Becoming an Aussie builder

William Cox was a military officer, road builder, best remembered for his work on the construction of the first road over the Blue Mountains.

He was born at Wimborne in Dorset, England in 1764. He joined the army in 1797 and was commissioned a lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps. The next year he was appointed paymaster. In 1799, accompanied by his wife and four of his six small sons, he sailed for New South Wales in the Minerva. The ship stopped in Cork where it picked up a consignment of Irish convicts who had taken part in the rebellion the previous year. He was put in charge of them as well as his detachment of the corps.

He arrived in the colony in 1800. Cox bought Brush Farm at Dundas from John Macarthur who had previously held the position of paymaster. His other property acquisitions put him into debt and eventually his land was sold to repay his creditors.

At this same time in 1806, Cox was ordered to return to England under arrest to be questioned about his role as paymaster in the NSW Corps. He sailed to England in 1807 but was never brought to trial. Cox resigned his military commission in 1809 and returned to the Colony in 1810.

A portrait...or two

Portrait of William Cox. Silentworld Foundation Collection SF001178.

Portrait of William Cox, Silentworld Foundation Collection SF001178.

This portrait is unsigned but is thought to be by, or after, Frederick Buck. The State Library of NSW holds an almost identical portrait which is estimated to have been painted in 1797 or 1798 based on the fact that Cox wears the uniform of the NSW Corp which he joined in 1797. It could be that Cox had two portraits painted in England before he left England in 1799 or he had one painted then and another was a later copy but both images were in the Cox family until recently.


On his return, Cox was appointed as a magistrate at the Hawkesbury by Gov. Macquarie. Cox took government contracts for erecting gaols, schools and other buildings in the Windsor district, several of which still stand in good repair. In July 1814 he was tasked with building the first road over the Blue Mountains. Which had first been crossed by the explorers, Blaxland, Lawson, and Wentworth.

The thirty convicts in his working party were chosen because they looked capable of hard work, and their reward was to be their freedom. They made 101 miles (163 km) of road through rugged mountain country, building over a dozen bridges and splitting hundreds of posts and rails in six months without serious accident or loss of life.

This is William Cox’s own daily account of the construction of the road from Frogmore Bridge to Ropes Creek to Rooty Hill to East Creek to Lawson Bridge to Wentworth to Parramatta, which took place between 12 July and 25 August 1815.0

In the notebook, Cox records details of the men employed, their role, cost incurred progress made and a one-page diagram of the actual road. The design of the notebook suggests that it was likely carried in Cox’s pocket throughout the project. It remains in its original condition and was handed down through his descendants until it came into the Silentworld Foundation collection in 1996.

The road-building recorded in this manuscript was probably an extension of the mountain crossing that had been completed a few months earlier in January 1815.

William Cox’s own daily summary account of the construction of a road from Frogmore Bridge to Ropes Creek to Rooty Hill to East Creek to Lawson Bridge to Wentworth and to Parramatta between 12 July and 25 August 1815. Silentworld Foundation Collection SF000100.

The homestead

Watercolour painting of the Cox family homestead by an unknown artist, Silentworld Foundation Collection SF001434.

Watercolour painting of the Cox family homestead by an unknown artist, Silentworld Foundation Collection SF001434.

William Cox and his family had become prominent landowners in the new colony. By 1810 he and his sons had taken up land in the Mulgoa district and later ran flocks of sheep in the Mudgee district. Cox received the first land grant west of the Blue Mountains, 2000 acres across the river from Bathurst which he called Hereford and Cox’s large estate at Clarendon near Windsor was one of the finest in the colony employing over 50 convicts.

In 1819 his wife died, leaving five sons, and two years later Cox married again, adding to his family three sons and a daughter. William Cox Jr. of the 46th Regiment married the daughter of Captain Piper and purchased the estate of Hobartville near Windsor in 1816, and afterwards took up properties near Muswellbrook and Warialda. He and his father purchased 8,000 acres in 1825 to form the estate of Negoa.

William Cox (the elder) died in 1837. His numerous sons also left their names on the records of the early pastoral development of New South Wales.

Further research is required to determine which of the Claredon, Hobartville, Negoa Wimboune, Hereford, Burrandong or other Cox family properties this watercolour represents. The pencil annotation of 1861 is believed to potentially be a later addition. The actual date of the painting is more likely to be from the 1830s or 1840s.

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