Feature Articles

Yamba’s Yesteryears – John Connell Laycock

John McNamara, Port of Yamba Historical Society

John Connell Laycock was probably the first man to settle in Clarence River Heads (Yamba) who was not attached to the pilot crew when he arrived early 1862 with his family, obviously recognising the business opportunities arising from the sudden population growth.

Following a number of wrecks of ships at the entrance to the Clarence River, Captain Francis Freeburn had been appointed pilot in January 1854 and occupied the southern headland with his family and boat crew. A large group of local people met in Grafton in April 1860, demanding that more pressure be applied to the Government to improve movement at the Clarence River bar. The Government finally advertised in late 1861 for contractors to tender for the construction of 300 metres of breakwater on the southern side of the entrance. The contract was awarded to John H. White, and he began work during the early months of 1862 by engaging navvies to cut rock for the formation of the wall. In that year, the population of Clarence River Heads exploded to 200, being mainly quarry workers.

John Connell Laycock was born on 02 December 1818 in Sydney to Thomas2 and Margaret Laycock.

In January 1791, his grandfather, Thomas1 Laycock had been promoted to quartermaster (officer who oversees arrangements for the quartering and movement of troops) to the newly formed New South Wales Corps and to Senior Sergeant when he came out to Australia. He arrived on the HMS Gorgon as part of the Third Fleet in September, accompanied by his wife, Hannah and young children. They found favour with Governor Arthur Phillip and were granted thousands of hectares of land in the Sydney area in ensuing years.

John’s father, Thomas2 Laycock married Margaret Connell in 1817, only 8 weeks after the death of his first wife, Isabella. It is assumed that he was anxious to improve the family fortunes and cement the relationship with wealthy merchant, John Connell, by marrying his youngest daughter.

When his grandfather, John Connell, died in 1849, John and his brother Elias were bequeathed all his property, including land in addition to holdings at Sutherland and Holsworthy. They agreed upon a division of all of the estate, as a result of which, John acquired about 647ha of the Sutherland property, mainly on the Kurnell Peninsula, adjoining Cronulla Beach,

Laycock married Mary Jane (nee Simpson) in February 1843 at Sydney, and they had five daughters and four sons.

By 1858, he owned 1,821ha and in about April 1960, purchased land in Castlereagh and King Streets, Sydney, upon which the Prince of Wales Theatre and other buildings stood (part of the site where the Theatre Royal now stands) for $60,000. The Prince of Wales Theatre had only been completed in 1855 and was the largest theatre in Australia, with seating capacity for 3,000 and a stage nearly 30 metres in depth. Laycock mortgaged this land together with his land at Sutherland, Holsworthy, as well as other holdings in the City of Sydney and in Brisbane, Queensland and covenanted to insure the buildings in Castlereagh and King Streets for a total of at least $34,000.


Disaster struck on 03 October 1860, six months after his purchase of the theatre, when a fire broke out in an adjoining bakery, which practically destroyed Laycock’s theatre and adjoining buildings and resulted in the death of two persons and serious injury to others. The theatre and adjoining buildings were insufficiently insured, in breach of Laycock’s covenant to insure, and as income from the property ceased, he was unable to meet his monetary commitments and was forced to sell all of his properties to pay his debts and expenses.

Laycock was then the Member for Central Cumberland in the Legislative Assembly and was no doubt aware of the pending harbour works at the entrance to the Clarence River in northern New South Wales, which he probably recognised as a means of reviving his fortunes.

His 17-year-old son, Elias, brought 56 head of cattle and 3 horses from Sydney to Clarence River Heads on 05 June 1862. Elias found employment as a boatman for the Pilot and went on to become the Australian Sculling Champion in 1875 and 1879. John sailed to the Clarence River, with his family, on board the Urara on 7 May 1862 and by August, the Laycock family was living in an isolated timber hut on the site of present-day Ager Park in Clarence Street.

He was elected Member for The Clarence on 29 December 1864 and served until 21 July 1866. Because of his Parliamentary duties, as Member for Central Cumberland and later The Clarence, he made several short trips to Sydney over the next few years on the Grafton, Agnes Irving and Susannah Cuthbert.

The Black, Pegus, Laycock and Freeburn families were all very involved in community affairs at Clarence River Heads and took a leading part in activities aimed at developing the township. Their main recreation was in the form of shooting expeditions around Lake Wooloweyah where they went hunting kangaroos, ducks and pigeons.

Laycock left Clarence River Heads in 1874 and began selling off his assets there. An Auction Notice by Thomas Bawden, Auctioneer, on 13 January 1874 stated “on behalf of Mr. J.C. Connell Esq. His residence, a WB cottage adjacent to the Wooli Hotel, a 8ha lot containing Slaughter house and Yard, boatshed and numerous sundries offered for sale plus new Slaughter House and Yard at Iluka adjacent to the proposed Government wharf for proposed Northern Breakwater Works”. His 51ha holding on the edge of Lake Wooloweyah was sold at auction on 30 January 1874 to the Wooli Hotel publican, Walter Black.

He purchased Glenreagh Station, 45km from Grafton on the Orara River, between Grafton and Coffs Harbour with 40km of frontage to the south bank and 13km to the north bank of the Orara River. It comprised 27,518ha and contained a 9-room dwelling house. The family continued their farming pursuits there, acquiring still more land.

By 1886, he had moved into a residence in Villiers Street, Grafton. In that time, he continued to maintain some public presence in Grafton as a Justice of the Peace, presiding over the Grafton Police Court as PM. He had frequent Letters to the Editor and poems published in the Clarence and Richmond Examiner.

Shortly before his death at Parramatta Asylum on 31 November 1897, John Connell Laycock and his wife went on the Kallatina on 22 July 1897 to Sydney, where they intended to reside. He was buried at Rookwood Cemetery after a long and interesting life.