The Clarence River, NSW

The Clarence River is located in the north-east region of New South Wales.  It measures in at over 400 km, 300 km of which are navigable, from source to sea, contains some 100 islands, and is one of Australia’s largest waterways:

“The Clarence River is to this part of the country pretty much what the Nile is to Egypt.  it is the great highway of commerce, and by its deposits of rich alluvium from time immemorial has given fertility to the land along its course, making it adequate for the support of a dense population.  Without the river, the Clarence District would be “absolutely nowhere”.  It is, therefore, not much to be wondered at if the inhabitants are proud of the noble river which from day to day they see “moving in majesty”.  The river, its tributaries, creeks and channels have provided a navigable transport network from the earliest days of settlement.  Indeed the “Big River” acted as the catalyst for its commercial development.  It was the cedar getters who first used the Clarence for commerce and its first industry was shipbuilding . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Sydney Morning Herald – c 1871

” . . . Rightly, the Clarence should be called “The River of Islands,” for no fewer than 98 are completely surrounded by its waters . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Clarence & Richmond Examiner – Article “Clarence River District – An Historical Review” – published 21st March 1914

It was the stunning Australian Red Cedar that first drew cedar getters to the area c 1839, however, once the cedar was exhausted, farmers moved in to take advantage of the beautiful, fertile soils:

” . . . The sale and occupation of land for agricultural purposes commenced in the year 1857, previous to which time it had been exclusively devoted to grazing purposes and timber cutting . . .  There are now 1308 holdings, comprising of 224,060 acres of land purchased, of which 26,091 acres are under cultivation; 90,093 are enclosed but not cultivated; while 107,823 acres are yet unenclosed.  All the remainder of the land in the district is held under grazing leases, and is open for purchase at Government auction sales, a a minimum price of £1 per acre; or may be bought by free selection, upon paying five shillings per acre, and the balance fifteen shillings per acre in three years, which may be paid by instalments, or allowed to remain unpaid after that period, upon payments of five per cent per annum upon the unpaid balance.  The latter is the principal method of purchase now adopted . . . “

” . . . The population of this district is estimated at 13,260 souls . . . “

Source:  Excerpts – The Maitland Mercury – Article “The Clarence and Richmond” – published 19th January 1871

Iluka2 091

The Clarence River at Iluka – c 2015


The Clarence River and surrounding district was described in an article published in 1871 as follows:

” . . . The Clarence River (from which the district takes its name) is the largest and most important river on the east coast of Australia.  From its navigable capacity, the fertility of the soil on its banks, and the salubrious character of the climate, it is better adaped to support a dense population than nay other part of the colony.  It is the outlet of all the waters falling from the eastern side of the great dividing range, from Armidale in the south to Darling Downs in the north, a distance of rater more than two degrees; and falls into the Pacific Ocean in south latitude 29° 26′, longitude 153° 22′ east.  Like all the rivers on this coast, it has a bar entrance with a depth of water varying from 12 to 18 feet, which can be deepened when required without much difficulty – a breakwater has been commenced with that view at its mouth . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – The Maitland Mercury – Article “The Clarence and Richmond” – published 19th January 1871

The Discovery of the Clarence . . .

Captain Cook sailed passed the rivers of the north-east coast of New South Wales on the night of Tuesday, 15th May 1770 – having not noticed, nor documented them:

” . . . Tuesday, 15th. Fresh Gales at South-West, West-South-West, and South-South-West. In the P.M. had some heavy Squalls, attended with rain and hail, which obliged us to close reef our Topsails.  Between 2 and 4 we had some small rocky Islands* (* The Solitary Islands.) between us and the land; the Southermost lies in the Latitude of 30 degrees 10 minutes, the Northermost in 29 degrees 58 minutes, and about 2 Leagues or more from the land; we sounded, and had 33 fathoms about 12 Miles without this last island.  At 8 we brought too until 10, at which time we made sail under our Topsails.  Having the Advantage of the Moon we steer’d along shore North and North by East, keeping at the distance of about 3 Leagues from the land having from 30 to 25 fathoms.  As soon as it was daylight we made all the sail we could, having the Advantage of a fresh Gale and fair weather.*

[* During the night the entrance of the Clarence River, now the outlet for the produce of a large and rich agricultural district, was passed, and in the morning that of the Richmond River, which serves a similar purpose.]  . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Captain Cook’s Journal during his First Voyage Round the World made in H.M. Bark “Endeavour” 1768-71, etc. – published 1893

Twenty nine years later, Matthew Flinders did happen across the Clarence River:

” . . . Matthew Flinders discovered Clarence River, but was unaware that Shoal Bay, which is the mouth of such a magnificent stream, entered the bay.  It is stated that Captain Rous, who was in command of the “Rainbow”, was the first white man to find the river, which he named the Clarence, probably in honour of his patron, the Duke of Clarence.  It is stated that in 1830, one year after the discovery, his health was toasted at a race meeting at Parramatta, in honour of his find.  Curiously enough, the old New South Wales records show nothing as to Rous’s alleged discovery  . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Clarence & Richmond Examiner – Article “Clarence River District – An Historical Review” – published 21st March 1914

The following excerpt of Matthew Flinders journal entries dated the 10th to 12th July, 1799, described his encounter with the “Shoal Bay” which was, in fact, the mouth of the Clarence River:

” . . . July 10, the observed latitude of 31° 38′ showed a set of 33′ to the south; whereas it had the day before been 8′ the contrary way.  Our distance from the shore had then become six leagues, owing to a foul wind; but we got in with it again in the evening, and steered northward with a fair breeze.  On the 11th we sailed amongst the Solitary Isles, of which five were added to the number before seen; and the space from thence to twelve leagues northward having been passed by captain Cook in the night, I continued to keep close in with the coast.

In latitude 29° 43′, we discovered a small opening like a river, with an islet lying in the entrance; and at sunset, entered a larger, to which I gave the name of SHOAL BAY, an appellation which it but too well merited.  On the south side of the entrance, which is the deepest, there is ten feet at low water; and within side, the depth is from 2 to 4 fathoms in a channel near the south shore: the rest of the bay is mostly occupied by shoals, over which boats can scarcely pass when the tide is out.  High water appeared to take place about seven hours after the moon’s passage; at which time, a ship drawing not more than fourteen feet might venture in, if severely pressed.  Shoal Bay is difficult to be found, except by its latitude, which is 29° 26½’; but there is on the low land about four leagues to the southward, a small hill somewhat peaked, which may serve as a mark to vessels coming from that direction.

July 12. The morning was employed in examining the bay, and in looking round the country.  The sloop had sprung a bad leak, and I wished to have laid her on shore; but not finding a convenient place, nor any thing of particular interest to detain me longer, we sailed at one o’clock, when the tide began to rise.  Cape Byron, in latitude 28° 38′, and the coast for twelve miles to the north and south, were passed on the 13th: but no particular addition or correction could be made to captain Cook’s chart . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Voyage to Terra Australis, Volume I – by Matthew Flinders – published 1814

The following excerpt of an article published in 1909 poses a apt summary of European infiltration into the Clarence River district:

” . . . Flinders, then, may be regarded as the first white man connected with the discovery of the Clarence.  There are two claimants to the honour of the actual discovery, viz.. Captain (afterwards Admiral) Rous and one Richard Craig. Captain Rous’ discovery took place in the year 1829, and he is also credited with the discovery of the Richmond River.  The name Clarence, it is authoritatively stated, was bestowed upon the stream by Captain Rous, probably in honour of his patron,the Duke of Clarence, who had been Admiral of the Fleet.  It is a singular circumstance that the authorities in Sydney were not made aware of Captain Rous’ discovery, and nothing is mentioned in the records concerning it.  Seven years afterwards (in 1836) the cutter Prince George was despatched from Sydney to ascertain the truth or otherwise of the story told by one Craig of his discovery of a large river.  The cutter returned to Sydney, having verified Craig’s statement as to the existence of a large stream in the locality named, but owing to the heavy sea on the bar no attempt was made to enter.  Craig was accordingly rewarded with a gift of £100.

For some years previously this man had lived with the blacks, wandering all over this portion of the colony.  During one of these journeys he falls in with the Government stockman belonging to Port Macquarie, and informed him of the whereabouts of these Government working bullocks, which had strayed from the settlement.  A reward had been offered for the recovery of these animals, and in due time Craig received this.  He also communicated the fact of his “discovery” of the Clarence to other persons outside the Government officials: but the question remains in doubt as to which of these persons first acted upon the information received, and turned it to good account.  Two names are mentioned as having received Craig’s information at first hand, viz., Mr. Francis Girard, of Sydney, and Mr. Thomas Small, of Kissing Point, both of whom, about the same time, despatched sailing vessels from Sydney to the “Big River,” as it was called.  The former sent the “Taree” (subsequently wrecked on the bar), and the latter the“Susan”.  The “Taree”‘ on this occasion did not enter the river, the heavy sea on the bar being considered too dangerous for so small a vessel ; but shortly afterwards the “Susan” hove in sight and crossed in, and to this vessel must be ascribed the honour of being the first craft whose keel ploughed the waters of the Clarence River.  Mr. Small’s party landed at Rocky Mouth, but subsequently proceeded to Woodford Island.  This gentleman also was the first to bring cattle to the district by water, in the year 1836, the animals being landed on the island.

Probably the first run taken up in the district was in the year 1839, when Mr. Girard, of Sydney, leased a large area for grazing purpose . . . the river, at Waterview.  There were a number of sawyers and timber-getters on the river about this time: Messrs. Phillips and Cole having also established a ship-building business on the south side of the stream.  The reported discovery of large quantities of cedar on the “Big River” created considerable interest in Sydney in the early part of 1839, a recent severe drought having caused a great depression in trade, which naturally drew attention to this means of making money quickly, and a strong desire was evinced by many who were feeling the pinch of hard times to push out into new country, and seek the comparative freedom of a timber-getter’s life . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – Clarence and Richmond Examiner – Article “Clarence River” – published 17th July 1909

‘Training’ the Clarence River . . .

From as early as the 1840’s the desire to enter the Clarence River safely from the sea was proposed.  The dangerous bar reeked havoc on shipping.  Transport by sea was the only viable option of the time.

The Public Works Department – Engineer in Chief – Harbours and Rivers, Mr Edward Moriarty, proposed to ‘train’ the river by constricting the channel’s width with training walls – thereby deepening the channel inside the bar; as well as extend breakwalls out to sea – beyond the water depth of the surf that creates the bar.

Moriarty’s Scheme‘ was essentially commenced in 1845, when the government ordered a survey of the Clarence River by Mr Barnet.

” . . . Work was commenced on the south head in 1862, and continued with varying energy until 1867, when it came to a full stop, till it was resumed nine years later in 1877.  In the meantime, in 1873, the north break-water was began, and was continued till last year.  The residents of the river were, however, so thoroughly dissatisfied with the scheme that after a great deal of agitation and remonstrance the Government decided to obtain the opinion of Sir John Coode, the eminent hydraulic engineer, and he proposed the works . . . “

Source:  “Clarence River Paper, dated 18/10/1887”, published in the ‘Daily Examiner’ on the 15th April 1920

The problem with Moriarty’s scheme was

” . . . that the north spit should be preserved and the river be forced into a channel as nearly as possible to the southern shore, and to this end he directed all his efforts constructing a long training wall along the south bank from Yamba and facing the north spit with stone.  This gave the channel very much the shape of the letter U, and was found to be the reverse of satisfactory from any point of view, since the sharp curve at the bottom of the U was by no means easy to negotiate for vessels entering in bad weather, and it did not give a sufficiently free passage for the flood water . . .”

Source:  “Clarence River Paper, dated 18/10/1887”, published in the ‘Daily Examiner’ on the 15th April 1920

Sir John Coode, the infamous harbour engineer, was appointed in 1885.

Sir John Coode’s proposals were intended to get rid of these difficulties.  In the first place he recognised that the most essential requisite was that the channel should be as nearly as possible a straight one, and that as the ordinary current of the river was along the Iluka bank, the same direction must be preserved in any artificial works for its improvement.  It was necessary in the first place to prevent the current dissipating itself and spreading out unprofitably over the vast area of shallow water to the south and west of Freeburn and Rabbit Island.  Then the Iluka shore must be protected and the channel sufficiently narrowed to produce a scour sufficient to maintain a reasonable depth of water for purposes of navigation.  Finally, the breakwaters must be carried into the sea so as to prevent the accumulation of wave-borne sand . . . “

Source:  “Clarence River Paper, dated 18/10/1887”, published in the ‘Daily Examiner’ on the 15th April 1920

Iluka2 011He also recognised that the training walls needed to be built to a height only slightly above the low-water mark, so as to allow the spread of water in times of flood.  The reefs which had been so troublesome to shipping, had to be removed to a depth of 18 ft (5.5 m) below the high water level.

Sir John Coode’s full report was published in the ‘Clarence Examiner’ on the 20th and 24th March 1888.

An article published in the ‘Clarence & Richmond Examiner‘ on the 6th July 1886 supports the additional information requested by Sir John Coodes, prior to the completion and submission of his report, however, once the report was released, others found the costs associated with the proposals somewhat exceptional . . .

Iluka2 038Sir John Coode’s proposals were actioned, in part:

” . . . The Public Works Committee, to whom Sir John Coode’s proposals were submitted, finally, on the 19th March, 1890, resolved:  “That in the opinion of the committee, it is expedient that a portion of the proposed improvements at the entrance of the Clarence River, as referred to the committee by the Legislative Assembly, be carried out, this portion being the immediate construction of the proposed north training and protecting banks, the south training bank and the training bank at Goodwood Island, in the channel leading to the North Arm of the river, and the complete removal of the rocks in the centre of the channel at the river entrance, as may be found expedient.”

Source:  “Clarence River Paper, dated 18/10/1887”, published in the ‘Daily Examiner’ on the 15th April 1920

The progress, significance and results of the training of the Clarence River were published in the publication “Port of Clarence – Nomination for Engineering Heritage Recognition“.  An excerpt of the section “Success of Entrance Works” is as follows:

” . . . The entrance works have resulted in significant morphological change in the Clarence River entrance.  Prior to construction of the entrance works floods caused significant changes to the shape of the river entrance and the location of navigable channels (Soros Longworth & McKenzie 1978).

Moriarty’s works resulted in the formation of shoals in the centre of the entrance and near the southern wall; Coode’s scheme resulted in a relatively stable entrance bar while the 1950 to 1971 works resulted in the bar advancing seawards and reducing in width . . . “

The  Clarence Deep Sea Port works were commenced during the 1950’s, however the completion of the entire project has not yet been realised.  Proposals of more recent times still suggest that the Port of Yamba would be an ideal locale for a major Australian cargo facility, as it is located on the main north-south trade shipping route (which carries in excess of 70% of Australia’s containerised import/export trade annually), as well as direct links to the nation’s road and rail network.  Some proposals suggest a ‘super port’ supporting some 7 Dry Bulk and Grain Terminals, 24 Container Terminals, 4 Cargo Terminals, Liquid Terminals, as well as a Naval precinct . . .

Today, the training walls and breakwaters are a significant feature of the entrance of the Clarence River into the Pacific Ocean at Clarence Heads – the northern head sporting the township of Iluka, and the southern head, the township of Yamba.

018 b

The Clarence River at Iluka – c 2015

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.