Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

William Gardner - chronicler, sketcher, amateur photographer, tutor, regional historian and geographer.

Saumarez Homestead as we know it today. When William Gardner took up a position as tutor on Saumarez Station in 1842 the property was owned by the Elizabeth Dumaresq. In 1856, Saumarez was sold to Henry Arding Thomas who in 1874 sold it to Francis White. It was the Whites who built the homestead we know today.  

“When New England was first settled by the Whites”, William Gardner wrote in 1854, “they found standing nets of the Blacks in many parts of the bush for the purpose of entrapping the wild animals – The tribes of Blacks met by appointment at these places at certain times driving from different directions their game before them, and this from a circle of many miles into these nets”.

This has become one of the most often quoted descriptions of traditional Aboriginal life on the Tablelands, providing a clear picture of the nature of cooperative work within an Aboriginal society on the point of disruption.

One of the first chroniclers of life in Northern New South Wales, William Gardner has been described as sketcher, amateur photographer, tutor, regional historian and geographer.

Gardner (1802-1860) was born in Glasgow, Scotland. In April 1838 he sailed from Leith, Edinburgh’s port, for Sydney as a cabin passenger on the barque Countess of Durham, arriving five months later.

We know little of Gardner’s life in the thirty six years before he sailed for Sydney. He was clearly an educated man and may by then have spent some time in Georgia (USA), for in 1848 he published a pamphlet on the possibility of growing of cotton in NSW.

Upon arrival in Sydney, Gardner worked briefly for the Union Bank of Australia before going north to Maitland to assist in Dickson’s general store. About 1842, he moved further north to become tutor (at £15 a year, plus keep) at Saumarez Station near Armidale.

The Saumarez run had been taken up by William and Henry Dumaresq in 1837. When Henry died from war wounds in 1838, his wife Elizabeth inherited Saumarez. While the property remained in family hands until 1856 when it was sold to Henry Arding Thomas, Elizabeth and her children returned to England a few years after Henry’s death.

Gardner was then employed as tutor at various stations around the district, Moredun, Rockvale, John Barker’s Mount Mitchell Station, and finally Andrew Coventry's Oban Station .

A keen horseman, Gardner travelled widely over the district. He compiled the first detailed map of the northern districts of New South Wales, published in September 1844.

Gardner's later writings were not published, but were kept in large manuscript notebooks. “I made them for my own amusement”, he wrote. These notebooks, now held in the Mitchell Library, are a treasure trove of information about the early years of New England.

One of his pupils, John Barker’s daughter, recalled Gardner as a stout, jovial man of wide learning, a keen amateur photographer and painter, the owner of a stereoscope with views of his native country and a keen student of history who 'wrote in bulky volumes far into the night by the light of a candle’.

Gardner did not marry. He died at Oban in September 1860 and was buried in an unmarked grave. In November 1973, a headstone was finally erected on the grave by the Armidale and District Historical Society.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 30 August 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017. 

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