John Eales: King of the Hunter

Learn about John Eales and Morpeth on a small group tour for mature and senior travellers for couples and single travellers into New South Wales Australia and early colonial settlement.

29 Dec 21 · 8 mins read

John Eales’ Life & Legacy

By Marco Stojanovik

When John Eales died at Duckenfield in 1871, he was reputed to have been one the wealthiest men in New South Wales. From the moment he set foot in the colony, arriving from England in 1823, he had been determined to make his mark. Originally taking up a land grant at Berry Park, near Morpeth, he would go onto successfully tackle many ventures with incredible energy and foresight. Known as the ‘King of the Hunter’, his empire was built upon land acquisitions, a farming business, steam shipping, coal and rail. Eales was also a builder, always intent on improving his holdings around Morpeth and beyond. His two earliest efforts, Berry Park House and Berry House, are still standing, while the memory of his and his son’s opulent Duckenfield House lives on in memory.

This article explores the life and legacy of John Eales to assist your small group tour of North East New South Wales. The Victorian era is well represented in this escorted regional tour as we explore with a local guide various National Trust-listed houses including the Saumarez and Dundullimal homesteads, as well as properties in Morpeth, Mudgee, Rylstone and Gulgong. Much of the information in this article is sourced from David Brouwer’s Book John Eales of Duckenfield: The Men and the Mansion.

A secluded valley at Barrington Tops, Hunter Valley

The Berry Park Estate

Born in England, Eales arrived in Australia in 1823 at the age of 23. It is not known exactly why he came but it seems clear he wanted to take up the opportunity of gaining land in the colony. He applied to Earl Bathurst, Secretary of State for the Colonies, for the right to a grant of land in the colony. Bathurst, a family friend, approved a grant of 2100 acres, which Eales selected on the banks of the Hunter River about four miles from Morpeth, naming it Berry Park.

The first dwelling built on Eales’ land was a cottage known as Berry Park House, which was soon followed by a similar dwelling known as Berry House. Built to last and having been restored to their former glory in the later decades of the 20th century, these earliest efforts are still standing in good condition as desirable residences and can be viewed along Duckenfield Road.

It was this farm location that was key to Eales’ early success. From the get-go, he cleared some 200 acres and the deep, mulch covered alluvial flats close to the river created a perfect seedbed for maize and wheat. High rainfall meanwhile encouraged the growth of these crops. He was thus soon enjoying a very successful and productive estate, one of the finest in the district, yielding an annual return of 10,000 bushels of wheat by 1831.

Expansion of the Estate

Backed by success and growing wealth, Eales expanded during the 1830s from farming into grazing. He purchased and squatted upon an enormous amount of land around Maitland and in the rich Liverpool Plains, which he stocked with cattle and sheep, the largest being Walholla and Queepolli.

The 1830s was a boom time for the Hunter Valley with wheat needed for the bourgeoning Sydney market and wool in high demand for export. Eales thus very quickly prospered into one of the richest men in the colonies. Trading in land became a way of life for him, involved in 240 land transactions during his lifetime. By 1848 he held an impressive 198,000 acres; by the early 1960s this had ballooned to over 330,000 acres in total throughout the north-west.

He entered into vicious competition with other squatters in the district and was a vexatious neighbour; over the years he would sue and be sued for land. Sometimes he won; often he lost. But even when he did lose a case, he gained benefits by robbing his neighbours of pasture and water.

Surviving the 1840s Depression

Owning more than 16,000 acres of freehold in the Maitland district alone and some twenty pastoral stations throughout the colony, Eales was even able to weather the severe financial crisis of the early 1840s while many others did not.

However, in order to remain solvent during the collapse of markets for livestock and wool, something had to be done with his surplus of sheep and cattle. He therefore turned his attention to boiling down, establishing a works at Berry Park, and successfully exporting tallow to make candles and soap of his own accord.

He also speculated on the grain market when those prices collapsed by storing purchased grain in vast metal silos – believed to be a first for colonial Australia – until value was restored to the market.

Steamboats on the Hunter

At this time the roads around Maitland were disastrous and until rail arrived rivers dominated travel, key to maintaining commerce. Shipping occurred particularly from the port of Morpeth down the Hunter River to Newcastle and then on to Sydney. However, the steamships on the Hunter River were owned and controlled by groups outside the district who made arbitrary decisions on service and schedules. Eales soon became frustrated at the irregular and unreliable shipping service, and so in 1939 he, along with his wife and other investors, created the Hunter River Steam Navigation Company (HRSNC).

The new company ordered three steamers built in England, which began services between Morpeth and Sydney in the 1840s. Eales acted as a principal shareholder and director of the company and in 1841 built a drydock on his riverfront land to service the company’s vessels. The HRSNC enjoyed a Hunter River trade monopoly for 10 years while expanding operations, eventually incorporated as the Australian Steam Navigation CO. in 1851, with Eales still on the board of directors.

Hunter River in Maitland, NSW, Australia

Coal & Rail

Around the same time, coal was discovered on Eales’ estate along Four Mile Creek. Eales recognised the potential of the youthful coal-mining industry with demand growing for the energy source to run the steamboats as well as heat and light the citizens of Sydney. So, in defiance of the Australian Agricultural Company’s monopoly, he began mining, his activities soon legitimised by the Government.

Then, in 1853, he bought another mine located on a ridge separating the Minmi and Back Creeks, which proved to be a rich seam. That same year he formed the Maitland and Morpeth Railway Company building a railway connecting his mines with the Hunter River at Hexham. Within several years he was exporting large quantities of coal to the Sydney Market.

As such, in 1859 he was able to sell his mines and railway to the coal merchant brothers, James and Alexander Brown, at a large profit. By pouring money and energy into the venture he had made a major contribution to developing the infant coal industry in the Hunter, just one of several areas in which he made his mark through a keen business head and smart investments.

A coal train loads from a bin and conveyor at a Hunter Valley mine

Duckenfield House

In the early 1850s Eales resolved to build a sprawling lavishly decorated mansion, a crowning jewel to reflect his status as one of the richest people in the colony at the time. Thus the building of Duckenfield house commenced in late 1852, its two main wings built of Sydney sandstone blocks completed by 1854, before John Eales Junior took on the task of extending the house and grounds with enthusiastic extravagance after his father’s death on 1 April, 1871.

The Duckenfield estate was situated near Miler’s Forest, between five and six miles below Morpeth, on the banks on the Hunter River. The complex of buildings, which stood on a slightly rising ground about 500 yards from the river, formed a prominent object in the landscape, the most recognizable symbol of sheer opulence in the Hunter.

When completed the entire complex was enormous, eventually comprising the main residence, hot houses and conservatory, private race course, stables, coach house, barns, a dairy and butter factory, silos, and houses for his farm labourers and servants’ houses,

The main residence itself was said to have covered an approximate area of two acres. It was a vast pile of Pyrmont sandstone and cedar joinery containing no fewer than 45 large and lofty rooms replete with fine furniture and works of art. The main room was a beautifully appointed ballroom, measuring 70ft (21.34 m) by 50 ft (15.24m), said to accommodate 150 dancing couples, complete with semicircular roof and a giant electric-powered crystal chandelier. Up a staircase, alongside and overlooking the ball room, was a fine billiard room, in which gentlemen could either watch the dancing or listen to the music while amusing themselves.

Other rooms included seven major bedrooms with marble bathrooms, a gymnasium, drawing room, dining room, breakfast room, dressing rooms, nursery suite, large servants’ quarters, and store rooms. These rooms were arranged around a large botanical garden and tile-paved courtyard, in which was set an octagonal aviary containing hundreds of birds, as well as a fountain complete with swans and marble cherubs. And surrounding the palatial residence was 8 acres of terraced sculpture gardens that ambled their way to the river.

Duckenfield House’s main themes seemed to be luxury and elegance as John Eales Jnr lavished huge amounts of cash to make it as majestic as possible. However, the family’s wealth eventually vanished, the house’s glory lasting for only 65 years. Having cost 70,000 pounds to create, it was sold for only 4,000 pounds.

Small group tour of North East New South Wales

Odyssey Traveller visits Morpeth, the home of the Duckenfield Estate, as part of our small group North East New South Wales tour. Morpeth, on the banks of the Hunter River, was a bustling port in colonial times. The town, with its rich heritage of beautifully preserved buildings, uneven cobble stone paths and walkways has been called a living museum. Here, as well as at a number of locations along the tour, we explore several National Trust-listed houses.

This small group tour for the active senior traveller stays entirely within NSW. It takes us north from Dubbo to Armidale and Tenterfield before turning east and crossing the mountains to Casino. From there we head south again, stopping at Dorrigo and visiting Morpeth on our way back to Dubbo via Mudgee. This small group tour allows us to experience a wide range of landscapes from the western plains to the New England ranges, fabulous rainforests, stunning east coast beaches and rolling, vine covered hills.

There are historic houses and towns to explore, and gourmet food to enjoy to make for a great holiday with fellow travellers. There will also be opportunities for bush walking in some of Australia’s most spectacular National Parks. NSW has much to offer the mature and senior traveller, either as a couple or solo traveller and now is our chance to experience its great diversity.

This escorted small group tour has an interest in both Aboriginal and European settlement history. The program skirts around the edges of the “Aussie Outback “, but is not an outback adventure for the traveller.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to the Hunter Valley & North East NSW

Published December 2020; refreshed December 2021.

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