Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Spotlight on: James Meehan, convict surveyor

Above: Field Book 31: Survey of Grants and Farms, Road and River Traverses, 
Sydney Leases (County Cumberland) 1804 to 1808 (1817). 
Source: Land and Property Management Authority of New South Wales

These days every part of the world has been mapped and surveyed, and even our houses can be zoomed in on thanks to Google street view. Imagine then the role of the first surveyors in the early colony, and the significance of their findings.

One of these surveyors was James Meehan (1774-1826) from Offaly in Ireland. In 1796, when he was 22, he joined the Society of United Irishmen as a schoolteacher and surveyor. After surrendering voluntarily, he was charged with being a member of an illegal organisation and transported for life to New South Wales.

When he arrived in Sydney aboard the Friendship in 1800, he was assigned to work in the Surveyor-General’s Department where he was immediately successful. By the time Lachlan Macquarie took up his position as Governor in 1810, Meehan was holding a ticket-of-leave and was Acting Surveyor-General.

The two became good friends and Meehan accompanied the governor on many tours of the colony. Meehan was also relied on by Macquarie to enact his vision of opening up the colony through the issue of land grants.  In return, Macquarie supported Meehan’s application to become Surveyor-General of New South Wales. The British Government proved not as supportive of emancipists as Macquarie, and subsequently John Oxley was appointed in his place.

The field book pictured above dates from 1804 to 1808 and documents Meehan's work in surveying the settlement in Sydney and across the Cumberland Plain. Now thanks to the Land and Property Management Authority of New South Wales, you can explore the book online.

And more than 200 years later, a stone statue of Meehan is being made and will be placed in the wall of the heritage-listed Lands Department building in Bridge Street, Sydney later this year.

Notes: Additional information courtesy of State Records NSW and the Land and Property Management Authority of New South Wales. Field book collection, State Records NSW: NRS 13889 [SZ864]

Monday, August 16, 2010

George Massey, gentleman convict

On August 1795, the Saunders Newsletter in Dublin published a letter written by convict George Massey. In it, Massey wrote that "tea, of the quality sold [in Dublin] for 6 shillings per pound, sells [in Sydney] at a guinea, sugar 2 shillings per pound, soap 4 shillings, and bad rum 28 shillings per gallon."

Massey was a former Bank of Ireland employee who'd been convicted of embezzlement. The explanation given for his crime was that he'd recently married and launched he and his wife into a style of living they could ill afford. He tried to cover up his crime by saying she was an heiress, but the truth about him cooking the books soon became clear.

Massey was sentenced to transportation for life and arrived aboard the Sugar Cane in 1793. Read more about him in A Nimble Fingered Tribe by Barbara Hall, available through Irish Wattle.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Convict sites awarded World Heritage status

Old Government House, Parramatta. Source: Flickr

Eleven of Australia's historical sites were given World Heritage status this week. Together, they illustrate the key aspects of the convicts' experience in the penal colony. Established by the British empire across the 18th and 19th centuries, many of the sites housed or employed tens of thousands of men, women and children condemned to transportation. The sites now protected are: