Captain Henry Rous first into the Richmond

UNDER SAIL: One of the many sailing ships that sailed the east coast in the late 1800s.
UNDER SAIL: One of the many sailing ships that sailed the east coast in the late 1800s.

STUDENTS coming to the Historical Society sometimes ask for the history of our area from the beginning of white settlement in 1788.

They seem amazed when we tell them that our white history does not start until the late 1830s when the squatters started to move in, or the early 1840s when the cedar cutters arrived.

Usually they are directed to Louise Daley's book Men and a River to give them a background to the development of the whole area.

The entrance to the Richmond River at what we now call Ballina was apparently seen by Captain Campbell in 1800 when he was in command of the sailing-ship Deptford, which was undertaking a coastal survey.

He noted the shoaly entrance which he named after his ship and this was the first name to be gazetted for Ballina.

However, he made no attempt to enter the river. The entrance became elusive to other ships trying to find it and it was not until 1828 that Captain Henry James Rous, undertaking another survey, found the entrance and crossed over.

Ballina today. Until the rock training walls were installed, the mouth of the Richmond would roam over an area about 3.2km wide, with Lighthouse Hill at its northern point.
Ballina today. Until the rock training walls were installed, the mouth of the Richmond would roam over an area about 3.2km wide, with Lighthouse Hill at its northern point. David Nielsen

We should remember that the entrance to the River then was nothing like it is today. There was no lighthouse and no Lighthouse Beach which developed after the breakwater was built many years later. The sea broke on jagged rocks on either side of a small inlet which had moving sandy shoals and was of unknown depth.

Rous must have been a fine seaman as he brought his ship H.M.S. Rainbow safely into the river which he named the Richmond and continued upstream for several miles. According to old records the entrance itself varied, and this is perhaps why it proved to be elusive for so long.

There would have been regular floods and it is believed that these caused the entrance to change. It could be anywhere between what we now call Lighthouse Hill and a point up to 3.2km south of this.

Gradually it would work back again to Lighthouse Hill. The river was tamed somewhat with the breakwater, but it still flows through the crevices in the big stones which make up the wall.

Historian Windsor Lang wrote a series of articles on shipping on the Richmond and he states that Captain Rous would have had to exercise great skill and careful seamanship when entering the river. He would have needed good weather and would have taken many soundings so that his ship would not ground on the shoals.

Lang says: "He had to steer between sand banks and haul the ship close to the rocky point on the North shore, having to warp the ship to the rocky point by means of a kedge anchor."

It is believed that no vessel attempted to cross the Richmond bar again until the early 1840s when the sailing ship Sally brought the first cedar cutters to the area. After that there were many ships but all had to be careful.

Few attempted to cross without the assistance of rowing-boats and kedge anchors. Most anchored in Shaws Bay.

Ships like the Alexa made regular visits. There were many wrecks, some never recorded, but improvements came with the appointment of the first pilot, Captain George Richard Easton, in 1853.

Topics:  ballina ballina bar history richmond river

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