Although James Ruse was Australia’s first free farmer, he began farming while still a convict. At the age of 23, Ruse had been convicted of burglary in his native Cornwall. Initially he was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to transportation. He arrived in Australia with the First Fleet.
In 1789, Ruse asked for a land grant, claiming his sentence has expired and citing his farming background in his native Cornwall. Governor Phillip allowed him to occupy some land near Parramatta, but the grant was conditional upon Ruse demonstrating that he could produce a harvest.
By 1791, Ruse had shown that he was successful in his farming and able to support himself and his family. Governor Phillip then granted him the land – the first grant of land in the new colony. Ruse was the first emancipated convict to obtain land and demonstrated that a small farmer could be successful in New South Wales.
Ruse’s fortunes were mixed in the following decades. He held land grants on the Hawkesbury, at Bankstown and in Windsor but floods devastated his farms and he struggled with heavy debt. He was obliged to find other work. He ended his days as an overseer for a Captain Brooks at Lower Minto. He died in 1834 in Campbelltown, Sydney.
The entry for James Ruse in the Australian Dictionary of Biography details his various landholdings and tells of the decline in his fortunes. While the biographer concludes that Ruse’s story has been over-romanticised, there is no doubt that he did demonstrate that small farmers could succeed in the new colony. The James Ruse Agricultural High School in the Sydney suburb of Carlingford was named in his memory, as was the suburb of Ruse.