William Charles Wentworth;  Australian politician, explorer, author, barrister, statesman and landowner.

William Wentworth

At the height (maybe that should be depth ) of the 1840’s economic depression in New South Wales, sheep were selling at just 9d each and cattle for only a few shillings a head. The crisis was the  result of a recession in England causing  low wool prices, plus an extended drought, and land speculation.

On July 21 1843 The Sydney Morning Herald published a piece on what would turn out to be the savior of many pastoralists;  the boiling down of livestock (both sheep and cattle) for tallow.

The first experiment was tried by Mr Wentworth at his residence [Vaucluse House] near town, on a sheep purchased by him at a butcher’s stall. It gave, I have been told, about twenty-four pounds of tallow. 

A sheep produced 24 pounds of tallow in an experiment by William Wentworth.
Worth more dead than alive.
Vaucluse Estate Sydney
The Vaucluse estate circa 1840s

The success of the experiment  carried out at Vaucluse, prompted William Wentworth to establish a boiling down plant on his Hunter Valley property, Windermere.  The following month he was praised for offering butchering and boiling down services to other settlers. He placed an ad in the press;

Mr William Wentworth, having engaged a competent superintendent to boil down his own surplus sheep, is willing to accommodate the settlers in the districts of the Hunter, Wellington, Liverpool Plains and New England at the following charges;

Slaughtering, skinning, cutting up, and boiling sheep, rendering caul and kidney fat separately, packing the tallow and boiled fat in the sheep skins, in suitable and secure parcels for exportation, marking and lettering those bags so as to distinguish the quality, and getting the same on board the steamer at the Green Hills …..at per sheep…………9d.

Boiling down livestock for tallow.
Barrels of tallow being filled ready for export.

The number of animals slaughtered at Wentworth’s Hunter Valley property for the year 1843 was amazing;

Table showing production of tallow at William Wentworth's Hunter Valley propeerty.

It should be said that Mr Henry O’Brien, a pastoralist from Yass, began boiling down his own sheep and that of his neighbours  around  the same time.

By the end of 1843 the price of sheep had recovered to about five shillings a head. Cattle prices had also increased substantially.

Any diseased stock were quickly dispatched, as mentioned in an article that appeared in  October 1844;

Ointments, washes, doctors and fees are superseded  by the knife and the cauldron……..Sheep-boiling is one of the most fortunate hits that colonial experimentalists have ever made; the want of a market for their sheep was foremost amongst the objections of the small capitalists who contemplated emigrating and engaging in the easy life of shepherding.  Its removal will open a flood-gate, and let in a considerable amount of capital, accompanied in all cases by respectable, bona fide settlers. 

The same article promoted the idea of employing labourers  in the grinding down of bones for manure, the manufacture of glue and even the use of small intestines for harp strings.

Fortunately the tallow trade marked a slow recovery in the economy. It  continued until the discovery of gold in 1851 created the next ‘boom’.

The production and export of  tallow remained an important  part of the Australian economy until  the turn of the century. The photograph below is of a processing plant in Queensland in the 1890s.

Boiling down for tallow 1890s. An initiative of William Wentworth in the 1840s.
Tallow boiling down plant 1890s

Some of the giant, copper vats used in the boiling process were later recycled  as  water tanks.  I loved this anecdote published in 1930.

It took two teams of big, strong bullocks to drag each tank from the river into position for erecting…..I successfully evaded having a tooth pulled out by hiding in one of these vats while it was at Moorna before being erected.

Making tallow candles, an initiative by William Wentworth.
Making tallow candles.

So many settlers were bankrupted in 1840s, including Governor Macquarie’s nephew during The Hungry Forties.


  1. I bet those tallow candles were a bit pungent when lit.
    The price for sheep and processing them in 1840 reminded me of a much closer ‘depression’ in the UK. Just a few short years ago, the price of sheep had totally dropped out so that it didn’t cover the costs of getting them to market, let alone their feed and care. The same happened in Devon within the last 10 years where a Dartmoor pony couldn’t even raise £5 down at the Mart. They are not wild although roam the moors, and the farmers were slaughtering them on the farms as the price didn’t even cover the transport costs of bringing them down to Tavistock, let alone the veterinary costs of injections and other checks that are a legal requirement. Smaller farmers go under at times like these, as they have for generations. Farming’s a hard life!

    • Pauline

      It’s a cycle of boom and bust, Marcia. I remember my Dad telling me that during the Great Depression farmers in Tasmania sent their potatoes to Melbourne and got a bill back instead of a cheque! The prices received didn’t even cover handling fees.

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