The King’s Botanist by J.A.Wells

Alan Cunningham: The King's Botanist
Alan Cunningham: The King’s Botanist

Here’s chapter one of my new novel, ‘The King’s Botanist’ inspired by my friendship with Diane Challenor, who, over the last seven years has compiled a hugely extensive  study of Allan Cunningham, the Royal Botanist to the colony of New South Wales. His fascinating, exciting story needs to be told, since it involves and encompasses much of Australia’s early history of exploration and discovery.  In addition, I feel  Mr Cunningham has not been given the credit he deserves, other colonial botanists taking the limelight from this simple, straightforward gentleman.

Join with me as his adventurous life begins, taking us on circumnavigations of our great continents, up as yet uncharted rivers,  over precipitous ranges and over limitless plains.

Chapter 1: Patrick Connor- the convict


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Typical Parramatta cottage of the early 1800's
Typical Parramatta cottage of the early 1800’s


‘Flora Cottage, Botanic Gardens, Sydney, New South Wales.

7th September 1839

 With no living relative to inherit, and nowhere considered safe to commit his documents, journals, field book and notes, I Patrick Connor have taken it upon myself, to take into my possession these properties of Mr Allan Cunningham for safe keeping until such time I am confident they will be treated with the respect they justly deserve.

Signed, Patrick Connor, servant to the said Allan Cunningham, Colonial Botanist to the King.


No one else would have bothered. Here was the achievement of a lifetime, but Governor Gipps appeared no longer interested in the discovery of new botanic species, clearly reflecting the attitude of the new Queen to anything regarding the affairs of the Colony of New South Wales. Once my master’s funeral was passed, I was granted an audience with the Governor, and since I was arranging for the disposal for the disposal of his property, I asked Governor Gipps what I should do with my master’s documents. He callously suggested I take the lot into the garden and burn everything on a bonfire.

As a result, after gathering as much of Mr Cunningham’s collection as possible, I found a suitably sized sea trunk and packed it to the top, putting in my sealed statement, marked ‘To Whom It May Concern.’ This then has become my possession and has accompanied me ever since, a valuable, yet cumbersome piece of my personal luggage.


“So what happened, Patrick? Please tell me. And spare me no detail. I must see it before I truly believe.”

Mr Cunningham had only recently returned to the colony after a long spell away in England. It was good to see him again after almost seven years

“Two years ago your brother asked me to be his servant on Major Mitchel’s expedition to find the Darling River,” I said, “We’d left Bathhurst behind and were heading up the Bogan River. One morning Mr Richard told me to pack our things, because he and I were leaving the group to do some foraging. He has been keen to look for new orchids since his discovery of the Dendrobium Cunninghamii in New Zealand.”

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Since my time with Mr Cunningham, and subsequently with his brother Richard, as their assigned servant, I have even surprised myself as to the knowledge of a botanical nature I have acquired through the close association to both botanists.

“That evening he and I ran into a mob of Wiradjuri natives and set up camp near their fire. For some reason your brother must have left the tent during the night. When I woke, the natives were nowhere to be seen, and neither was Mr Richard.”

“You looked for him of course.”

“Most of the next day. I went back to Major Mitchel’s party and reported Richard missing, and he sent several troopers out with me for a second search. But not a trace was found of your brother, except a few pieces of clothing, and his horse, dead.”

“Whatever was he doing riding out at night?”

“I must admit. He’d been drinking after dinner, sir.”

What about the natives. Did you come across them during your search?”

“No, sir. So the search was called off, and eventually the expedition returned to Sydney.”

“But there was a further search later in the year I understand.”

“Yes. In the November, Leiutenant Zouch and a party of troopers from the fourth regiment went out, and close by Bathurst ran into one young buck; all they managed to get out of him was that he didn’t do it.”

“If that’s an admission he knew something, then what is.”

“Indeed, Mr Cunningham. Finally, he owned up to being one of the villains and they managed to persuade him to take them to the place where he last saw Mr Richard alive.”

“What did they find? Come on Patrick! Spare me no details.”

“Are you sure, Mr Cunningham?”

“I’d rather hear it from you than have it bantered around the Governor’s dining table.”

“Very well sir. The native led Zouch and his men to a rock shelf close by Dandaloo. Some sort of ceremonial place, it was. There’d been a fire, and the buck pointed out a pair of long bones amongst the charred wood.”

“And that was all?”

“Yes sir. They buried the remains, there at the spot.”

“I hope Lieutenant Zouch and his men didn’t loose the black.”

“Certainly not sir. He was shackled and returned with them to Sydney. He’s on Cockatoo Island as we speak.”

“Awful John! My poor brother.”

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Mr Cunningham and I were sitting in the garden of the house he was renting in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, while his cottage in the Botanic Gardens was being renovated. Here, shaded by fruit trees, we were enjoying one of Martha, my fellow servant’s refreshing lime cordials, it being a hot day as they can be during the middle of February.

“And all that was almost two years ago. What have you done since Patrick?”

“I knew that sooner or later, once you heard the news, you’d be back sir, so I’ve waited. But I’ve not been idle. I’ve catalogued almost all of your brother’s collection, so I’m up to date, so to speak.”

“It’s pleasing to be back in the colonies,” Mr Cunningham said, smiling at the lushness of the surrounding greenery, “I look forward to seeing old friends again, and exploring and foraging as before. And it’s good to have you here beside me again Patrick. I’ve missed you.”

Mr Cunningham leaned back in his cane chair, sucking on a clay pipe, exhaling smoke up into the trees, all the while giving me that quizzical look I had not seen for almost four years.

“Firstly,” he said, “I think I remember you and I being on first name terms by the time I left. I recall asking you to call me Allan; afterall, I call you Patrick, and considering all the years we’ve been together.”

“Allan!” I exclaimed, “I’m sorry. It’s just that it’s been so long, I’d slipped back into that master and government servant thing. Forgive me for forgetting.”

“Certainly. But just remember. It’s Allan.”

He laughed, taking a gulp of cordial.

“How have you been? You and Martha still not wed. You’d better soon get on with it. You’re both not getting any younger.”

“Ah! You know me, Allan,” I answered, “Too shy to pop the question. And how about you? Still a bachelor? In the years back in England I would have expected you to have a wife and child by now.”

“Too busy Patrick. Quite a task acclimatising and cataloguing my collection at Kew. So what have you been about while I’ve been away?”

“Just as normal, Allan,” I said, “Your brother and I visited New Zealand in the year he arrived; a year after you left. And here I’d like to thank you for recommending me to him. I would have been lost without Botanics. What plans have you now you’re back?”

“They’ve asked me to take up my old position; so that’ll mean assembling and supervising a new collection, with lots of foraging to be done. That is if my old legs will carry me. I’m not the man I was Patrick. All the years of climbing up and down the ranges are beginning to tell on me. I wouldn’t mind returning to New Zealand.”


At this point, permit me to interrupt in order I acquaint you as to how my association with Allan Cunningham began those twenty years ago.

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Born and bred in County Meath, in the lee of Trim Castle, I was a country boy, eeking out an existence with my, mother, father, brothers and sister, on a small farm beside the River Boyne. Times were tough, food and fuel hard to come by. I stole a sod of turf from a neighbour; he set the law on me, and I was tried and sentenced to seven years transportation. I sailed from England on 9 October 1816, on the convict transport, ‘Sir William Bensley’ and arrived in Port Jackson on 10 March 1817, expecting never to see dear old Ireland again.

Together with two hundred convicts, I was a lucky, avoiding the road gangs and hard labour. I was to be assigned, and waited on the ship while various gentlemen arrived to take their pick of us. Therefore, it was a fortunate day when Mr Cunningham climbed aboard the Sir William.

“What’s this man’s name?’ he asked our Surgeon Superintendent Mr Evans.

“Connor, Mr Cunningham. Irish! A runaway to be sure.”

“I don’t know!” Mr Cunningham remarked, staring into my eyes, which, I might add, never ceased to look into his.

“I like the look of him. Can you be trusted lad?”

“I hope so sir.”

“What kind of answer is that? Do you want me to take you or not?”

“I know so sir!”

“There you are then Mr Evans,” Mr Cunningham said, turning to him, “I have him.”

“Shall I have him put in irons then, Mr Cunningham?”

“No thank you Mr Evans. Such a bother once he’s ashore.”

Once a record was taken regarding where and to whom I was to be assigned, I followed Mr Cunningham to the gunwale and watched him precede me down the rope ladder and into a waiting boat. Then, I joined him, holding fast to the only item of property I possessed, a piece of scrimshaw, a little representation of the Sir William Bensley I had been fashioning during the five-month voyage.

Unlike the craft, I had previously seen, conveying my fellow prisoners away from the ship; Mr Cunningham’s dinghy possessed a mast and sail and crewed by a fellow sitting in the stern leaning on the rudder.

“Thanks Bates,” said Mr Cunningham, “Take her away! We mustn’t miss the tides otherwise we’ll never get home.”

‘Sir William Bensley’ was anchored off a small island fort in the middle of the harbour, which several of my fellow prisoners passed, while heading ashore with their assigned to masters. However, I was surprised to see us turn to starboard and make for a channel between two points north and south, heading west into open water beyond. Here the watercourse was suddenly prevailed upon by impenetrable mangrove swamps, making it impossible to think of an escape.

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“How do you like gardening Connor?” asked Mr Cunningham, the question suddenly taking me by surprise, since throughout the long voyage to the colony I had only spoken to my fellow convicts; a rough and ready bunch of villains they were to be sure.

“In truth, I’ve never gardened sir,” I replied, “Although, I understand it to be a worthy occupation. The only gardener, I ever came across was old Barnaby up at the castle, and a wily old chap he was; always ready to share a yard with us lads up at the pub.”

“I’m in need of a gardener, Mr Connor. Someone to take care of things while I’m away on my next exploration.”

‘You mean to say,’ I thought, ‘you’ll leave me alone to do as ever I please.’

This man was entirely trusting, since, I realised there would be nothing to stop me high tailing it out of there. Yet, Mr Cunningham’s next statement put an end to my anticipation.

“Your seven year sentence has certain restrictions,” he continued.

“Yes sir. Mr Evans explained that to us on the ship.”

“Then you understand, that in four years, if you remain of good conduct, I will authorise that you receive a Ticket of Leave, which means you can leave my service and look for paid work. Then three years after that you may apply for a Certificate of Freedom. So it’s important that you don’t run away because if you have a mind to, and are caught you will be sent to the penal servitude colony on Norfolk Island, which, I understand, is very harsh.”

Gazing about me at the dark swamps passing us by to port and starboard; white egrets and black cormorants appearing occasionally amongst the grey dripping branches of impenetrable mangroves, I formed the opinion that if the remainder of this country was as unforgiving, then it would be completely insane to ever attempt to escape. Therefore, at that point I became resigned to my fate.

“I’m quick to learn, Mr Cunningham and an outdoor life has always appealed to me, being the farm lad that I am.”

Mr Cunningham smiled, taking from his inside jacket pocket a clay pipe, the bowl of which he stuffed with tobacco taken from a pouch he produced from another pocket. Then, using a wax match he found inside a silver vesper, he lit the pipe sending a plume of sweet smelling smoke out across the river, causing me to yearn for something I had not enjoyed for five months.

Relaxing into the bows, I took the following moments to appraise my new employer, since he was distracted, gazing ahead towards a line of blue hills in the distance.

By no means tall, I fancied perhaps one foot shorter than me; Mr Cunningham possessed a comely face, cheerful, twinkling, dark brown eyes, plump cheeks, and dark brown hair, cut short, as is the fashion nowadays. His attire was simple and efficient, denoting perhaps a clerk or some minor Government official; remember, at this point I had no idea of my new employers profession.

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In addition, at the time I had no idea how much of a friend this genial, straightforward man would become in the subsequent years, as well as the many adventures we would share.

Parramatta River
Parramatta River

Aided by a stiff northerly breeze our little craft made good progress up the river and after an hour or so, the mangroves began to be exchanged for gently sloping grassy banks, populated by patient herons stalking in the shallows, pristine white egrets, and the occasional, stately pelican, dipping its long beak into the muddy water in search of fish. Along with the native fauna, numerous sheep abounded in the paddocks beyond the riverbank. So many, in fact, I began to think I would never see another four-legged creature.

With the riverbanks becoming higher on each side of us, I noticed rocky ledges and cliffs appear, the river, many millions of years ago having cut a way through the sandstone bedrock on its way eastward to the Pacific Ocean. Here also the current was faster, since the way was narrow, causing our little dinghy to react to the surge; spray from her bows hitting my face most refreshingly.

At last, signs of habitation made themselves known, high on the rocky outcrops. Simple sandstone, or wooden weatherboards cottages glowing genially in the morning sunshine, their colour I could only describe as tawny, the occupants protected from the elements by a roof of wooden shingles.

Rounding a bend, I was astonished to see an impressive stone bridge, beside it a sandstone jetty, steps leading up the grassy bank only to disappear into a mass of shrubs and trees.

“Welcome to Parramatta Mr Connor!” Mr Cunningham exclaimed, “Let’s hope Martha has prepared something hearty for us both this lunchtime. The air on the river always makes me hungry.”

While Bates the boatman, tied us off, and began to lower and furl the sails, Mr Cunningham and I prepared to clamber onto the jetty, not after he had paid the man his fare.

“You’ll find Parramatta a pleasant town,” remarked Mr Cunningham as we climbed the steps, “Far preferable to Sydney these days. Such a filth ridden place. That is why our Governor Macquarie and his wife and son have taken up residence in the new government house on the Crescent Hill. Far better, for one’s health, the air clean and sweet, not reeking of that foul Tank Stream.”

Reaching the top of the steps, I was greeted by a scene that has remained in my memory ever since, and if you have seen representations painted by artists of the time, you will know what I saw that day. Nevertheless, I cannot go beyond this point without giving you at least a short description.

Mr Cunningham and I were standing at the junction of two wide streets, far wider than I ever saw in my own fair city of Dublin. One went north, the other west, both bounded by low roofed sandstone cottages, three story terraced houses, or grand single standing villas, complete with balconies and downstairs verandas. All had one aspect in common connecting each, as they were constructed, using honey coloured sandstone and shared iron bark, shingle roofs.

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The land on which the dwellings stood was relatively flat, virtually horizontal to the north, but taking a gentle upward course to the west, the route Mr Cunningham led me down.

“You’ll see we’re mostly self-sufficient,” he commented, as we passed a row of cottages on our left, their gardens abundant with fruit trees, also showing evidence of husbandry, the clucking of contented chickens, clear to the ear.

“Most people own a pig or two and we used to have cows,” continued Mr Cunningham, “But milk is now delivered to the town on a daily basis. We have windmills providing good quality flour.”

“How large is the town sir,” I asked.

“To be honest Mr Connor, I’ve no idea, but judging by the number of dwellings, I would guess at way over a thousand souls; perhaps two. Parramatta has been established almost nineteen years, in that time much building and commercial activity has occurred making it the place to be young man.”

“Does it have a church?” I asked not that I am particularly religious.

“Certainly Mr Connor,” said Mr Cunningham pointing into the distance, “Saint John’s whose spires you can see is our protestant church; however, as present, there is no such equivalent for the Catholic faith. From where do you hale Mr Connor?”

“County Meath, Mr Cunningham,” I answered, “My father’s a farmer. But times are tough.”

“I understand if there’s a potato blight things get pretty bad.”

“Tis true, sir. One of the reasons that I’m here. But please forgive me sir, I am not a villain Mr Cunningham; hard times drove me to the brink of despair. I did what I did for my family.”

“I respect your honesty Mr Connor. I’m all for men speaking their minds.”

By this time, we had reached a crossing street running north and south.

“This is Marsden Street, named after our resident chaplain, Samuel Marsden. I live on the corner of this street and Macquarie Street.”

When we arrived at the next junction, Mr Cunningham explained that it was called George Street, named after our present King George, where all the official buildings are located. In addition, Mr Cunningham pointed out Government House, appearing most grand to the west across a swathe of green parkland, mentioning that he was a frequent visitor and guest at the dinner table of Governor Macquarie and his wife, Elizabeth.

Next street to reach Mr Cunningham said was Macquarie Street and here we stopped walking in front of a small, cosy sandstone cottage behind a high wall.

“Here we are! Welcome to Flora Cottage!” Mr Cunningham exclaimed. It’s humble compared to some homes you’ve seen along the way. But I’ve no reason to complain since it’s cool in summer and warm in winter. Two things most essential in the colony, Mr Connor. I hope you’ll be happy here.”

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Indeed, since it was almost noon, the sun presently blazed over my head and I was glad for the canvas hat issued to each convict on the ship once we arrived in the tropics. Nonetheless, I was still dressed in my canary and black convict attire, although I hardly saw it drawing attention from the members of the public abroad at that hour.

“Call Flora Cottage your home from now on, Mr Connor.”

I was a convicted felon, ready to serve out my sentence in a penal colony, with no prospect of returning to my beloved Ireland and seeing my family again. Therefore, the congenial greeting I had experienced from Mr Cunningham since we disembarked the transport ship was hardly what I expected. Instead, I felt I was being regarded as an ordinary person, just arrived to begin a new life. So much was due to this kind and thoughtful man.

“Martha! We’re home!” Mr Cunningham called as he opened a wooden gate in the wall, “I hope you’ve the kettle boiling. We’re both in dire need of tea. Come along in young man.”

I was standing in a yard, walled all around by sandstone, windows, and doors below a shady veranda on one side; the other in the lee of a large peach tree, in whose shadow, gooseberry, and raspberry bushes still abounded in fruit, either ripe for the picking of still pending the autumn sun to bring them to ripeness.

The front door of the cottage was open, along with the long windows in the wall, allowing cool breezes to enter the living rooms beyond. Craning to look over the veranda roof, I looked for further upstairs windows, but saw none, only the edge of the shingle roof, a tall sandstone chimney stack jutting beyond the gable.

Mr Cunningham beckoned me inside and clutching my precious piece of scrimshaw, I ducked my head under the lintel, entering the low, cool, dark world of the man who would be my master for many years to come.

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