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I am a direct descendant of Henry Gillett and part time family historian. This story was written in 1934 and may have appeared in the local newspaper of that time. Its author is unknown but may have had ties with the Lower Clarence Historical Society. I found it compelling reading and have resurrected it as best I can, although there were a few lines that were undecipherable. Enjoy!

By: Steve Wainwright


Our Maclean correspondent writes:--

The articles that are appearing in the "Daily Examiner" from time to time under the auspices of the Clarence River Historical Society make very interesting reading for the general public, particularly for those born here, who are proud of this great part of Australia where their forefathers were amongst the early settlers.

Although the society is obtaining a good deal of the early history of this river, particularly regarding those who acquired the big holdings on the upper reaches of the Clarence, it will be difficult for them to obtain early information of the men and women who first came here and selected small areas and those who engaged in cedar-getting, shipbuilding and other early ventures and industries, more especially in the Middle and Lower Clarence districts.

There are men and women of advanced years, the sons and daughters of these pioneers, who have the information handed down to them and in some cases have records that would assist the Historical Society in compiling its valuable historical data.

If these people gave such information as they have to the Historical Society, probably other records could be linked with it, thus obtaining a fairly comprehensive history of the early settlement of this important part of the Commonwealth.


In the bridge issue published by the Daily Examiner was an article from my pen relating to the advent of the Small family to the Clarence River in the thirties and their subsequent settlement.

Linked with the arrival of Thomas Small and his family on the river in the Susan is that of Henry Gillett, who built the Susan and arrived on the river in 1836 and who, it is claimed, was the first man of that party to land on Clarence River soil. Henry Gillett's early life was fraught with tragic happenings. He pioneered shipbuilding on this river and did much to rank him among the greatest of our valiant pioneers.

Henry Gillett who was born in Cork, Ireland in 1801, was apprenticed to and followed the calling of ship's carpenter. He married early in life and [this section unreadable] in the twenties decided to emigrate to Australia with his wife and young children. He secured the position of ship's carpenter on the immigrant ship, Hibernia, which was sailing for Australia with over 500 immigrants aboard. With his wife and two children he left England in the Hibernia on a voyage that was to prove so eventful and disastrous that it shocked the whole world.


When 60 days out from port, the Hibernia caught fire in mid-ocean. All attempts to subdue the fire proved ineffectual, with the result that orders were given for the boats to be manned and a limited number of immigrants were taken off. The panic stricken condition of the hundreds of men, women and children on the decks of the vessel can be realised when it was found that there [this section unreadable] were unseaworthy, and inadequate to carry away a tenth of the people on board. By the captain's orders the different boats were manned by officers and crews and each boat was speedily crowded to its utmost capacity. Henry Gillett, being the ship's carpenter, was ordered aboard the captain's boat and was compelled to leave his wife and children behind. The boats, for protection, were ordered away from the vessel, which was now a raging furnace with people jumping overboard from the bows, preferring death from drowning rather than from the fire.

Soon after leaving the vessel the captain found that he had left behind important papers and called for volunteers to go back to the vessel and recover them. Gillett was the only one who responded, and asked in return to be allowed to bring his wife and children back into the boat with him, which the captain consented to do. After fighting against the fierce flames and recovering the papers, Gillett frantically searched for his wife and children, but was too late to save them.


Over 500 souls perished in the raging inferno and the small remnant in leaking and ill-found boats, drifted aimlessly about the ocean for some eight days. Eventually an American ship was sighted and hove to, but a request for conveyance in his vessel was refused by the captain, who urged them to make for the South American coast, many miles away. Despite the tears and entreaties of the survivors, the captain was adamant in his refusal to take them aboard, notwithstanding that the people were half dead with hunger and exposure. After entreaties from his own crew and after his own carpenter had inspected the leaking boats, which were found to be most unseaworthy, the holes and cracks filled with fat and other contrivances, the survivors were eventually taken aboard the vessel and were landed in Rio de Janeiro.


Soon afterwards, Gillett obtained passage on a ship sailing from Rio de Janeiro to Tasmania. After a short stay in Tasmania he embarked in a vessel for Sydney, landing there in 1828.

He went to Kissing Point, Parramatta River, settling on the estate of the late Thomas Small, where he commenced ship building operations. In the yards of Kissing Point he built the cutters Priscilla and Aquila. He subsequently built the schooner Susan, of 52 tons register, which was named after one of Mr Small's family. This vessel was afterwards to make history, being the first vessel to explore the waters of the Clarence River.

The builder (Mr Gillett) and Mr Thomas Small were joint owners of the Susan and they decided to send her to the Clarence River, or as it was called then, "The Big River", to obtain a cargo of cedar. Henry Thorn was master of the vessel and Boyle, well known as a master of vessels that subsequently traded to other ports, was mate. Twelve pairs of sawyers accompanied the vessel, which was to wait in the river until the cargo of cedar was cut. Mr Gillett was also on the vessel. On reaching the entrance to the river they were unable to cross in and were compelled to run to Moreton Bay to procure water. On their return to the Clarence entrance they were again unsuccessful in efforts to cross the bar and eventually returned to Sydney for provisions. Another attempt made afterwards was successful.


After sounding the bar, the Susan crossed into the river in 1836, being the first vessel to enter it. Soon after its arrival in the river, a boat put off from the Susan and landed on the beach inside the entrance. Among its occupants was Mr. Gillett who being in the bow of the boat, was the first man to jump ashore, thus claiming to be the first white man to land on the Clarence.

The first venture by the Susan's owners for cedar was not profitable and [this section unreadable] in the vessel, and the undertaking they were engaged in, to Mr. James Devlin, a relative of Thomas Small. Subsequent voyages of the Susan in its quest for cedar proved more successful, the round trip being performed in 11 or 12 days. The point at which the loading of cedar took place on to the Susan in her voyages to the river was at the island called then, and now known as Helliman Island, opposite Woodford Island, which is at present owned by Mr Rupert Campbell of Grafton.

Settlement now having taken place on the Clarence, Mr. Gillett, who had married again, decided to come to the Clarence and follow his calling of shipbuilding. He located himself at Woodford Island on the South Arm side, building his yard on the foreshore of the estate where stood the Small homestead, which is now owned and occupied by Mr. John Hughes of Woodford Island. In this yard he built the sailing vessels Martha and Elizabeth, as well as two other sailing vessels and the sailing ship, Atalanta. A great deal of the planking used in the construction of these vessels was cut by Gillett's own hands, his method being to work on top of the pit and weigh his saw with a heavy piece of iron or timber.

After building these five vessels, he moved to the Bellinger River and there built the Martha Ann. Moving again, he went to the Tweed River and put another vessel on the stock, which he launched and named The Twins, (commemorating the birth of twins by his wife, one being Mr. Jack Gillett who is still living in South Grafton, and the other Richard Gillett who died last year).

While living on the Tweed River, Mr. Gillett was unfortunate to lose his second wife and shortly after her death he again returned to the Clarence in 1858. He purchased an area of land near South Grafton in the vicinity of the railway where he lived several years and engaged in farming.


He then bought the cattle run, formerly owned by the late James Sweeney on the Coldstream, together with several farming properties. The run extended from the Coldstream to the main river at Ulmarra. The homestead was on the hill known as Gillett's Ridge, and the family lived there for several years. Mr Gillett carried on successfully breeding cattle, until free selection under the Robertson Act, resulted in most of the large runs being selected.

In the sixties he went to live on his farms on the Coldstream, which included the farms now occupied by Messrs. Jas O'Hara, Frank Blanch, Cecil Jackson and Vaughan, and he resided there until his death on March 17, 1880 as a result of being thrown from a horse when returning from a visit to his daughter at Woodford Island. The injuries he received combined with his great age caused his death.

This grand old pioneer and shipbuilder was laid to rest in the Ulmarra cemetery, his remains being followed to the grave side by people from all parts of the river, who came to pay their respects to a man who was honest and upright in all his dealings.

Mr. Gillett played a most important part in the earliest history of the Clarence and the records of his work should be obtained and recorded.

Mr. Gillett was survived by two daughters, one of whom, Mrs James O'Hara, lives on the Coldstream on one of the farms held by her father in the early sixties, and now owned by her son, James E. O'Hara. The flood refuge at Gillett's Ridge is now the remaining unselected area of the huge holding held by her late father.

The other daughter of Mr. Gillett was Mrs Mat Chisler of Mullumbimby, who died recently. Four sons of this old pioneer are Mr "Jack" Gillett of South Grafton and the late Messrs. Richard and Henry Gillett, and Edward Gillett of Middle Creek.


There is a monument over his grave in the Ulmarra cemetery, to mark the resting place of Henry Gillett. There is another monument for the work he did improving the farming lands on the banks of the Coldstream, which today rank among some of the best holdings in the Middle Clarence. Gillett's Ridge will always perpetuate the name of this sturdy old pioneer.

Source: origin unknown; circa 1934

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