first white settler at Coffs Harbour
mariner, pioneer cedar getter, mailman, ferryman, farmer
By the commencement of the second millennium the New South Wales mid-north coast city of Coffs Harbour had evolved to become one of the state's major tourist destinations with a population approximating 60,000. About August 1865 Walter Harvie (1843-1932) was its first white settler. He was born in the Canadian Province of Nova Scotia - the son of Daniel Lockhart Harvie (1811-1851) and Jane Ann Burton (1823-1845). His great-grandfather John Harvie (1730-1822) was born in Dalry, in Aryshire, Scotland where the Harvie family are recorded as living from at least the 15th century. With other members of the family John Harvie emigrated to America and in May 1760 they moved from Rhode Island on the East Coast to the then British colony of Nova Scotia to take up vacant lands previously occupied by the original French settlers, known as Acadians, who had been expelled in 1755 from the colony by the British. 1.
Walter Harvie's mother died in 1845 and in 1851 at eight years of age he was orphaned when his orchardist father Daniel, a son of Andrew Harvie and Rebecca Lockhart, died from injuries he received in an accident in a gypsum quarry he part-owned near Windsor in Hants County. Having already experienced a sailor’s vocation on a six month return voyage to the West Indies with a cousin Capt. William P. Harvie on board the Avondale in the winter of 1858/59, later in 1859 at fifteen years of age he left Nova Scotia for the American east coast city of Boston where he joined the crew of the American clipper ship Dirigo 2. After a return voyage from Boston to the West Indies for a cargo of rum and molasses he arrived, at seventeen years of age, in Sydney on 19th September 1860 as the "boy" in the sixteen member crew. The arrival of the ship was marked with considerable drama. Following a pre-dawn collision off the Heads with another inbound ship the Naomi, causing considerable damage to both vessels 3, the Dirigo had to be towed from outside the Heads to its berth in the harbour near the Market Street Wharf. Whilst in port Walter Harvie and five other crew members deserted 4.
Early in 1862 he wrote to his uncle and legal guardian James Harvie in Nova Scotia advising an intent to go on to California where his three half-sisters Ellen, Caroline and Danielena subsequently emigrated. However such was not to be, as after following the gold rushes in New South Wales and working on western pastoral stations where he learnt the skill of bullock driving, when still in his teens he arrived about New Year's Day 1863 at the Bellinger River about 20 kilometers south of the present day city of Coffs Harbour to take up a pre-arranged job as a bullock driver with Bellinger River shipbuilders George Tucker and Thomas Salter. In autobiographical notes written about 1927 he recounted when he arrived the population of the Bellinger River district comprised only about twenty white men and just two white women, and hundreds of aboriginals who went about completely naked except for possum rugs worn when the weather was wet or cold, and the only domestic livestock was a grey horse owned by a cedar cutter John Frisby who employed a few hands and had his camp at Boat Harbour, later renamed Bellingen, located about ten miles up river from the Tucker & Salter shipyard 5.
The obituaries of Walter Harvie and wife Anna recorded he was the foundation secretary of the Masonic Lodge when it began in the 1880s at Bellinger River, a road contractor when he lived at Fernmount, for some years a mail contractor and operator of the Raleigh ferry when it was located at the village of Repton adjacent to the present (in 2000) railway bridge, and he subsequently farmed at Raleigh and Bonville. Following the sale of the latter farm about 1916 he retired and moved to live in Curacoa Street in Coffs Harbour where he remained for the rest of his life 6.
An enlarged framed photograph commissioned by the Coffs Harbour Chamber of Commerce in 1927 to honour his pioneering role as the city’s first white settler in 1865 is held by the Coffs Harbour Museum that also holds the originals of eleven pages of biographical notes he wrote late in life concerning his arrival at the Bellinger River and, with the assistance of local aboriginals, discovery of significant stands of red cedar adjacent to Coffs Harbour that he harvested and exported to market in Sydney by floating the squared logs down the creek to the ocean and then out to ships anchored in the lee of Muttonbird Island in what was then an open roadstead 7. These autobiographical notes are the only known first hand account of the Coffs Harbour area in the 1860s and the earliest for that decade concerning the inhabitants of the Bellinger River district. A graphic eye-witness account he wrote of the last major aboriginal tribal battle to take place on the North Coast of NSW was published in 1927, and at the time of the 1988 Australian bi-centenary of first white settlement the above pictured plaques, marking sites with which he was associated, were erected beside Coffs Creek in Rotary Park in the City of Coffs Harbour and on the Reserve at Sawtell. In September 1998, adjacent to Boambi headland at Sawtell where he wrote the local aboriginal tribe had fed and tended their wounded after the last major North Coast tribal battle, the below pictured traffic bridge spanning the north coast railway line was named in his memory the Walter Harvie Bridge.
Walter married Anna Sheils (phonetically recorded in
the official registration as Shields) on 19 November 1872 in
East Kempsey. Anna was born at Manning River in 1857 and when
she died in 1949 aged 92 years was Coffs Harbour's oldest
resident. She was the second born of sixteen children
of Jane O’Hara,
who with her first husband William Sheils arrived in Sydney
in July 1855 from Killinkere parish in County Cavan, Ireland,
and later that year settled at Manning River. Anna's father
died in 1859 whilst on a visit to Sydney and the following
year her mother, who by then had three young children, remarried
American born blacksmith John Thomas Williams. In about 1866
the couple and the first six of Jane's children moved north
to the Bellinger River where where the remaining ten children
were all born. John Williams set up his smithy in Fernmount and
was Bellinger River's first blacksmith, a pioneer sugar cane
grower and miller there, and later the publican of the London
Tavern in Elizabeth Street in Sydney near Central Railway
1 (i) Rev. McLeod Harvey, From Old Scotia to New Scotia: A Family of Harveys’ (ca.1945)
(ii) Robert Paton Harvey, John Harvie (1730-1822) of Newport, Nova Scotia: Three
Generations of Descendants (Nova Scotia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 6, # 4, 1976)
(iii) Leland Harvie, The Harvie/Harvey Family of Hants County Nova Scotia (1984)
2 1925 letter - Walter Harvie to sister Caroline Hill residing in Bakersville, Kern County, California, USA.
3 Sydney Mail, 22 Sep 1860 - shipping column.
4 Jim Melton, Ships Deserters 1852-1900 (Sydney, 1986), and Water Police Court reports, Sydney Mail, 13 Oct. 1860
5 Corroboration of Walter Harvie's account that there were only 2 white women in the district in early 1863 is found in the account of an early stockman Mr. Periera, who named them as Mrs. Frisby at Bellingen and Mrs. Williamson at Bongil Creek - both wives of cedar cutters. For the Periera account see: The Coffs Harbour Story (Central North Coast Newspapers in conjunction with Coffs Harbour Rotary Club, 1976) p. 8.
6 Coffs Harbour and Dorrigo Advocate, 2 Aug 1932 and Coffs Harbour Advocate, 6 May 1949.
7 Extensive selections from Walter Harvie's 1927 biographical notes were published in the Coffs Harbour Advocate newspaper of 12 August 1965 marking the estimated month and centenary of the year of his 1865 first settlement at Coffs Harbour. Other publications with mentions of Walter Harvie are The Coffs Harbour Story (by George England with surname incorrectly spelt as Harvey) 1976, p.p. 7-11, and Coffs Harbour Vol I : Pre-1880 to 1945 by Neil T. M. Yeates, 1990 (indexed).
Researched & compiled by J. Raymond, Brisbane, Australia - first posted December 1999.
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