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 stumbled on 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 (and eventually coming to refer to the whole Lake) by Governor King when he heard the story of Reid's visit. This name remained in general use until about 1826 when it was renamed in honour of one of Australia's greatest colonial governors, 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 European 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 other parts of the British Empire, this discovery was important, and small vessels were soon employed in making 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. 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 realised his mistake. He hadn't gone far enough up the coast to reach the Hunter River, and had instead sailed into 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

“By the master's account it appeared, that he had not been in the 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 abundance of coal.”

William Reid

William Reid was born in Air (Ayr) in about 1765.

He came out to Australia with the First Fleet as Quartermaster on the HMS Sirius, having signed on 28th March 1787, at age 21. As quarter master, 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, where he was discharged on 7th March 1791, and decided to settle in Sydney.

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.

In 1797 we find Reid had returned to sea. In 1797 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. In March 1798 they are listed as sailing up the Hawkesbury River for a cargo of grain.

Sometime around 1798 Captain Reid became master of the newly built 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 14th December 1799 report 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 6th 1800 he was reported as arriving in Sydney again as master of 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.

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) and master 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 the Cape of Good Hope. Given it’s poor state of repair, they didn’t get that far. The vessel was seized in Guam in January 1802 and condemned.

Reid seems to have survived and experienced many more interesting exploits, having several stories reported about his activities after they arrived at Guam

  • The Sydney Gazette of 12 May 1804 reported that Reid went to Manilla in the Philippines and there took command of a Spanish vessel.
  • Again in Manilla Reid and Boston purchased the Fair American an American ship and sailed to Sydney.

The Martha

The Martha was recorded as being built at Bennelong Point Sydney Cove in 1799, by Boston & Co, and registered in London as a 301/2 ton schooner. Boston & Co was a partnership of John Boston, James Ellis and the Rev Thomas Fyshe Palmer. They were part owners. Her only master recorded was Captain William Reid.

Prior to 1800, 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 his return trip from “Reids Mistake”, a storm caused the Martha to take 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. The officers and crew of another ship, the Buffalo, helped re-float her and get her to Sydney, where it was found that her damages were not irreparable.

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]."

Several geographical landmarks bear Reid’s name

  • Reid's Mistake (now Lake Macquarie) first visited in 1800
  • Reid's Rocks SW of King Island in the Bass Strait
  • Reid Rock in the Tamar River, Tasmania
  • Possible first traversing of Bass Strait in 1798 as recorded by Governor King
  • First sighting of King Island itself at the same time on the same voyage

He was probably, either directly or indirectly, responsible also for naming the following after the owner of the Martha, John Boston.

  • Boston Island near Port Lincoln, S.A.
  • Boston Bay


Clouten, Keith 1967, Reid's mistake : the story of Lake Macquarie from its discovery until 1890, Lake Macquarie Shire Council, [Speers Point, N.S.W.]

Collins, David n.d., [An account of the English colony in New South Wales]

1804 'INTERESTING PARTICULARS', The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 - 1842), 4 November, p. 2. , viewed 08 Sep 2018,

1817 'Classified Advertising', The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 - 1842), 18 October, p. 3. , viewed 08 Sep 2018,

Geographical Names Board N.S.W.. 2018. Place Name Search. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 8 September 2018].

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