Stand at the North Head breakwall and look across to the other shore. Up on the hill you will see the Pilot Station of the Moruya River. There has been a station in this spot since 1860, when a Pilot and Harbour Master was first appointed.

Looking downstream towards Moruya Heads. The pilot station can be seen on the south head
Looking downstream towards Moruya Heads. The pilot station can be seen on the south head

The first Pilot was John Ross. He was born in Scotland in 1805, went to sea at an early age, became an experienced seaman and navigator, received his ship’s master certification in 1847, and sailed the world. In 1860, he came to Moruya and remained in this post until he died in 1871. His letters and log book give a picture of life in the 1860s, of river navigation, of ships and cargos, and of difficulties in setting up the Station.

Why did the Moruya River need a Pilot?
Moruya had a large amount of farm produce for export to Sydney, especially wheat and potatoes. Moruya potatoes were highly sought after in Sydney. In fact about 90% of Sydney’s potatoes came from this area.

“Tuesday 12th February 1861 Sailed for Sydney the Schooner Woodpecker, Watson, Master, with cargo of produce consisting of 27 Tons potatos 30 bags wheat and a few Hides…”

Timber and wattle bark were also exported. The gold rush was on. The roads, or tracks, were terrible and there were no bridges across the rivers. Sea transport was the only option for people and produce.

The Moruya River was treacherous and changeable. A ship’s master who thought he knew where the deep channels were would find they had moved, and his vessel would go aground on a sand bank. Frequently vessels went aground.

The Moruya River
The Moruya River

“Friday 3d May Employed Sounding on the Bar and entrance, and find a new channel over the Bar broken out by the late heavy Gales. The Sand having been washed away has exposed many rocks that was not before to be Seen…”

Ross had to develop the Pilot Station at South Head from scratch.

“Thursday 1st Nov 1860 Employed at the Boat house and cutting down trees. N.B. My hands have become so sore blistered with using the ax that I am obliged to lay by for a day.”

He made his first entry in the logbook on October 28th, 1860. Daily life at the Pilot Station began with Ross performing his Pilot duties – sounding the Bar and channel, marking the best channel, measuring the water depths, logging the wind direction and strength, piloting vessels in and out of the river, collecting pilotage fees, and assisting vessels in trouble.

“Thursday 17th Janry 1861 Wind from Eastward to North. Weather fine. Bar smooth. Fine weather. P.M. Arived from Sydney the Schooner Orient with general cargo.”

The Pilot Board in Sydney moved slowly on housing. Ross, and the Boatmen, Walter Downie and Thomas Grumley, and their families lived in tents at South Head longer than they had hoped.

“18th Janry 1861 We are anxiously looking for some move being made with regaurd to the erection of our houses, before the wet and cold weather set in again. During the last heavy rains we suffered considerably…”

In July Ross responded to house plans sent by the Pilot Board in Sydney,

“I notice that the Building is 20 x 20 [feet], divided into three apartments…All the Members of the present establishment have families, and consist of eleven souls, with a prospect of that number being soon increased.”

The Pilot’s house was completed in October 1861, but the Boatmen’s cottages were not ready until March 1864. By then their tents had been blown to pieces in a gale.

Pilot Station, Moruya c.1917
Pilot Station, Moruya c.1917

Staff problems arose. Thomas Grumley’s pigs running rampant at the Station caused much concern. Finally in September 1862,

“Having waited some three weeks for your compliance with my order to Shut up your Pigs without any notice taken thereof I must consider the order disobeyed….You are therefore suspended from duty and pay for 15 days from this date…”

Every Sunday, Ross

“corrected our time from altitude of the Sun, and read devine Service to my family and those who chouse to attend in my tent.”

And several times a week he rowed down the river to the town to pick up the mail.

There is more to be said about later years in another article.

A copy of the original letters and log of John Ross is available at the Moruya District Historical Society Museum, Campbell St. Moruya. Copies were purchased with a grant from the Australian Maritime Museum.


  1. Ian Ross Avatar
    Ian Ross

    I am a direct descendent of Captain John Ross. Your article supplied information we did not have and you may have even more information that we could add to our family history. Is it at all possible to purchase from you, any copies of records etc you may have? (Particularly any that might explain what happened to his son Ian. (My namesake))
    Ian Ross

    1. peter barrett Avatar
      peter barrett

      Ross was party to an early introduction of honey bees into Sydney / Parramatta in 1824 aboard the ship Phoenix. He was a junior officer and one of the ships’s crew who delivered the bees up river aboard one of the ship’s boats.

    2. Paul N Gray Avatar
      Paul N Gray

      Hi Ian. My name is Paul Gray and I also are a direct descendant of John Ross. As I understand from my aunty Ian went to America and dissolved into history there as we can find no records here. I have descended from John Ross Junior. John Ross’s daughter Elizabeth we believe located to Melbourne. We have a portrait of John Ross at my brother’s home. I’ll be happy to arrange a copy to you. Contact me in Australia 0427 025452. Regards

  2. Ross Downie Avatar
    Ross Downie

    I am a direct descendent of Walter Christie Downie, John Ross’s boatman and his first mate on the many voyages of John Ross’s ship, the Hashemy. Like Ian, I too would be interested to purchase any records you may have on these men. Kind Regards – Ross Downie

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