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Elizabeth and John





"Click Go The Shears"
Traditional Folk Song

One of founding families of the early colony, agricultural pioneers Elizabeth and John Macarthur and their family made a major contribution to growing the merino wool that became the world standard for more than 150 years. History says that John Macarthur is "the father of the Australian wool industry", but it was really Elizabeth who developed the wool industry in Australia.

Born in England in 1766, to a family of rich farmers, at 22 Elizabeth married John Macarthur, a snobby, ambitious army officer. Thinking Australia would give them a better life, John took Elizabeth and their young child Edward to the colony of New South Wales.

The Macarthurs arrived in Australia in 1790, on a ship that had 500 convicts on board. Elizabeth was disgusted by the way the convict women behaved during the trip - she didn't have much sympathy for poor people. Once they were settled in Sydney, Elizabeth made friends with the rich and powerful people in the colony. The Governor gave John some land on the banks of the Parramatta river and in 1793 a house was begun. John called the property "Elizabeth Farm" after his wife. Their home was one of the most luxurious in the colony and still stands, open to visitors today. They had some crops and farm animals, but sheep became their big money earner.

The Macarthurs imported Merino sheep from Spain, marino's being well known for their excellent wool. The sheep thrived in Australia's dry, hot climate which was very similar to Spain's. Most herders at the time used Merino's for meat, but the Macarthurs envisioned a big future for Merino wool. The wool grown at Elizabeth Farm was very good quality and the Macarthurs soon started exporting it overseas. This was the start of Australia's wool exporting industry.

Elizabeth Farmhouse, Parramatta

By this time Elizabeth was busy with six children, but she took a great interest in the future of the farm. John, however, kept his hand in the politics of the colony and was one of the key figures in the "Rum Rebellion" - a plot by the military to overthrow Governor William Bligh from office which succeeded in 1808. The Government was eventually restored, and John was sent back to England to face trial. He was sentenced to gaol and didn't come home for many years. Elizabeth was left alone to look after her family and she managed to expand Elizabeth Farm and continued to breed Merinos with even better wool. Elizabeth used convict workers for free labour and her herds grew from about 1,000 to 4,000 head of sheep.

After he finished his gaol sentences, John stayed on in England to sell their wool. He wrote often to Elizabeth telling her of the wonderful times he was having while Elizabeth was busy growing, shearing, sorting, cleaning and baling wool, breeding and killing sheep. She constantly improved the way the farm ran. In his letters John told Elizabeth how much he appreciated her hard work...

"My beloved Elizabeth , I can not express how much I am pleased at the account you give of the state of our affairs under your excellent and prudent management..."

Adding the 5,000 acre Belgenny Farm to their interests in 1805, by the 1820's the Macarthurs had become the biggest land owners in New South Wales. At Belgenny Farm (now known as "Camden Park Estate") they also established wheat growing, dairying, horticulture and viticulture. These enterprises became a model for Australia's agricultural traditions. The Macarthurs also planted Australia's first commercial vineyard. Wiped out by disease 150 years ago, it has been replanted  beside the lawn at Belgenny, not far from the original site by the Nepean River, while descendants of the first merino flock still graze the local pastures at Belgenny today.

Even though she didn't set out to be a farmer, Elizabeth kept her interest in wool growing all her life. Elizabeth's main aim had always been to make sure her family was well looked after, but along the way she'd started Australia's wool growing industry. John was declared insane in 1832 and died at Camden in April 1834. Elizabeth continued living at Elizabeth Farm until her death, at age 83, in February 1850 at Watson's Bay, Sydney.

Belgenny Farm, Camden