Bellona, Australia and the Roses of Sturminster Newton
Roger Guttridge on the Dorset settlers thought to have 60,000 descendants
Published in February ’17
When the British Government offered a free passage to Australia in 1792, there were probably more reasons for people to decline than to accept. The invitation followed a series of appeals from the first Governor of New South Wales, Captain Arthur Philip, whose only inhabitants at this time were convicts who had been transported for their crimes and those who had been sent out to guard them. Philip realised that if the penal colony were to develop in a balanced and productive way, they also needed experienced farmers to work the land and ‘other right kind of settler’.
On the plus side for anyone considering the offer, it included free land complete with tools and implements, enough provisions to last two years and sufficient clothing for one year. Convict labour would also be available. On the down side, this was an adventure that required great courage and adaptability. It involved a five-month voyage to the other side of the world, all the challenges of an alien environment and climate and the likelihood that you would never see your family, friends and former home again. For the faint-hearted, it cannot have been a tempting prospect.
That is probably why, despite the widespread publicity given to the offer, only fourteen ‘free settlers’ joined convicts, military and crew on the supply ship Bellona when she sailed from Gravesend on 8 August 1792 – and eight of them were from Sturminster Newton. In fact the Sturminster contingent were the only complete family group among the voluntary settlers. They included farmers Thomas and Jane Rose, aged 41 and 33, previously of Puxey Farm, their children Thomas, who was 13, 11-year-old Mary, Joshua, aged nine, and two-year-old Richard. Also on the Bellona were the couple’s niece, Elizabeth Fish, and the Roses’ dairymaid, Elizabeth Watts. Most accounts give the ages of both Elizabeths as 18 but a little-known medical report from Rio de Janeiro, where the Bellona broke her voyage on 24 October 1792, gives Elizabeth Fish’s age as 24. The report from Brazil also provides another surprise – that Elizabeth Fish had a baby daughter, who had died nine days into the voyage due to ‘worm fever and convulsions’.
The other six voluntary emigrants were all men from other parts of the country, four of whom had already been to New South Wales as sailors so at least knew what was in store. They were baker Frederick Meredith, who was 28; master blacksmith Walter Brodie, 33; millwright James Thorpe, 47, who was to be paid a salary of £100 a year; Edward Powell, 31, described as a ‘farmer and fisherman’ from Lancaster; gardener Thomas Webb, 34; and his nephew, Joseph Webb, 21 (some sources say 18), a farmer.
The voyage was not all plain sailing. As well as the baby’s death, little Richard Rose also suffered from worm fever and convulsions but survived while his mother was described at one point as being of ‘indifferent health’. Many of the seventeen women convicts who also sailed on the Bellona suffered from fevers and scurvy.
Many of the supplies destined for both the convict community and the settlers also failed to survive the journey. 69 casks of flour were described upon arrival as ‘rotten, stinking and maggotty’ due to damp; pork was ‘stinking, rotten and unfit to eat’; hundreds of gallons of rum and wine and almost 1,200 gallons of molasses had leaked away; huge quantities of cloth, hammocks and rugs were ‘rotten and decayed from a continuance of wet on the passage out’; and a case of paper for administrative use was ‘totally damaged and unfit for use’.
Despite the challenges, Jane Rose managed to fall pregnant during the voyage and gave birth to her fifth child, John, six months after the Bellona’s arrival at Sydney Cove on 15 January 1793.
Edward Powell and Elizabeth Fish struck up a relationship during the voyage and married not long after their arrival. Romance also blossomed for Thomas Webb and Catherine Buckley, one of the women convicts, and they married eight days after reaching Australia. Barely two years later, however, Buckley was a widow after Webb was fatally speared by aborigines. By this time his nephew had also died. Thomas Rose was allocated 120 acres on arrival in Australia followed by a further seventy acres in 1798 as a reward for his industry. This was at Hunter’s Hut, two miles from the port at Liberty Plains, later known as Strathfield and Homebush.
There is some suggestion that Rose chose the location himself but perhaps under pressure from Lieutenant governor Francis Grose, who was keen to establish a settlement between Sydney and Parramatta ‘for the safety and convenience of the travelling public’.
Rose, however, later concluded he had made a ‘hasty and bad choice of situation’. The soil was poor and there was little or no manure or fertiliser to improve it. For seven years the Roses battled with crop failures and water shortages. The family also survived an aboriginal attack during which Jane was hit by a spear and saved by her whalebone corset. Jane also gave birth to her sixth and seventh children, Sarah and Henry.
In 1802 the Roses moved to more fertile land on the north bank of the Hawkesbury River at Wilberforce not far from Sydney. Here, after having several bark shelters and huts wrecked by floods as well as crops and livestock destroyed, they built a sturdier log cabin on higher ground. The house was built of split iron-bark slabs to make it resistant to native white ants. The rafters and floor were pit-sawn with cow manure and wattle daubed on the inside walls to provide a smooth surface free of cracks and gaps. The wattle and daub was later replaced with a lining of pine boards.
Rose Cottage, as the house is known, originally comprised a large living room, a kitchen and two bedrooms. It was altered and extended over the years but amazingly remained in the Rose family until 1961. Today it survives as a tourist attraction – the oldest timber house in Australia and part of the Wilberforce Australiana Pioneer Village. It is managed by the Thomas and Jane Rose Society.
The Roses, meanwhile, took their duties of populating the colony very seriously. By the time of Jane Rose’s death in 1827, she was Australia’s first non-aboriginal great-grandmother with more than 100 descendants. Her husband died six years later aged 84. By the late 20th century, the number of known descendants of Jane (née Topp) and Thomas Rose had risen to almost 30,000 although the true number is thought to be over 60,000.
From a letter sent to Jane by her parents Thomas and Mary Topp of Sturminster Newton in 1798, we can glimpse the England that they had left behind. This was at a time when Napoleon was riding roughshod over Europe and threatening to add Britain to his conquests while taxes were rising rapidly to pay for the wars with France. ‘The times in England are very hazardous and everything is very dear,’ says the letter, held by the State Library of New South Wales. ‘And every week threatened with an invasion by the French, and we believe it will surely be so, as they are fully intended to invade this country.’
The Topps speak of taxes so heavy that they were ‘hardly to be borne’. These included ‘a tax upon saddle horses three guineas a year; 16 shillings ’pon each cart horse; clocks and watches; stamps ’pon gloves and hats; butter now 11d per pound; beef (good) 6d pound; ordinary cheese £1 10s per hundredweight; a hard tax ’pon dogs. They talk ’pon taxing the cows and many other taxes too tedious to mention.’
The threat of invasion also meant that military movements were much in evidence. ‘We have now horses and men called yeoman cavalry and another sort called provisional cavalry, for the defence of the nation. There are talks of several large camps this year.’
Jane and Thomas Rose’s tens of thousands of direct descendants included Louisa Prince (née Rose), who marked the 200th anniversary of the Bellona’s departure by visiting her ancestors’ Dorset home. On 8 August 1992, 200 years to the day after embarkation, the 72-year-old Mrs Prince was one of three Australian descendants at a garden party at Puxey Farm, Sturminster Newton, which the Roses had farmed before setting sail. On the same day she attended a ‘gala opening’ of a small exhibition on the Roses at Sturminster Newton Museum.
In January 1993, hundreds of Rose descendants were among 2,000 people who headed for Sydney Cove, Australia, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Bellona’s arrival Down Under with the first ‘free settlers’. Some descendants donned period costume to re-enact the historic landing by their forebears. The celebrations also included a ‘Bellona muster’ involving descendants of both settlers and female convicts and a flag-raising ceremony. A beacon was also lit as happened two centuries earlier to warn the Bellona’s crew of the hazards of entering the harbour after dark.