Lake Macquarie History

A fortunate mistake: Captain William Reid and the European discovery of Lake Macquarie

When Captain William Reid mistook what we now know as Swansea Heads for the Hunter River back in early July 1800, he would have had no idea of the size of the body of water he had sailed into, or the thriving city which was to develop.

What he had 'discovered' was Lake Macquarie, though for many years it would be known as Reid's Mistake, a name bestowed on the southern side of the entrance by Governor King when he heard the story of it's discovery. This name eventually came to refer to the whole Lake, and remained in general use until about 1826 when it was renamed in honour of Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Reid's Mistake is still the official title given to the southern headland of the entrance to Lake Macquarie, as listed by the Geographic Names Board of NSW.

The mistake

The entrance to the Hunter River had been known since it's discovery by Lieutenant John Shortland in 1797. He was looking for runaway convicts, but instead found plentiful coal outcroppings close to the river's mouth. As coal was in much demand in much of the British Empire, this discovery was important, and small vessels were soon making regular voyages to the Hunter for this cargo. So it was that in July 1800 Captain William Reid was ordered to sail to the Hunter River for a cargo of coal.

photo: moon island and swansea channell

The location had been described to him - sail north, find an island near a river entrance, go in a small distance and coal will be showing on the southern shore. He followed the coast from Port Jackson and came to Moon Island which he supposed to be Nobby's, and the entrance to what he took to be a the Hunter River, where he loaded his cargo of coal from the southern shore, just as described.

It wasn't until he got back to Sydney that he discovered his mistake. He hadn't gone far enough up the coast to reach the Hunter River, and had instead discovered another river, described then as a bar lagoon, and also another source of coal. Describing the events of July 1800, Lieutenant Governor David Collins records that

"The Martha, having been allowed to go to the Hunter river for coals in the beginning of the month, on her return, having anchored in some very bad weather in the north part of the harbour, Little Manly Bay, was by the parting of her cable driven on a reef of rocks, where her bottom was beat out. With the assistance of the officers and crew of the Buffalo, she was got off, and, being floated with casks, was brought up to Sydney, where her damages were found not to be irreparable. By the master's account it appeared, that he had not been in the (Hunter) river, but in a salt water inlet, about five leagues to the southward of the river, having a small island at its entrance. He was conducted by some natives to a spot at a small distance from the mouth, where he found an abundance of coal."(1)

William Reid

William Reid was born in Air (Ayr), Scotland in about 1765. He came out to Australia with the First Fleet in 1788. He signed on as an able seaman at age 21 on 28th March 1787, but had been promoted to quartermaster on the HMS Sirius by the time he reached Sydney Cove. As quartermaster, he would have sailed with his ship to the Cape of Good Hope to obtain supplies for the settlement in October 1788, returning March 1789. Following the wreck of the Sirius on Norfolk Island in 1790, he returned to Sydney on 7th March 1791, where he was discharged. It was in this year that William Reid (along with another two shipmates Robert Webb and his brother Thomas) was granted one of the colony's earliest land grants - for 60 acres of land on the south side of the creek leading to Rose Hill, now Parramatta. Their land grants came with livestock, seed grain, and 18 months provisions. They were listed as settlers there in March 1791.

Records of Reid's life are few for this time period, but there is speculation that he was part of a failed attempt by a group of settlers to find a passage across the Blue Mountains. Referred to as the Everingham Expedition, this was apparently lead by ex-convict Matthew Everingham, though there is speculation that William Reid played a major part in organising and leading the group.

photo: dobell painting

"In October/November 1795 Matthew, with two other settlers (William Reed and John Ramsay) attempted to find a route across the Blue Mountains. They sighted two "chasms", supposing that the Hawkesbury flowed through one and through the other, a stream they called the Macarthur River, (now called Bowens Creek) which they reasoned flowed into Port Stephens. They reached a point where they could see good country to the west but did not proceed any further as food supplies were running short. In fact, by the time they reached Parramatta, they had been without food for three days and Matthew's shoes had worn out. That, he said, was worse than the lack of food. They had started out each carrying a knap-sack with 40lbs of supplies, plus ropes, other equipment and a gun. Their hope of returning for a further attempt never eventuated. To help prevent the escape of convicts, the Government did not publicise the possibility of land to the west and discouraged exploration.

Working from Matthew's description of their journey, local experts have determined that they reached either Mt. Wilson, Mt. Tomah or Mt. Irvine. In any case, they were not more than one day's trek from crossing the Blue Mountains when they turned back. This was 18 years before Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth finally made their crossing in 1813. This journey is described in one of several letters that have survived, from Matthew to his mentor Samuel Shepherd, the man he defrauded and that resulted in Matthew's conviction and transportation."(2)

In 1797, we find Reid had returned to sea. In this year Captain William Reid (spelt Reed) commanded the schooner Francis on a series of rescue and salvage operation to the ship Sydney Cove, which was wrecked on Preservation Island in Bass Strait. Matthew Flinders was a crew member on this voyage. In March 1798, Reid and the Francis are listed as sailing up the Hawkesbury River for a cargo of grain. Sometime around 1798 Captain Reid became master of the newly built ship Martha. The first voyages appear to have been to Bass Strait for seal skins and seal oil, Reid having seen seals in abundance there during his salvage missions. The first official record of the Martha with master William Reed is a report dated 14th December 1799, of it arriving in Sydney from Bass Strait with cargo of seal oil and skins, and then returning southward to Bass Strait again. On March 6th1800 he was reported as arriving in Sydney again as master of the Martha from Cape Barren Island, with another cargo of seal oil and seal skins, and also a sealing gang from the Nautilus. They then sailed promptly for Norfolk Island with articles for sale, returning to Sydney in June.

photo: the ship martha

It was in June that they were ordered to the Hunter's River for a cargo of coal, and the fortunate mistake of the finding of Lake Macquarie was made. The Martha was caught in a storm on it's return journey, and was badly damaged. Though salvageable, it was the end of Reid's association with the Martha. Following the wreck, William Reid appears to have become part owner (with Boston, Ellis and Palmer) of another ship - the Spanish ship El Plumier, which had been captured off the California coast, and sold as spoils of war. The El Plumier with Reid (spelt Reed) as master and his partners on board is recorded as departing Sydney on 5th January 1801 for New Zealand to pick up timber from the Coromandel Peninsula, then on to Tonga for a load of salt pork and other fresh food. The intention was to call into Guam on the return trip, bit giiven it's poor state of repair, they didn't get that far. The vessel was seized on Guam in January 1802, and condemned. Reid appears to have survived and to have experienced other interesting exploits, though not much more is known of what became of him.

The Martha

The Martha was recorded as being built at Bennelong Point Sydney Cove in 1799. Co-owned by Reid and Boston & Co, and registered in London as a 301/2 ton schooner, Reid was her only recorded Master. Boston & Co was a partnership of John Boston, James Ellis and the Rev Thomas Fyshe Palmer.

It is believed she was probably built by the private shipbuilder James Underwood, but could also have been built by Thomas Moore at Governor King's dockyards.

The Martha was built by the government as a replacement vessel for the ship Elizabeth, a private ship commandeered by the government to assist the Francis (captained by Reid) with the rescue of the 'Sydney Cove' in 1797. She was wrecked and never returned to Sydney. The government then paid for the timber to replace her, and the new ship was launched as the Martha.

Prior to accidentally sailing into Lake Macquarie in1800, the Martha had sailed to Bass Strait several times and returned with cargoes of seal skins and seal oil, and also to Norfolk Island with cargoes of supplies for the penal settlement there.

On it's return trip from "Reids Mistake", a storm caused Reid to have to sail the Martha to shelter in the north part of the harbour, at Little Manly Bay. While anchored there, the cable parted in the storm and the Martha was driven on a reef of rocks and bilged.

photo: lake macquarie coat of arms

The officers and crew of another ship, the Buffalo, helped re-float her with empty casks, and towed her to Sydney, where it was found that her damages were not irreparable.

There is recent speculation that the Martha was repaired and relaunched as the schooner 'Endeavour'. This ship together with the schooner Mercury (as illustrated on the $20 bank note) was totally wrecked on the 2nd March, 1813 at the Shoalhaven River.

The Martha is depicted on Lake Macquarie's Coat of Arms.

William Reid's Legacy

During the sealing voyages in the Martha, Reid seems to have been instrumental in making several geographical discoveries. Perhaps most important of these was the possible traversing of Bass Strait before Bass and Flinders. In 1803 Governor King stated that

"... it [King Island] was first discovered in 1798 by Mr Reid in the Martha ... afterwards seen by Mr Black in the Harbinger and surveyed by Mr Murray in February 1802 [in the Lady Nelson]."(3)

To have cited King Island, Reid would have likely sailed through Bass Straight between Wilson's Promontory and Flinder's Island.

Several geographical landmarks bear Reid's name

  • Reid's Mistake (now Lake Macquarie) discovered in 1800
  • Reid's Rocks SW of King Island in the Bass Strait


(1) An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales From Its First Settlement in January 1788, to August 1801 by David Collins. Volume 2

(2) http://Fellowship of First Fleeters - Hunter Valley Chapter

(3) Notes written by Govenor King in the margins of a letter sent to him by Commodore Baudin recorded in The Logbooks of the Lady Nelson, by Ida Lee, 1915.

Gibson, Col The discovery of Reid's Mistake by William Reid, Master of the schooner Martha, July 1800.

Clouten, Kieth Reid's Mistake: the early history of Lake Macquarie, 1967.