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H3321 Mouldboard plough, wood / iron, attributed to James Ruse, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, c. 1811. Click to enlarge.

Mouldboard plough attributed to James Ruse

Made by Ruse, James in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, c. 1811.
This single-furrow mouldboard plough with timber handles, beam and mouldboard is rustic and handmade. It reflects farming in Australia in the early 1800s. The plough represents the struggle first settlers went through to cultivate the land, and their ingenuity in utilising what little supplies they had available to them. It is a highly significant piece of Australia's farming history.

The first ploughs are thought to have been developed in Egypt around the 6th millennium BC. They were basic farming instruments, but their development through time represents a significant shift in human evolution. Advancements in the design of the plough allowed farmers to evolve from being self-sufficient to producing commercially viable crops and earning a living from the land.

Australia's first settlers struggled to produce food and reduce their dependence on supplies brought to the colony by ship. The government had a pressing need to experiment with the type of crops that could be grown on Australian soil, and to assess whether the colony could become self-reliant. A small number of ex-convicts were offered parcels of land to see whether they could support themselves. They were given meagre supplies, each receiving a spade, shovel, hatchet, tomahawk, and two hoes. Cultivating the soil using a hoe was difficult work, especially in the hot climate. Robert Hughes describes the first years of convict Australia as 'starvation years'. Because they had no ploughs or draft animals it was 'hack-and-peck hoe cultivation'. With the introduction of a plough, a farmer could use an animal to draw it and turn the soil more quickly and easily. The introduction of the plough to the colony was a significant turning point in settlers being able to produce their own food source.

The colonies found one of the chief difficulties in growing food was the lack of men with experience. James Ruse was a convict with a strong farming background and, upon finishing the sentence for his crimes in 1789, was awarded one and a half acres on which to prove himself a farmer. Using his knowledge, he burnt off timber to turn ashes into rich potash, hoed the ground thoroughly, and turned the sod over, so that the grass and weeds composted into soil. His techniques proved successful and within fifteen months he was producing enough crops to sustain himself, thus gaining the title of Australia's first successful farmer. Governor Arthur Phillip deeded him thirty acres of land as a reward for his hard work, making James Ruse the recipient of the first land grant in Australia.

Erika Dicker, Curatorial, 2007

Oral History from Neville Austin, Descendant of James Ruse, 1988, museum records.

Samuel Wadham, Australian Farming 1788-1965, F. W. Cheshire Publishing Pty ltd, 1967.

Robert Hughes, The fatal shore a history of the transportation of convicts to Australia 1787-1868. Pan Books, London, 1988

Watkin Tench, Complete account of the settlement at Port Jackson New South Wales, London, 1758-1833.


Object No.


Object Statement

Mouldboard plough, wood / iron, attributed to James Ruse, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, c. 1811

Physical Description

This is a home-made mouldboard plough constructed from the elbow of a tree branch.

The branch has been placed lengthways to form the mouldboard beam of the plough. An iron coulter (blade) is fixed into a slit in the wooden beam. The coulter rests on an angular shaped share that is formed by the lower section of the tree branch. Attached to the front of the mouldboard is a metal loop that allows the plough to attach to a team of horses. A second bolt and a set of notches near the metal loop allows the draw of the plough to be adjusted. Bolted to either side of the mouldboard are wooden wing-shaped rests or buttresses. Wooden chocks can be seen bolted behind each of the buttresses. These additions are designed to take the friction of the action and decrease the wear of the mouldboard. Two long handles with shaped grips are bolted at an obtuse angle at the rear of the mouldboard. The handles are joined in the midsection by a horizontal iron rod.

The primary purpose of ploughing is to turn over the upper layer of the soil, and allow fresh nutrients to nurture the surface. Ploughed soil is aerated, and will hold moisture much better than un-ploughed soil.



850 mm


450 mm



James Ruse may have made this plough in approximately 1811, but this has not been fully substantiated. The plough is stated to have come from Ruse's Mulgrave Park property which was situated at Bottoms Road, Pitt Town, New South Wales.



The plough was donated by a descendant of James Ruse to the Powerhouse Museum in 1927. Oral history records that it was handed down through Ruse's family and came from his property in the Mulgrave Place area in the Hawkesbury region of New South Wales.

In 1782 James Ruse was convicted of burglarious breaking and entering in England and, while still paying penance for his crime, was sent to Australia with the First Fleet in 1787. His sentence was completed in 1789 and Governor Arthur Phillip granted Ruse one and a half acres of land to prove himself as a farmer. By 1791 he was producing enough crops to sustain himself and was granted a further 30 acres of land that became known as Experiment Farm. He was a hard-working and an enlightened farmer who was reported to have made effective use of the limited means at his disposal. Records show that Ruse sold Experiment Farm in 1793 and moved to the Hawkesbury region to establish Mulgrave Place and open up the region for agricultural activity.

The Experiment Farm site, in the Parramatta district, was acquired by the National Trust of Australia (NSW) in 1961. The plough was on display there from 1990 to 2004.

Watkin Tench, Complete account of the settlement at Port Jackson New South Wales, London, 1758-1833.
Oral History from Neville Austin, Descendant of James Ruse, 1988, museum records.


Credit Line

Presented by William Ashley, 1920

Acquisition Date

17 February 1927

Cite this Object


Mouldboard plough attributed to James Ruse 2020, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 9 July 2020, <>


{{cite web |url= |title=Mouldboard plough attributed to James Ruse |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=9 July 2020 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}

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