This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005
William (Billy) Blue (c.1767?-1834), convict, settler and ferryman, was born possibly in Jamaica, West Indies. As he later claimed to have served with the British army in the American war of independence, he may have been a freed African-American slave from colonial New York. By 1796, however, he was living at Deptford, London, and working as a chocolate-maker and a lumper (labourer) in ships in the River Thames. On 4 October that year at Maidstone, Kent, Blue was convicted of stealing raw sugar—presumably intended for confectionery making—and sentenced to seven years transportation. After over four years in convict hulks, he was transported to Botany Bay in the Minorca. He was described in convict records as 'a Jamaican Negro sailor', aged 29 in 1796.
Reaching Sydney on 14 December 1801, Blue had less than two years of his sentence to serve. By July 1804 he was living at The Rocks with Elizabeth Williams, a 30-year-old, English-born convict, who had arrived from Hampshire the previous month. They married on 27 April 1805 at St Philip's Church of England and were to have six children. Billy worked as a waterman and collected and sold oysters and other items. He found favour with both government officials and the public, to whom he endeared himself with his whimsical style and banter.
In 1808 his name was included in a list of citizens who supported the arrest of Governor Bligh. Blue was appointed harbour watchman and constable by Governor Macquarie in 1811. These titles enabled him to acquire a new home overlooking Sydney Harbour, which became a local landmark known as 'Billy Blue's Cottage'. Macquarie was a regular user of the ferry services; he reported in his diary in 1817 that his wife and son were taken up the river to Parramatta in Blue's boat. That year Blue was granted a farm of eighty acres (32.4 ha), which he called Northampton, at the southernmost tip of the north shore of Port Jackson. The headland became known as Billy Blue's Point. As a landowner on the north side of the harbour, he saw the potential for operating a boat service to the site and quickly built up a 'fleet of ferries'. Macquarie light-heartedly dubbed him 'Commodore'; Blue became known as 'The Old Commodore'.
The location and business offered opportunities to participate in smuggling. In October 1818, arrested for possessing two casks of rum, he claimed that he had found them floating and lashed them to his boat to return them to the shore. Encouraged by Deputy-Judge-Advocate Wylde to plead guilty and name his accomplices, Blue refused, lost his position as harbour watchman and constable and was imprisoned for a year.
In 1823 Edward Wollstonecraft and William Gore, both landholders on the north shore with vested interests in harbour trade, attempted to oust Blue from his land and ferrying service, alleging that he was a law-breaker who regularly smuggled goods and harboured escaped prisoners. In response Blue petitioned Sir Thomas Brisbane that, in view of his long and trusted service for the government, he should be granted 'in his old age the peaceable enjoyment of his premises and ferry'. The governor found in his favour, authorizing him to 'have the Use and Occupation of his ferry, which he formerly occupied between his farm in Northampton and Sydney'.
Elizabeth died in 1824. In the 1828 census Blue gave his age as 80. Described by (Sir) James Dowling as 'an eccentric, loquacious character', he took to donning a travesty of a naval uniform, with a top hat, and would board newly berthed vessels as 'commodore' to welcome the officers to Sydney. Brushes with the law continued. He was found guilty of harbouring an escaped convict and of manslaughter—when he threw a stone at a boy who was tormenting him and the youth later died—but avoided prison. By 1833 he and his family were reported as keeping a ferryboat and cultivating vegetables and fruit for the Sydney market.
Blue died on 7 May 1834 at his North Sydney home. His will, which he signed with a mark, left his property to his surviving three sons, including William junior, and two daughters. Streets in North Sydney were named after him and the site of his northern ferry terminus remained known as Blues Point. The Mitchell Library, Sydney, holds several portraits of him, including an etching by Charles Rodius, a lithograph of 'The Old Commodore' by John Carmichael and an oil painting by J. B. East.
Margaret Park, 'Blue, William (Billy) (1767–1834)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blue-william-billy-12804/text23109, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 24 April 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005