The convict who got Australia’s wheels turning

Australia’s first wheelwright* was Hugh Hughes, a convict with the First Fleet in 1788.

He was the only wheelwright in the First Fleet so Hugh would have been kept very busy. Wheelwrights had to have the eye, skill and accuracy of cabinetmakers, but it was also a very laborious trade requiring strength and endurance. Hugh Hughes would have soon discovered timbers in this strange land were much harder than any he encountered in England.

There was no powered machinery at the time to saw and dress the ironbark, blue gum and stringy bark. Every timber component Hugh made was split, sawn, chipped and shaved with wedges, pit saws, adzes, axes, draw-knives and spoke shaves. Even the lathe that turned the wheel hubs was hand powered. Hugh, like country wheelwrights in Britain, probably even felled the trees he needed.  Yet Hugh Hughes was not making the big wheels, carts and wagons we might expect.

There were only six horses in the new colony and they were for the officers to ride, not to pull carts. Four cows, a bull and a bull calf were brought out from South Africa, but they all ran off into the bush in June 1788. Consequently, there were no bullocks (oxen) to pull heavy carts or farm equipment like ploughs and harrows.

Farming was done by the convicts with spades and hoes. The few carts that were in Sydney were hauled by as many as 12 convicts chained together. Work was done with human, not animal power. Wheelbarrows and lots of them were in demand for farming and building construction. Hugh Hughes the wheelwright would have been working flat out building barrows of various kinds.

Convict bricklayers and their barrows.

Hugh was before the court again in 1789 for stealing the frame of a wheelbarrow, which presumably he had made. Many convicts had a personal vegetable patch to tend in their own time. It must have been galling to be making wheelbarrows and not have the benefit of owning one yourself. The judge advocate David Collins awarded Hugh 50 lashes for stealing something he had actually made himself.

It was not only a lack of bullocks and vehicles that hampered transport. There were very few tracks in the new settlement for carts and wagons even if they were available. Sydney was intended to be a big prison so authorities did not really want a lot of roads leading out of the place. Fear of the local Aboriginal people or of getting ‘bushed’ (lost) also discouraged travel too far afield. And Sydney was blessed with a beautiful harbour and rivers so efforts were more focused on boat building to ferry people and goods.

A large 12 tonne boat called the Rose Hill Packet was launched in mid-1789 to transport produce from the successful farms at Parramatta to the struggling main settlement in Sydney. Unfortunately the Rose Hill Packet was a very slow moving and heavy boat, pejoratively referred to by all and sundry as ‘the Lump’. A rough track was eventually opened to Parramatta in 1784, although it would by 1811 before a proper ‘toll bar’ road was opened.

Bullock teams were finally introduced around 1795 to pull the drays (heavy two-wheel carts) full of farm produce, or bricks for government buildings, but they were still few in number. Judge Advocate David Collins, mentioned above, listed just 52 oxen (bullocks) in 1796. Many cattle perished on the transport ships which came to Australia, and of those cattle that survived there was an understandable desire to keep them for breeding as food for the colony. The cattle that ran off in 1788 were eventually discovered seven years later, by which time their number had grown to a herd of 100.

The Brickfield-hill, or High road to Parramatta
The Brick-field Hill, or high road to Parramatta, August 11.1796, by James Heath. The convicts must have been relieved when bullocks were eventually used to do the hauling.

Hugh Hughes moved to Parramatta in 1791.  He completed his sentence as a convict and set up home and a wheelwright shop in what would become the centre of Parramatta, on the corner of Argyle and Church Streets, backing onto the church grounds.

Horses and bullocks became more common in the 1800s as the colony expanded and the number of free settlers grew.  Hugh’s wheels, carts and wagons would have been in demand. Several wheelwrights were in business in Sydney by the early 1800s. Hugh Hughes continued working in his wheelwright shop until his death in 1830, when he was buried in St John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. The business was continued by his son for many years.

* A wheelwright is a tradesperson who makes wooden wheels, carts and wagons.

Jeff Powell, Curator, Cobb+Co Museum


Convict Records

Dictionary of Sydney. State Library of New South Wales.

First Fleet Fellowship Victoria, ‘List of Livestock, Provisions, Plants and Seeds’

David Collins, 1798 An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales Vol 1.  T Cadell & W Davies, London.  Reproduced by

Danielle Thyer, “Hugh Hughes: The Wheelwright Made Right,” St. John’s Cemetery Project, (2017)

Cheryl Timbury, 2013 ‘First Fleet Cattle’. First Fleet Fellowship Victoria.

Cheryl Timbury, 2016 ‘Walter Batley: Martha Baker’. First Fleet Fellowship Victoria.

Tuckey, c1804 ‘Observations of various kinds of New South Wales.’ Transcript State Library of NSW.

Feature image: An 18th century wheelwright shop, from Diderot’s Encyclopaedia. Hugh Hughes would have appreciated as much help.

Many thanks to Dr Danielle Thyer, University of Sydney for rediscovering Hugh Hughes; Andrew Grant, Transport Heritage Consultant for his expertise on vehicles; and Andrew MacDonald, Cobb+Co Museum, Queensland Museum Network who can actually use wheelwright hand tools. 

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