Who Really Started the Australian Wool Industry?

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Samuel Marsden was one of several men who managed sheep in the early colony. He had shown Philip King, the third governor, the various grades of wool he was producing when he reported in August 1804. Arthur Young of the Board of Agriculture, London, wrote to Sir Joseph Banks in March 1805 giving his views of the quality of samples of wool sent to England.

Samuel Marsden
Samuel Marsden

Mr Marsden’s wool and management are very interesting and the specimen of linen equally so. [The linen was manufactured from locally grown flax]. The wool improved is so fine …that I think New South Wales bids fair to putting down the Spanish flocks in England.

Marsden worked to upgrade wool quality, using some Spanish sheep he had received from Henry Waterhouse, who had imported them from the Cape of Good Hope in 1797. Governor King instructed Marsden and Thomas Arndell to conduct an enquiry into the developing wool industry, with a questionnaire being published in the Sydney Gazette newspaper. Rowland Hassall, one of the eight breeders to reply, was one who remarked that he had been supplied with a Spanish ram through Marsden’s generosity. Marsden gave details of his experimental breeding using a purebred Spanish ram and ewe, and four half-bred Southdown rams. The aim of his selective crossbreeding program was to develop characteristics such as strong constitution, solid bodyweight and a fine fleece.

Marsden journeyed to England on board HMS Buffalo in 1807, taking with him the first consignment of wool large enough to weave a suit, which he wore when he was presented to King George III in 1808. The king encouraged Marsden in his efforts to develop a wool industry by giving him five Spanish sheep from the royal flock. Marsden returned to Sydney in 1810, and in 1811 sent the first major shipment of 4,000 to 5,000 lbs (2000 kilograms) of wool resulting of his selective breeding, which he had begun in 1798.

Marsden wrote to his friend Stokes saying ‘This will be the beginning of the commerce of this New World’.

Trevor Patrick is a local historian of the north-west of Sydney, Australia. His latest book, In Search of the Pennant Hills, recounts some of these stories (and others) in more detail.