist looking around for a house in Sydney, Mum and Dad rented a very nice red brick dwelling in the Sydney suburb of Harris Park, the next suburb to Parramatta. We lived at number 3 Ruse Street, Harris Park for several months during 1954, and later that year moved to our new home at Elwin Street, Strathfield.

My brief brush with some very early Australian history occurred whilst living in Ruse Street. Unfortunately at that time I knew only a little of the very important historical links that this street had. Only in later years did I discover the real significance of the immediate area surrounding Ruse Street. A few doors up the hill from my temporary home, was number 9 Ruse Street. This was a very much older house than the one in which I was living with my family, and even older than any other houses in that street. At the time I often wondered why it looked, to me, to be well over a hundred years old, whereas our house was more like twenty or so years old. The street was a dead end, with about 10 or so houses on either side. Many times I walked up and down it, passing number 9 each time, but not realising the significance of the site on which this house stood. In the early 1960's, when my wife and I were living in Revesby (a south-western suburb of Sydney), I took her to Ruse Street to show her the area.

Anyway, the story goes like this:
James Ruse was born in 1760, near the English town of Launceston. His father was a farm worker, and James was one more child in a very large family. As he grew up, James helped his father in his work. However, times then were becoming hard in England with people moving from farms to the cities and, typical of the times, once he was older, James was virtually forced into stealing in order to survive. In 1782, he was caught thieving silver watches and was sentenced and convicted for breaking and entering. Ruse was later transported to what was later to become Britain's new colony of New South Wales (so named by Captain Cook in 1770), arriving there on the 18th January, 1788 as one of 759 convicts on the First Fleet.

This new settlement was to be a solution to Britain's overcrowded prisons. Food shortages, a harsh penal code, and the social upheaval caused by rapid industrialisation and urbanisation had led to a sharp rise in crime and in the prison population. The defeat of Great Britain in the American War of Independence in 1783 meant that it could no longer relieve the pressure on its prisons by shipping convicts to America. In 1786 the British government announced its intention to establish a penal settlement at Botany Bay, on the south-east coast of New South Wales.

And so on March 13th, 1787 two transport ships ("The Friendship" and the Charlotte") together with 9 other ships formed a convoy. This was the First Fleet and they set sail from Portsmouth, England for Botany Bay under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, R.N. with prisoners, food, implements, etc. for a new life. The 11 ships carried 759 convicts (568 men and 191 women): 13 children belonging to the convicts, 211 marines and officers to guard the convicts: 46 wives and children of naval personnel; and Phillip's administrative staff of 9. However, finding the bay a poor choice, he moved north to Port Jackson, which had been marked but not explored by Cook and which Phillip discovered to be one of the world's best natural harbours.

Not long after his arrival, Ruse claimed that his sentence has expired, as he had already been imprisoned for the six years between 1782 and his arrival in the colony in 1788. At this time, he petitioned Arthur Phillip (who was now the Governor of the Colony) for a land grant, to establish a farm. Knowing Ruse to be industrious, and coming from a farming background, Phillip allowed him, as an experiment, to occupy an allotment at what was then Rose Hill (now Harris Park), in order to test how long it would take an emancipist to become self-sufficient. By 1791, and with a child on the way, Ruse was able to support both himself and his wife of two years, Elizabeth.

Later in 1791, as a result of Ruse's petition, the Colony's No. 1 Land Grant was made to him, being Governor Phillip's reward to him for his successful farming experiment. The grant he received was of 30 acres (12 hectares) on the site of his original allotment, which he turned into the colony's first proper farm, growing grain and vegetables.
Thus, Ruse was credited with being the first successful farmer in Australia, the first settler in Parramatta and the recipient of the first land grant in the Colony of New South Wales. His wife, Elizabeth, was the first woman convict in Australia to be emancipated.

n 1793, Ruse sold his farm to a surgeon, John Harris, who in 1834 built on the site a substantial colonial cottage that we see today. It was known as Experimental Farm Cottage, and still carries this name. It stands on the land at 9 Ruse Street, Harris Park, which is the site of James Ruse's original allotment. The doctor was a prominent citizen in the Colony, and close friends with John and Elizabeth Macarthur at Elizabeth Farm, only a short walk away.
The building is under the care of the National Trust, being the first house acquired by the Trust in New South Wales, and is open to the public. The building contains a fine collection of Australian colonial furniture, appropriate for a gentleman's house in the early 19th Century. The house and its contents reflect the status of its owner, John Harris, and the lifestyle of the time.

So, for a brief time, I had a brush with the memory of a man who had finished his prison sentence, worked very hard, became the first successful farmer, learned to grow wheat with success and taught others how to do the same. James Ruse became much respected in the wider community, and he died in 1837 at the age of 77.

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