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Billy Blue

Students learn about identity and diversity in both a local and broader context. Moving from the heritage of their local area, students explore the historical features and diversity of their community as represented in symbols and emblems of significance, and celebrations and commemorations, both locally and in other places around the world.
Key inquiry question #1: 
What is the nature of the contribution made by different groups and individuals in the community?

Content summary

The role that people of diverse backgrounds have played in the development and character of the local community (ACHHK062).

Students:

  • focusing on ONE group, investigate their diverse backgrounds and outline their contribution to the local community using a range of resources

Background notes

Billy Blue was a convict who was transported to Sydney for stealing sugar in London. Born in New York, Billy Blue's date of birth is somewhat contentious, as are the circumstances of his life prior to his arrest in London in October 1796.

Whilst Billy Blue's age was listed from October 1797 to 1801 in a convict indent for the hulk 'Prudentia', which was docked at Woolwich, as 29 (which would put his date of birth as somewhere between 1768 and 1772), it is most likely he was much older. Billy Blue claimed to have fought in the American War of Independence (1776), the 1828 census records his age as 80 years old, and in sworn testimony as a witness in a case being heard at the Supreme Court in Sydney in October 1832, Billy Blue put his age at either 85 or 86 years; this would mean he was born sometime between 1746 and 1748. However, at the time of his death a notice was published in The Sydney Herald on 8 May, 1834, giving his age as 95, whilst a notice was published in The Sydney Gazette on the same day, giving his age as 97. 

At the time of his arrest, Billy was employed in a number of different jobs, including as a lumper. Lumpers were employed to unload cargo from merchant ships moored on the river Thames. It was dangerous work, only suitable for the strongest and fittest of men, and was very poorly paid. Part of the compensation for the poor pay was an allowance for a certain degree of small-scale plundering, something which was officially ackonlwedged in a parlimentary enquiry into port conditions in London in the 1790s. Generally, merchants allowed up to 2 percent of the shipped weight of cargo to disappear as "spillage". However, taking more on a regular basis was regarded as theft. Consequently, William Blue came to be charged with four seperate counts of stealing 20 pounds of raw sugar on a single day in September 1796. In his deposition in court, Blue explained that alongside his work as a lumper he also traded as a chocolate maker in Deptford, where he lived. At the time, chocolate was not eaten as a block, but melted in hot water and served as a drink. Made from cocoa beans, sugar and spices, it was more expensive than coffee and a much more powerful stimulant due to the high sugar content. 

Sentenced to 7 years, Billy served almost 5 of these on board the hulks prior to being transported to NSW.  Billy Blue arrived in Sydney in 1801 and completed his sentence in 1803. In 1805, living in a house at The Rocks, he married the English convict Elizabeth Williams and they had six children.

Contemporary sources tell us that Billy had a genial and entertaining nature. He gained the favour of Governor Macquarie, who appointed him harbour watchman in 1811. One of the perks of the job was the provision of a stone hexagonal (six-sided) watch house overlooking the harbour, on the eastern side of Circular Quay. The house soon became known as Billy Blue’s cottage.

In 1817 Governor Macquarie granted Billy Blue 80 acres of land on the north shore. He moved there with his family and the promontory soon became known as Blue(s) Point. Billy was also appointed the official ferryman for the north shore and he would row soldiers from Dawes Point across to Blues Point to cut grass for their horses. Macquarie often used Billy’s ferry service and mentions in his diary about Billy taking Macquarie’s wife and son up to the Governor’s house in Parramatta.

A track (now known as Blues Point Road) soon led from the Blues Point wharf up to St Leonards, and Billy Blue’s ferry service became the first and major transport link that helped open up the north shore for settlers. Within a short time Billy owned many small ferry boats. Billy also took the opportunity to make money in other ways, and in 1818 was arrested for smuggling rum. Whilst he lost his job as watchman, he was able to continue to run the ferry service.

In 1822 Billy’s benefactor, Governor Macquarie, returned to his native land and business rivals were temporarily successful in shutting down Billy’s ferry service through various allegations. He regained the right to run it again in 1825.

Elizabeth Blue died in 1827 and Billy became increasingly eccentric. Wearing a battered coat, top hat and cane he would often be seen in George Street or would board ships in the harbour, demanding people acknowledge him as ‘the Commodore’, and abusing them if they did not. This nickname had originally been given to Billy back in London, shortly before his arrest. As well as working as a lumper and making chocolate, Billy had also been employed by the Navy Board. At this time, the British Navy engaged "press-gangs" who operated onshore and used physical force to make recruitments. There were about eight gangs in operation in the Deptford area in which Billy Blue worked, and these serviced a hospital ship called the HMS Enterprise, which also recieved impressed sailors. The 'Commodore' of the gang was the man in charge. Answering to a Navy Board employee, the Commodore was paid in cash for each man pressed into service and whilst he would have been both a feared and loathed presence in the area, he would have earned a very good income. It is from this period of his life that Billy Blue earned the nickname that would stay with him until the end. 

In 1829 Billy was again gaoled for sheltering a run-away convict but was released on paying a fine.

Billy Blue died in 1834 and newspapers of the time wrote obituaries that praised his humour, honoured his connections with the origins of the colony, and said regretfully that ‘We may never look upon his like again’. A portrait of him painted by J B East was exhibited soon after Billy’s death to general praise.

The legacy of the convict pioneer, Billy Blue, was the opening up of the north shore with his ferry service, and his endearment to Sydneysiders as a character. In 1850 his son John Blue went on to build the Old Commodore Hotel and his daughter Susannah owned the Billy Blue Inn, both near Blues Point. Various streets in the area are named after him and his children.

Billy Blue’s ‘voice’

As an illiterate convict you would expect that Billy Blue’s voice in history would be barely heard. All that you would know about him would be through what others chose to record. However, Billy Blue was involved in a number of court cases in which his testimony was reported both as a witness for the prosecution and for the defence. He also paid an amanuensis (a clerk or secretary who takes dictation) to write down his version of his life story as part of a petition to the Governor to restore the ferry service to him. Billy Blue’s inability to read and write did not prevent him from engaging in the life of the colony and being well-loved and well-remembered. But who knows what we would have discovered if he had been able to keep his own journal.

Note: The Mitchell Library's punchbowl, made in about 1820, is one of the most spectacular mementoes of a time only 30 years after its foundation, when Sydney had already become a multi-national port and destination on Asian and Pacific sea trade routes.

Student Activities

Call me 'Commodore' - or else!

Students use images of Billy Blue and other images to understand historical perspective and empathy. 

 

Number of set tasks: 2

Resources

NSW Syllabus for the Australian Curriculum History K-10

A student:

  • HT2-2 describes and explains how significant individuals, groups and events contributed to changes in the local community over time
  • HT2-5 applies skills of historical inquiry and communication 

Students:

Comprehension: chronology, terms and concepts

  • use historical terms (ACHHS066, ACHHS082)

Analysis and use of sources

  • locate relevant information from sources provided (ACHHS068, ACHHS084, ACHHS215, ACHHS216)

Perspectives and interpretations

  • identify different points of view within an historical context (ACHHS069, ACHHS085)

Explanation and communication

  • develop texts, particularly narratives (ACHHS070, ACHHS086)
  • use as range of communication forms (oral, graphic, written) and digital technologies (ACHHS071, ACHHS087)
  • Significance: importance of an event, development or individual/group

Learning across the curriculum

  • Literacy
  • Difference and diversity