Percy Simpson’s involvement in both the Royal Navy and the British Army provided him with experience which could ultimately be of value in the Colony of NSW. That he achieved some status in this regard is of historical interest in following the course of actions relating to the construction of the Great North Road.
Simpson’s Early Years
Percy Simpson was a remarkable man who contributed greatly to the development of the Colony of New South Wales. He was born in Canada on 5 March 1789, the son of Major Noah Simpson of the 31st Regiment of Foot, and baptised as Pierce but known as Percy. He was from an apparently Anglo-Irish family with property in County Lietrim. He married Hester Elizabeth McNeill in 1818. Nothing has been found about his schooling or upbringing but an entry in the Naval Chronicle notes him as having been appointed Lieutenant from Midshipman in 1808 about the age of 19.
He did not stay in the Royal Navy long and next he is to be found in the British Army. He appears fourth in the list of Ensigns for 1810 in the First Garrison Battalion, a unit very likely serving in Ireland. By 1812, he had moved up to first among Ensigns in that Battalion. The Garrison Battalions and Regiments formed a group, the role of which seems to have included the construction of infrastructure works – such as roads, buildings and facilities for water supply in occupied or governed territories; some functions of government and administration also fell among this group. With this background, Simpson would have had the added advantage of naval training in navigation to equip him later as the competent surveyor he proved to be.
The Royal Corsican Rangers, serving at that time in the Mediterranean theatre, made up one of these units in the group. Simpson was posted to this Regiment in June 1812 as first in the list of Lieutenants. The Rangers were raised in 1803 by the British Army mainly from Corsican nationals and included some foreign officers. It was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Hudson Lowe and was involved in campaigns against the French. It garrisoned Capri after its capture from the French in 1806 and was involved in Calabria and the Battle of Maida there.
In 1809, the British mounted an expedition against the Ionian Island, the largest of which is Corfu. It was not until 1814 that Paxos, one of the smallest of the group, was reduced. Thereupon, Simpson was appointed Governor and Advocate General of Paxos. Later, in a submission from New South Wales, he describes himself as Capi di Governo or Head of Government at Paxos. After the conclusion of hostilities with France by the Treaty of Paris in 1815, the Rangers remained in the Islands until disbanded in Corfu early in 1817. Simpson was repatriated to join the 5th Royal Veteran Battalion which in turn appears to have been disbanded in 1821, with Simpson retired on full pay. His age would then have been about 32 years.
As background to Percy Simpson’s experience on Paxos, the island is 8 km long and 2 km wide with a population of about 5000. It is closely cultivated with terraces incorporating rock walling. Its water supply came from one small stream and springs and it appears that the British developed this water supply by excavating a number of cisterns, no doubt similar to those built in the same era alongside the Tank Stream at Sydney Cove. Bearing in mind his experience on Paxos, Simpson must have seen better prospects in New South Wales than in England. He and his family departed for Sydney in 1822. [Much of this material is from an address to members of the Royal United Services Institution of NSW by Lieutenant R.R. Ash, published in United Service, Vol.45, No.4, April 1992, entitled “Lieutenant Percy Simpson Ñ Road and Dam Construction in Early New South Wales”.]
Percy Simpson in New South Wales
Simpson, his wife and two children migrated from England to Sydney on the ship MANGLES, arriving on 8 November 1822.There was possibly one good reason why Simpson saw better prospects in the colony of New South Wales than in England of that time.
While on service in the Napoleonic War, he is said to have met Sir Thomas Brisbane, a relative of his wife, who was Governor of New South Wales on his arrival in Sydney. Simpson came with an order for a grant of 2000 acres of land, and letters of recommendation from a number of influential people including Sir Thomas Maitland and the Adjutant-General Sir Henry Torrens. General Sir Thomas Maitland had been prominent in the Mediterranean and was the first High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands.
No doubt Brisbane saw in their ex-garrison officer just what he required to establish an outpost in the Wellington Valley, west of Bathurst, an area seen as having potential for wheat growing. Someone was needed to prove this, and at the same time provide an out-of-the-way location for a number of “gentleman” convicts. These included those transported for political offences, and seen as having the capacity to generate dissention among the general convict population of Sydney.
The Wellington Outpost
Simpson set off on 1 January 1823 via Bathurst, accompanied by his wife, with soldiers and convicts and stores to undertake his commission. He had not been give the services of any other officers to share his burden which included the offices of Commandant, Chaplain, Commissary and Engineer, all very necessary. Simpson succeeded in his task but not without many difficulties and problems. By June 1826, he had 8099 bushels of wheat in store, plus cattle and livestock. He had provided rations for 250 persons. He was not happy with the terms of his per capita leased contract. The Government offered him a notional variation but still on a per capita basis. With wheat selling at a good price, he asked about a value-based commission to be included in a payment package. The Government refused to meet him and an impasse developed.
The operation had proved attractive enough for interests in Sydney to influence the Home Office to have the Valley thrown open to private development. Simpson was withdrawn in May 1826. He was replaced by a man of lesser calibre, the Depot waned and the buildings ultimately became an Aboriginal Mission Station. It is interesting to observe that Governor Brisbane’s term finished in December 1825 when he was replaced by Ralph Darling. Simpson claimed that he was due £4000 in a formal memorandum to the new governor in July 1826. Nothing transpired for a while and then he was offered £300 for each year that he was involved in the outpost. By March 1826, Simpson was seriously in debt and Mrs Simpson was in poor health. She had had seven children by 1832 and there were others later, even though she always struggled with her health and with the poverty brought about by her husband’s debts. In spite of all the difficulties, Percy and Hester had ten children.
Still nothing had developed on the claim, Percy had to consider his financial position and the health of his wife and children. He decided that he would become a settler and took up the 2000 acres for which he had had an order on arrival in Australia. He chose to run cattle on two tracts of land adjacent to each other at Koorumbung in the region of Dora Creek. He was now in financial difficulty and sought a loan from the Government offering his land as security but his request was refused. When the land was finally surveyed in 1829, Surveyor General Oxley found the two adjacent land grants in the register and thought it was a mistake. He surpringly crossed one of them out! Simpson’s second grant was awarded to John Tincombe much to Simpson’s horror when he found out, especially as he had been working on the second grant. He complained bitterly with the result that he was given another grant of land at what is now Eraring. He never farmed this grant and sold it soon afterwards to pay off his debts.
Fate did not treat Simpson and his wife kindly. With one fine piece of engineering on the Great North Road and a later involvement in another engineering feat in Parramatta, Percy was out of work and out of favour a number of times during his life. It seems that his wife, in spite of her health, all the problems of raising a large family and the financial troubles, stuck with him and was as capable in her way as he was. During one of his absences in 1847, she made a petition to Governor Fitzroy that at least brought a favourable if not final response to his Wellington claims. The final resolution has not been found in the papers so far. It does reflect credit to a considerable degree on her persistence and determination on behalf of her husband.
Building of the Great North Road from Wiseman’s Ferry is where the story goes next. We find Percy Simpson assigned as Assistant Surveyor of Roads and Bridges in 1828. His ability as a road builder from his Garrison days had already been acknowledged. It is recorded that he wrote to Earl Bathurst in 1822 claiming “his knowledge of surveying and road making might be useful in the New Colony”. He later referred to the improved system of road making in England, developed by such people as Macadam and Telford. As we have already seen, he had had experience as Advocate General at Paxos. Because he was dealing with convicts on the roadworks, he was made a temporary magistrate at Wiseman’s Ferry. All his previous experience appeared to be coming to his rescue in providing worthwhile tasks.