State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 6 October 1970


Robert Russell's Letters home, 1842–1847

Robert Russell (1808–1900) surveyor, architect and artist, arrived in Melbourne in 1836 as surveyor to the settlement. He left government service in 1839 and practised privately in the 1840s. The following letters from the La Trobe MS. collection contain vivid descriptions of early Gippsland and the depression of the mid-1840s.
The letters, whose provenance is obscure, are copies made probably in the late nineteenth century. It is not known to whom they were addressed. The Library gave them the binder's title, ‘Experiences in Port Phillip 1842–47 by Robert Russell’. The copies are here published in full; the marks of omission were made by the copier. Some amendments of punctuation have been made.
June 4th 1842.
We have been suffering here as in other places by dreadful pecuniary embarrassment. I hope daylight is again beginning to break through at last, but certainly every thing has been black enough, and as yet we have but a glimmering of renewed prosperity. Yet how can we wonder at the over speculation in the first instance, or its consequences? In a new country like this too, exciting from its very novelty speculation started by the Government by the auction System of Land selling (good in one respect, the opportunity it affords to all and everyone to buy whatever they fix upon if they like to pay for it,— but bad inasmuch as it teaches the buyer to retail in the same way) until at length a spirit of gambling is excited, and the lesson taught by the Government becomes available from the insufficiency of the supply to the increasing population, and the consequent opportunity for retailing at a large profit. This feeling has extended itself no doubt to all matters of commerce, for sudden prosperity is apt to make men speculative and disinclined to persevering industry, until at length the whole community is converted into an assemblage of rapacious speculators, obliged at length from the want of new arrivals with money, to feed the unnatural display, and for want of the facility afforded at the Banks, in the way of Discount, to prey upon one another, and find at length that they had advanced a little too far: but it is not because the upper story of a building gives way, that therefore the foundation is insecure. It may or may not be: and I believe that we
have still a good foundation for prosperity. The soil is in this country superior to any in the colony, we have a good grazing land, and a fine supply of water: a fine harbour, a Town on which much capital (I am afraid to say how much) has been expended, enterprising settlers and flocks and herds increasing in all directions, a climate well fitted for Englishmen, and events hastening forward the necessity for some scheme of extended emigration from which we shall soon feel the benefit: it is natural that the country should be peopled when it can afford support to population: and all our recent unnatural speculation and depression is totally independent of, and not to be considered of, with the natural capabilities of the district.
March 30th 1843.
In a few days I shall in all probability be off to Port Albert in a small vessel about to sail. We shall I think, have a pleasant party on board, and a good sailor for a captain which is as well considering that we shall probably have a puff or two in the Straits at this season of the year. Port Albert and Corner Inlet adjoining it you will find on recent maps just round Wilson's Promontory. From all I hear of this same Corner Inlet it is a swampy, wet, flat country, the soil rich and well watered, but scrubby. Being the key to Gipps Land however, a very fine tract of country by all accounts and likely to be about the best agricultural district in the colony, it must rise in public estimation as a place of traffic. The short run across to Launceston will be in its favor, and the advancing stations of the settlers from the Sydney Side pressing down towards the Port will I think establish it as a flourishing place in spite of some disadvantages. Gipps Land so far as I can learn cannot be approached by water excepting by Pt. Albert or Corner Inlet, although entrances to the large lakes communicating with the coast have been attempted — they are so shallow however even under the most favorable circumstances that no reliance is to be placed upon the chance of a communication, otherwise they would be better worth consideration than the present Port, communicating as they do with the heart of Gipps Land.
… Melbourne is no longer Melbourne — no money, no credit — no trade; nothing but failures, the Sheriff's officer the only active man in the community; even the lawyers scarcely able to get paid — Land worthless, cattle and sheep little better, the latter 2/6 a head! We must learn the dear lesson of experience however at any cost and shall be wiser for the future perhaps.
Melbourne. May 19th 1843.
At the time I last wrote to you I was about to sail for Port Albert, and on the 9th of April sailed in a little 12 ton cutter the “Midge”; small as she was we did very well. Mr Kirsopp who acted Captain having been in the navy, the toy to which we had trusted ourselves was not in the hands of a child and I with four other passengers besides two sailors and four forward arrived at Pt Albert and returned in safety…. My own stay at Port Albert was little varied with incident in as much as I did not leave the Survey on which I was engaged. Even on this limited spot however I had my own pains and pleasures living as I did under a tarpaulin or a few sheets of bark opening on a large fire collected by some bullock drivers who were glad to camp near to me and my two men, feeling more secure against any attack from the natives.
… I think Gipps Land will be our destiny for a time at all events, and really flat and uninteresting as it is, subject to
danger from the natives (though on this score I have no dread), to snakes — wet weather — and many other drawbacks. Still with wood and water for nothing and the ever cheerful face of nature in lieu of the long visaged countenances of the lingering inhabitants of our bankrupt Town, it is a delightful and most advantageous change, for here we are indeed in a miserable plight. Bad as I thought the place was when I left I found that four weeks had most perceptibly acted on it for the worse, the old coats I left had got older and the long faces longer, solvency is the exception to the rule, bankruptcy is the general case.
… I have in general terms mentioned my recent visit to Port Albert, and by reading Mr Morris's statements (which are in general pretty correct) you may arrive at some idea of this new country. There is much, however, even near the settlement which gives it advantages over Melbourne, chiefly the rich grass and the consequent nourishment afforded to cattle — here even after rain by no means luxuriant and in general very scanty. Again although Mr Morris does not seem willing to allow it there are even near the settlement portions of fine arable land which will shortly come into cultivation and a small farm would soon supply the necessaries of life with our cows, pigs, poultry, garden, and an occasional Kangaroo, ducks, quail, etc., with wood and water ad libitum, how little is left for money to purchase. A few bags of flour, sugar, and a chest of tea with some salt provisions or a quarter of a bullock occasionally, and all our wants are supplied. Under these considerations I have left my two men (who I engaged for 3 months £25 a year and their rations) to cut wood for building fencing, etc., and I shall either send word to get the small bit housie up or if I go alone get it up when there probably. They can get slabs (that is split trees which are inserted in a groove at top and bottom and driven tight) and thus a strong building is formed without need of nails and it can be thatched or covered with bark and be plastered so as to render it quite weather tight.
Melbourne. July 9th 1843.
The colonists have discovered a source of wealth which has hitherto been unknown, they find that by boiling down a sheep (reserving the hind quarters) so much tallow is obtained that the profit is greater than selling it for food. The consequence is sheep have risen from 3/- to 10/- a head in Sydney. Provisions are now very cheap. Bread 7d. the 4 lbs. formerly 4/6! Meat 2 ½d. (the best) formerly 5d. to 6d. Fowls per pair 2/6 formerly 14/-. Potatoes 4/6 per cwt. and other things in proportion. Land is unsaleable by the Government and it is thought that the old price, 5/- an acre, will be resumed. It is now in forced sales fetching about one tenth its former high value — rents are of course very low and tenants scarcely to be had. Still I think we shall have a change.
July 1843. Melbourne.
Our winter is passing away: and the flowers preparing to spring up about us. I have taken to raking, etc., and hope to make the place look pretty, from a feeling which operates in spite of reason, pleased with my progress, though by the time the flowers are in blossom I may be again in Gipps Land and M. A and the children with me. We are uncertain however about this, but the trip will do them a world of good, and as the place is likely to be soon inhabited it will not be less lonely than when first I visited it. The climate is by no means salubrious here at certain seasons, but I think old people enjoy better health than young, for my own part I have not had a days illness and we are all generally free from complaint.
Melbourne. Nov. 1843.
I am glad to get back again to Melbourne, having had rough work to complete my Survey which in all took me about six weeks (including my former trip) and I was detained a fortnight longer for want of a vessel. During this period I had an opportunity of visiting the Interior and my observations will I believe appear shortly in print, if so I will make a point of sending you the paper. I will also write more fully soon, in the meantime I may observe that the soil of the good portion of the country is very good, screened from hot winds, well watered and subject to much moisture: it is therefore well adapted for agriculture, and but for the question of a market would soon attain a very high perhaps the highest position in value of similar land in the colony.
… This country requires the introduction of respectable capitalists and a corresponding amount of laborers, it will then resume its health and Port Essington to which an overland expedition headed by Sir Thomas Mitchell is talked of will I think do wonders by facilitating our communication with India.
Melbourne. Dec. 1843.
I send a newspaper giving you my account of Gipps Land in an anonymous communication published in one of our papers, the Herald. There is much to inpapers, the Herald. There is much to interest in this new district but it is limited: its worst qualities and its best are derivable from a very plentiful supply of moisture, the high ranges at the back screen it from the hot winds which are here very injurious, and subject as it is to swamps and morasses, accessible by a harbour in which mud islands and sand banks are at low water more numerous than could be wished, still there is in the good part of the country an extent of some 25 miles square or thereabouts of apparently as fine a country as could be wished; fine moist open plains of very rich soil subject to much rain and moisture and plentifully watered by permanent rivers…. I consider myself fortunate in having escaped from all accidents from the natives, from snakes, and other casualties together with the dangers of the sea: the last are the most serious — we had bad weather coming home, five times did we attempt the heads before we could enter and when we did it was all we could do to weather a rock at the mouth of the harbour: the Captain was in an agony of terror, the sailors taking off their jackets, I was on deck all the time and it was very terrific to see the small craft (she was a scooner of some 50 tons) laboring through the tremendous ripple that runs in and out of our harbour — the wind all the time blowing fresh and she a bad sailor, just clearing the reef: had the wind fallen off or headed us I fear we should have struck — after entering it blew fearfully, the sea inside the heads being as rough as outside…. On my return to Melbourne I could see a great change, these were fewer people in the Town, and long faces still more plentiful, in fact money is so scarce that plentiful as provisions are at present, and cheap as plentiful there are many who but lately could live in great style who now find difficulty in obtaining the bare necessaries of life. Land speculation, facilities afforded by discounts, overtrading, and then a sudden change in the land regulations and sudden restriction of discounts have so wrought upon this unhappy place that we are now suddenly beggared, and I fear the worst is yet to come. Sydney is in a worse predicament still.
Melbourne. April 9th 1844.
The fortunes of many men here have suddenly vanished, and those who were
possessed like Antonio of many argosies, are content like wreckers to pick up whatever they can from the shattered remains of their broken fortunes…. We now fall back on the more legitimate occupations of a new country, boiling down cattle and sheep (strange as it may seem) is of itself a great assistance, as tallow is an article which in mercantile language can be drawn against, and I hope matters will mend. In the meantime the great over growth of lawyers, merchants, etc., etc., which for a time had revelled in the luxury of the excited atmosphere of undue speculation, must be thinned as it is daily. Some take to the bush, others form new connections and instead of being principals become subordinates, and thus by degrees all will again assume a better position. In the meantime land is not worth the price charged for the conveyance in most cases — so much has it been broken up into small portions held by all ranks many of whom have only occupation, and some have never to this day seen their purchases. I enter largely on this subject as I am sure after all that this place must in its rise and temporary fall be a wonder at home: provisions are now fortunately so cheap that money goes a long way, and the quantity of stock sent to the boiling down Establishments is so great that meat is to be had almost for the asking.
Melbourne. Dec. 19th 1844.
The talk of sending out Penitentiary men has divided our community into two parties, the Squatters who want labour and consequently like the arrangement, and the Merchants and Townspeople who cry out loudly against that which offers to them no direct pecuniary advantage. For my own part I cannot say I like the idea altogether, at the same time there seems to be good intention towards the prisoners on the part of Government, and I for one should be sorry to see such intentions unexecuted, though it costs us the name of freedom, but we are at all times subject to the visitations of Van Diemen's Land and Sydney expirees, and therefore need scarcely dread the threatened contamination.
Melbourne. January 30/45.
The Colony is now in a more prosperous state but as the sun has risen on the squatters first this time (who are all rejoicing in the good price of wool and probable low rate of labor), the merchants and townspeople generally have to wait a little until the money trickles down the many streams which I fancy generally terminate in the metropolis. I am sure it is high time we had a change. I cannot describe to you the sudden reverse which has come on all and sundry — with few exceptions insolvency has come on all and but yesterday I was conversing with a gentleman who lately arrived having been absent four years. When he left one of many such who on shaking hands told him he could write himself a £10,000 man and hoped soon to see him in England. Now he finds him bankrupt, this with a cautious man too who had made his money with care, and no merchant — shews what a sweeping storm came over us. No old capitalists as in England, the whole place came down like a pile of bricks one after another, Merchant, Settler, Lawyer all and sundry in confusion worse confounded.
Melbourne. March 8th/45.
Exhibitions of Paintings are now in vogue, in Hobart Town a very respectable affair was lately got up — in Sydney they talk of one, and here perhaps it may be managed….
We have been suffering much from heat during this week. The hot winds here are very oppressive especially when for three

One of Robert Russell's water-colour sketches of early Melbourne

or four days there is no intermission. Night even brings no coolness — and the distant Bush fires, which from our door tonight are seen burning with great brilliancy, are in accordance with the arid atmosphere around us.
Melbourne. February 11th/46.
I have no fear of the progress of the Colony with or without Separation. If wool keeps up Separation's neither here or there, though it is heretical to express myself as this is the present rage and orators are at this moment giving vent to their eloquence in favor of it at a public dinner given to Dr Lang.
Melbourne. April 1846.
Dr. Leichard's overland expedition to Port Essington will I am sure be thought still more highly of at Home than here tho’ even here it is considered a very great undertaking and he has been rapturously received. Sir Thomas Mitchell also is quietly advancing in a more inland route. I doubt if he will go on as straight as he at present appears to wish. Ranges, Rivers, Swamps and Deserts are unpleasant possibilities ahead of him.
Sir George is on the wing … I do consider he was unfortunate, in as much as he came to the colony just when it was on the totter, ruled through all the crashing insolvency that followed, and now that sunshine peeps through the bright sky again it falls on his returning sails.
July 29th 1846. Melbourne.
… You will be astonished when I tell you that at these distant stations (65 miles up the Country) more comfort is frequently found than in Melbourne, that to which I went was the sheep run of Robert Beau-champ not a bad name, the owner a young man recently come into some property as they say, there in his small cottage at sun-down and after a dreary forty mile ride (12 miles of which were through a forest called the “black forest”) and after meeting no one on the road it was pleasant to find not only comfort but elegance, a well furnished room, carpetted and furnished with easy cushioned chairs — a beautifully finished piano by “Mott”, is not this the name?, hung with good engravings and enlivened by a small but valuable library, — by a fire fed by logs (such as would astonish you in England) on the expansive white hearth. The evenings were spent in pleasant conversation on all subjects, and a friend on a visit whose acquaintance I then first made and may never see again enlivened us by his metaphysical discussions in which as heretofore I am always ready to bear a hand. It was not however the comfort of the house alone but the tout ensemble — an overseer and his wife both persons of respectable grade lived in a neighbouring cottage, and the young gentleman himself was waited on by his servant with as much form and ceremony as though the next heir to a Dukedom. As to eating and drinking it would have satisfied more fastidious tastes than mine. Such is the bush in Port Phillip. But I must add in fairness this was a specimen such as you do not meet with every day. Plenty and a hearty welcome are common enough but “currant jelly” to your saddle of mutton and “Lodge's Portraits” in your bush library are not of every day occurrence.
Melbourne. March 18th/47.
I have had two trips to Geelong lately, the Township near the western head of our Harbour. This place I had not seen for ten years previously! The change was wonderful — then all was nature, the kangaroo skipped about the beautiful hills of the neighbourhood (now sold by the government at a pound an acre and more), the blacks were seen here and there in tribes
— now a ragged remnant fearfully deteriorated doubless from contact with civilization, may be seen lazily wandering about, not as of old running up every tree for the opossum's nest and searching at every step for the track of the kangaroo or the bandicoot. I surveyed land this time on which one gentleman is about to build a large house near the spot where ten years back the native held his finger up for silence and looked about that he might avoid even the dry and cracking wood at his feet as he stole noiselessly on the kangaroo's track. Corn fields wave there now! — and the Town! why, old and ruinous little huts of which one or two are left, were not begun when I was there, as to the main streets they are springing up thick with fine large buildings designed in general with more taste than in Melbourne. English, R. Catholic, Presbyterian and Wesleyan Churches and Chapels, large Inns, and numerous shops, chiefly of stone (which abounds there), the new Episcopalian Church being of very good design and execution. It is strange indeed to observe the marked forms of nature such as station peak (not unlike the volcanic peak of Vesuvius) rising now above a large Township which then formed the blue distance to the still solitudes of a beautiful and untouched country.
Melbourne. March/47.
The Colony has got through her difficulties and the small fry her inhabitants now are getting comfortably on individually — though that most wholesome outcry a call for labour resounds through the Colony. Why do you not encourage at Home some extensive system of pauper not convict emigration? Young colonies are more readily contaminated than older ones, and it is a pity to pour in all the refuse of the gaols and the Hulks to infuse their poisonous ideas here.
Melbourne. June/47.
My last expedition was the Devil's River, my present to the Upper Murray, upwards of 200 miles off, which we expect to make in a week's time and my survey taken at a week more will bring me home again, I hope within the month. The Colony now begins to awaken from its long sleep like a young giant refreshed I hope, but I sadly fear the young giant will take his old speculative courses in spite of past experience — though we have had a lesson that ought not to be forgotten readily. Sheep farmers and land owners are both in a very thriving way for the promise of the right of preemption, etc., has gladdened the former class and Land in and near Town is again in demand to satisfy the hopes and expectations of the latter. Port Phillip has advanced wonderfully but its advance has been that of a Kangaroo, a long jump and a long rest after it.
Melbourne. July 30th/47.
I returned on the 12th from my expedition to the lower Murray some 250 miles away, after a month's absence. The time of year was rather dangerous, the floods being about to rise, in fact I was most fortunate, had I returned a week earlier (as I intended) the flooded creeks on this side the Murray would have intercepted my progress and I might have met with an accident (more than one death had occurred in attempting to cross them), had I returned a week later the floods beyond the Murray would have been up, and I saw enough of the creeks when in a quiescent state with their deep slippery banks to know what they must be in a flood. I was really thankful therefore that my return had been retarded for a week. I could write volumes on all the novelties, the wide expanse of level open country (which Sturt explored by tracing the Murrumbidgee into the Murray downwards),
the peculiar shrubs, of which the salt bush (the salt leaves of which the sheep thrive well upon), the Myall which bears a fruit about the size of a Damson hanging gracefully (but unfortunately green) when I was down there, in abundance, the ridges of pine (like our Scotch fir in appearance) which add much to the beauty of parts of the country. The wide Murray with its overflowing waters through miles of reeds 7 or 8 feet high … with the down of which the settlers stuff their mattrasses and pillows, the wild turkeys feeding in dozens on the open plains, the Emu trotting off on our approach, the wild Dogs (more like the fox) which follow frequently closely on the travellers track and even stand to be shot at (as one did which I astonished from the spring cart in which we went down the Country) — these and many other matters chiefly new to me, would afford subject for a lengthy narrative.
Melbourne. Nov. 1847.
My time has been lately very much occupied, I have been many miles East, North and West from Melbourne as a centre, and but recently returned from an excursion to the Grampians and Mount Napier. This part of the Country Sir T. Mitchell treats largely of, it is some 150 miles beyond Geelong (to the westward)…. I found time to ascend Mt. Napier and explore the Lava currents which have rolled hot from this now tree crowned crater, you have no idea what deep caverns are formed by the falling in of the self formed arches, if I may so call them, left by the hot stream of fire, now converted into the bed of a small creek. It sounds hollow under the horse's feet as you pass across it. The Grampians too with their bold and fantastic outlines I saw for the first time to great advantage for a severe storm of thunder and lightning happened to heighten their effect and their marked outlines now in shadow against the bright sky, now bright against the blackness behind were very picturesque — I was close under them but alas for the romantic! in a comfortable Inn.
There is a beautiful substance got at the Adelaide Mines called Malachite and has a good deal of copper in it giving a green line to the substance which is I apprehend chiefly lime, and cuts beautifully. I understand some ornaments were cut in it, and after having been set in Adelaide Gold were sent home to the Queen. A friend has promised me some, it is beautiful stuff. I saw no Lava fit for cutting in my recent travels but I understand at the Pyrenees it is to be had, so perhaps I may be lucky enough to get it also, you are aware that beautiful ornaments are formed out of it.