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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. The convict records of 1796 state that he was ‘a Jamaican negro sailor’ aged about 29, so he was born about 1767. However Billy Blue said that he fought in the American War of Independence (1776) and in an 1828 census claimed he was 80 years of age; this would mean he was born around 1748 and in America.

Whatever the truth of his origins and age, 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 Blues 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. In fact within a short time Billy owned so many small ferry boats that Macquarie joked that with such a fleet he should be called Commodore (a high ranking naval officer). The nickname stuck and from that day on Billy Blue became known as The Old Commodore.

Like so many other ex-convicts of his time, Billy also took the opportunity to make money in other ways, and in 1818 was arrested for smuggling rum. He lost his job as watchman, but still ran 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. 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