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Robert SAXBY (1843-1926)


Robert Saxby


Robert Saxby

Robert SAXBY1 [883], son of Robert SAXBY (bef1807-1886) [874] and Mary Ann REEVES (1807?-1886) [875], was born on 13 October 1843 in Houghton, NSW.1,2 He married Eliza Ann BRADLEY [892] on 23 December 1873 in Dungog, NSW.1

Robert and Eliza had 5 children :

- Henry James SAXBY

- Edward SAXBY

- Robert Thomas SAXBY

- Herbert Graham SAXBY

- Charles Leonard SAXBY m. Iva Linda Emily DEARDS in 1911 at Dungog NSW.1

Robert died (aged 82) on 13 June 1926 at the Upper Hunter in Salisbury, NSW.1


~~ The Story of the Back Creek Gold Discovery ~~

The stories about the discovery of gold at Back Creek by SAXBY brothers (Henry, Robert, Edward, John) and George BARTLETT seem to indicate that they came upon the gold in the course of their work as sawyers and timber getters and without knowing about the government’s reward offer, which they were made aware of only after making their discoveries.

Robert SAXBY senior (1809 - 1886) and his wife Mary Ann nee REEVES (1807 - 1886) emigrated to NSW from England about 1840. They were parents of a large family, several of whom were born in the Upper Williams River district after their arrival. The SAXBY family was one of the first to settle at Salisbury where Robert was a farmer. The family stayed about Salisbury working at farming or as sawyers or miners for several generations. Several of the menfolk became miners at Copeland, Wangat and at Moonan Brook as gold was discovered at each of these localities.

Brief data about the marriages of some of the children of Robert and Mary Ann is included here because the family name of SAXBY and family names of the marriage partners recur throughout the histories of the goldfield, indicative of the close network of families that worked the field over many decades. Two SAXBY daughters, Ann and Martha, married brothers Edward and George Robert BARTLETT in 1863 and 1865 respectively. George BARTLETT was one of the discoverers of the field. BRIDGE and WILKS also feature in some of the histories about Copeland goldfields.

After the “rush” subsided, Henry and Robert and their families returned to Salisbury, working in the forests and also mining occasionally. Edward and Rebecca settled at the Barrington River and John and Sarah settled on the Bowman River. John had a claim on the Bowman River and kept digging for gold for many years while still cutting cedar and carrying timber.

In the 1920s, Robert BARTLETT of Upper Bowman, son of George Robert BARTLETT, wrote a series of articles about the Copeland gold discoveries that were printed in the Gloucester Advocate. These articles are probably the nearest first-hand accounts of the discoveries that have been printed. Other versions of the discovery, and the history of the gold field exist but Robert’s account has been selected to include here. He wrote:

"Gold was first discovered in Back Creek by a party of cedar getters, viz, John SAXBY, Edward SAXBY, Robert SAXBY, Henry SAXBY and my father George Robert BARTLETT, in 1874 or 1875, some 45 years ago. It was the presence of the red cedar there that attracted SAXBYs and BARTLETT to those brush hills of the eastern fall.

Back Creek was then a place unknown except by a few stockmen, shepherds, or casual wanderers, in search of clean skins or otherwise. The creek was in its primitive state, its beauty unsullied by the advent of civilisation.

The four SAXBYs and my father were engaged drawing cedar from Sawpit Gully, a branch that junctions with the main creek just directly above R. Cram’s (Oram’s) present citrus orchard. It was at this junction that John SAXBY washed out by dish the first colours of gold found in the district. None of my uncles or my dad had as yet seen the prospector’s dish being used and were totally ignorant of the method of using it. The only implements they had were an old road pick and the dish they kneaded their dampers in. Some of the party looked at their brother John searching for gold as a dubious or dangerous pastime that might lead them into serious trouble in some unknown way.

But John SAXBY in his spare time persisted in his searching for gold. He tried further up the main creek, and just opposite the Copeland cricket ground he washed out his first small nugget, about a quarter of a pennyweight5 (0.389g). Emboldened by his discovery he took the gold back to camp, showing what he had found. A few days later his brother Henry and my father decided to join in the search, trying still further up the creek their prospects were obtained just in front of the present Court House in Copeland. On returning to camp that evening they reported the findings of better prospects higher up the creek but the other brothers, fearful of some impending danger, sought to persuade them to keep the matter to themselves for awhile.

The discovery was kept very quiet for a few weeks, owing to the groundless fear of bringing some trouble on themselves if they reported it.

A few weeks after this John SAXBY was returning home via Dungog when his attention was drawn to a notification at the Court House there (by Mr LEAK) that the Government was offering £500 reward (sic) for new goldfields. On his return to Back Creek his party decided to proclaim their discovery in their simple humble way.

The information eventually got into the newspapers that SAXBYs and BARTLETT had discovered gold at Back Creek in the Barrington district and in a few weeks the first few gold diggers carried their swags into the newly discovered gold field. They were shown by the original prospectors where gold had been obtained.

Owing to the want of knowledge how to proceed to win the alluvial gold by more effective means, SAXBYs and BARTLETT continued the use of the dish and the ineffectual method of just rooting a pothole anywhere along the creek bank.

As soon as the old diggers arrived and saw the prospects they at once, after prospecting and pegging out their alluvial claims - proceeded to construct the necessary cradles and sluice boxes, or “long tom” as they are sometimes called; and to bring in, or cut their tail race. It was not until then that SAXBYs and BARTLETT were initiated into the real arts of golddigging. The pegging of claims was the order of procedure. The prospector’s dish and shovel were heard at every turn. The metamorphosis from farmer, sawyer, stockman and others to golddiggers was the work of a few minutes. It was a wild mad rush for the spoil, excitement ran high and bubbled over, when news would be circulated that so-and-so had cleaned up that evening for a few ounces, or a slug or two that would scale an ounce or more.

Fresh diggers arrived and they lost no time in staking their claims in a progression up this newfound golden gully. The right hand branch of the main gully held the diggers’ attention and gave much gold,… but the ground was deep and heavy; the more shallow ground of the main gully was where the great bulk of the early gold was won, and the owners of the claims just opposite the present public school on several occasions invited my Dad to look at the gold in the sluice box before cleaning up and he described it as resembling a feed of corn for a horse. This glimpse of the day’s take in gold was a privilege enjoyed by very few indeed. The old gold diggers, of a necessity, were usually secretive over their day’s clean up. Some there were who came to the field light in pocket, but after a few months work in the creek they left, neglecting to gazette their departure, carrying away sufficient gold to buy them an open-hearted welcome in any land under the sun.

The romance and excitement that attended the discovery and winning of gold from the creek bed was but an insignificant circumstance compared to the incidental discovery of the rich gold bearing reefs. In the progress of working the alluvial quartz containing gold, and gold with quartz adhering to it, were found on several occasions, which was accepted by the diggers that quartz reefs occurred in the watershed of the gully, that were carrying gold. This view was commonly accepted, and some of the less fortunate and less skilful alluvial diggers, including some of the original prospectors, turned eagerly in search of the supposed reefs. John and Henry SAXBY, in searching up the main creek, came to a small branch leading out on the western side of the gully; in this way they found the first colours (loose pieces of quartz) evidently from the cap of the Mountain Maid reef but on account of their inexperience they were unable to locate the reef. In the evening they related their experience to two other prospectors, Harry GILL and James IRWIN, also showing them some of the quartz containing gold they had found. GILL and IRWIN went to the gully next day and, with comparative ease, traced the disengaged gold-bearing quartz to their source. They uncovered the cap of the reef in several places and found gold showing freely in the broken quartz. This marks the entry to the second phase of the gold industry at Back Creek or Copeland, as it was afterwards called.

GILL and IRWIN lost no time in pegging out their claim, which was held by an ordinary miner’s right in those day, and, as there was not yet any ladies on the young field, they decided to have one, if only in name and called their claim “The Mountain Maid”. I may add that the name was well chosen, for it was rich - and I have a piece of it, that came from the early crushings, which is beautifully studded with that magic metal, which gladdened the heart of the original prospectors when they took her for their very own."

News of the SAXBY brothers and BARTLETT gold find became public in early June 1876.

On 8 June 1876 the Crown Land Commissioner at Dungog Mr CJ SMITH sent a telegram to the Under-secretary of Mines telling him that gold workings were going on at the Barrington River. On 10 June, after SMITH had interviewed a man just returned from the field - “an inexperienced miner, (but) very intelligent and reliable” - he sent a longer communication to the Under-secretary informing him of the man’s account. There were already between 30 and 40 men on the spot, several claims made, and a few shafts sunk the deepest about 7 feet. “The ravine is not of great extent, but there is a flat into which it opens of about 100 yards in width. If payable gold is found here, employment would be given to a large body of men”. Already a party of 4 men recovered 5 ounces in one week. One man in 3 weeks, working with bucket and dish, recovered 3 ounces. Smith told the Under-secretary that an official inspection of the locality and surrounding country was advisable.

The high gold yields, especially from the Mountain Maid mine, led some people to ask: “who discovered this productive goldfield and why has noone been rewarded for enabling hundreds of individuals to attain wealth and the government additional revenue?” The Gold Reward was posted apparently in 1875. The gold field opened in 1876 and three years of mining had well and truly proved the value of the field, yet no reward had been allocated.

Henry COPELAND, Secretary for Lands representing the northern goldfields, moved in the Legislative Assembly (LA) in November 1879 for the appointment of a select committee, with power to send for persons and papers, to inquire into and report upon the claims for a reward for the discovery of the Barrington Gold Field. In addition to himself, COPELAND nominated seven other men for the committee.

COPELAND said that his object was to remedy what he regarded as a serious wrong to individuals and to redeem as far as possible the credit of the country. The Government offered by advertisement in the Gazette a reward for the discovery of a new goldfield and, upon the faith of that offer, certain parties had gone into the bush; and, having spent several months in prospecting, had discovered the Barrington Gold Field, which was one of the richest, if not one of the largest in the colony, and only required the aid of machinery to make it still more productive. Messrs SAXBY Brothers were the real discoverers of that field, and their discovery had conferred great benefits upon the country. Three or four thousand men were employed there and for the first three months of this year, the Government had received over £1,000 in fees from that goldfield. The government had refused to pay the reward because there was some delay in making known the discovery; but no time was fixed by the Government within which a discovery must be reported, and he believed that if SAXBY Brothers were to prosecute the government in a court of law they would recover the £1,000 reward offered, so strong was their legal claims. The discoverers acted wisely in not making known their discovery earlier because in some cases, as for example, at the Merool (Uralla), the reported discovery of a gold field had been premature and had only led to loss and disappointment.

Apparently the Minister for Mines had previously objected to paying the reward on the grounds that the discovery had been reported in the newspapers 3 or 4 weeks before the alleged discoverers had informed the Government, and informing the Government had occurred outside the 12-month period allowed for the discovery of a field that would entitle the discoverer to the reward. These circumstances meant that SAXBYs’ discovery was not “in the terms of the Gazette notice”. However, “public interest” considered the objections unjust.

The report of the select committee was brought to Parliament on 12 May 1880 and on 15 June COPELAND moved that it be adopted. Facts of the case as presented in the report were that the gold reward was offered in 1875 and as a result of this offer SAXBY Brothers and party began prospecting and after working for about 22 weeks, they discovered a payable goldfield. They did not discover gold in payable quantities until the 22 weeks had nearly expired and they did not feel justified in making a report to the Government before they were convinced that they had discovered what was likely to be a permanent goldfield. During the 22 weeks the four men obtained only 17 ounces of gold, which gave them about £3 a week each and therefore it could not be said that up to that time they had found a payable goldfield. The mining department had objected to giving the reward to the party because before they made a report the discovery had been made known. This fact ought not to have any weight with the Government because the men were only exercising proper caution.

SAXBY brothers’ discovery was a very valuable one; had induced a large population from neighbouring colonies; had brought in a considerable amount of revenue to the State from lease-rents, etc; and had enhanced to a large extent the value of the Church and School lands in the vicinity.

Despite the report, some Assembly members still opposed the granting of the reward. The mining department did not dispute that SAXBY brothers were the actual discoverers of the goldfield. They had neglected to comply with the conditions of the reward by not reporting the discovery to the Government until 2 months after the department was aware of it from other sources. The concern was that “it would never do to allow the discoverers of a goldfield to keep the discovery secret until they had got all they could out of the land, and then claim the reward. The object of the reward was not so much to benefit the discoverers as to benefit the public”. The Minister “should exercise great caution in granting rewards which parliament had so liberally provided”.

However, the majority were of the opinion that “some consideration ought to be given to these men… It was of no consequence whether they actually discovered the reefs or not; they were the discoverers of the goldfield and the country had reaped a great benefit from the discovery”.

The select committee recommended the men receive half the reward - £500, and the Assembly agreed.


1{S0187}, Internet (Cawthorn) re SAXBY (R Cawthorn : Site : http: // longer valid).htm). Cit. Date: before 1 July 2009. Assessment: Secondary evidence.
2{S0331}, Internet (WCP) General. The Beney-Miller, & extended families, Tree : Cit. Date: 3 August 2009. Assessment: Secondary evidence.

Compiler of this family history is : John Owen


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Updated : 14 Mar 2016