1801–1825: Settlement

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In the early years of the 19th century, the west headland of Sydney Cove was distinguished by several crucial landmarks on the slopes of Windmill Hill (later known as Flagstaff Hill, Citadel Hill and now Observatory Hill). On the east side, the eight cannons of Dawes Battery were splayed towards arriving ships, above the colony’s subterranean cache of gunpowder.  On the hilltop and north-west slope were two of the town’s first government windmills.

Windmills were vital to grind the grains needed for flour to bake bread. The first was completed in 1797 at Cockle Bay Point (later renamed Millers Point and now redeveloped as Barangaroo Park). The other government mill, completed in 1806, was built by carpenter Nathaniel Lucas on top of Flagstaff Hill (near the Fort Street School building). Both were made in timber, with canvas sails.

By 1822, three more wooden windmills were being operated commercially on the high ground of Millers Point: on sites then owned by Jack (the Miller) Leighton (near today’s Bettington Street), Joseph Underwood (west of today’s Merriman Street) and a Mr Davis (also near Merriman Street).*

All of the colony’s early British Governors accelerated commercial development and international shipping. They employed teams of convicts to quarry sandstone from Millers Point, and build roads, bridges, buildings, wharves, shipyards and other vital infrastructure.

During this period the colony’s leaders were Capt. Philip Gidley King (third Governor, 1800–1806), Capt. William Bligh (1806–1808) and Major-General Lachlan Macquarie (1810–1821); all appointed by King George III. The sixth Governor, Major-General Sir Thomas Brisbane (1821–1825) was appointed by King George IV.

During winter 1802, two French research ships, despatched by Napoleon Bonaparte and commanded by Nicolas Baudin, stayed in Sydney Cove as guests of Governor King. The most talented artist on board, Charles Alexandre Lesueur, mapped and sketched the town in detail. He was encouraged by his mentor, Francois Péron, to illustrate information about Sydney that could help persuade Napoleon Bonaparte to ‘take’ New Holland (the then-usual name for Australia) from the British colonists.** Lesueur’s ‘Plan de la ville de Sydney’ was adapted, annotated and reprinted several times in Europe during the following decade.

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The colony’s first commercial rowboat ferryman, William (Billy) Blue, arrived in Sydney in 1801 with two years of an English stealing sentence left to serve. Probably born in Jamaica, he wore a comical military-style ‘uniform’ with a top hat, and was popularly known as ‘the old Commodore’. In 1811 Governor Lachlan Macquarie granted him the title of harbour watchman, with a hexagonal ‘watchhouse’ at Circular Quay. In 1817, Macquarie granted him a villa and land on the north shore peninsula now named Blues Point. This enabled him to buy rowboats and operate ferry services from Blues Point and Lavender Bay across narrow parts of the harbour to Dawes Point and landing spots on the Cockle Bay (Darling Harbour) headland. Blue lost his government appointment and was jailed for smuggling rum and harbouring an escaped convict. He died in 1834.***

‘Old Commodore’ William (Billy) Blue, painted by John B. East, 1834 (SLNSW/DoS).

More details

*Catie Gilchrist, 2016, ‘Windmills of Sydney’, Dictionary of Sydney.

**Terry Smyth, 2018, Napoleon’s Australia: The Incredible Story of Bonaparte’s Secret Plan to Invade Australia. Sydney: Ebury Books (Penguin),

*** Lisa Murray, 2017, ‘The old commodore, Billy Blue’, Dictionary of Sydney.