Red cedar (Toona ciliata) was known as red gold amongst the first Europeans who ventured into the Illawarra and Shoalhaven districts. In the early days of the new colony of NSW it was important to discover which local trees would be durable, resistant to termites and useful for both buildings, ships and furniture. Many of the trees around Port Jackson were disappointing. It wasn’t until two years into settlement that the rainforests and potentially valuable rainforest timbers were explored. Red cedar was discovered to be an extremely tall, thick girthed tree able to meet the timber requirements of the new colony and was quickly sought throughout the Hawkesbury and Hunter River regions.
The tree is deciduous, with new the growth copper red. As early as 1795, The Governor, Captain John Hunter was concerned about the rapid devastation of the red cedar in the Hawkesbury and issued restrictions. Red cedar was seen to have important commercial potential and was one of the most important colonial exports. The high value of red cedar served to raise the wages of the men able to get to and cut the trees. Cedar became the magnet for free settlers and freed convicts in the colony, 11/2 pence per foot of cedar was a very tempting payment. By 1802, restrictions were placed on the cedar industry by the Governor, Captain Phillip King. Cedar was seen as the property of the crown.
In 1805 the Surveyor-General James Meehan advised the Governor that red cedar was to be found in the Shoalhaven and by 1811 the first recorded cargo was delivered to Sydney, from this area. The restrictions on cedar getting in the Hawkesbury meant the cedar merchants and the cedar getters were keen to find a new unrestricted source. By 1810 cedar was probably being cut along the shores of Lake Illawarra and shipped to Sydney, although the restriction on cedar getting without permission, meant that any cedar removal would not have been made public.
When Charles Throsby came down the mountains at Mount Keira in 1815, looking for good pastures for his cattle, the cedar getters were already in the Illawarra. The first Illawarra land grants were issued in December 1816.
The first cedar getters were often convict and ticket of leave men in government or free settler employment. Cedar getters were some of the first explorers of the area and showed that shipping could be conducted from the small shallow bays and treacherous river mouths of the South Coast. There were three classes of cedar getters. Firstly, the Sydney employers with their own sawyers, bullock teams for transport to nearest harbours and their own ships waiting to transport the timber back to Sydney. There were the sawyers who sold the timber to any purchaser and then those who worked to transport the timber. These men were incredibly strong and resourceful, working in very isolated areas in small teams.
They were looked on warily by the first settlers of an area as they were often seen to be wild, heavy drinkers who would steal, fight and create mayhem. A magistrate was sent to the Illawarra in 1826 to investigate the disorderly cedar getters and a detachment of the 40th regiment was located in the district, under the command of Captain Bishop for security of the settlers from cedar getters, bushrangers and vagabonds.
In the Kangaroo Valley the men had to remove the timber by hand as roads weren’t possible. A series of ladders were erected up the cliff face at Fitzroy Falls to carry the timber up to the tableland, for transportation to the Sydney markets. The cedar grew in such thick rainforest, that the area around the trees had to be cleared of vines and creepers, to enable the trees to be felled. Saw pits were set up where the trees were felled, and no pair of sawyers had rights to more trees then they could cut at one pit. This informal code amongst the cedar getters seemed to be adhered to with no known disputes. The cedar getters were the first to clear the brush and to create tracks for the bullock drays, enabling the early settlers to access the land.
The Government continued to be concerned about the exploitation of this valuable commodity and in 1820 permission was required to cut specified quantities of the timber. Thomas Hyndes received permission in 1821 to cut and ship cedar from Gerringong. By 1835 licences were required for cedar cutting with heavy financial penalties for breaking the law.
David Smith, the first settler in Kiama, began cutting cedar in the area from 1821, and ultimately became a landowner and respected townsperson. Smith received a land grant in 1832 of 1/2 acre on the south-west corner of Bong Bong and Manning Streets. Smith built the first permanent house in Kiama. The first hotel was opened in his house in 1837, called the Gum Tree Inn. Kiama was proclaimed as a township in 1829, with the first land grants in the area, issued from 1825.
Kiama, Gerringong and Shellharbour were the ports for transporting cedar from the area. Kiama, known as Kiarmi was in the centre of a tremendous cedar stands. According to the Surveyor-General John Oxley in 1926, 9/10 of the cedar shipped to Sydney came from Kiama. Long Brush was an extensive cedar ground extending from Kendall’s Point all the way to Jamberoo Mountain.
There were often six or more large boats loading cedar and unloading supplies at Kiama. When Oxley visited the region to report on unlocated Crown lands, he observed around 40 pairs of sawyers as well as labourers working in the forests near the Minnamurra River. Oxley’s report also noted the dense rainforest was so full of vines, cabbage tree palms, fig trees that a horseman was unable to ride through unless a track was first cleared. The cedar getters conduct in Kiama was unruly enough that troops were sent to maintain law and order and barracks erected in 1831. Cedar trees weren’t found very far south of Ulladulla. Reverend Thomas Kendall was possibly the first to cut cedar in Ulladulla, he engaged in the cedar trade in Kiama first then in Ulladulla, where he took up a land grant and continued to harvest the trees.
The cedar getters continued to flourish through the 1830’s but had moved on to Northern NSW by 1850’s, when cedar getting ceased to be a commercial operation in the Illawarra. The cedar growing up north was even more plentiful than in the Illawarra and Shoalhaven. The occasional red cedar may still be seen in the Minnamurra Rainforest, Broughton Creek, Cambewarra, Jamberoo Mountain and Macquarie Pass.
- Red Cedar: the tree of Australia’s history by John Vader (1988)
- History of the Illawarra by Frank McCaffrey
- Gerringong: A History by John Shortis (1986)
- Garden of NSW: History of Illawarra and Shoalhaven by Arthur Cousins (reprinted 1994)
- Bluehaven by William Bayley