Thursday, October 29, 2020

What Happened to Jane Metcalf?

Most family histories are set in the third person, past tense.  Somehow the third person, present tense energises a story but it's very hard to sustain a book-length story of the past using this writing style. Some writers have managed it, such as Hilary Mantel in 'Wolf Hall'.

A recent writing exercise set by the GSV Writers Circle in Melbourne challenged us to tell a short story in the third person, present tense. I chose an example from my latest book Sentenced to Debt: Robert Forrester, First Fleeter to explain what happened to Robert Forrester's long-term de facto wife after his death in 1827. 

Italics in the following short story show the use of the present tense.

In 1828 Jane Metcalf is still alive, working at Wilberforce as a seamstress and living with her Forrester stepsons Robert (Jnr) and William. In 1833 she comes before the Supreme Court, indicted as the receiver of meat from a calf stolen from a neighbour by her stepson Robert and his friend John Norris. Some sort of neighbourhood dispute is in play.

When the men are sentenced to death even their horrified accuser rallies to their defence. So does their neighbour and local magistrate, William Cox: “I never heard one of the family charged with doing wrong until now. Among the young men of these districts they are considered as standing high.”

The death sentence is waived and the two men with their wives and children are sent to Tasmania for seven years, where Robert (Jnr) works for a son of William Cox. Jane is sentenced to 12 months gaol at the Parramatta Female Factory. She is now in her late seventies.

Second Parramatta Female Factory, 1818-1848
By Augustus Earle (1793-1838) - National Library of Australia., Wikimedia

After gaol, Jane needs economic support. She issues a summons seeking maintenance from James Metcalf, her much younger legal husband, although they’ve lived apart for twenty five years. He agrees to resume co-habitation, with Jane keeping house for him.

Described as a 71-year-old pauper, James Metcalf dies in hospital in Windsor in 1843.

Jane Metcroft, a 98-year-old widow, is buried in Windsor in 1854. Four Forrester siblings now live in this town but none of them are entirely sure of her correct surname. She’s simply Jane, their stepmother since 1810.

The full version of Jane's end-of-life story, written in the past tense, is on pp 365-366 of Sentenced to Debt: Robert Forrester, First Fleeter, available online through BookPOD. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Bella Ramsay Makes a Stand

In my last post I mentioned that the Third Fleet convict Bella Ramsay is being considered as an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography's 'Colonial Women' project. Why might that be? 

In 1791 Bella had a tough start to her life in Australia. But she did not let that cow her. Using some of Bella's own words, selected from court documents of 1799, we begin to see a feisty young woman prepared to make a stand against a large group of vengeful men running a kangaroo court inside her home. Here is a taste of that story.

Original Sketch by Julia Woodhouse, 2008
My husband was away. I was preparing the evening meal, alone with my five small children, when our farm worker James Metcalf arrived along with three young natives, each armed with a spear, a warmaraa and a waddy. 

Original Sketch by Julia Woodhouse, 2008

Metcalf said ‘These natives were in the woods with Hodgkinson the night before he was massacred. Give them a piece of bread as they might be the means of finding out the natives that killed Hodgkinson.

Metcalf left us to find the widow Hodgkinson, who is my friend, and alert seven other neighbours. 

Left alone with the natives, I was glad to see Constable Powell come in, for I was in fear for myself and the children. We have been robbed by the natives, but from their general inhuman behaviour I am the more afraid of them.

Powell said they should be killed for they had killed a worthy good fellow, and it would be a pity to see them go away alive.

'On Trek', from front doorway of Mitchell Library, Sydney.
Photo by Louise Wilson, 2018

Gradually all our neighbours arrived at my house. Butler came with a bright cutlass, saying ‘What sentence shall we pass upon these black fellows – I will pass sentence myself – they shall be hanged.’

Powell wanted to hang them on the beam in my house. I did not consent, knowing he had a place of his own. Powell asked me for a rope and I said I had none. I tried to save the lives of the natives.

Two neighbours went home to collect ropes and the hands of the natives were then tied behind them by a rope put about their necks. They were taken out of my house. 

About a quarter of an hour afterwards I heard the report of two muskets. Two natives lay dead. The other ran away and he later identified the real murderers.

The above dramatic excerpt condenses the main event but not the aftermath. The full version is outlined in 25 pages of meticulously researched historic detail in "More Killings, 1799", Chapter 11 of the book Sentenced to Debt: Robert Forrester, First Fleeter, available online through BookPOD.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Bella's Journey into History

In Melbourne I belong to the GSV Writers Circle and occasionally we practise the writing of a meaningful excerpt of our family history in a word-limited story. It certainly helps focus the mind on content and pace. We try to avoid wandering off the highway and down narrative byways. Here's an example of such an exercise - a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, told in approximately 350 words. It's a concentrated taste, a short-form version, of the adventures of Isabella Ramsay, a key character in my latest book Sentenced to Debt: Robert Forrester, First Fleeter.

In May 1790 16-year-old Bella stole a man’s coat, a checked apron and red duffle cloth from a farmer’s wife, her former employer. Found guilty at the Carlisle Assizes and incarcerated in the Carlisle Citadel, she soon heard about a new British government policy requiring women prisoners of child-bearing age to be sent to New South Wales.

She was moved to the assembly point at Newgate Prison in London. 

On 14 February about 70 female prisoners were moved onto two lighters lying off Blackfriars Bridge. A vast crowd of curious Londoners gathered on that cold winter’s morning to watch them set off down the Thames towards Woolwich, where the transports bound for Botany Bay were moored.

Bella was loaded aboard the Mary Ann, stripped of her clothing, shaved of her hair and issued with a woollen cap, a jacket and a petticoat of blue baize. 

Next day the Mary Ann set sail. She made a fast voyage, anchoring in Sydney Cove at 2pm on Sunday 9 July 1791, ahead of the main Third Fleet ships.

A grim fate now awaited Bella, not yet eighteen years of age. Marines, soldiers and settlers crowded aboard the Mary Ann, keen to have first pick of prospective servants and ‘wives’. Women not selected were permitted to go with any man they chose, or else become hut-keepers for from two to ten men. For a virtuous woman, the available options were highly disagreeable. Paraded before the ogling men, Bella was selected by James Manning, a former First Fleet marine. They lived first in the barracks in Sydney, then on a farm near Parramatta.
Sydney in 1791, looking westwards towards Parramatta,
from David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales
Aborigines are standing near today's southern approach to the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Women, being so scarce in the colony, were able to wield some power of their own. Within two years Bella chose a male partner more to her liking. With industrious Robert Forrester, a former First Fleet convict, she had nine children before her death in 1807, thereby becoming a founding mother of modern Australia.

Bella made a mark during her short life in Australia. She's been nominated for inclusion in the Australian Dictionary of Biography's 'Colonial Women' project. Read her full story in Sentenced to Debt: Robert Forrester, First Fleeter, available online through BookPOD

Monday, September 28, 2020

Elizabeth Forrester, 1794-1814

Promises are often hard to keep. I should have known better back in 2009, when I published 'Robert Forrester, First Fleeter', that promising a follow-up book about his and Isabella Ramsay's children would be a challenging exercise. As a descendant of their daughter Ann I started first with her story ('Southwark Luck', 2012). Recently I updated the 2009 book with 'Sentenced to Debt'. Details for both books are listed below. 

Today I'm making a minor start on the rest of the family with this cameo picture of the short life of Robert and Bella's eldest child.

Elizabeth Forrester was born in the infant colony of New South Wales on 16 March 1794 but it’s unclear whether she was born near Parramatta or on her parents' new farm at Cornwallis, beside the Hawkesbury River.[1] Her parents definitely lived at Cornwallis by early September 1794 and when her sister Margaret was born there on 2 April 1795 both girls were taken on the long and dangerous journey to Parramatta to be christened.[2] On 25 October 1795 Rev Samuel Marsden dabbed holy water on the infants under a large spreading tree, as the church of St John's was yet to be constructed. He misinterpreted Robert's Scots-Irish accent and recorded the surname as Foster.

Elizabeth's and Margaret's Baptism Record 
Registers, St John’s Parramatta, SAG 55, SLNSW

When her mother died around February 1807, Elizabeth would have been about twelve years old. Onto her shoulders fell the  primary responsibility for housekeeping duties inside the family home and childcare duties for her younger siblings. These numbered seven, until baby Isabella went to live with the childless Bushells.[3] Forrester family finances were tight after the 1806 floods and there would have been pressure on Elizabeth to find paid employment as a servant or housekeeper, her next younger sister Margaret being available as a backstop housekeeper at home.

The convict James Chapman now enters Elizabeth's story. Tried at Portsmouth in January 1801 and sentenced to a seven year term, he arrived in the colony on 11 March 1802 aboard the ship Glatton.[4] At the 1806 Muster he was a prisoner employed by ‘Mr Arndell’.[5] This was Thomas Arndell, formerly a medico but now a free settler with a farm near Portland Head several miles further down the Hawkesbury. Although Chapman was literate (proved in 1814) he did not sign an address written to the Rev Samuel Marsden by 300 principal inhabitants of the Hawkesbury on 1 January 1807, as he was still a prisoner.

Chapman's Signature on 26 December 1814,
Marriage Registers, St Matthew’s Windsor, SAG 53, SLNSW

When Chapman's sentence expired in 1808 and he could make his own life for himself, he was around 28 years old and Elizabeth would have been about 14 years old. Soon they were married. The ceremony would have been held on the ground floor of the government granary at Windsor, a space used as a place of worship on Sundays and as a school on other days.[6] James would have signed on the dotted line, but there’s no evidence that Elizabeth ever received any schooling.

A record of their marriage has never been found, suggesting that it took place before the commencement of the parish registers for St Matthew’s. The first marriage recorded therein was on 18 April 1810. By the 1811 Muster when she was about 16 or 17 Elizabeth had definitely married, her entry as Elizabeth Chapman, ‘free’ and born in the colony, immediately preceding James Chapman’s.[7]

Elizabeth and her new husband lived beside the river on the Atkins grant just downstream of Wilberforce, in the house once belonging to James Metcalf. Perhaps he had facilitated the Chapman-Forrester match. His house was not far from the Arndell property where Chapman had recently worked, and Metcalf had once worked for Elizabeth’s father at Cornwallis. When Metcalf’s assets were sold off in March 1811 to satisfy creditors, his former house was described as ‘late Chapman’s’.[8] The property was bought at auction for ₤33.10s.0p by Richard Ridge, Elizabeth’s brother-in-law. Ridge and Chapman may have been in business together as Chapman was a shoemaker by trade and Ridge had bought shoemaking items at an auction in Windsor in February 1811.[9] Most likely they also worked with Paul Bushell, the man raising Chapman’s young sister-in-law Isabella Jane Forrester. Bushell was known to be the proprietor of a shoemaking business at Wilberforce from about 1814 to about 1828.[10]

After the floods in late March 1811 James Chapman seems to have moved his home and shoemaking activities into the town of Windsor. Here he found himself in trouble over debts to William Baker, once a Second Fleeter, now a hard-nosed businessman. On 22 July 1811 James Chapman issued a Cautionary Notice declaring invalid a Promissory Note of Hand he had drawn in favour of William Baker as it was James’ intention to ‘resist payment of the same’.[11] James’ plan came to nought. On 23 October 1811 James Chapman of Windsor transferred to William Baker of Windsor, for £32.0.0 consideration, a house & 38 rods (about 9½ acres) of ground situated at Windsor. The document was signed by Chapman and witnessed by the Chief Constable Thomas Rickerby and a man named Bolton.[12] The latter is assumed to be John Bolton, who was in a farming partnership with William Ezzy at Cornwallis but soon ran off to Sydney with Ezzy's wife Jane.[12a]

Chapman must have had some substance in his English background because, in May 1812, two notices appeared in the Sydney Gazette advertising that a letter had arrived from England on the Clarkson for James Chapman. It was awaiting collection at the General Post Office in Sydney.[13] 

Chapman’s financial affairs were in general disarray. On 13 February 1813 a notice in the Sydney Gazette advertised that at Windsor on the following Saturday, on the premises of James Chapman, a quantity of household furniture, the property of James Chapman, would be sold by the Provost Marshal unless events intervened beforehand.[14] The said Provost Marshal was currently his wife's brother-in-law Richard Ridge. [14a]  Their shoemaking partnership had not worked out! This might mark the time when Paul Bushell stepped in to the shoemaking business, presumably helping Richard Ridge and not Chapman.

The short life and childless marriage of Elizabeth Chapman née Forrester ended with her death in Windsor on 25 August 1814. If she died in childbirth we will never know. The John Chapman who died in September 1814 was not her son but a 5-year-old child from the Liverpool district, a son of Robert Chapman.

The St Matthews burial register describes her as Elizabeth Chapman of Windsor, born in the colony, aged 20, the wife of James Chapman.[15] In St Matthew's Churchyard her headstone describes her as Elizabeth Chapman, daughter of Robert and Isabella Forster. The wording ‘daughter of’, not ‘wife of’, suggests the headstone may have been paid for later by Elizabeth’s siblings, after her father Robert, brother William, nephew Robert and sister-in-law Lucy were buried alongside her. Elizabeth's siblings did not care to mention their former brother-in-law.

Elizabeth's Headstone at St Matthew's C of E, Windsor,
Photo by Louise Wilson

Elizabeth's husband quickly 'moved on', as the saying goes. He was recorded as a shoemaker in the 1814 Muster, free and 'off stores', meaning that he was able to support himself.[16] He remarried on 26 December 1814, only five months after young Elizabeth’s death.[17] His new wife was the convict Mary Ann Carpenter, recently arrived from London on the Broxbornebury to serve a seven year sentence for theft and currently a servant of Windsor's schoolmaster and parish clerk, Joseph Harpur. She re-offended in New South Wales and was sent to Newcastle in November 1820 to serve a 12-month colonial sentence.

She returned to Sydney and James Chapman was a labourer in Windsor in 1822, again living with his second wife.[18] At the next Muster he was a shoemaker in Wilberforce, his wife no longer present.[19] He was not included on a ‘List of Owners and Occupiers of Houses and Land within the Hawkesbury-Nepean District’ in 1827.[20] The following year saw James Chapman listed as a 50-year-old shoemaker, once again working at Portland Head but this time for the farmer Edward Churchill.[21]

Sixty-year-old James Chapman died in Windsor on 11 June 1840 and was buried next day at St Matthew’s Windsor, nowhere near his first wife.[22] Despite the claims made in various online family trees, there is no record of any children for James Chapman by either of his wives. 


Elizabeth's parents earned their own special place in history when the European settlement of Australia commenced in 1788. Read all about their adventures in 'Sentenced to Debt: Robert Forrester, First Fleeter', available online through BookPOD. Elizabeth's sister Ann features in the book 'Southwark Luck', also available through BookPOD. The story of Elizabeth's sister Margaret and brother-in-law Richard Ridge is in active preparation. Tales of Elizabeth's brothers and youngest sister are in draft form but the final versions are yet to come.

[1] Louise Wilson, ‘Sentenced to Debt: Robert Forrester, First Fleeter”, (South Melbourne, 2020), pp 119-121

[2] Elizabeth Foster, Baptism record, 25 Oct 1795, St John’s Parramatta, SAG Film 55, SLNSW

[3] ‘Louise Wilson, ‘Sentenced to Debt: Robert Forrester, First Fleeter”, (South Melbourne, 2020), pp 252-253

[4] Convict Indents, NSW, James Chapman, NSWSA: NRS 12188, [4/4004], Reel 392

[5] Carol J Baxter, (Ed), Muster of New South Wales and Norfolk Island, 1805–1806 (ABGR in assoc with SAG, Sydney 1989), line A0823, p 23

[6] Ritchie, Evidence to Bigge Reports, Vol 1, p 152, Evidence of Rev Robert Cartwright describing the local places of worship at the start of 1810

[7] Carol J Baxter, (Ed), General Muster of New South Wales, Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land, 1811 (ABGR in assoc. with SAG, Sydney 1987), p 23

[8] Col Sec Special Bundles No 5, NSWSA: NRS 898, (ML [C197]), Reel 6040, p 25, 30 Mar 1811

[9] Col Sec Special Bundles No 5, NSWSA: NRS 898, (ML [C197]), Reel 6040, pp 3-5, 13-15, 17, 22, Feb 1811

[10] ‘Louise Wilson, ‘Paul Bushell, Second Fleeter’, (South Melbourne, 2010), pp 132-137

[11] Caution, Syd Gaz, Sat 27 July 1811

[12] Old System Records, NSW Land Registry Services, Reference numbers to be provided 

[12a] Classified Advertising, Syd Gaz, Sat 2 Jan 1813, p 4

[13] Syd Gaz, 9 May 1812, p 4, col b, and Syd Gaz, 23 May 1812, p 4, col c

[14] Sales by Auction, Syd Gaz, Sat 13 Feb 1813, p 1, col b 

[14a] Syd Gaz, 23 May 1812, p 4, col b 

[15] Elizabeth Chapman, Record of death 25 Aug 1814, St Matthew's C of E, Windsor, Film SAG 54, SLNSW

[16] Carol J Baxter, (Ed), General Muster of New South Wales, 1814 (ABGR in assoc. with SAG, Sydney 1987)

[17] Marriages, St Matthew's C of E, Windsor, Film SAG 53, SLNSW

[18] Carol J Baxter, (Ed), General Muster and Land and Stock Muster of New South Wales, 1822 (ABGR in assoc. with SAG, Sydney 1988), p 86

[19] Carol J Baxter, (Ed), General Muster List of New South Wales 1823, 1824, 1825 (ABGR, a Project of SAG Sydney 1991), p 94

[20] List of Owners & Occupiers of Houses & Land Within the Hawkesbury-Nepean District, 1827, Mitchell Library Ref 908/88 (b)

[21] Keith Johnson & Malcolm Sainty, Census of New South Wales, November 1828 (Library of Australian History, Sydney 1980), p 87

[22] James Chapman, Burial Record, St Matthew’s Windsor, 12 June 1840, No 1243, [NSW Register of Baptisms, Burials & Marriages Pre 1856], Ref V1840780 24A/1840

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Effort Involved in Clearing 25 Acres

Robert Forrester, a First Fleeter who arrived in Sydney in 1788, officially received his land grant at the Hawkesbury late in 1794. For an incoming farmer, a European, being able to use this land productively required a great deal of hard work that was often shared by groups of men working together. The virgin ground had to be cleared of standing trees, the branches lopped, and all rolled together and burnt, leaving the tree stumps in the ground.

By August 1800, Robert Forrester had cleared 25 acres of his farm at the Hawkesbury, with 19 acres planted to wheat and 6 acres ready for planting maize (p 204 of 'Sentenced to Debt').

This information prompted a response from Ian Nicholls, a reader who'd lived on a farm beside the Hawkesbury at Freemans Reach in his childhood. Ian wrote:
Some people might think that clearing 25 acres in 5 years was a bit slow. I assume we don’t really know how big the trees were on the flood plain? I can tell you that some of them were enormous. On our farm on the same flood plain, every now and again, after heavy rain or heavy traffic, we would get sink holes. Some of these were 3.0 metres in diameter, sloping in to a centre up to almost 0.75 metres deep.
I was forbidden to ride on the mud guard of tractors Dad would bring in to do disc ploughing. One day I was on the tractor when the whole ground under the tractor sank into an enormous sink hole almost a metre deep and the diameter of the whole tractor, but not the plough. I almost fell off the tractor as it gradually climbed out of the hole. That was the largest sink hole I ever saw. The alluvial soil on our farm was very deep, well over 6.0 metres, and not a stone in sight. There is a rumour that way down deep there are round stones which can be crushed to make blue metal for roads and building, just like the stone up at Castlereagh.
A good indication of the enormous size of the largest trees comes from a painting of the district done around 1810. The land being farmed by Robert Forrester was near the bend in the river. 
"A View of the River Hawkesbury, NSW", c 1810,
by John William Lewin, courtesy State Library of NSW
In 1800 Robert had not only cut down huge trees to clear his land, he'd tilled it, planted 19 acres with wheat and prepared 6 acres of ground for maize.  

Ploughs were almost unheard of in the colony, and because the hardwood tree stumps couldn’t be grubbed out, ploughs were mostly troublesome and often dangerous to use. In any case, Robert had no animals to pull a plough. To prepare the soil for planting, the only tools available to him were an axe, a mattock and a hoe. 

In December 1804 Margaret Catchpole, a farmer herself, wrote: "In clearing new land, it is broken up by men with very large hoes, and it is the hardest work that is done in the country. A great price is paid for this labour, and men work too hard at it. They frequently destroy their health, and their lives, by their over-exertion. (Cobbold, History of Margaret Catchpole, p 319) 

Robert must have been a strong, tough man. His track record proves he was a hard worker, but he managed to survive as a farmer to the age of 69 years.

Read more about life at the Hawkesbury in early colonial times in 'Sentenced to Debt', which can be purchased here.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Jerkin Roof Styles at the Hawkesbury

People are reacting to the most unexpected items in my latest book 'Sentenced to Debt'. Here's another response from a dedicated reader, Ian Nicholls.
I’ve been intrigued by the house roof designs used in the old days in the Hawkesbury. They could not have been cheap to build. My family used these shapes despite the cost. I’ve attached a photo of William Nicholls [1]’s old house on the corner of Freemans Reach Road and Gorrick’s Lane.
House of William Nicholls, c 1800-1888, Freemans Reach Rd
by courtesy Ian Nicholls
Ian draws our attention to the jerkin roof: 
Note the change in slope as you go up to the top. Also, how the gable is cut off with a small sloping piece on each end. This is called a ‘jerkin-roof’ and was used on a lot of old houses and important buildings in the Hawkesbury. The jerkin-roof was supposed to reduce wind loading on the vertical end faces. There are still a few examples of the double slope and jerkin-roof. Elizabeth Farm house, on page 205 of your book 'Sentenced to Debt', is a variation on this style.
Elizabeth Farm House, Parramatta
photo by Louise Wilson, Oct 2019
Ian then found another old family photo and commented further: 
I think I can now see why, the first slope in the roof, over say a verandah, was so steep. All these old buildings had wooden shingle roofs originally and the extra slope was to prevent leakage ……just a deduction. See the attached photo of Frederick Nicholls’ [1] house, built c.1850s on the ‘Highlands’, between Freemans Reach (Blacktown in those days) and Wilberforce. Note the jerkin-roof style as well.
House of Frederick Nicholls, c 1815-1880, 'Highlands',
by courtesy Ian Nicholls
Many thanks for your feedback, Ian. I've had a lifelong interest in community education and I love it when my books stimulate reactions like yours. Readers, if you too would like to reflect upon the interesting historic details in 'Sentenced to Debt', you can obtain your copy here.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Hawkesbury Floods - Then and Now

My new book ‘Sentenced to Debt: Robert Forrester, First Fleeter’ strongly features the economic impact of the Hawkesbury floods on an early settler in that district.  Page 160 provides some background context:
Two centuries later, it’s difficult to conceive the frequency of the massive flood problems that early settlers like Robert Forrester faced at the Hawkesbury before the Warragamba Dam was constructed. People have become complacent and authorities today recognise the area’s ‘constrained evacuation road network and low levels of community awareness of flood risk’, explaining that: 
Most river valleys tend to widen as they approach the sea. This is not the case in the Hawkesbury-Nepean River. Narrow sandstone gorges between Sackville and Brooklyn create natural choke points. The floodwaters from the five major tributaries back up and rise rapidly, causing deep and widespread flooding across the floodplain. It is much like a bathtub with five taps turned on, but only one plug hole to let the water out. The Insurance Council of Australia considers that the valley has the highest single flood exposure in NSW, if not Australia. (Infrastructure New South Wales website, 
Authors are always encouraged when readers engage intellectually with their work. I’m happy to make public some recent correspondence from Ian Nicholls, who has been a thorough researcher of Hawkesbury history for many years.  Two 'East Coast Low' weather systems have hit the Sydney region within the last two weeks, bringing heavy rain and winds and alerting Ian to the potential flooding consequences for the Hawkesbury:
I’ve had a keen interest in Hawkesbury floods ever since I climbed into a flood boat outside our front door at Freemans Reach one dark night in June 1949. Page 160 reminded me of this experience. 
Freemans Reach, looking upstream, July 2019, photo by Louise Wilson
Complacency is alive and well in the Valley, but it took a jolt in February this year when a 9.2 metre flood arrived, without any water coming from Warragamba.
The Hawkesbury- Nepean River has two distinct catchments. About 20% of the catchment is on the Nepean and 80% on the Warragamba. The Nepean water is fast flowing, about twice as fast as the Warragamba. When there is a large low-pressure system off the coast of NSW the worst scenario is for the low to start at the Hunter and travel down to the south coast. If this happens the Colo and Grose Rivers start to flood just before the water comes down the Nepean from Wollongong and Robertson areas, and it comes fast, within 24 hours.
If the rain pattern extends inland far enough the water feeds into the Warragamba, but it takes longer, 48 plus hours to reach the Valley, assuming Warragamba is full. The only thing holding back the Nepean catchment water are the four dams, Avon [83%], Cataract [72%], Nepean [64%] and the Cordeaux [73%]. Current levels in brackets.
In February this year these four dams were much lower and the Hawkesbury Valley dodged a bullet even though Robertson had 395 mm in one day. As I stated above, the river at Windsor reached 9.2 metres with NO water coming from Warragamba, and the low was off the South Coast. 9.2 metres starts to cover the flood plain, but it could easily have been a 12.0 metre flood if the 4 dams had been full.
The SES has reason to be worried about the Valley, because you could have a 12.0 metre flood without any water from Warragamba and it can happen in 24 hours. If the low-pressure system stays around too long, Warragamba Dam fills to overflowing and adds more misery. The plan to increase the height of Warragamba will not save the Valley from a fast flowing flood from Wollongong/Robertson.
My take on the proposed 14 metre addition to Warragamba is it will hopefully keep the flood height at Windsor below 17.4 metres which is the minimum flood level build height for living area in the Hawkesbury City Council region. Hopefully the extra retention time in the dam will allow the fast flowing Nepean water to get away and not add to it.
My experience in 1961 or 1964 was we had a big flood from the Nepean, Grose etc., then the gates at Warragamba were opened and we had a bigger flood. If there is going to be a big flood, the Nepean will flood first and cut the roads on the flood plain. What happens after that will be caused by Warragamba overflowing, if the rain event in the catchments persists. The new Windsor bridge is open and the north side is now at flood plain level of about 10.5 metres compared to the old bridge level of about 6.0 metres. The North Richmond bridge is to be rebuilt at a higher level as well. So, traffic will be able to cross Windsor bridge in a 10.5 metre flood and access the flood plain on the north side. Wilberforce Road will be cut however, at Buttsworths Creek, at about 8.2 metres. So, the new Windsor bridge buys a few more hours to evacuate the north side.
Warragamba construction was finished in the late 1950s and was designed to supply water to Sydney and has NEVER been used for flood mitigation, i.e., the water level has never been varied to protect downstream areas from flooding.
Because of big floods in the early 1960s, when on one occasion the water continued to rise even though the gates were fully open, several reports were prepared for the Government based upon new thinking about frequency and potential flood heights. Several interesting things came out in these reports. The water capacity of the dam, as built, could only be reduced by 40% by opening the gates. It was calculated that to limit the height of another 1867 flood [19.68 metres] to 16.0 metres at Windsor the dam needed to be at a 10% level before inflow, and there was evidence in the gorges upstream from Penrith that there had been floods approaching 25.0 metres [equivalent at Windsor] before 1788.
Several proposals were made based on the reports. Increase the dam wall height by 15.0 or 23.0 metres. The final decision was to increase by 5.0 metres and build an auxiliary spillway (a rocky wall) containing ‘fuse plugs’. This plan had nothing to do with flood mitigation, it was to stop the water over-topping the dam wall, and it introduced another possible disaster for people downstream. The auxiliary spillway is designed to erode away rapidly [fuse plug] when over-topped, resulting in a wall of water up to 5.0 metres high going into the downstream flow. No flood mitigation here!
The latest proposal, now before Government, is to add another 14.0 metres to the wall height to act as short term retention and not be the new operating height. This is the first proposal to use the dam in flood mitigation. It is controversial because some of the World Heritage Park could be flooded, even if in the short term, until a flood passes. My view is the 14 metres will not save the Valley from a 1867 size flood if the worst case arises, which is, having to release water when the Nepean is still in flood.
P.S. 26 July 2020: I’m sitting here tonight listening to the wind and rain and thinking what it must have been like in 1867. A lot has been written in reports about preparing for the next big flood, but one thing being overlooked is the damage caused by the wind in 1867. There was up to 10 kilometres of open water around Windsor and the wind was gale force from the south-east, causing 1.0-2.0 metre waves to form in the non-flowing backwater, on the south side of Windsor, and roll across and through houses partly submerged in the flood water. Houses which could have survived being flooded were lost, just due to waves, and it could happen again.
Many thanks to Ian Nicholls for providing such a clear explanation of this topic, using his valuable local knowledge and experience.

'Sentenced to Debt' is available for purchase here.