The Story Of Cedar     To Index


Red cedar was by far the most valuable of the timbers in the brush lands of the coastal districts of N.S.W. The cedars were magnificent trees, frequently four or five feet or more in diameter, towering over the other trees and entangled in vines which had to be cut away before the trees could be felled.

Indirectly, the cedar getters were responsible for a good deal of the exploration and opening up of the Illawarra as they were the first white arrivals.

Mr. Frank McCaffrey in History of Illawarra states "cedar was carried from the inner shores of Lake Illawarra in small craft in 1810--alid bullock teams used to haul cedar logs and planks to the edges of the Lake, at suitable centres,15r years before any real settlement took place."

No grants of land, however, were issued in this area until 1817 and in 1802 the Governor of N.S.W. had issued an order that no cedar could be cut down without his permission, so this must have been a fairly clandestine activity. Cedar was regarded as the property of the Crown. When Governor Macquarie visited the Illawarra in January 1822 cedar getting had long been in full swing there and he was shown a huge cedar tree.


Judge Barron Field also visited the district in 1822 and wrote 'Ihe cedar planks, as they are formed by the sawyer at the pit, are carried on men's backs up to the mountain summit, where carts convey the planks to all parts of the colony, or they are carted to the shores of Illawarra and navigated to Port Jackson in large open- boats. The government has not (by reason of its ample supply from Hunter's River and Port Macquarie) secured any portion of these cedar grounds to itself, simply compelling each person to take out a permit from the Colonial Secretary's Office, which must specify the number of feet of timber required, as without which protection, the cart and horse, or boat, and the cedar are liable to seizure by any constable.

"In a new run in the wild forest , the sawyers have to perform the preparatory labour of clearing their path, and a fall for the trees, which would otherwise be prevented from reaching the ground by amazingly strong vines. They then pit the stem, cut into short cylinders of from eight to twelve feet in length, and cut them into planks of one or two inches thick. "For these they receive 22 shillings for every hundred feet, from which is deducted six shillings per hundred paid to the carrier from the pit to the cart, leaving 16 shillings to be divided between the pair of sawyers. -The carters, after carrying an average load of 300 feet in the plank, upwards of 60 miles to Parramatta, over a road very rocky and difficult, obtain 45-50 shillings per 100 feet from builders, carpenters, etc (Garden of New South Wales pp. 28-29

In the Illawarra (also Shoalhaven) the cedar brushes were generally small stretches along the mountain slopes or along almost every stream. There was a large patch between Wollongong and Dapto and near Jaspers Brush, but the most extensive was Long Brush, extending from Kendall's Point Kiama over hill and vale to Jamberoo Mountain--about seven miles (11 kms.).

In July 1825 a notice in the Government Gazette stated that in future permission must be obtained from the Colonial Secretary for the cutting down and removal of cedar from "unlocated" ground (meaning unclaimed land) and any vessel attempting to unload cedar in Sydney without obtaining prior permission was liable to have its cargo seized. This was looked upon by many as a move to allow the cedar trade to fall into the hands of a few wealthy merchants in Sydney. This did produce unemployment for a time and a storm of protest was raised, and after a time controls were relaxed.



Many well-known people engaged in the cedar trade, such as Alexander Berry, the Wentworths and even people like the Rev. Thomas Kendall, first at Kiama and then at Ulladulla.

"In 1834 an Illawarra correspondent to the Sydney Herald stated that by the illegal cutting of cedar "the Government had lostk100,000 in revenue, a sum of money which would have provided a good road from Illawarra to Sydney and also have given harbour accommodation."

"In that year the Authorities made raids on the cedar thieves and recovered 50,000 feet of illegally cut timber.

"In 1835 another new law was made, granting licences for cedarcutting, the licence fee being 4r4a year with penalties amounting to from 10 to 50 for breaking the law.

"The correspondent referred to above , complained of the disorderly conduct of the cedar thieves, referring to them as a set of lawless peopled, addicted to bushranging and cattle stealing; while another correspondent said that they had "kept the district in a state(-,of drunkenness and iniquity for years. "These cedar cutters certainly led hard and lonely lives, living for the most time in humpies with even less comfort than the stockmen had. They were not popular with the settlers or their stockmen who looked on them as intruder---. They had no rights whatever on the land, except the possession of a hut, and were not allowed to grow a stalk of grain., When they had money they (or the bulk of them) would visit one of the shanties not uncommon in the brush lands then, and fill themselves with what the Americans would call "moon, shine, then becoming very disorderly. Many of them were not above taking cedar from anyone's property. No wonder they were, unpopular, as a class. But some of them were quite decent citizens. One of them (David Smith) , becoming the first landowner in what became Kiama township, where he lived for many years a well respected and useful townsman.

"By the beginning of the forties of last century most of the cedar cutters from, Illawarra and Shoalhaven had gone to the newly found cedar brushes or scrubs on the northern rivers of N.S.W., where they found cedar more plentiful even than it had been in Illawarra and Shoalhaven. But for many years shipments of cedar were made from the Shoalhaven, the boat harbours of Gerringong, Kiama and Shellharbour.

"By the mid-forties so much cedar had been cut from the brush lands that the owners of these lands decided to cut all the timber down to make farm lands. By the seventies practically all the cedar had been cut out of the Illawarra and Shoalhaven, and soon after the northern rivers suffered the same fate. There are, however, still a few solitary cedar trees on the rough mountain slopes, and there are a few relatively small cedar trees growing in grass paddocks, but shorn of all their glory. As a timber, cedar is practically extinct.

"There are still some houses whose doors, windows, and other fittings are of cedar. It may be possible to find an old cedar desk, cedar form or cedar press in some schools, as a reminder of the times when all desks, charis, forms and presses were of cedar. Cedar house furniture is now regarded as antique, and very valuable Garden of New South Wales pp.31-33)

By July 1826 a detachment of the 40th Regiment was located in the district, under the command of Captain Bishop, for the security of the cedar getters and settlers against the Aborigines who were found troublesome.(Flanagan's History vol. i, p. 270 quoted by McFarland) Captain Bishop's instructions do not mention Aborigines but instruct him to protect settlers from cedar- getters, bushrangers and vagabonds.

David Smythe(Smith) was one of the earliest cedar-cutters to visit the Illawarra. (The Australian Historical Society Journal and Proceedings p. 222). He told Mr Justice McFarlandle that he came in 1821; that then the whole face of the country, with the exception of some comparatively open land about Dapto, was covered with timber of various descriptions; that there was scarcely a creek or stream, valley, ravine or gorge, between Bulli and Broughton Creek, between the sea and the mountains, that was not dotted with cedar trees, many of them of great size and beauty; that in particular the present site of Kiama (then the wild bush) had some noble cedars upon it; that he and his mates worked at numerous places and for many years throughout the entire district, felling the trees, sawing them first into lengths, then into planks and boards, and often carrying the latter on their heads, along rugged paths, amid tangled scrub, or over great rocks, to the only public road, or approach to a public road, which the district could, boast of; that the planks were afterwards borne upon bullock teams to Appin, on the way to Sydney; that Messrs. Berry and Wollstonecraft were the first to ship planks of cedar from Illawarra, though large open boats were employed by others for the purpose; that a license of a halfpenny a foot was paid by the cutter to the government; that the cedar nearest the sea and most accessible was secured at starting, then the more remote; that thus the country became gradually cleared as far as Gerringong; that much of the land was "taken up" in the same order; and that most of the other timber upon it was felled and removed.11(from McFarland's History of Illawarra p.12) quoted in The Australian Historical Society Journal and Proceedings pp223-4) Ulladulla, 164 miles from Sydney was said to be the southern limit of the cedar tree, while the Queensland border was the northern limit. Moist, humid conditions favoured its development.


The Aborigines knew the cedar as "polai" in the Illawarra. The earliest reference to cedar on the South Coast appears to be James Meehan's sighting of cedar on the Shoalhaven River in February 1805, when he was engaged in exploratory work. By 1821 there were many cedar getters obtaining cedar with Government permission from the Illawarra.

The cedar-getters took cedar not only from "unlocated" land, but also from private property without the owner's permission and were also guilty of "vice of the most bominable kinds practised amongst those cedar hordes, to the total annihilation of every correct principle." (Sydney Gazette, July 'L 1826) By 1826 applications to cut cedar in the Illawarra were so numerous that Surveyor-General Oxley was sent to the district to examine the Crown lands on which the timber was growing. His report contained the following information:

"The country which produced the cedar was generally of the richest description of brush land, so interwoven with vines, fig trees and cabbage palms as to be impenetrable for horsemen, without a track first being cleared. The cedar-bearing lands rose gradually from the sea to a very considerable elevation, and were bounded by rocky precipices; the surface was uneven and cut up by numerous small valleys, each having small streams running through them. The cedar on the unoccupied lands had long since been cut down. The principal cedar grounds in 1826 were about three miles distant from "a tolerable good boat Harbour called "Kiarmi", from whence Nine Tenths of the Cedar brought to Sydney is shipped". The saw pits occupied did not extend over more than 1610 acres, and the sawyers were guided in their selection as much by the practicability of cutting roads to the coast as by the quantity of cedar on the land. About forty pairs of sawyers were engaged at that point, some on their own -_account and some in the service of individuals residing in Sydney, who had applied for leases. of these lands, and who had boats or teams engaged in bringing the cedar from the pits to Sydney. The saw pits were set up in any part of the land to suit the convenience of the sawyers without regard to order, as it seldom happened that more than three or four trees could be cut at the same pit owing to the extreme thickness of the brush.

"There were three classes of persons engaged in the cedar trade. The first class was generally resident in Sydney, and employed sawyers to cut for them. They had timber waggons and teams to shift it to the nearest port, and large boats to carry the timber to Sydney, and when their own sawyers could not supply sufficient to meet the demand they purchased from others. The second class consisted of men who were sawyers by trade, and who cut either for sale to the class already mentioned, or to anyone else who would purchase from them. These men lived in the midst of the cedar grounds, removing occasionally according to the plenty or scarcity of the timber. The third class were per- sons who employed carts and teams in bringing the cedar from the pits to the loading places, but who were not otherwise interested in the traffic.

"A rough code of law was established by the operators. No pair of sawyers could claim a right to more trees than they could cut at one pit. If they felled trees which t was necessary to cut at new pits, the persons felling them were not considered to have any right of property in them. Any other pair of sawyers was at liberty to cut these trees into boards, provided that they erected a pit near then. This method of determining the ownership was well undertood by the numerous parties interested. Oxley said he could not learn of a single instance of dispute having arisen between parties, whether employed by others or working for themselves.

"The principal shipping place at that period was Kiama (or Kiarmi, as Oxley wrote it), where not infrequently six or more large boats were engaged in loading cedar and discharging necessaries for the sawyers. Thomas Hyndes shipped his cedar at Gerringong and Berry and Wollstonecraft at the Shoalhaven Oxley suggested the desirability of setting up some sort of Police establishment or guard at "Kiarmi", who, besides preserving order among the numerous persons employed in the vicinity, might send up a shipping note of the quantity of cedar that each boat carried to Sydney."


An interesting description of one phase of the cedar getter's life has been recorded by one Harris, who visited the Illabmrra in the 'twenties:-

At this period the little horse shoe bay that constituted ------- boat harbour presented a scene more like what may be imagined to belong to a pirate isle than anything else. It was a little bay with a sandy beach backed by a flat covered with thick brush, and not very far off began the rise of the range. On this green sward might be seen, sometimes half a dozen groups, each gathered round a keg of rum, often of ten, seldom less than five gallons, for the boats which came for the cedar planks, generally brought for the various pairs of sawyers who supplied the freights kegs to order. A more unlicensed and reckless mob than was thus sometimes gathered on that lonely beach, prolonging day into night in their carousal until all the liquor was gone, it would be impossible to find anywhere. The bushrangers often mingled with the boisterous assembly and took their tithe of the revelry; the police at this time rarely penetrated hither in search of them. (Settlers and Convicts)

This description fits the little boat harbour of Kiama.

"The cedar getting industry continued to flourish in the thirties but by about 1850 cedar, as an article of commerce, ceased to be of importance in the Illawarra. It is difficult to assess the earnings of the cedar getters. In the 'forties they were said to earn up to 47 per week on the North Coast. It is recorded that a pair of sawyers at Illawarra cut 3500 feet of cedar in a week. This is said to have been a "prodigious feet", and was stated to be the greatest quantity cut in a week by one pair of men. Need it be said that it was done for a wager--of five pounds!" (Royal Australian Historical Society Journal and Proceedings ppl39-140)

Prepared by Ros McKinnon.