Historians commenting on the history and early development of colonial NSW agree that the red cedar, Toona ciliata, played a very important part. Although it was not found around St Georges Basin the story of cedar is nevertheless part of the heritage of the wider local area.
The beautiful dark red, fine grained, easily worked timber was in great demand for many purposes - for doors and door-frames, window-frames, the interior of houses and public buildings, for furniture, for coffins, for ship building, and in later years for the interior of railway carriages. Another characteristic of the timber is a remarkable resistance to termite attack. Not only was the demand from the developing colony, but also from the Royal Navy, and from cabinet and furniture-makers and other merchants in Britain. Some cedar was also shipped to British India and North America. So important was the timber to Britain that by 1798 cedar was the third most important export from the colony. But so ferocious was the rush for the 'red gold' that by the end of the 19th century the readily accessible trees were gone and the rush over. After the 2nd World War most of the remaining trees were extracted using machines such as tractors, bulldozers, power winches, and lorries.
Red cedar is a deciduous rainforest species and was first discovered in the fledging colony near Parramatta about a year and a half after the arrival of the first fleet. Following the appreciation of the properties of the timber locally and in Britain, there began the equivalent of a gold rush. The rush by cutters and sawyers to find and extract the timber generally preceded farming and hence promoted settlement up and down the east coast. Cedar was found in rainforests from Milton to Port Douglas. Not surprisingly there sometimes were confrontations with Aboriginal peoples. Cedar-cutting was not always carried out legally or in accordance with the governor's expectations - for example, Governors Hunter and Macquarie found it necessary to impose temporary restrictions to cedar getting in certain areas (e.g. Hawkesbury, Hunter, and Shoalhaven).
Once settlement was established farmers clearing their land would cut out and sell the cedar. In some situations cedar-cutters were employed by richer land owners who had obtained a grant of land in a suitable area. The rush for cedar quickly spread from the Sydney region to the Hawkesbury, then to the Illawarra, the Hunter, the Shoalhaven and Kangaroo Valley, then to the northern rivers, and into Queensland. In analogy with a gold rush, men went to great extremes to find and extract the red gold. As an example, Vader (see bibliography below) tells us that
Around Fitzroy Falls, a series of ladders was erected on the face of the cliff and cedar was carried up to the tableland from below.
The first official mention of cedar in the Shoalhaven was in 1805 when surveyor James Meehan noted its presence on Pig Island. As far as is known, the first cargo shipped to Sydney from the Shoalhaven is that reported in the Sydney Gazette of December 1811. The exploration of the South Coast by Alexander Berry and the later survey by Thomas Florance has connections with the discovery and extraction of cedar.
Following his 1822 South Coast expedition to Batemans Bay in the Snapper under the command of Lieutenant Robert Johnson, Alexander Berry decided that his land grant selection would be at the Shoalhaven. He settled at Coolangatta and with his partner Wollstonecraft became very rich - initially through extracting cedar. However, he tended to be somewhat secretive about the source of the wealth which allowed him to develop his estate and which earned him the title of 'Laird of Shoalhaven'. In late 1826 Florance's surveying duties took him to the 'Cedar Grounds' between the Shoalhaven and Kiama. Close to Broughton Creek he reported (ref 1) seeing considerable quantities of cedar, both standing and sawn. The sawn timber, which he estimated to be as much as 10,000 (super)feet, belonged to Berry and Wollstonecraft. (N.B. A superfoot is that represented by a piece of timber 1 ft square by 1 inch thick. Often the prefix 'super' was omitted but the parameter was still understood in context). Furthermore Florance reported that Berry's superintendent (Sutor) and overseer (Smith)
state the quantity of sawed cedar in the bush at 400 - 500,000 feet and as far as I could learn the whole was cut on Crown Land.
In 1827/8 when surveying the South Coast (Jervis Bay to Moruya) Florance reported favourably on the nature of the Narrawallee/Croobyar flats (ref 2) but he did not mention cedar by name. However, it seems significant that his father-in-law, the Reverend Thomas Kendall, selected a land grant (the first land grant in the area) beside the Yackungarrah tributary of Narrawallee Creek and began to extract cedar and ship it to Sydney. Alexander Macleay, the Colonial Secretary (1826-1836), also obtained a land grant beside Croobyar Creek and extracted cedar; although he would have been an absentee landlord. After quitting his job as a government surveyor Florance received a land grant beside those of Kendall and Macleay. From here he ran the cedar business for his father-in-law until his (Kendall's) death in August 1832. Kendall died when his ship, the Brisbane, capsized near the mouth of the Shoalhaven. The ship was carrying cedar and farm produce from Ulladulla to Sydney.
Logs were cut on site by pit-sawing, or transported by bullock teams to mills for sawing. In some instances logs were floated down rivers when there was sufficient water present. Most cedar was shipped to Sydney from harbours up and down the east coast - for example, Kiama, Shoalhaven, and Ulladulla to the south of Sydney. Ship building commenced in some of the harbours and in some cases cedar was used in the construction. For example, we know that locally cedar was used for panelling in the ships built by Warden and Gee at Ulladulla. And the canoe used by Blacket and Dark to travel the Shoalhaven from Nerriga to Nowra in 1907 was built of cedar in a boat-builder's yard at Nowra.
Surprisingly for a tree of such importance it has taken some while for scientists to agree on red cedar's place in the botanical world. For many years Australian red cedar was thought to be a member of the genus cedrela but it now accepted that it is a member of the genus toona. Furthermore, it was initially considered a distinct species (toona australis) but now it is accepted to be the same tree which can be found from India, SE Asia and the Indonesian archipelago and is known as toona ciliata. The article by M. Macdonald in the Australian Tree Resources No 7 (2002) contains a map showing its distribution. (see www.ffp.csiro.au/tigr/atrnews/). The term ciliata means fringed.
image: courtesy Colin Taylor
Red cedar is a deciduous rainforest tree and is found on the east coast of Australia from the Atherton Tableland to Milton. Note that its deciduous nature means that red cedar can tolerate an occasional light frost or snow fall in winter (neither of which is very likely over its range). The leaves are compound, with up to eight pairs of leaflets (each about 10 cm long and lanceolote in shape) along a central stem - as can be seen in the image here. When first emerging in spring the leaves have a distinctive pinkish tinge which enabled the early timber getters to spot the trees from a considerable distance. The small (about 5 mm long) white flowers droop in panicle clusters as shown in the image. The fruit, an oval capsule, splits into 5 sections when ripe to release winged seeds. Mature trees which can be as much as 35 m in height have a grey scaly bark and often form buttresses.
As a rainforest tree red cedar likes plenty of moisture and deep soil. Larger areas of rainforest (and hence cedar) are often associated with the occurrence of rich volcanic soils; such as for example are found near Milton, Broughton, Jamberoo and Kiama.
Having such desirable timber one might think that red cedar should be grown commercially. However, there have been many unsuccessful attempts to do this in Australia. Unsuccessful because of the "cedar tip moth" whose larvae/caterpillars eat the growing tips of the cedar, stunting growth and producing a tree with many branches and no useful trunk for timber. Research to get over this problem still continues. There are claims that young trees can be grown successfully in an existing rainforest - because the cedar tip moth does not like the sunless conditions.
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