Sheep-run that shaped the nation’s future
Cavan Station: Its Early History, the Riley Legacy and the Murdoch Vision
By Nicola Crichton-Brown. HarperCollins, 232pp, $49.99 (HB)
Review by ROSS FITZGERALD
If anything is a reminder that Australia rode on the sheep’s back, it is Cavan Station. This massive sheep-run near the NSW town of Yass is the sort of pastoral property that helped shape our nation’s economic and social future.
Cavan Station, now owned by Rupert Murdoch — co-chairman of News Corporation, publisher of The Australian — has a special place in the history of the pastoral industry. Nicola Crichton-Brown makes that clear in Cavan Station, a fascinating, largely untold story of rural Australia.
The station was bought by William Riley in 1834. There he and his brother Alexander, along with William Dutton, Australia’s first qualified vet, developed the Saxon merino sheep.
Producing high-quality wool that was white and soft to handle, as Crichton-Brown notes, “it remains one of only four strains that make up the modern Australian merino”.
This beautifully illustrated book describes the extraordinary legacy left at Cavan by the Rileys. This was mainly due to the scientific approach they adopted to growing fine wool.
Sadly, William Riley, who suffered from high anxiety throughout his life, committed suicide on the property in 1836, aged 29.
Cavan Station also canvasses the enterprising work of the station manager of the 1860s, James Calvert, an English-born pioneering explorer who at age 19 had joined Ludwig Leichhardt’s expedition from Brisbane to Port Essington in Arnhem Land. As Crichton-Brown explains, Calvert was “fascinated with the native flora and fauna of his adopted country”.
Located on the Murrumbidgee River, just beyond the limits of European settlement in the 1820s, Cavan Station “entered Australian history even before the Rileys came, lying as it did in the path of Hume and Hovell’s momentous 1824 expedition from Appin to Port Phillip”.
This is a meticulously researched and highly spirited narrative focusing on Cavan and its geology, plants and livestock. But the book also canvasses the contributions of the Rileys and of the property’s other significant occupants, plus a number of neighbours in the district. In particular, the author highlights the singular contribution of Calvert and his wife, Louisa Atkinson, Australia’s most prolific female novelist of her time.
She was at the same time a respected journalist who publicised her husband’s work in the production of Australia’s finest wool. As well, Atkinson was a gifted artist who illustrated her own books.
Crichton-Brown also features the pivotal role of two nearby settlers — the Australian-born Hamilton Hume and Samuel Terry — in the rise of the burgeoning pastoral industry. Hume moved to the Yass district in 1829 and Crichton-Brown points out that he “knew William Riley through their mutual sheep and racehorse breeding interests”. Being of similar age, with rural holdings in the same general area, they were friendly rivals.
Of equal fame to the Rileys at Cavan was their neighbour, the English-born absentee landlord Samuel Terry, an emancipist whose luxurious property, Kenilworth, lay to the north of Cavan on the Yass Plains. He was a former convict who became a wealthy man known as the Botany Bay Rothschild.
Through the lives and work of the Rileys, the Calverts and their interactions with their neighbours, the author highlights the contributions a number of energetic 19th-century individuals made both to the production of Australian wool and the development of Cavan Station.
In 1966, Murdoch, who was living in Canberra and running his fledging national newspaper, The Australian, bought the property.
As Geoffrey Blainey notes in his illuminating foreword to the book, Murdoch has “enlarged the property almost to its old size, revitalising it and improving the pastures, and multiplying the sheep and the Aberdeen Angus, too”.
As a result of the sustainable strategy adopted by the Murdoch family, in the 21st century Cavan is not only setting new standards of fine wool production, but remains, as Blainey puts it, “one of the showplaces and pathfinders for the nation’s pastoral industry”.
Well watered, with rolling, verdant pasturage in an expansive landscape, the property now encompasses “23,000 acres of undulating limestone country and rich river flats, liberally scattered with eucalypts, wattles and kurrajong trees”.
Today, sheep at Cavan are, as Crichton-Brown puts it, “almost three times more productive in terms of weight and quality of fleece than the early saxons, which since the days of the Riley stud have been highly improved by selective breeding over many generations”.
Writing with the aid of her diligent research assistant, Val Wilkinson, and also of numerous hardworking archivists in libraries throughout Australia, Crichton-Brown has produced an energetic account of one of the most important pastoral properties in rural Australia.
The book includes some 100 well-produced colour and black-and-white photographs and illustrations. One of the most interesting from the early 1970s, shows Murdoch, in a business shirt and tie, sitting on a Cavan Station horse, cradling his 2½-year-old daughter Elisabeth.
There’s a contemporary portrait at Cavan of three magnificent poll merino stud rams, direct descendants of the early saxon sheep. What caught my eye, though, were two charming watercolours painted by Louisa Atkinson. The first is an undated painting of two local, brilliantly coloured parrots. The second is an enticing view of Cavan homestead, painted in 1870. The beauty of the landscape is impressive.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Weekend Australian, February 23-24 2019, review Books, pp 18-19.