Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Balcombe, Alexander Beatson (1811–1877)

by Kathleen Thomson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Alexander Beatson Balcombe (1811-1877), pastoralist, was born on St Helena, the youngest of five children of William Balcombe (1779-1829) and his wife Jane, née Cranston. William senior had settled at St Helena in 1804 as a merchant and was also superintendent of public sales for the East India Co. When Napoleon was exiled to the island Balcombe became purveyor to his establishment. Before Napoleon moved to Longwood in November 1815 he lived in a pavilion on Balcombe's estate, The Briars, and became attached to the family, especially the younger daughter Lucia Elizabeth (Betsy) who later wrote Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon (London, 1844). The friendly association ended abruptly in March 1818 when Balcombe was dismissed from the island on suspicion of acting as an intermediary in clandestine French correspondence with Paris and of negotiating bills drawn by Napoleon. Although never charged with any offence, Balcombe was regarded by Lord Bathurst and the governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, as at least a dupe of the French, and was not allowed to return to St Helena. He remained in England with a dwindling income, acute gout and continual fear of positive punishment until in 1823 Lowe relented under strong pressure from Jane Balcombe and her parliamentary friends. Balcombe was then appointed colonial treasurer of New South Wales. With his family he arrived in the Hibernia at Sydney in April 1824. His elder daughter died on the voyage and Betsy, who had married Edward Abell in London on 28 May 1822 and had been deserted by her husband, soon returned with her child to England.

Balcombe died at Sydney on 19 March 1829, leaving his affairs in disorder. Creditors took most of his livestock, and his widow, left only with his land grants, petitioned for a pension without success. Unabashed she went to London to renew her plea; the Colonial Office gave her £250 to return to Sydney with her daughter and granddaughter and promised land and government posts for her children. Betsy and her eldest brother, William, were given land adjoining their father's 6000-acre (2428 ha) grant, Molonglo, near Bungonia, County Argyle, where they lived for some years. Long before William died at the Turon goldfields aged 44 on 29 January 1852, Betsy had gone to France where she was favourably noticed by Napoleon III who granted her land in Algiers; she died aged 69 on 29 June 1871 in London.

The second son, Thomas Tyrwhitt (b.1810), had attended the Sydney Grammar School and, while working for the Australian Agricultural Co. at Port Stephens, injured his head in a fall from a horse. In September 1830 he was appointed a draftsman in the Surveyor-General's Department with a salary of £150. By 1833 his work was unsatisfactory but he was saved from dismissal by the promise to his mother and put on field work. By 1837 he had won repute as a spirited painter of animals; some of his work is at the Mitchell Library. He was praised for his pictures in the Aboriginal Exhibition in 1848, did a portrait of Edward Hargraves in 1851 and illustrated (G.F.P.), Gold Pen and Pencil Sketches: Adventures of Mr. John Slasher at the Turon Diggings (Sydney, 1852). On 27 June 1840 he married Lydia Stuckey; they had three children. In 1858 the death of his eldest daughter intensified the fits of mental aberration from which he had long suffered. He continued as a government surveyor, but after many threats to end his life deliberately shot himself in the head on 13 October 1861 at his home, Napoleon Cottage, Paddington.

Alexander, named Beatson after a governor of St Helena, attended Sydney Grammar School and became a clerk in the Commissariat Department. He was dismissed 'for negligence' in April 1831 and, after his mother returned from England in 1833, joined the family at Molonglo. In 1839 he went to Port Phillip with William Rutledge and party, and liking the country returned to Molonglo to make preparations for permanent settlement. On 30 August 1841 at Bungonia, County Argyle, he married Emma Juana, second daughter of Dr David Reid, of Inverary Park. Alexander bought livestock and took his wife to Port Phillip in 1842; they stayed for some time at Merri Creek and in 1843 settled at Schnapper Point, which Balcombe named. In 1846 he took over the run Chen Chen Gurruck, or Tichingorourke, changing the name to The Briars. The property extended from the present Mornington to Mount Martha and was held under pastoral licence until 1854 when he bought 1000 acres (405 ha).

In the 1850s Balcombe joined the search for gold. In his absence, Emma Balcombe, who was a friend of Georgiana McCrae, displayed great courage when raided by bushrangers. On his return from the diggings, somewhat disillusioned, Alexander settled down to pastoral pursuits and the life of a country squire. He was appointed a magistrate in 1855 and was first chairman of the Mount Eliza Road Board formed in 1860. He also experimented unsuccessfully with wine production. He died aged 66 on 21 September 1877 at his home, Eastcourt, East Melbourne; his widow died on 3 June 1907. They had two sons and five daughters and Dame Mabel Balcombe Brookes is a granddaughter.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 14-17
  • M. Brookes, Crowded Galleries (Melb, 1956)
  • H. Rogers, The Early History of the Mornington Peninsula (Melb, 1960)
  • W. Dixson, ‘Notes on Australian Artists’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 7, part 2, 1921, pp 100-04
  • Sydney Gazette, 8 Apr, 6 May 1824, 26 Mar 1829
  • Port Phillip Gazette, 8 Sept 1841
  • Empire (Sydney), 15 Oct 1861
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22 Sept 1877, 4 June 1907
  • manuscript catalogue under Alexander Balcombe (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Sir Hudson Lowe papers (British Library)
  • CO 323/118.

Citation details

Kathleen Thomson, 'Balcombe, Alexander Beatson (1811–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/balcombe-alexander-beatson-2922/text4221, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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