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The Hungry Years



This post, the ‘Hungry Years’, describes one family’s survival in a time of near starvation in the very early years of the colony of New South Wales following the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. Harvests were poor and the population was often desperate for food.

I have used two primary sources for the post – the diaries of Captain Watkin Tench and letters written by my 4 x great grandfather Matthew James Everingham, a fluently literate convict on the First Fleet. The letters were written to Samuel Shepherd, (later Sir Samuel Shepherd, Attorney-General for England and Wales). He had been Matthew’s former employer in London.

Tench makes direct reference to Matthew Everingham in Chapter XVI of his book ‘A Complete Account Of the Settlement At Port Jackson, In New South Wales’ and both men’s records describe similar events, particularly when describing the difficulties faced by the colony’s first farmers. However there are real differences

Together, the two sources provide valuable insights into the “Hungry Years’.

Matthew Everingham – The first years

Matthew Everingham arrived in Australia on 26 January 1788 as a convict on the Scarborough, part of the first Fleet. On 7 July 1784 he had been sentenced as ‘a profligate person’ to transportation for seven years for the theft of legal texts. He had been employed as an ‘attorney’s clerk’ by Samuel Shepherd at the time.

By the time Matthew arrived in New South Wales he had served over half his sentence. On the 13 March 1791 he married Elizabeth Rymes, a convict who arrived on the Neptune, the ‘Hell Ship’ of the Second Fleet. Matthew received his pardon on 7 July 1791.

In Matthew’s own words

” On 7th July last my time expired I went to his Excellency myself & acquainted him…he offered me to settle or continue as I was for my provisions till an opportunity should offer for me to leave the Country . I chose the last and turned settler at the Ponds on condition of him supporting me for 18 months in provisions and clothing and for the first year implements for the agriculture. 50 acres of land were measured for me accordingly. Having youth on my side and pretty well inured to hard work and having an agreeable partner I thought, if it pleased God I lived 4 or 5 years in the country would not hurt me especially if I should be successful in my undertaking.

Matthew Everingham, October 1792

On 18 July 1791 Matthew and Elizabeth settled on their 50 acres of land, Matthew’s first farm. It was two miles northeast of Parramatta at what was called The Ponds, (now known as Rydalmere) near the Field of Mars, (known today as Marsfield).

Registers of Land Grants and Leases, 1792-1867
Grants and Leases of Lands Registered, 1799-1809

Two perspectives

Watkin Tench

In December of 1791, prior to his departure from the colony, Captain Watkin Tench visited settlers in the vicinity of Rose Hill (Parramatta). and recorded his impressions. One of his initial impressions was of the new settlers’ housing, describing most of them as ‘wretched hovels’.

Tench recorded that the settlement’s early farmers found life extremely difficult. Farmers in the area had to plant up to three times in a season to get a crop, Harvests were generally very poor because of very dry weather and a grub that destroyed the young maize plants, .

On 6 December 1791, just five months after Matthew and Elizabeth began working their land, Captain Tench visited the settlement of The Ponds. He wrote about Matthew. In his entry he doesn’t seem to have taken this time frame or the settlers’ difficulties into account when forming his opinions.

Matthew Everingham’s land grant can be seen in the top right corner.

In one of his few direct references to individuals he wrote:

The attorney’s clerk I also thought out of his province; I dare believe that he finds cultivating his own land not half so easy a task as he formerly found that of stringing together volumes of tautology to encumber or convey away that of his neighbour.

Captain Watkin Tench, 1791

Despite this, we know from Tench’s detailed records that Matthew had managed to clear and cultivate 2 acres in the first 6 months, which was better than the average. We are lucky to have Matthew’s own account of this extremely difficult time. In his second letter to Samuel Shepherd Matthew recalled that

The first six months every thing seemed to run against me my crop failed my Daughter died and my wife hung on my hands very ill and not having any supply in time from England the whole colony was almost starving

Matthew Everingham 12 October 1792
THe Everingham Letterbook

In fact, the colony was experiencing what would be called the “Hungry Years’. Despite the extremes of weather and the foreign nature of the country, food supplies grown in the colony would be just enough to sustain the existing population when another fleet of convicts would arrive without adequate stores or clothing and rationing would again be introduced. During this time many workers were seen working naked in the fields.

Despite Tench’s opinions about Matthew Everingham’s ability as a farmer, in October 1792, eighteen months of taking up his land grant Matthew was able to write that he had

5½ acres in India Corn” one of English wheat, about half an acre of Barley Pumkins, Melons, and Ccllavans are in abundance, all seems to thrive well. I have a two sows big with piggs some poultry. and a hive of this Country’s bees…

Matthew James Everingham, October, 1792

By then he had a assigned convict servant to help work the farm.

He faced many hardships over the next 10 years. Settlers endured severe bushfires and extremes of temperature with winter frosts and summer temperatures up to 114 degrees F (46 degrees C).

There were frequent native attacks on the crops, grub plagues and snakes. Matthew and the fellow settlers also had to deal with convicts who had escaped and were heading for China which was rumoured to be just north of the Hawkesbury River.

In the leter of October 1792 Matthew predicted that in three months (January 1793) he would be fully independent and able “to maintain myself and family Independent of the public store”

We do know from the 1802 Census that Mathew’s persistence had paid off. Of his 50 acres at The Ponds he had 17 acres under cultivation, 13 in wheat and maize; He owned 14 hogs, and held 20 bushels of maize. Only two people in his growing family were :publicly victualled’ (Government Stores). In April of that year he was recorded as owning a gun and a pistol.            

Even though the Hungry Years period was over and his land was yielding larger and better harvests, Matthew was dissatisfied with life at The Ponds. In 1800 he signed the address to Governor John Hunter setting out ‘the grievous and intolerable burdens’ under which the settlers at the Field of Mars had long laboured.

In 1802 he applied for a grant of land at Sackville in the District of Portland Head. The Ponds property was sold to Andrew Hume. The move to Portland Head marked the beginning of the next chapter in Matthew’s life.

That Matthew and Elizabeth Everingham, two former convicts from the highly urbanised late 1700s London, survived and flourished by farming in the infant colony throughout the “Hungry Years’ is truly remarkable. Matthew had been confident in his letter of October 1792 , stating “Having youth on my side and pretty well inured to hard work and having an agreeable partner”. That confidence was not misplaced.

Matthew And Elizabeth Everingham left a family of 85 grandchildren to begin the Everingham ‘dynasty’, one that was to span all sections of Australian society. Perhaps that is their largest, most productive legacy.

I am leaving the last word to prominent Australian author Thomas Keneally. In Volume 1 of “Australians- Origins to Eureka” he writes about Watkin Tench’s damning comment on Matthew’s potential

“The attorneys clerk, Matthew Everingham, I also thought out of his provence, and likely to return, like Bishop, when victualling from the stores ceased, to drag a timber or brick cart for his maintenance…I dare believe he finds cultivating his own land not half so heavy a task, as he formerly found that of stringing together volumes of tautology to encumber, or convey away that of his neighbour”.

I say “How wrong he was!”

Thomas Keneally


Government Farm at Parramatta, view of farm buildings from across river, from a painting, ca. 1791,
(LSP00401), City of Parramatta.


Valerie Ross ed., ‘The Everingham Letterbook: letters of a First Fleet convict‘, The Anvil Press, Wamberal, c. 1985

Watkin Tench, ‘A Complete Account Of the Settlement At Port Jackson, In New South Wales Including An Accurate Description of the Situation of the Colony; of the Natives; and Of Its Natural Productions, University of Sydney Library, 1998,, Accessed 1 October 2019

Australian Dictionary of Biography, ‘Everingham, Matthew James (1768–1817)’,, Accessed 2 October 2019.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, ‘Matthew James Everingham’, ttps:// , Accessed 1 October 2019

4 thoughts on “The Hungry Years Leave a comment

  1. Wow! what an amazing piece of family history. Seven years for taking some law books, how very punitive. But, his punishment led to an amazing new life and family. Seem like great plot points for a screenplay.


  2. Back in the 1950s, my father had an opportunity to emigrate from the States to Australia. He decided it was too big a move for his large family. I’ve been fascinated by Australia’s history. Your family is intertwined with it and your research is remarkable.


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