Autumn tales of the Shoalhaven Incubus…

Autumn tales of the Shoalhaven Incubus…

Autumn. The 19th century poet John Keats called it the ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, which pretty much nails it for me. Mellow fruitfulness sounds so mouth watering and makes me think of plump pumpkins and slow roasted lamb and a Central Otago pinot….


lovely lovely mist – ripped from the internet…

And as for the mists, Berry does good mists. Actually, I do good mists too, especially after a good Central Otago pinot.

Far now from the maddening crowds of a January USA, let’s go back to that south coast idyl – beautiful Berry. Everyone loves it, everyone tells me every time I say we have a farm there.

“Oh, I love Berry!”


relax – i took this one myself

But how many people know anything about its history?

You know, there are a few parallels with Aspen that have made themselves clear to me in doing the research for this post. I know, no snow, more’s the pity, and no snow bunnies, or Zadig and Voltaire shops for them to shop in, no ‘the beautiful people’ jet set and their paparazzi entourage. But from its modest beginnings as a timber town, Berry, like Aspen, has in more recent years, turned from timber to tourism to turn a dollar.

And, like Aspen, you need a dollar, if you want to buy land here.

But like I said, Berry’s beginnings, too, were humble. That is, apart from a pretty un-humble guy called Alexander Berry, after whom the town is named. He and his brother David, that is.

So who was this dude, Alexander Berry?

I can tell you, reports about him differ, but the general gist is that he was a bit of a cranky pants. In fact, he was once called by a spiteful hater, ‘the Shoalhaven incubus’, which is pretty heavy if you know what an incubus is. According to my Mac dictionary, it is a male demon believed to have sex with sleeping women.

As there is no official account on the subject of Alexander’s sexual proclivities, or indeed of his wife Elizabeth’s, who are we to speculate?

Maybe Lizzie was just really tired??

After securing his landholding and establishing a cracking business exporting Shoalhaven cedar to Europe and produce to Sydney town, it was Alexander’s brother David who ultimately took over the management of the estate and it is he, David, about whom people get misty. No doubt more so in Autumn, when they’re feeling the mellow fruitfulness… and drinking Central Otago pinot.

But let’s start with the big bro, Alexander.

Born in 1781 in Fife, Scotland, Berry’s place in history as a forefather of NSW agricultural development and grand country gentleman, obfuscates the facts of his past to the detriment of our understanding of who he really was. Like so many other settlers, Berry took the opportunity in moving to the other end of the earth, to reinvent himself, and as you might have guessed, he did so with good reason.


can you see a demon??

One of nine siblings, Berry was a well read man, educated at both St Andrews and Edinburgh universities, where he qualified as a medical doctor. Made dad proud. Momentarily.

Against his father’s wishes, Berry the renegade decided he’d apply to the East India Company for a job as surgeon’s mate aboard a ship bound for [from] China with a cargo of tea, all laden with treasure for you and for me….

His job description included standing witness to, then patching up sailors who had been flogged for their misdemeanours whilst at sea, which was probably a bit like pulling out your own teeth. Not pleasant.

What was also not pleasant for Berry, was seeing how much money the merchants made and how few patch up jobs they had to do on flogged sailors – so he metaphorically jumped ship.

He became a merchant.

Travelling across the globe and back, filling up his ship on credit with the treasure of one port and transporting it to the next, collecting tip top profits in the process might seem like a good career move, but Berry’s personal debts were racking up, and his world was rapidly closing in on him. He was a speculator in a leaky boat and he needed to find a safe harbour. Out of deep water. On dry land, and in other cliches.

Before we get there though, I’ll tell you about an act of gallantry that tickled my fancy.

In 1809, Berry had popped over to NZ to flog something to someone, and while passing north, he happened upon – and happened to rescue – gallantly – the survivors of a massacre that had occurred in Whangaroa Harbour. Thought to be the bloodiest instance of cannibalism on record, the Maoris had almost 70 white fullas for dinner as retribution for the whipping of one of their young chiefs by the crew of the good ship Boyd. Hence, the Boyd Massacre.


It’s a segue I know, but bloodshed aside, I do like to make the kiwi connection wherever I can….

Moving right along to June 1822, Berry and his business partner Edward Wollstonecraft were finally granted the land they had been petitioning for on the yet to be settled (don’t you love that little euphemism?) south coast, about 150 kilometres south of Sydney town. Every other settler and his dog were crowding to the Hunter Valley to the north of the city and over the Blue Mountians towards Bathurst in the west, but Alexander and Edward were looking for ‘elbow room’.

They were granted 10 000 acres of land and with it, the charge of 100 convicts, which was the non-negotiable deal one did with the government of the day: one convict for every 100 acres, to be fed and watered at no expense to the crown.


Elbow room.

From a base they established at the foot of Mount Coolangatta (pictured here in all its sunset glory through my kitchen window), Berry and Wollstonecraft had managed to increase their elbow room to 40 000 acres by 1863, much of it under red cedar. They established a timber mill and chopped down as many of those trees as was humanly possible, which left a remainder of probably none, and shipped most of it back to ol’ England.


my picture of Coolangatta Mountain…

They also did a roaring trade on George Street, flogging the maize, barley, wheat, tobacco and potatoes they grew here in the rich, alluvial soils of the south, where they also raised pigs and cattle, brought over from the Illawarra by road. In fact, business was booming so much, that in 1824, just two years after establishing their venture in hitherto undeveloped native bushland, they had to buy a ship to cart their produce up to Sydney. And if that wasn’t getting it there in enough of a hurry, they also built a sloop and named her the Water Mole, the first of a number of ships built in the Shoalhaven. Let’s hope their choices for names improved.

So you could say that Berry’s dad got it wrong – life as a medical doctor in freezing cold Fife verses major agribusiness in NSW? Yup. I’m with junior.

In aboriginal, ‘Coolangatta’ means beautiful view, which makes it an utterly perfect name for the view of the ocean and the ranges you get from on top of Coolangatta Mountain. And in case you’re wondering, the Queensland town of Coolangatta is named after this particular hill (I’m really struggling to keep calling it a mountain – I mean come on), after one of Berry’s ships, the Coolangatta was wrecked off Port Danger (I know) in August 1846.


And Conrad Marten’s 1860 painting. Dramatic exaggeration…

5 years after arriving in the area, Berry married Wollstonecraft’s sister, Elizabeth, who was the cousin of Mary Godwin, the writer of Frankenstein. I don’t know if that was a plus or a minus…?? Then in 1836, three of Berry’s brothers, including David, and his two sisters arrived from Scotland to swell the numbers of the south coast clan.

A little less elbow room.

Despite their business success, the partnership between Wollstonecraft and Berry appeared to sour (awks for poor Lizzy), as record has it that Wollstonecraft wanted to divide the estate and focus his portion on a diversification that Berry clearly wasn’t having a bar of.

As luck would have it for Berry, not Wollstonecraft, Wollstonecraft died in 1832 before the fight could really heat up, and Berry collected the lot. Wollstonecraft had left his share to his sister, Berry’s wife, and after all it was 1832 and women were only chattels anyway. All 40 000 acres of the estate were now Alexander’s, which must have thrilled him. Except it didn’t.

Cracks started to appear in Berry’s life plan; i.e.., he was getting bored with rural life, and even more bored with a labour shortage that came about with the abolition of transportation and the opening up of the goldfields. Damn their eyes, those convicts and gold diggers, looking to improve their lives and leaving the squatocracy to fend for itself…

The timely arrival of John, David and William, as well as his sisters Nancy and Janet, relieved him of the onerous task of managing the estate on his own. As their father had died, the siblings ‘lost’ their claim to the family farm back home (sounds dodgy to me), so I guess this was a solution that suited them all.

By 1846, after the death of Elizabeth, Alexander was over it, saying he’d ‘gladly part with it [the estate] on any terms’, which was a bit rich, really, as he’d already pretty much cleared off back to Sydney town, leaving the day to day running of the estate to his brothers. Alexander’s increasing preference for his home in Crows Nest on Sydney’s lower north shore was probably a blessing, yet although he had absented himself in person, he did resort to the post as a means of directing orders.

According to the story, Alexander gave his baby brothers nothing but grief over the terms by which he elected to govern the estate, so it was testament to their milder temperaments that any progress was ever made. Grumpy bugger.

In 1848, John fell off his horse and died. Poor John. So then David took over as boss man, but he wasn’t having much luck with the labour drain. The gold rush was robbing the estate of man power and there was a rapid decline in the number of able bodied men to work the land.


Alexander came up with a plan to save the family from certain ruin. He declared that they must lease as much land as possible to tenant farmers, who were incentivised by receiving in return for their labour, a share in the resulting profitability of the land.

And it worked, if we can measure success by the increased number of registered residents on the estate from 367 in 1850, to 1700 by 1859. This boom in activity brought about by self interest on both the landowners’ and the farmers’ part, is probably when the development of the Shoalhaven agriculture really took off. The clearing of the pasture paved the way for a dairy industry that survived profitably right up until the 1970s, when changed government regulations put the kaibosh on it good and proper. But that’s another story.

So while he was putting out fires in the country, Alexander was lighting a few others in the city.

He was outraged in 1851 when the troubled Bank of Australia finally closed its doors and as a solvent shareholder, Alexander was forced under threat of a writ to pay out a couple of assessments that he considered highway robbery. Ever the fighter, he sued everyone he’d ever met in his entire life ( bit more dramatic exaggeration), but by the time it got to court, several of the main players had dropped off the perch and the court found in favour of the directors.

There was more grief in 1858, when the Municipalities Act was passed, as although Berry opposed it, others in the colony were all for democratic local government. In fact, Berry was so opposed to it, he was recorded as saying, ‘’the poor country people seem to be a set of asses only fit to be the negroes or slaves of the town … I cannot help laughing at the absurdity of the abolition of negro slavery when I perceive the Country people of New South Wales anxious to become the White Negroes of the Jews and publicans of Towns and Villages’.

It is a wonder the guy survived!

He saw the Municipalities Act as a major threat to his independence and possessions; these were HIS lands, HIS people and it was HIS rules he intended living by. He refused to pay rates and his vociferous objections made for fun reading in the local press.

One dude in particular, a man of the cloth named Rev. John Dunmore Lang, took particular exception to Berry’s outrageous stand. The Rev got really revved up as he had established himself as a major campaigner for the underdog. Like Jimmy Barnes, he sang his heart out for the The Working Class Man, but when it came to Berry, the two men left each other Stone Cold. They should have Laid Down Their Guns….


Rev Lang – He even looks a bit like Jimmy….


When Berry refused to allow the good reverend to preach at a presbyterian church on his estate at Numbaa, things turned nasty, with Lang writing letters to the local press calling him the ‘Shoalhaven Incubus’, a ‘determined monopolist’, and ‘a miserable earthworm’ that deserved to be ‘crushed by the mere vote of the Shoalhaven electorate’.

Well, if he hadn’t spent enough in the courts already in his life, he went back for more to try, ultimately unsuccessfully, to sue the dog collar off the man of God.

His failure to seek remedy in the courts fuelled the local government supporters’ campaign, and finally, on September 22, 1859, the Municipality of Shoalhaven was proclaimed, taking in its boundaries, the majority of Berry’s estate.

You can imagine his rage. He’d tried to hold back the tide and whether or not you’re a supporter to this day of the tier of local government, there was no stopping it way back then.


Here is Alexander, parked by the roadside – no doubt by retaliatory council men!

Berry died in 1873, at the age of 92. He left all of the estate to David, his long suffering, hard working, much better liked little brother. But he also left a legacy that he is remembered by – the town of Broughton Creek was renamed Berry in 1889 to honour both Alexander and his brother, David. The Berry men.


Whereas David gets a WHOLE PARK!


Next post, I want to give you a bit more history on the much loved David, and on the Wodi Wodi people who lived here long before any Berrys bore fruit. I also want to give more history of the township and how it has developed over the years, and how we’re really glad it’s not a snow resort in north America inundated by the glitterati in all their glory every winter. It’s right here, as misty as I’ve ever seen it on this cool autumnal evening.

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Happy Easter y’all xx


  1. What was with those Scots – whilst all these shenanigans were going on in Berry, Ben Boyd was ‘kidnapping’ Southsea Islanders to work on his land further south. Introducing the practice of blackbirding to Australia.
    Fascinating blog H.

    • Blackbirding is not often talked about but it really was the most treacherous abuse of those poor people. Imagine being snatched up by gun toting strangers in great big ships and whisked away to never see your home or your family again. If you were lucky enough to survive the cramped and unhygienic conditions on board, you faced a gruelling future as slave labour in the sugar plantations etc, forever more! At least Berry was ‘kind’ to the indigenous people of the Shoalhaven – I mean apart from taking all their land away from them, that is….


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