Early settlers


In 1770 the local Bundjalung tribes must have been amazed as they witnessed a strange vessel sailing north along the coast. On board this ship The Endeavour was one Captain James Cook and a crew – the first white men to lay eyes on this part of the east coast of Australia. 

Whilst Cook’s observations were mainly restricted to the coastline of eastern Australia, he failed to discover the major river systems of what is now the far north coast region of NSW, based on the Clarence, Richmond and Tweed Rivers. He did however discover and name Cape Byron on 15 May, 1770, and by Thursday of the same week had taken bearings on and named a prominent inland mountain as ‘Mount Warning’ and the rocky headland on the coast as ‘Point Danger’.

In 1823 Governor Brisbane ordered Lieut. John Oxley to sail the Mermaid north from Sydney to locate a suitable site for a new penal colony. The existing northern penal settlement at Port Macquarie was now required for free settlers. Bad weather forced Oxley well out to sea, resulting in his failure to discover the Richmond River. Oxley's subsequent report to Governor Brisbane on the results of his discoveries led to the establishment of a penal settlement at Redcliffe.

By 1827 the population of NSW had grown to 36,596 and graziers in the south were feeling the full impact of a prolonged drought. New fertile grazing land needed to be discovered and the then Governor of NSW, Ralph Darling, sent one Allan Cunningham to explore the northern tablelands region. In 1828 Captain Henry Rous, in command of the HMAS Rainbow, a vessel of 530 tonnes, was also commissioned to assist in finding suitable new fertile lands.

Captain Rous (1795-1877) was the second son of Viscount Dunwich and his father was also the first Earl of Stradbroke. On 14 August 1828 Captain Rous set sail northwards from Sydney along the east coast. On 26 August 1828 the Rainbow anchored at the mouth of the Richmond River. The next morning Rous crossed the bar at the entrance of the River in the ship’s pinnace and explored the river for about 32 kilometres, turning around at the entrance to Tuckean Swamp. Rous named the river after a family friend, Charles, the Fifth Duke of Richmond of the Lennox Line, and christened the headland to the north Lennox Head.

Early settlers and sawyers

It is appropriate to quote Captain Henry Rous's report on the geography of the lower reaches of the Richmond valley prior to settlement by white man. It read:

“The general outline of the neighbouring country appeared to be flat open forest on the western bank and thick jungle to the eastward with fine timber, and as you ascend the river the tea tree mangrove and swamp oak give place to Moreton pines, cedar, yellow wood, palms and gum trees – the banks in general not exceeding 10 feet in height, rich alluvial mould – as far as the eye could reach to the W.S.E. not a hill could be discovered of any size, and on the whole it appeared remarkably flat country. Many natives were seen, and a few huts upwards of 30 feet in length and 6 feet in height.”

By 1845, 21 licences had been granted for pastoral runs in the Richmond valley. Whilst more research is required to prove the identity of the first squatters, evidence suggests this may have been one Ward Stephens, who applied for a licence for Runnymede station in 1839.

Squatters were sheep or cattle graziers who, until the 1850s, occupied large areas of Crown land. From 1837 the squatter was required to pay a licence of 10 pounds ($20) per annum to lease the land from the NSW Government, plus a fee for the number and type of stock grazed on the land. The fee was introduced to finance the cost of Border Police assigned to each Land Commissioner. The Border Police were employed to ‘limit conflict’ between squatters and Aboriginal people, enforce the Crown Lands Act and to eliminate illegal runs. Land occupied by a squatter was referred to as a run or station. A number of stations were established in what is now the Lismore LGA.

Lismore run

The Lismore run was located on the north arm of the Richmond River. (In 1976 the northern arm was renamed Wilsons River). Lismore station covered an area of some 23,000 acres and was originally taken up by Captain Dumaresq in 1843. The run was originally stocked with sheep herded down from New England by one Scott of Glendon. Ward Stephens took up the run on their behalf in 1843, however the subtropical climate was totally unsuited to sheep grazing and consequently stock losses due to fluke, footrot, catarrh and other diseases led to the abandonment of the run.

In January 1845, William and Jane Wilson took over the run and named it Lismore after a small island in Loch Linnhe in the Scottish highlands. The Wilsons were born near Aberdeen in Scotland and arrived in the NSW colony in May 1833. The Wilsons set sail from Sydney for the Richmond River arriving in Ballina in February 1844. Twelve months later the Wilsons had settled in Lismore and built a house at the far northern corner of the run to the east of the junction of Leycester and Wilsons Creeks.

A second house was built in 1851 near the corner of present Ballina and Molesworth Streets and became known as ‘Lismore House’. Unfortunately, both homesteads no longer exist.

In 1855 surveyor Frederick Peppercorne was instructed by the Surveyor General Sir Thomas Mitchell to determine a suitable site for a township at the confluence of the Wilson and Richmond Rivers. The site chosen by Peppercorne was Wilson’s homestead paddock and this site was proclaimed the Town of Lismore in the Government Gazette on 1 May 1856. At the same time Wilson was able to secure freehold land at Monaltrie and Invercauld (part of the Lismore run) by using his pre-emptive rights. Mrs Francis Girard bought out the interests of Wilson’s cattle station in 1863 including Lismore House.

Mrs Girard took up occupation of the pastoral lease with her two sons Francis Napolean and Alfred Michael Girard.

With the passing of the Robertson Land Acts in 1861, the Lismore Station with its fertile land and river frontage became a prime target for land-hungry selectors. The land grab reduced the size of the Lismore run by half and, coupled with personal disaster and recurring devastating floods, the Girards were forced to abandon their pastoral operations in 1873.

Tunstall run

In 1843 Augustus Adolphus Leycester and his partner Robert Shaw took up the pastoral lease over their run which they called Tunstall. The two partners previously held a run on the Severn River, New England, and arrived overland with their cattle stock via Woodenbong-Urbenville.

The Tunstall lease was described in the New South Wales Government Gazette as follows:

“…Estimated area: 19,200 acres. Estimated grazing capabilities: 1200 cattle. Bounded on the north by a creek known by the name Duck Creek (now Leycester Creek) which divides it from the stations of Messers Fawcett and Lord; on the south by a pine range which divides it from Mr Clark Irving’s station; on the east by a creek running into the north arm of the Richmond River (now Wilsons River), dividing it from Mr Ward Stephens’ Heifer Station known by the name of Virginia Water; on the east by the north arm dividing it from Mr Wilson's station known by the name Lismore; and on the west by a ridge or spur running from the pine range into the Duck Creek (now Back Creek) on Mr Stephens’ side of a large plain fronting Mr Lord’s station Ellerby.”

In 1847 a protracted law suit commenced between Leycester and Shaw and their neighbour Ward Stephens of Runnymede over a land claim for a large plain between the two runs. The plain became known as Disputed Plain. In the same year Shaw left Tunstall, forcing Leycester to buy out his share, and these costs coupled with the large debts associated with the legal action forced Leycester to finally sell his interests in Tunstall to Henry Garrard in 1849. Leycester remained on as manager of Tunstall until 1850 when he left Australia for the California gold fields.

Garrard used his pre-emptive rights to purchase some 320 acres of Tunstall which he named Twickenham. The property’s homestead was built on the present sight of the Lismore railway station and directly opposite Lismore House on the western bank of the Wilsons River.

Virginia run

The Virginia pastoral lease was taken up by Ward Stephens of Runnymede. The station later became known as Heifer Station and was used as a breeder run for Runnymede.

Ellerby run

The original pastoral lease known as Ellerby was taken out in 1842 by John Lord.

Lord pastured sheep on the run, but as elsewhere in the Richmond valley, the subtropical climate was totally unsuitable. The lease was subsequently taken over by Atkinson and Mackellar and became an outstation of Runnymede.

Blakebrook run

Irving Clark took out the lease on Blakebrook Run in 1848.

In 1856 Mary Garrard acquired 201 acres of Blakebrook and, with her husband Henry, renamed it Booerie and commenced building on the property. John Goodfellow acquired land around the Rosehill and Nimbin areas and subsequently in 1858 sold these holdings to Edward Flood.

The sawyers

Unlike the first squatters in the Richmond valley, the early cedar cutters arrived by sea via the Richmond River. First sawyers arrived at the mouth of the Richmond River in December 1842, the first white men to cross the river bar since Captain Rous in 1828. The arrival of Steve King and others in the schooner Sally heralded the beginning of the cedar cutting industry on the Richmond River with the first cedar being cut at Coraki.

As soon as word reached other cedar cutters working on the Clarence River they travelled as fast as they could to cash in on the abundance and quality of the region’s cedar. The cedar cutters required a licence, costing $8 per year, to fell trees on unallocated Crown land. However, the licence only gave them the right to cut and export timber and not to settle nor build permanent homes on the land. Consequently, the sawyers and their families were forced to live in temporary camps. Larger camps were established at Bexhill (formerly Bald Hill) and Gundurimba.

Initially the cedar was felled adjoining the river and as the river flooded the owner-marked logs were floated downstream towards the first sawmill located at Shaw’s Bay, Ballina. As the timber close to the river was exhausted, the sawyers were forced to move further up river towards Kyogle and deeper into more inaccessible country called the Big Scrub. The clearing of timber in these areas created land for pastoralists and brought the introduction of bullock teams to transport the logs overland to the new and prospering sawmills located at Wyrallah, Coraki and Lismore.

In the second half of the 19th century the primary industries of the Richmond valley and the Lismore region in particular continued to be cattle grazing and timber. These primary industries supported a growing economy and population and the development of secondary industries including ship building, transportation, saw milling, tallow manufacturing and other associated business.