Elizabeth Macarthur

Elizabeth Macarthur

From the earliest days of settlement, Watsons Bay was a favourite sightseeing spot for residents of the new colony. Many made day trips across the harbour from Sydney Town - just as we do today - to enjoy the fine beaches, pleasant walks and impressive cliff views of the area.

One of Australia’s most distinguished pioneers, Elizabeth Macarthur, the wife of John Macarthur (widely regarded as ‘the father of the Australian wool industry,’) wrote the following after one such excursion to Watsons Bay in 1791.

“In a Harbour so formed a number of pleasant little water parties might be made to some of these islands or bays. I have been enabled to put but one in execution, and that was to a Bay near the harbour's mouth, about six miles from Sydney. We passed the day in walking among the rocks and upon the sands very agreeably.

Above this Bay, about half a mile distance, is a very high hill which commands an extensive view of the wide ocean, on it is placed a Flag-staff which can also be seen at Sydney. When a ship appears the Flag is hoisted, by which means we have notice of it much sooner than we other ways could have; it also conducts the vessel into the harbour. There are a few huts near the Flag-staff with people in them appointed to keep a look-out.”

Elizabeth - recognised as the first well-educated woman in the colony - was a keen observer, and her many letters to family and friends in England provide a rich and detailed observation of life in the early colony of New South Wales. Elizabeth is recognised for her intelligence, common sense and managerial capability; as well as her role in breeding the Australian merino and in nurturing the wool industry. It’s a role now seen to be as significant as that of her husband. She also provided inspiration to her sons to carry on the pastoral tradition that the family established.

The high hill with flagstaff that Elizabeth talks about is probably Signal Hill - where the South Head Signal Station has subsequently been established - less than a kilometre north of the Macquarie Lighthouse. In the early days this site on South Head was constantly manned by lookouts, and with a clear line of sight to Observatory Hill in Sydney, signal fires were lit to alert the colony of arriving ships.

Elizabeth Macarthur
Dixon Galleries, State Library of NSW, DG221