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The Convict Trail Project

John Howe

John Howe’s Expeditions

John Howe was a farmer and the chief constable at Windsor. He was interested to know if there were good lands between Windsor and the Hunter Valley. He had heard of the rich country in the valley along the Hunter River and decided that there was only one way to find out. That way was to mount an expedition from Windsor to the north through the rugged country that intervened. His two successful journeys in 1819 and 1820 produced a route which could be used and benefitted him by the grant of land to the north.

The next sections outline the routes taken and the results of the enormous efforts that he and his parties made.

• John Howe’s 1819 Expedition

• Howe’s 1819 Expedition Journal

• John Howe’s 1820 Expedition

• Howe’s 1820 Bulga Road Route

John Howe’s 1819 Expedition

On 24 October 1819, John Howe, the Chief Constable for the District of Windsor left Windsor with the party of men who made up the expedition team. The party accompanying John Howe were:

  • Free men- George Loder Jr (Howe’s son -in-law) and John Milward.
  • Convicts- John Eggleton, Charles Berry and Nicholas Connelly.
  • Aboriginal guides- Myles and another man who left the party on the second day.

They had two horses to assist with carrying provisions and equipment. Each man had a gun and provisions for three weeks.

On 4 November, Howe was able to look down from the range of mountains to a heavy fog extending as far as the eye could see to the east and northeast, obviously covering a vast valley. The Aboriginal guides told him that it was Kamilaroi country, though he interpreted what they were saying as Coomery Roy, a name which stuck for some time. Next day, the party came down the mountain into a widening valley with good grass with a stream running which became known as Doyle’s Creek. They were able to travel downstream, marvelling at how rich the country was and collecting pieces of coal to take home.

The early reports of “good” land were often expressed with surprise, relief and delight. When John Howe first saw the Patrick’s Plains area in the Hunter Valley in 1819, he wrote:

It is the finest sheep country I have ever seen since I left England… the grass on the low ground equals a meadow in England and will grow as good a swathe…

Yet they did not know they were at the Hunter River. They turned back, tired, hungry and sick. As they neared home, they met an Aboriginal man who explained that they had taken a difficult route and that he could show them a better one. On reaching home, Howe sent Myles with some other Aboriginal men to find this better way on 9 December. They returned on 26 December, confirming that they had found a better and shorter route, probably following an Aboriginal pathway.

Let us go to the Journal of Howe’s 1819 Expedition to see where they went and what difficulties they encountered in their 13 day trek to the Hunter River.

John Howe’s 1819 Expedition Journal

John Howe’s 1819 Expedition

Howe’s expedition of 1819 set out on 24 October from Windsor. You can follow his route on the map showing the campsites that they used.

Thursday 28th…Ponds of water to the right called by the natives Narang Melang. Two hours through a flat sandy and rushy bottom interspersed by long swamps, though not deeper than over the shoes and seldom that… ascended a high rock and descended with some difficulty and entered a valley…to a large pond and rested for the night. This being Mrs Loder’s birthday, drank her health in a glass of grog. III

Friday 29th…Up a grassy hill and cross it between 2 high rocks into a valley into which the descending is rather difficult… unloaded the horses and carried the loads down the valley called Puttee to a creek, where we rested for the night. Mr Loder shot 2 ducks; caught 6 eels and shot a kangaroo. IV

Saturday 30th…1 mile to a large lagoon and followed the creek in search for a hollow rock to pass the remainder of the day in, it coming on to rain — sent the natives in search of a guide and to look for Kangaroo – this day’s course through Puttee, a good extensive valley… in my opinion an excellent place for cattle in a dry season but not for a wet one. This day caught a young swan, shot two old ones and 2 kangaroos at one shot, one of which had a young one in it. V

Sunday 31st…Sent the two natives out for a native guide as we could proceed no further in the direction I wanted to go — for creeks, lagoons and rocks that were impassable. They returned about half past 7 o’clock with 2 boys, having met a guide that would wait for and go with us. VI

Monday 1st November…Warren (Wareng) bears NE and Yango E by S, two mountains so called by the natives…Fell in with a native camp in Number about 60 so many of which had never seen a white man and more had never seen a horse, many young ones ran away and others got up trees for fear. Stopt to dinner and distributed about 7 or 8 pounds biscuit among them….Stop for the night immediately abreast of Warren Mountain and distant about 1 mile bears due east- the creek called by the natives Webbs Creek, and on enquiring how many days to go there, they answer never get there, starve half way. This evening vivid lightning and heavy thunder but no rain with us. Wrapt up the muskets in a blanket and taken to an adjoining rock. VII

Tuesday 2nd…upwards of two hours travelling over stupendous rocks that has the appearance of being impassable, many places to cut small trees down and send the guides forward to look out as well as Mr Loder and myself & this in the afternoon of a very hot day and scarcely made 2 miles with exceeding labour in 2 hours… VIII

Wednesday 3rd…cross a small run of water and stop to dinner, being all much fatigued after crossing the creek and ascending the rock. Left half the flour secreted till our return (the bay mare being much fagged)… saw a valley with plenty of grass to our right and finding water therein stopt for the night – this day very hot and though we did not travel far, the way being on the side of rocks, both horses and men very much jaded – had 4 fits of the Ague during the night through each fit not of long continuance. IX

Thursday…Ascend the top of a high range of rocks, see a heavy fog to the NW as though rising from a river — fog appears to run nearly E and W…a very heavy fog ENE (which the natives say is Coomery Roy and more farther a great way) & which appears very extensive being seen so far as the eye can reach and has much the appearance of the boisterous ocean, only the fog is white and the ocean appears green…to a forest thinly timbered & said to be leading to Coomery Roy – sun down rested for the night- shot a rock kangaroo, we were all much fatigued and each had a glass of grog which was very acceptable to all – the horses had a hard day’s work and very difficult travelling.

Friday…Stopped for the night and before we could unload the horses we are surprised by a strange native who before I could get the one we had and knew their tongue to speak to him disappeared and with all our searching we could not find him, our natives were much alarmed and notwithstanding all I could say or do would have shot the poor creature had they found him. About half an hour afterwards, we saw five cross the river about half a mile below and came nearly opposite to us to watch us and left about nightfall. Our natives threatened to leave and I detained two till morning, relying on Miles, but even he, poor fellow, was much alarmed. We kept a strict watch and after getting an early breakfast started. XI

[The cause of the alarm? – It is not apparent from Howe’s Journal whether he was aware of Aboriginal law even though he was a constable in his own community. The Aboriginal guides were very worried because they had broken an important Aboriginal law. They had gone into someone else’s country with no good reason (from the Aboriginal point of view). They had done this without asking permission of the Aboriginal owners of that country. For this, they would have anticipated that they could expect severe punishment from the local tribe.]

Saturday…1 mile another fall over a pebbly ford, come across the track of the natives we suppose to be the five seen the night before and the natives will proceed no further down the river. We agree to go to the next reach and then cross the back of the country to our entrance into Coomery Roy…XII

There is another interesting note in the Journal relating to the return journey to Windsor. It goes like this:

Fall in with some natives we saw going out – the two of them (an old man and his son) seeing the horses look worse than when we went out, enquired what was the matter with them, I explained one of them had been ill and the road bad for them and almost knocked them up. He asked Murphy (a black native and who went as our guide and interpreter) which way he took us and was very angry, saying he took us the wrong way, that he and his son would take us a better way where the river was larger and deeper and on asking him which way the river ran he said “the water came from the sea and then went back again” & if it ran into the Coal River, “no, more further off a great deal” & on asking if he knew Port Stephens he said “no, he never been there,” & on asking if there was much clear land down the river he said “Too much! Too much! Too much! All about” – he called the rest of the natives and many kept us company that day the others following came up to us at night – this afternoon we shot 2 large kangaroos one of which we gave them and keeping the hind quarters of the other gave them the remainder.

John Howe was a determined man and in 1820 he took another party on his Second Expedition.

John Howe’s 1820 Expedition

In March 1820, John Howe set out on his Second Expedition, aiming to reach the Hunter River and travel along it. They had 6 horses and 6 pack saddles of provisions and equipment. The Expedition included the following group of men with their two Aboriginal guides:

Free men: George Loader Jr, Benjamin Singleton and Daniel Phillips. Ticket of Leave: Jeremiah Butler. Convicts: Charles Berry, Samuel Marshall, Frederick Rhodes, James House, Robert Bridle and Nicholas Connelly. Volunteers: Andrew Loder, Thomas Dargan Jr and Phillip Thorley. Aboriginal guides: Myles and Mullaboy.

They reached the Hunter River on 15 March 1820 and travelled downstream for five days, arriving at Wallis Plains. Howe wrote to Governor Macquarie from Wallis Plains on 21 March to tell him about the trip.On their return journey, they blazed their route and that became the first road north from Sydney. It was opened officially as a road in 1823. It became known as The Bulga Road or sometimes as The Parson’s Road. Today, it is usually referred to as the Putty Road. There is more about Howe and his 1820 expedition.

Subsequently all the freemen received land grants in the Hunter Valley as a reward for their efforts in setting a route for travel from Windsor to the Hunter Valley.

Howe’s 1820 Bulga Road Route

John Howe’s 1820 Bulga Rd Route

Howe and his party set out from Windsor, following his previous track to Putty. From that point, he branched off down the Bulga Ridge and Bulga Creek, crossing the lower part of the Wollombi Brook. He named the plains where they came down from the range as Patrick’s Plains, because they had arrived there on St Patrick’s Day. They travelled downstream for five days until they noticed that they had reached tidal waters and cedar trees. It appears that Howe had expected to be at Port Stephens but finally realised that he was on the Hunter River as they came into Wallis Plains on 21 March 1820. On their way back, they blazed their route along what was to become the first road north to the Hunter Valley from Sydney.

Officially, the Bulga Road, sometimes known as the Parson’s Road, was opened in 1823 as the route from Windsor to the place called Bulga. It was long, hard and rough, with many steep rocky sections. Descent into the valley at Putty was so rough that people had to unload their packhorses and carry their loads down. It is not surprising that it was described as ‘a rugged bridle path quite unfit to take even an empty cart by’. It was a long time before it was suitable for carts and carriages to use.

When it opened in 1823, people wishing to travel on the route had to get a permit to travel on it. Its main use was for droving cattle northwards. By 1827, it was famous as a route for cattle rustling from the Hunter Valley to the Sydney region. Later, it became known for the many bushrangers who plagued travellers along it. Permits showed who was included in a group, what animals and goods they were taking and how long they expected to be on the road. The first person to receive a permit to travel along the Bulga Road was Lieutenant Charles Close who had property in the Hunter Valley. He took his family, servants and animals along the road over a two-week period from 8 May 1823. 


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Convict Trail MapThe NEW and updated map of the Great North Road is available in visitor information centres and is also available for download here.