'Dear Berry' | State Library of New South Wales

'Dear Berry'

James Atkinson (1795-1834), settler and author arrived in Sydney in May 1820, following encouragement from Alexander Berry and Edward Wollstonecraft. He soon obtained two grants of land totalling 1500 acres (607 ha), making his selection in the newly settled Bong Bong district of NSW, where he lived from 1821.

Atkinson combined his farming experience gained in England with an active interest in the innovations of the 'agrarian revolution'. Through both his writings and in practice, he became one of the few progressive farmers in NSW who tried to raise the efficiency of farming in the colony: ploughing competitions, stock-breeding, cheese-making and dingo eradication all claimed his attention.  

In 1825, Atkinson went back to England to write his treatise on colonial farming, An Account of the State of Agriculture & Grazing in New South Wales(London, 1826), later returning to Sydney where he continued to take an active interest in farming and its improvement in the colony until his death. His book aroused much criticism, both here and overseas, yet remained an important work not only for its description of the methods practised in the colony at the time but also as it emphasized the problems faced by all colonists: the issues faced in attempting to adapt European plants, animals and farming methods to a strange environment.


TRANSCRIPT: Letter from James ATKINSON TO ALEXANDER BERRY, 4 June 1829. ML MSS 315/ Vol 46: pages 259-264.    

Oldbury  4 June 1829,                                        
Dear Berry,

I returned on Tuesday from a visit to our dear friend Wollstonecraft at the Shoalhaven whom I was happy to find in comparatively good health, and looking better than I had seen him for some time. As I am aware would wish me to communicate to you anything that struck me with regard to the management of your truly extensive establishment, I shall endeavor to give you my observations as shortly as possible, regretting my necessarily short stay did not enable me to effect a more minute examination.

The improvements you have effected in clearing, enclosing and especially draining, are extremely judicious, and reflect infinite credit equally on your judgment and spirit, and I have no doubt you will experience great and permanent benefit from them. I have never seen anything at all approaching to them in this Colony, and they are highly worthy of imitation. The improvements are in fact such in magnitude and character that I could hardly recognize the place as it is now six years since I was there last. The dry seasons have also produced truly astonishing effects combined with the treading of the cattle.

I regret I cannot speak so decidedly in praise of your system of Agriculture which I must candidly confess is anything but Farmerlike; the land first brought into cultivation is fast becoming extremely foul, and unless something is done to prevent it, I fear you will find your produce deteriorated both in quantity and quality every year. The land is certainly extremely fertile but you must recollect that no land whatever is perfectly inexhaustible, unless [indecipherable] annually like the banks of the Nile by annual inundations and depositions. You have now sufficient land in cultivation to enable you to fallow a portion every year, which I should by all means advise, and you could easily effect it without at all interfering with your usual operations. I should begin by thoroughly cleansing the surface by two or three ploughings, and harrowing, with sufficient intervals to allow the seed weeds to grow, and then give it a deep furrow with 4 or 6 oxen, after which shallow tillage with light ploughs, harrows, and perhaps once stirring with your truly formable scarifier would be sufficient. This land I should sow with turnips and feed them off with sheep, which you can buy in from the upper country for the express purpose, and sell off or kill in the spring. 

I am persuaded this plan would thoroughly cleanse the oil from both seed and root weeds, and cause it to produce plentiful crops of clean grain for at least 4 years, not the least among other benefits would arise from the treading of the soil by the sheep, which it much requires; the growing crops of wheat also would be greatly benefited by feeding off. I should certainly never think of keeping breeding sheep as a permanent stock, but a quantity bought in in the Autumn and sold in Spring, after shearing, would be very profitable. If you fallowed 50 acres every year, you might feed at least 5 or 6 hundred sheep for the Winter and Spring in this manner. At present as you have no sheep I should recommend you to feed off your growing wheat with store swine, and calves, and I have no doubt you would find your produce from the joint effects of feeding and treading much augmented in quantity, and the grain far heavier and yielding more flour. You could have yards built near the fields to shut them in at night, and a person to watch them during the day, and I am convinced it would pay you amply. The manner you harness and work your oxen is very simple and excellent. The carts you use are of good construction but should be made to shoot, which would much expedite many of the operations. They were employed when I was there in clearing the rubbish from some Corn Land, and had they been made to [shoot] would have cleared at least one third more land in the same time; by the way your Corn Land (I mean Maize) is very imperfectly cleared, this I think very dangerous, as it must be the means of harboring vast quantities of the eggs and larvae of insects and may be the means of producing the caterpillar someday upon your wheat.

As manure is not an object with you I should prefer to burn the corn stalks upon the land in small lumps, by which means every particle might be destroyed. I entirely agree with you that your stacks are far too large; I should certainly build them of such a size, as should a little exceed the quantity the thrashing machine could knock out in a day. The stacks should also be built upon steddles, they stand now upon the bare ground which cannot fail in that low situation to breed weevils. The enclosed paper shows you the manner I build my steddles,  the posts are merely blocks cut from the body of a tree, of any height you please, but 10 ins is sufficient. At first I used to sink the posts in the ground, but of late I have only sat them on their ends first levelling the place for them to stand upon, this plan I prefer, as the post in the ground is liable to rot, and they can also be removed if required to any other place in a few minutes. The crop pieces are either limbs or bodies of young trees, or split wood, something stouter than rails. The ends you will perceive are points to fit them together, and the undersides are flattened with an axe or adze to make them lie firm together upon the posts. The centre post is cut shorter than the others which gives the whole a tendency to the centre, and the stacks are less likely to slip. Upon this frame we lay a few battens, palings, boughs or any other rubbish at hand, to prevent the sheaves slipping through. For the future I intend to have all my carts and drays made too shoot; and shall draw them up alongside the steddle  and immediately shoot the whole load upon the ground from whence it will be forked up to the stack without detaining the team. I have no doubt a man standing upon the ground where he can have firm footing and full use of his strength will throw up twice as much as one standing upon a load, and I think there would be less grain wasted as it would be easy to sweep up what fell upon the ground or to spread a cloth to receive it.

If the stack was very high a small moveable stage about 10 ft high for a man to stand upon would be useful thus all the men required in building a stack would be 3 or if high 4 –  2 men would be sufficient in the field to pitch and load – and 3 carts going and coming or 4 if the field was distant. 2 men should be constantly employed thatching – with this strength constantly employed, provided the steddles and straw for the thatching were ready before-hand,  I have no doubt your whole harvest might be got in and secured in about 5 weeks, which time I suppose your harvest generally occupies, and you might employ about 30 or 40 reapers. By appropriating some of your best men to this purpose, and giving them a glass or two of spirits or some Beer extra, your harvest would go regularly forward; you would never have any large quantity cut but not carried, and never above one or two moderate stacks uncovered at one time; as you [have] plenty of bullocks you could let one set to work in the mor[ning] and another in the afternoon, with the same men, this plan [indecipherable] always follow in Harvest. There are many other things I wish to say to you but at present have not time, I hope to be present at the Anniversary dinner of the Agricultural Society on the 13th of next month when I shall expect the pleasure of seeing you. Mrs A and our little girl are quite well, and I am quite recovered myself. The season is dreadfully dry, and the weather cold and frosty. The young wheat look healthy but have not yet made much progress.  Mrs A joins with me in Kind regards to Mrs Berry and believe me 

Dear Berry
Yours ever faithfully
           Ja.s Atkinson

PS: There is a Bill of mine in the Bank which will be due sometime this month, I shall be obliged to you to retire it, and send me another for acceptance excluding by about £20 the amount that will then appear to my debt. I shall not have occasion to draw much for some time as I have considerable funds in R and M’s hands which I am anxious to draw out as fast as I can. There are said to be a number of new Settlers with money, if you know any who want to buy a flock of sheep,  I would deal with them on very liberal terms.  I am much overtaken and would rather sell them than [farm/form] any new establishment.





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