Free Settler or Felon?

Hunter Valley Settlers

Edward Sparke

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Newcastle - Ash Island - Hunter River - Iron Bark Creek

The Aguilar under Captain Watson sailed from Plymouth on 3rd September 1823. The passenger list contained the names of several early Hunter River pioneers, including that of Edward Sparke, his wife Mary and family of five sons Edward, John, Andrew, William, George and nephew William Sparke. Miss Mary Hoskins was also a passenger.(1) The Aguilar touched at the Cape on the voyage departing there on 24th December 1823 and arriving in Sydney on 23 February 1824.

Edward and John Sparke brought with them recommendations for land grants endorsed by Lord Bathurst, dated 23 June 1823; they were granted 2000 acres of land and six convicts to work the land the following April (grant confirmed 21 January 1839). The estate extended from Ironbark Creek, the grant of John Laurio Platt to the present site of Thornton, and adjoined portion of Francis Greenway's land. Edward named his grants Woodlands and Woodberry(2).

Edward Sparke senior remained in Sydney where he established a butchering business however his sons farmed the family estate. The Sparke family worked hard, and by 1832 the homestead was surrounded with a fine garden and orchard and Mr Sparke had some 300 acres under cultivation, mostly wheat and maize.(2) Edward junior returned to England in the mid 1820's where he purchased some of the finest ewes and rams that he could possibly select from several flocks of the greatest note of the Leicestershire Breed.  He returned to Australia on the Elizabeth in April 1827 and advertised soon afterwards the use of his extra rams on moderate terms in the following season. (3).

The family must have had high hopes for the future, however before the decade was out, two of the younger generation had passed away. In November 1830 Edward and Mary's son Andrew Sparke drowned in a waterhole near Maitland and two years later William Sparke, nephew of Edward and Mary passed away as well.

The Sydney Gazette reported on Andrew's death in December: We regret to state that Mr. Andrew Sparke, son of Mr. Edward Sparke, butcher in Sydney was accidentally drowned in a lagoon, about five miles from Maitland on the 21st November. It appears that the deceased had occasion, when proceeding on some business from the residence of his brothers about eight miles from where the unfortunate occurrence took place, to cross the lagoon in question, and, as is conjectured, was thrown from his horse. After an anxious suspense of three days, the unfortunate young man's brothers went in search of him ,and having obtained information from the shepherds at Mr. Palmer's station near the Sugar loaf, that he had passed that way, they pursued the road to the lagoon, near to which after some search, they found the horse which the deceased rode.  Captain Aubin promptly afforded the assistance of a party of Police, and, on the following evening the body of the deceased was taken out of the lagoon. A coroner's inquest was held next day, at Muir's Inn, Maitland when the jury returned a verdict of 'Found Drowned'.

Edward Sparke and his sons acquired land throughout the district including the estate of William Bradridge a nearby neighbour; and of William O'Donnell, Thomas Godfrey Robert Aitkenhead James Cracknell and William Maybury all Veteran's allotments; and Henry Rae which adjoined Edward Sparke's estate. The family was also in possession of 1920 acres of land at Dartbrook.

Aside from the family tragedies mentioned above, they battled floods, droughts, bushrangers, financial difficulties. and recalcitrant convict workers. Edward Sparke's name can be found on a petition to Governor Bourke regarding the inadequacies of the laws in dealing with the convict population.....


Sydney Herald - 26 August 1833...Petition from Newcastle & Port Stephens. To His Excellency Major General Richard Bourke, Governor of New South Wales, &c. &c. &c. ; and the Honorable the Legislative Council.

The humble Petition of the undersigned Land- holders, and other Free Inhabitants of the Districts of Newcastle and Port Stephen's, Respectfully Sheweth,—

That your Petitioners being deeply impressed with the inadequacy of the present Laws for con- trolling the Prison Population of this Colony, as testified by numerous instances which are constantly occurring within their own experience, consider it incumbent upon them, to submit the same to your Excellency and your Honourable Council, feeling confident, that their representation will receive that consideration which the importance of the subject demands.

Your Petitioners particularly allude to the very limited powers given to the Magistrates of the Territory, by your Act of the 3rd William IV, No. 3, and most especially to single Magistrates ; whereby in a great many instances, offenders escape the punishment due to their offences, in con- sequence of the extreme difficulty and ruinous loss of time which would be incurred by the Masters in bringing them to justice. Your Petitioners are reluctantly compelled to allude to the instrument by which corporal punishment is now inflicted ; the inefficiency of which, your Petitioners have no hesitation in assuring your Excellency and your Honourable Council, has become a subject of derision among the Prison population.

Your Petitioners desire respectfully to call the attention of your Excellency and your Honourable Council, to the lenient discipline, at present exercised over the Iron Gang at Newcastle, which so far from constituting an exemplary punishment, and acting as a terror to the Prison population of these Districts, entirely fails in this respect, and defeats the judicious intention of His Majesty's Government of deriving a great public advantage from the useful employment of the worst description of offenders. Your Petitioners could adduce numerous instances of insubordination and contempt of the laws, which clearly appear to your Petitioners to have resulted from the causes above mentioned ; instances in which the authority of the Master has been set at naught, and the punishment inflicted by the Magistrate publicly and contemptuously derided. Without entering into further detail, your Petitioners are desirous of bringing to the notice of your Excellency and your Honourable Council, the well known fact of the increased number of Runaways from private service every where observable of late, which circumstance your Petitioners conceive unquestionably to arise from the inadequacy of the existing law.

Your Petitioners beg leave also respectfully to represent to your Excellency and your Honourable Council, as a consequence of the extreme lenity of the present laws and discipline, that a dangerous idea now generally prevails among the Convict servants in these Districts that their masters have hitherto acted towards them with undue severity—thus creating in their minds a feeling of hostility and insubordination, accompanied by a vague persuasion, that their offences will no longer be visited with a proportionate punishment. Under these circumstances, your Petitioners respectfully beg, that your Excellency and your Honourable Council will adopt such Legislative measures, as may remedy the defects complained of, and afford due protection to His Majesty's Free subjects in these Districts. And your Petitioners, As in duty bound, will ever pray, &c. &c. &c., (Signed)

A.W. Scott,  M. A., Ash Island.

W.E. Parry, J. P., Commissioner to the Australian Agricultural Company in New South Wales.

J. Edward Ebsworth,  J. P.

J.W. Stacy, Surgeon.

J. C. White

William Wetherman.

William Caswell, Lieutenant R. N. and Settler.

James Corlette.

William McLean, Kilcoy.

William Sparke, Webland Park.

W. H. Peppercorne, Kennington.

W. Greenway, Howard Farm.

Edward Sparke, Woodland Farm.

John Watson, Woodberry.

Mary Sparke.

John L. Platt, Iron Bark Hill.


Some of the convicts assigned to Edward Sparke at Woodlands included:

In November 1838 when most of the following emigrants were employed on the estate an official estimate of land under crops in the Newcastle district was produced and included the output from Edward Sparke's estate -   80 acres wheat, 95 acres maize, 1 1/2 acre rye, one acre potatoes. Yield: 800 bushels wheat, 1425 bushels maize, 10 bushels millet, two tons potatoes

James Boland Magistrate 1838
Thomas Bourne Palmyra 1838
Thomas Case Woodridge 1838
William Frazer Asia 1839
John Harwood Woodridge 1838
Edward Kedwell Palmyra 1838
Alexander Matthewson Asia 1839
Donald McCrae Asia 1839
John McDonald Asia 1839
Duncan McGregor Asia 1839
Thomas McLaughlin Magistrate 1838
James McMichael Asia 1839
William Payne Magistrate 1838
George Phemister Asia 1839
Levi Warner Palmyra 1838
John White Magistrate 1838

As the financial depression of the 1840's deepened the Sparke's used their knowledge of butchering  to establish extensive slaughtering and salting premises at Hexham. Although by July 1843, they already had a contract to process 400 head of cattle this was not enough and Edward senior fell victim to the difficult times like so many others. Edward Sparke was about 75 years of age when he was declared insolvent in October 1843; he died the following February.   Cecily Mitchell wrote in Hunter's River.....After the death of Edward Sparke, his fine house Barralimben was leased for various purposes and in 1848 was advertised as John Smith's Hexham Hotel. The advertisement gives a good description of the house as being, A ten room two-storey building, built of brick, with brick kitchen and dairy at the rear, a two room brick cottage, stables and a chaise house.  The Hexham Inn had a racecourse, as did Hannell's Wheat Sheaf Coaching Inn. (2)



The following article was printed in 1902

Hexham Cemetery and Edward Sparke.

Over 30 years ago, when Newcastle was a village struggling to outgrow its early origin, the fertile district which lies between the present city and the old established town of Maitland, was a vast expanse of scrub and forest, with a few scattered homesteads here and there, where the pioneer agriculturists had established themselves. Conditions then were essentially primitive, and the traveller leaving Maitland bound northward journeyed along a lonely road, now the scene of thickly populated centres, where once the aboriginal roamed in freedom.

 Leaving the Newcastle settlement by the sandy bush track which stretched away westward, the first habitation passed was the Cottage of Mr. Weller, situated some two miles out of town, and from that point no other dwelling was reached until the traveller approached the vicinity of Platt's farm, whereupon the portion afterwards known as the Mill Paddock, was a substantial homestead. A few miles further on and ten miles from town, the homestead of Mr. Sparke, near where the road which now leads from Hexham Station to the ferry was reached. 

The old homestead, which stood on the left hand side of the Maitland-road when proceeding north was a substantial two-storied brick structure, surrounded by a fine garden; while on the other side of the road, stretching along the river bank there, near the site of the existing coal shoots, was another fine garden. In later years the house, which has now disappeared, was used as a public school, while the encroachments of the Hunter River at later periods, accounts for the disappearance of the riverside garden.

 In the vicinity of Barrahinebin (Hexham) there were several holdings held by a sturdy class of pioneer freemen, who cultivated the fertile lands adjacent to the river, and wrought homes for themselves after long and arduous toil. As years passed on the settlement increased under the system of emigration, fostered by the administration of-Sir Thomas Brisbane. then Governor. Some years before a similar project had been tried, but was abandoned, and when Sir Thomas arrived the principle was revived, the Government of the day realising the advantages derivable from the settlement of free people on the land. The great distance from the mother country and the expense of the passage out almost entirely precluded the humbler class from emigrating, and as it was chiefly persons who possessed the means of affording employment to convicts that the Government wished to come to the country, grants of land in its territory duly proportioned to the amount of the real and available capital, were held out by the Imperial Government as inducements to those only who could produce satisfactory certificates of their possessing a capital of at least. £500.

The result, of these provisions was the arrival during Sir Thomas Brisbane's administration of a higher class of settler, many being gentlemen farmers, and others sons of respectable land-holders in the mother country. These emigrants settled for the most part in the agricultural or pastoral districts beyond the Blue Mountains, or along the thickly-wooded alluvial banks of the Hunter River and its tributaries. The general extent of their grants was from 500 to 2000 acres, rations from the King's stores being allowed to each settler, and to a certain number of his convict servants, proportioned to the extent of his grant for the term of six months after he had taken possession of his land. The early settler was also allowed a certain number of cattle from the Government herds as a loan, to be repaid in kind in seven years, but as the number of emigrants increased so rapidly this latter provision was afterwards discontinued.

When Sir Thomas Brisbane arrived in the colony, convict labour was a drag in the market, the Colonial Executive being utterly at a loss to find employment for the increasing number of men. For this reason any respectable person who pledged himself to the Government to employ and to maintain 20 convict servants could immediately, and without other recommendation whatever, obtain a grant of 200. acres of land or 100 acres for every convict servant. Under these conditions it is not surprising to find a rush of settlement in the later twenties to the rich lands of the Hunter, and among other places Hexham received its share of the incoming population.

 Mr. Edward Sparke was born at South Brent, in Devonshire. England, in 1769 where the family for generations had lived. When he determined to seek a new home at the antipodes he was accompanied by a number of agricultural servants, and was also well equipped with agricultural implements, thus fitting him self for a combat with the virgin lands of Australia. From this cause he was favourably situated, and the possession of considerable capital made the acquisition of land easy. In 1825 soon after his arrival, he settled in the Hunter River district, where he and his son William Sparke, obtained grants amounting to 30,000 acres, chief of which were the estates of Webland Park, Woodbury. and Woodlands.  

In an old gazette Woodlands is described as eight miles from Maitland and twelve from Newcastle, having in 1832 an area of 2000 acres fenced, of which 300 acres had been cleared and put under cultivation, 100 acres bearing maize. The gazette further states that there was 220 bushels of wheat in straw on the homestead, and gives a long list of farm implements and stock not common at that early stage in the history of the colony.

As may be imagined the lot of the early settler was far from easy. The difficulty of clearing the dense scrubs which covered the fertile lands best adapted for cultivation was alone a formidable undertaking, but to this had to be added the danger from blacks and constant depredations of bushrangers. Seasonal changes, then as now, were matters of serious import to the settlers. During the administration of Governor Darling, who succeeded Sir Thomas Brisbane in December, 1825 a period of drought commenced, which lasted over three years. Judging from present conditions the reader can well imagine how serious the effect of repeated dry seasons would be upon a young agricultural settlement. The population was restricted to a narrow fringe of coast lands, there were no means of getting help or fodder supplies from elsewhere, as we are doing to-day, and as a result great distress prevailed. Almost immediately following there came a financial crisis, when the value of cattle fell from pounds to shillings and men whose whole fortunes were in their stock found themselves ruined.

As the young settlement increased time needs of a burying ground were felt. In the earliest days some of those who passed away were brought into Newcastle and buried in the Cathedral Churchyard, while others were interred on the family estate, but about 1838 Mr. Sparke dedicated a piece of land for this purpose together with a considerable area for the erection of a church and parsonage. In due course God's acre became tenanted by many a pioneer, whose eventful career had been completed, and to-day freeman and prisoner sleep side by side in the country cemetery in the midst of the forest where once they toiled. The church, which still exists, was erected over 60 years ago. True to their instincts the settlers responsible for it's erection clung to the religion of their fathers, and ably seconded the efforts of the first Anglican Prelate to rule the religious destiny of the young colony. It was Bishop Broughton who consecrated God's Acre, and the church in which the ancestors of many a local family worshipped, and which has been the scene of many an interesting function.

In a quiet corner of this graveyard Mr. Edward Sparke was laid to rest in February, 1844, and by his side was placed the wife who shared the vicissitudes of the transition from England to Australia and the pioneer life which followed. On May 13, 1878, his son, Mr. William Sparke (father of Mr. Edward Sparke, of East Maitland), was laid to rest in the family vault, beside his father, and near his wife, who was buried there in 1853. "In the Sydney Morning Herald" of February 24th, 1844, the following appeared:- "Amid the swift-winged changes in the scenes of life there is perhaps no relation or attendant recollection so strongly connected with deep reflection or brings us nearer home to our eventful individual condition than the loss of a charitable neighbour and worthy colonist, and in consolation. of relatives at home and here a tribute of respect is due to the memory of the late Mr. Edward Sparke, of the Hunter. His biography is short, as all unostentatious men's are. 'Real merit requires little of bubble reputation.' Leaving his native country in the West of England for this colony, he arrived in 1824, with five sons, a number of agricultural servants, and all the improved implements of industry and machinery necessary to commence cultivating the land upon the English principle. He soon obtained a maximum grant on the banks of the Hunter, and prosecuted with energy throughout all the struggles and expense of early clearing and cultivating this laudable undertaking as a 'true son of Devon." In his private, domestic life no man ever set a better a more parental example to his children, or was more beloved. Amongst his friends no man was more looked up to or respected. His benevolence to public institutions was liberal and unsolicited-- his private ones silent, but certain. A firm supporter of the Church of England 'without wattering or shadow of doubt,' his zeal and support was shown in his gift of land to the church for parsonage house and burial ground at Hexham, a part of which only is kept as a vault for his family, and in which 'narrow cell reposes now' the last remains of him who left this 'troublesome world as in a sleep.'

He died at the advanced age of 75 years, and has left a widow and four sons, and numerous grandchildren, with the latter of whom Mr. Sparke, of the Royal Marines, as members of the family in affliction." Mr. Edward Sparke, of East Maitland, Mr. Frederick Sparke, of Carlingford,' near Sydney. and Mr. William Edward Sparke, of Elizabeth Bay, are grand sons, and Mr. Edward William Sparke, of West Maitland, William Sparke, of Newcastle, and Messrs. Albert and Frederick Turner, of Tarro, are great grandsons......Newcastle Morning Herald 23 August 1902



By William Freame, The Maitland Weekly Mercury 10 March 1917.....

Tarro is a little railway village between Newcastle and Maitland, nearer the latter than the former. Originally portion of a locality known generally as Hexham - a title now exclusively held by a neighbouring village - Tarro is a very interesting old time settlement - a great deal of the traffic to Maitland and beyond used to pass its way in the old days.

Eighty years ago - 1837 - a meeting was held at Webland, the residence of Mr. Sparke, to consider the erection of a church for the district of Alnwick and Hexham., Rev. C.P.N. Wilton of Newcastle presiding. At this meeting Mr. E. Sparke donated 50 pounds and an acre of land and valuable aid was rendered by Messrs J. Cornish, G. Brooks, G. Sparke, W.H. Greenway, J. Elliott, and A.W. Scott. But I soon found that Webland Park, the old church and the parsonage have long since disappeared. There are people who ask us, "Why trouble about these old institutions and buildings?". Ah, why, indeed, when so many of our pioneer memorials have already disappeared.

On the site of the old church I found an ornate wooden church erected during 1904; Lady Windeyer, a daughter of the Rev. R. T. Bolton, laid the foundation stone, the building being opened by our old friend Archdeacon John Dixon - a former minister of the district. On the opposite side of the road there stands one of the oldest habitations in the district. It was erected during the early forties by the late William Roberts, who died in 1844, and it was occupied at the time of my visit by Mr. John Roberts, born in 1843, and consequently one year old when his father died. Enquiring at the door of this picturesque old cottage cottage, reminding me of several I knew in the Old Oxboro districts, Mr. Roberts very kindly granted me an interview during which I learnt that the old church and parsonage I had come so far to see had both been demolished years ago. I was able, however to picture the church from an old photograph in Mr. Robert's possession.

Built of wood, it was nearly square. In the front there was an entrance porch, the top of which reached nearly to the peak of the gable which was surmounted by a rather nice belfry. The windows, were originally Gothic, but unfortunately about 60 years ago, as a result of some alterations, they were taken away and replaced by ugly square windows of a design similar to those generally associated with little lollie shops. The exterior walls were strengthened by the additions of wooden buttresses reaching from the ground to the eaves, but the little belfry preserved it. Gothic ornamentation. According to Mr. Roberts, the old church was demolished when the present one was erected and Webland Park occupied the site of the present railway station and its environs, the old house standing on the crest of the hill, partly occupied by the present Methodist Church. Leaving Mr. Roberts I visited the site of the old parsonage, represented chiefly by a few hardy shrubs and trees - sole survivors of its former usefulness. The Rev. R.T. Bolton the first clergyman in charge of Alnwick and Hexham, conducted his first services in a building used as a lockup and court house. During the years he resided here the parsonage was one of the best known places along the historical roadway but all this now belongs to the past. The last clergyman, so I was informed, to reside there was the Rev. Mr. Woods. Subsequently it was tenanted by Mr. Williams, and after being unoccupied for some years, it was demolished about 22 years ago, the building being sold to Mr. B. Green, whose son resides on an adjacent property. As I wandered o'er the old parsonage grounds, I tried to picture those old time when the house was the centre of the religious and social life of the district, when Miss Mary Elizabeth Bolton, afterwards the wife and widow of one of our greatest Supreme Court Judges, gathered the little children around her, and taught them the simple story of Jesus.

On the opposite side of the road stood the old cottage of Mr. Holmes, who arrived during 1840. He was a shipmate of the late Mr. W. Roberts, and like him was employed by the late Mr. Scott of Ash Island - Tarro itself being portion of 400 acres grant to Mr. Sparke.

About a quarter of a mile away I found the little cemetery where in the village forefathers sleep, and here I read the simple epitaphs of many worthy pioneers. One was dated 1819 that of Joseph James Finch. The other noteworthy memorials were those of:

Robert Anderson, died 1848...

Weep not for me my wife so dear

Since God is pleased to call he here,

And after me no trouble take,

But love me for my children's sake

Elizabeth Green, Beloved wife of Benjamin Green died 1860

The air of death breathes though our souls

The dead around us lie;

By night and day the death bell tolls

So prepare to die.


William Roberts died 1844

Robert Walters died 1848

Lucy Allen Bolton, 1855 aged 5

William Ledgerwood. 1859

Captain Charles E. Button, late H.M. 46th reg., died 1854

Arthur C. Horsely 1849

Elizabeth Stinson 1862

The Rev. R.T. Bolton first incumbent of the Lower Hunter was formerly vicar of Padbury, Bucks, England. After leaving Tarro he became incumbent of the Lower Hawkesbury, probably residing at Wiseman's Ferry .


Map of the River Hunter, and its branches [cartographic material] : shewing the Lands reserved thereon for Church purposes, the Locations made to Settlers, and the Settlement and part of the Lands of the Australian Agricultural Company at Port Stephens together with the Station of the Mission to the Aborigines belonging to the London Missionary Society on Lake Macquarie, New South Wales - National Library of Australia


Notes & Links:

Hexham Cemetery - Australian Cemeteries Index

(1) Hobart Town Gazette, 6 February 1824

(2) Mitchell, Cecily Joan , Hunter's River : a history of early families and the homes they built in the Lower Hunter Valley between 1830 and 1860 : Administrator of the Estate of Cecily Joan Mitchell, Newcastle West, N.S.W., 1973

(3) Sydney Gazette 23 April 1827

Ash Island - Alexander Walker Scott John Laurio Platt Australian Agricultural Company Joseph Weller George Weller William Brooks Jonathon Warner George Brooks Richard Windeyer & Adam Beveridge William Peppercorn Richard Siddons John Maclean G.T. Graham William Sparke Henry Rae Vicars Jacob Francis Shortt Francis Moran John Eales William Bradridge Nobbys Island c. 1910 Black Swan from the Skottowe Collecion. Artist R. Browne Iron Bark Creek 1907 Escape of Convicts - Bushrangers



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