John Dickson was a Scottish engineer who applied to settle in New South Wales. He arrive in 1813 and brought with him a steam-engine as well as other equipment and tools. Governor Macquarie granted him 15 acres at Cockle Bay for Australia’s first steam-driven mill. He was also granted 3000 acres near Camden as a grazing farm.
Dickson was a highly-trained engineer and had invested significant funds to set up his steam-driven mill. The equipment was estimated to be worth £10,000 – an enormous sum in those days. Although the engine was much smaller than those used to drive the first steam mill in England – 14 to 16 horsepower rather than two 50 horsepower engines – it seems that Dickson overcame the challenges of maintaining the machine and the difficulty of obtaining spare parts.
Australia’s first steam-driven mill began operations in 1815 and pumped its own water from a dam constructed on a stream at the head of Cockle Bay. Although it was originally intended to mill timber as well as grain, it seems only to have been used to produce flour. Dickson had the only steam mill in Sydney for nearly a decade and as the population of Sydney grew, so did the demand for his services.
John Dickson went on to become a significant land holder, and was an original member of the Agricultural Society. He grew crops, ran sheep and cattle and exported salted meat. Eventually he encountered legal difficulties and, rather than face gaol, absconded to England where he died in 1843.
Dickson’s apprentice, Thomas Barker, went on to become a successful miller in the colony, acquiring his own mills in the Cockle Bay area. Milling continued in the area (renamed Darling Harbour in 1826) well into the 20th century.