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Arndell, Thomas (1753–1821)

by B. H. Fletcher

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Thomas Arndell (1753-1821), surgeon, magistrate and landholder, was one of seven assistant surgeons who formed the medical staff led by Surgeon-General John White which cared for the convicts in the First Fleet. He was baptized on 4 May 1753 at Kington, Herefordshire, son of Anthony Arndell and his wife Elizabeth, née Harris. His son John, by his wife Susanna, was later a medical assistant at Norfolk Island, and his natural daughter Esther married William Hovell. Arndell arrived at Port Jackson in the Friendship and was soon given charge of the hospital at Parramatta. Early in 1791 he began cultivating a block of land there, assisted by an assigned labourer. In July 1792, apparently convinced that farming offered the better livelihood, he sought permission to retire on a pension and became a settler; presumably he hoped in this way to provide more adequately for Elizabeth Burleigh, his convict wife (whom he married in 1807 at Windsor) and their new-born daughter. Impressed by his meritorious services and anticipating a favourable reply to the application he sent to London, Governor Arthur Phillip at once gave him a 60-acre (24 ha) grant even though servants of the Crown were not yet entitled to such concessions. By October 1792, although still performing medical duties, he had eighteen acres (7.2 ha) under crop and three (1.2 ha) more cleared, an achievement exceeded by only two other persons.

During the interregnum he received news that he was to be allowed a pension of £50 and he was given a 70-acre (28 ha) grant by Lieutenant-Governor Francis Grose. His memories of this era, however, were far from happy. In July 1798, at Governor John Hunter's request, he reported on the changes made under Grose and William Paterson, depicting a community sunk in crime, drunkenness and vice, mismanaged and poorly governed, which was restored to decency only by Hunter's prompt actions.

The accuracy of this appraisal is debatable, but beyond dispute were Arndell's good reasons to welcome Hunter's presence. Besides conferring on him an additional grant of 100 acres (40 ha) at Dundas and making him a magistrate, the governor in 1798 recommended his appointment as apothecary at the Parramatta Hospital and entrusted him with the task of assisting Samuel Marsden to conduct an inquiry into the state of small-scale farming round Parramatta. Their findings, though depressing, showed both men as sympathetic towards smallholders whose personal characteristics they regarded more favourably than most contemporaries. Two years later Arndell again stood up for their rights when he became one of a small group who, on behalf of smallholders near Parramatta, complained to the Colonial Office of their exploitation by local retailers. The wording of this document suggests that Arndell himself must have suffered from the abuses to which attention was drawn, although he was certainly not impoverished. At this time he owned 330 acres (133 ha) of land, of which 100 acres (40 ha) had been bought, and with 147 acres (59 ha) cleared and running 186 head of stock he stood out as one of the settlement's more prosperous farmers. By 1806 he owned 630 acres (255 ha), including a farm in the Windsor district given him by Governor Philip Gidley King. Though he had 87 acres (35 ha) under grain, sheep-raising was now one of his principal concerns and he had already tried to improve the quality of his wool by introducing a Spanish strain. The responsibilities of a growing farm and an expanding family that eventually included four girls and three boys must have placed no small burden on a man now over 50; nevertheless he found time to perform numerous civic duties at the Hawkesbury where he made his home. As a magistrate he also supervised public concerns in the neighbourhood and was called upon by King to conduct some of the musters and report on the effects of the disastrous flood of 1806. An Anglican, he furthered the Protestant cause by contributing towards the foundation of a church at Portland Head and supporting the Presbyterian church at Ebenezer.

Under Bligh, Arndell continued his multifarious pursuits, adding to them when he became assistant surgeon at the Hawkesbury. From the outset he was as loyal to the fourth governor as he had been to his predecessors. At the time of the Rum Rebellion he was one of Bligh's confidants and took his side when trouble broke out. The brief period of military rule that followed the governor's deposition proved as little to his liking as had the interregnum of 1792-95, and though he signed one address in their favour he again found himself at odds with the men in power. He was replaced as magistrate by Archibald Bell, and the unexplained discontinuance of his pension in 1806 added to his troubles, for he claimed that without it he could not adequately support his large family, even though by August 1807 he owned 750 acres (303 ha) of land and 322 head of stock. Governor Lachlan Macquarie was struck by his loyalty, honesty and the exemplary manner in which he brought up his children, and successfully urged the British government to restore his pension. During the Macquarie period he appears to have led a somewhat quieter existence than formerly, devoting much attention to his farm at the Hawkesbury, though he also played some part in local affairs. By the time of his death on 2 May 1821 he still owned 750 acres (303 ha) of land and had 406 domestic animals which suggests that his means were still only moderate. Certainly his wife, who did not die until 31 January 1843, found life difficult, for in 1830 she sought assistance from the British government.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Raven, Assistant Surgeon Thomas Arndell (1988)
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-7
  • J. Steele, Early Days of Windsor (Syd, 1916)
  • dispatches to NSW governor, 1835 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Banks papers, vol 22 (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

B. H. Fletcher, 'Arndell, Thomas (1753–1821)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/arndell-thomas-1716/text1873, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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