George William Evans—1780-1852
A gentrified English colonial adventurer from Warwickshire, Evans had first tried his hand in South Africa, but moved on to NSW in 1802. As a Free Settler in the new colony, Evans won the favour of some of the key figures in the NSW Corps, most notably the Lieutenant Governor William Paterson, who promptly put him in charge of government stores at Parramatta.
With some training in trigonometry and basic land surveillance, Evans soon found himself Acting Surveyor-General of NSW, plotting an exploration of the Warragamba River to its source in the Mountains. In 1805 the Governor, Phillip Gidley King, dismissed him of his post—the question, of course, is ‘why’? Did he perform his role poorly? His later record suggests he was a better surveyor than most of his predecessors. Was he corrupted by the NSW Corps? It is possible, even though it is difficult (especially during the period of Grose and Paterson’s rule on the Corps’ behalf) to discern the difference between “corrupt” practice and “enterprise”.
It would appear on the surface, at least, that Evans conducted himself with greater propriety than most others around him. Most likely King was on a mission to “clean up” the colony of the influence of rum and the NSW Corps—any association that might put Evans in that company would be suspect, and so King replaced Evans with his own man.
Nonetheless Paterson still had the power to ensure he received a land grant near Richmond on the Hawkesbury, feasibly, at that time, the richest farming land in the colony. Yet the Hawkesbury was an area fraught with difficulty for its white settlers, with persistent resistance from the local Darug people, and regular flooding afflicting its shores.
Consequent to the disastrous flood of March 1806 Evans gave up farming and found his old friend Paterson, who had been placed in charge of a new settlement in Van Dieman’s Land, now wanted him to survey the wilderness around him.
The latest Governor (arrived 1810), Lachlan Macquarie, had other plans. He directed Evans to explore the country around Jervis Bay to the south of Sydney. Evans not only did this competently, but struck a path inland to present day Appin, enduring considerable hardship to map quite good rural land for immediate settlement. Evans’ courage, persistence, and hardiness in carrying out this mission must have stuck with Macquarie, for he allowed the Deputy Surveyor-General to go to Paterson’s aid, but then recalled him for the major task that confronted him in 1813.
That task was to push further than all previous explorations and find a passage to the interior, where there might exist adequate pasture for the growing numbers of stock in the colony, as well as arable lands for settlement. This Evans and his party of two free men and three convicts did, and after reaching the most westerly point of Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson’s expedition, Mt. Blaxland, continued on for a further 98 miles to the present site of Bathurst. Here Evans named a westerly flowing river the “Macquarie” and wrote a glowing report of the relatively flat, sloping and scrubless lands lying between the Great Dividing Range and the area of Bathurst.
I cannot speak too much of the Country, the increase of Stock for some 100 Years cannot overrun it; the Grass is so good and intermixed with variety of herbs. Emu’s and Geese are numerous,..
Evans also had his first encounter with one of the largest Aboriginal nations of NSW, the Wiradjuri people. It was brief, the group consisted of two women and four children, all of whom showed great fear and broke down to weep when confronted by Evans’ party. Evans showed sympathy and kindness towards the group, but gave no indication of why they might’ve reacted in such a frightened way. Had word of the depredations and dread diseases (ie Smallpox) of the new white invaders already spread among Wiradjuri clans? Or was the reaction simply an understandable fear of white ghosts, a traditional part of Wiradjuri belief? Was it rather that the small party had stumbled across totally strange aliens, without the protection of their own menfolk? Where were the men?
Evans repeatedly writes of the smoke plumes, scattered artefacts and sounds of Indigenous people throughout his journey. He was convinced the local people knew of his movements, and that his party was being consistently watched. Yet at no stage did a ‘meeting embassy’ emerge from the surrounding bush. Was he considered friend or foe, or simply, indifferently?
Deputy Surveyor-General Evans had already determined to do more accurate orientations on his return journey. But it was on his return across the ‘Mountains that he encountered a massive bushfire. Evans was clearly startled, and by his own account, lucky…
The Mountains have been fired; had we been on them we
could not have escaped; the Flames rage with violence through thick
underwood, which they are covered with. Bad travelling the stick of the
Bushes here are worse than if their leaves had not been consumed; they
catch my Chain which makes the measuring very fatiguing; also tears our
clothes to pieces, and makes us appear as Natives from black dust off
them. The Marks in the Trees are burnt out; therefore am obliged to go
over them again; Our Horses now want Grass; the herbage in this spacious
Valley is destroyed; we cut some sweet Rushes for them that grow on the
edge of a stream of Water which runs through it.
distance, 4 Miles.
The Mountains are as yesterday; fired in all directions; at 11 o’clock I was upon the high hill; all objects Eastward are obscured by thick smoke; We stopped where there was feed for the Horses and Water.
distance, 5¼ Miles.
So, was the fire an accident of nature? Evans was
travelling in high summer, December and January, a logical time for
bushfires to occur. Thus far, his party had encountered heavy rains and
parching heat, all factors that might point to a lightning strike,
although the order of their occurrence was wrong. Aboriginal knowledge
would be too keen to accidentally light a fire in hot, dry conditions
that could endanger their own people—their ‘firestick farming’ was
generally reserved for milder times of the year.
One has to consider the possibility that the bushfire from which they ‘could not have escaped’ may well have been a hostile act, or at least one that sought to sabotage the advance party’s mission. Evans struggled on for three more days, all of it through burnt out country. However, this was actually becoming an asset, and by the time he approached the country around Warrimoo, the cleared bush was allowing the party to travel faster.
Evans’ historic passage through Warrimoo is today marked by a ‘Footsteps in Time’ Trigonomical Survey Marker, in a small grass square on the eastern side of Warrimoo Citizens’ Hall. It is in the exact spot that Evans took his day’s readings for January 7th, 1814, thus: ‘LAT 33* 43’ 22” E LONG 150* 35’ 52” S’ and the entry in his Journal reads as follows:
The Forest land continues a Mile farther; afterwards the brushy Ridge commences again, the thickest of it is consumed, which I consider fortunate, had it not I should be obliged to have given off measuring; at the end of today’s Journey is a Lagoon of good Water, with tolerable grass round the edge of it.
distance, 5¾ Miles.
In summary, Evans had just passed through some of the thickest bush he battled through on his trip across, presumably in the country around Valley Heights and Springwood, but most of this had been ‘consumed’ by fire, thus making it possible to pass through much more comfortably upon return. This allowed him to do accurate measurements which he might otherwise have had to overlook, and to travel some five and three quarter miles—good distance through mountainous bush.
The ‘Lagoon of good Water’ is, no doubt, Glenbrook Lagoon, even now becoming a noted ‘stop off’ point for travellers, on their way home from the Crossing of the Mountains.
George William Evans was celebrated and rewarded by Governor Macquarie, much moreso than his predecessors Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson, who only received their fame after Evans had returned with his report of the Bathurst Plains. He was honorably mentioned in dispatches back to England, and received 100 pounds reward and a 1,000 acre land grant in Van Dieman’s Land, his future destination.
EVANS, G. W. Journal 1813-1814, December 21st, from Historical Records of Australia, Vol viii
EVANS, G. W. Ibid, January 3rd and 4th
EVANS, G.W. Ibid, January 7th