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”Tethered to the world”: A Frenchman in Colonial New South Wales

Image: J.E. Serisier's general store, Macquarie Street, Dubbo (from the collections of the State Library of NSW)

Jean Emile Serisier died of smallpox on 10 February 1880.  This French immigrant, one of the first Europeans to occupy the site that would become the town of Dubbo, played a central role in the pastoral economy, but was also one of the first people with capital to anticipate the emergence of agriculture.

He had arrived in an era when maps of western New South Wales described just the rivers - from the intruders’ perspective the only relevant lines. Water determined where they could disperse sheep and cattle, and the routes along which people, stock and commodities could travel to and from markets. 

Serisier landed in Sydney from France in 1838, and in 1847 set up a store on the Macquarie River at a place that in a few years would become the village of Dubbo.  He made his mark arranging for the carriage of stores from Sydney, supplying them to the town and the pastoral stations on the rivers to the north-west, along with the credit that the economy relied on to prosper. Once gold was discovered in Victoria, Dubbo was also a point where stock routes converged to cross the Macquarie, as sheep and cattle were driven from Queensland and northern New South Wales to the Murray. 

Serisier’s store was one of the most prominent buildings in the growing town.  With the journey from the source of supplies in Sydney long and subject to the vagaries of droughts and floods, storekeepers needed to keep much of their capital in the form of goods on hand. 

In 1869, he had chaired a meeting of squatters who gathered to lobby for longer leases and new land laws that favoured the pastoralists.  This might have been evidence of a mutual trust and sense of common interest between pastoralist and storekeeper but just a year earlier, Serisier had gambled on a different future for Dubbo, selling his store and buying 4 000 acres close on the south-eastern side of the town.  With ten employees, he established a vineyard and winery. 

By 1872 he was seeking to represent the electorate in the colonial parliament on a platform of opposing ‘mammoth squatters.’  He did not win the seat, but the following year chaired a meeting of small farmers on the fringe of Dubbo and adjoining his wine-growing property, to protest at the attempts of a neighbouring squatter to impede free selection, and he was soon representing the Dubbo district at meetings of free selectors’ associations in Sydney.  The selectors he represented were small-scale wheat growers who up to that point had few markets beyond the town’s flour mill.

Serisier died on a trip back to France, almost exactly one year before the western railway line reached Dubbo, on 1 February 1881.  Sir John Robertson and an entourage travelled the 450 kilometres from Sydney on an overnight train to formally open the route to that point.  More tracks radiating from Dubbo would be laid over succeeding decades. 

There were new lines on the maps now.  The world Serisier had known would gradually disappear.  Social and economic change to which the railways’ warping of time and space would contribute, played out over succeeding decades.  Serisier’s vineyard and winery would disappear, along with the nearby stations, to be replaced by wheat and wool producing properties, linked in new ways to markets on the coast and beyond.

Sources
Australian Town and Country Journal, 27 September 1873, 27 December 1873, 26 October 1878.
Everard Digby (ed), Australian Men of Mark, Vol.II, Charles F Maxwell, Sydney, [1889-90].
D. I. McDonald, 'Serisier, Jean Emile (1824–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/serisier-jean-emile-4559/text7479, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 28 January 2017.
Serisier family papers, Dubbo, ca. 1854, State Library of New South Wales.
Sydney Morning Herald, 28 December 1857, 5 March 1872.

 

Peter Woodley is a PhD student in the School of History.

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