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Batman, John (1801–1839)

by P. L. Brown

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

John Batman (1801-1839), pioneer of Melbourne, was born on 21 January 1801 in New South Wales. His parents, William and Mary Bat(e)man, had reached Sydney in the Ganges on 2 June 1797. William was a Middlesex cutler and grinder of Yorkshire background, transported for receiving stolen saltpetre; his wife paid her fare and brought with her their children, Maria and Robert. After obtaining his ticket-of-leave, William Batman established a timber-yard at Parramatta. Here his five sons and Maria were brought up, baptized at St John's in 1810, the year when his sentence expired, and all thenceforward trained as Anglican-Methodists. John, the second son, was apprenticed blacksmith at Sydney in 1816. He left home alert and active, probably a product of John Tull's elementary school, sufficiently literate for any practical purpose, sociable, of fine physique; a promising bushman, well known to Hamilton Hume. Within a few months, however, his evidence led to his master's execution for burglary. His apprenticeship lapsed and during the next five years he apparently qualified as a jack-of-all-trades farmer.

In December 1821 John Batman and the third son, Henry, moved to Van Diemen's Land, and a girl of uncertain origin, Eliza Thompson, convicted at 17 as Elizabeth Callaghan, disembarked at Hobart Town under sentence for passing a counterfeit bank note in London. Henry Batman became a wheelwright near Launceston. John Batman found footing as a grazier. In 1823 he contracted to supply the government meat stores at George Town. By 1824 he had enough capital to graduate from leasehold to a grant of 600 acres (243 ha), Kingston, under Ben Lomond, where Eliza Thompson soon joined him as an absconder. In March 1828 they were married at St John's, Launceston. Her pardon was not gazetted until 1833, but Colonel (Sir) George Arthur's essential consent to the wedding was based upon a record that dated the bride's last offence in January 1823, although the police sought her at Kingston in November 1825.

Liaisons like John Batman's were not uncommon, and his involved no ostracism. His lively imagination, persistent vigour, logic, and bold sensibility linked him with various men above his social standing. Some, like James Simpson and Charles Swanston, thought him a useful pawn. Others, like John Wedge and Joseph Tice Gellibrand, discovered his unusual quality. He earned official indulgence, and struggled towards security, through public service: by effecting the surrender of Matthew Brady, and pursuing other bushrangers; by persevering leadership in the first conciliation campaign amongst the Tasmanian Aboriginals. He wrote of 'that much injured and most unfortunate race', and Arthur called him 'one of the few who supposed that they might be influenced by kindness'. At his suggestion, several natives were brought from New South Wales to help the capture parties. Although repatriated, they returned to Batman's employment.

By 1835 Kingston covered more than 7000 acres (2833 ha), had appropriate animals and buildings, and numerous hands; but it was too rugged to be highly productive. Van Diemen's Land was fully grazed, yet needed more meat for its convict population. Hamilton Hume and William Hovell's discoveries, and the strategic settlement momentarily perched at Westernport as part result, had already led Batman and Gellibrand, in January 1827, to apply for a mainland grant proportionate to the worth of the livestock (£5000) that they proposed to depasture there in Batman's charge. But this application was refused on the ground of uncertain policy, and Wedge's plan for continental exploration, long discussed with Batman, and put to Arthur in February 1834, fell into a void that at first was not perceived.

When Arthur's neglect became obvious, the Hentys had settled at Portland, and others had applied to London for land across Bass Strait. In 1834 Wedge visited Kingston frequently. He was there at the end of November, for some Batman baptisms, and again at Christmas, for an ascent of Ben Lomond. It was then the Port Phillip Association crystallized. According to Wedge, it developed through Batman's agency, upon the basis of their original scheme, which was backed strongly by Gellibrand, Swanston, and others. Free colonists would seize the initiative, if reconnaissance confirmed belief and found means to prevent collision with the local tribes.

On 1 May 1835 Batman gave Gellibrand a zero date for departure, and asked for the draft of a treaty with the Port Phillip natives. On 15 May the press published his intention; on 13 June it announced his triumphant return. He was then 'the greatest landowner in the world', claiming the Bellarine Peninsula, where his holding party was camped at Indented Head, and the coastal strip between Geelong and the Yarra, where he had already noted 'the place for a village'. The Port Phillip Association took formal shape and action immediately. In the light of Swan River failures, Tasmanian slaughter, and South Australian prospects, 600,000 acres (242,812 ha) secured by continuous tribute to the Aboriginals seemed to its fifteen partners a fair beginning. Commercial ambition moved them; but they planned an exemplary invasion, hoped for swift government control, and in the last resort offered £30,000 for the Crown's conveyance of Batman's putative purchase. Their efforts were neither abreast of London policy, nor evocative of Sydney sympathy. The association collapsed, as rule of thumb prevailed over daring assumption, in spite of George Mercer's masterly fighting retreat. Swanston, Mercer, and Gellibrand, helped by Simpson, obtained compensation worth £7000 in the securing of freehold; but Gellibrand's disappearance meant a double dissolution.

Excluding the complement of the chartered schooner Rebecca, William (or Andrew) Todd, who was an educated Dubliner, two other whites, and seven Sydney blacks composed Batman's exploring party. With their help Batman came to practical terms with a section of one of the two Aboriginal tribes who respectively occupied the western shores of the bay and the Yarra valley, to their joint boundary along the Saltwater River. Negotiators and natives met on the Plenty, or on a minor tributary of the Yarra, two days before a boat's crew reached the Melbourne basin. Thenceforward Todd's 'Eastern River' became the ultimate focus. The press announcement of Batman's return to Launceston mentioned his site for a township at the head of Port Phillip, 'well supplied with a running stream of fresh water'. On 18 June Batman wrote to Wedge from Kingston that John Pascoe Fawkner had told him he would settle near Point Nepean—'as he goes to the opposite side, I think it all the better for us, the more the better'; that the captured Tasmanian Aboriginals might be moved to the mainland—'would it not be to our interest to give up the Neck of 100,000 acres [40,469 ha] to them?'

Wedge and Henry Batman arrived at Indented Head early in August 1835. Although within a few days of John Batman's return there was 'nothing in Launceston but the New Country—Lots of people will go', he was immensely busy, and must take the chance of interlopers. A report should be made to the governor, indentures completed, deeds transcribed, and necessary letters written. Servants must be engaged, stock bought and allotted, pasturage and shipment arranged. The Norval was chartered at £300 a month, and made the first of several trips in November. Her captain, Robson Coltish, recorded that Batman, who then accompanied her, planned all the fittings, pushed the work on quickly, and showed 'a perfect knowledge both of the Saltwater river and the Yarra', when her boats pulled up to the settlement. The mate of the Rebecca, Robert Robson, insisted that Batman and he had both seen the Melbourne falls in June.

Although Batman could not then wait to establish his men up-river, and had already chosen a better strategic position, the incursion of Fawkner's heralds eleven weeks later caused Wedge to move most of the party from Indented Head. When Batman returned in the Norval, he found his main camp on the north bank of the Yarra. During a brief visit, he landed extra hands, as well as livestock, and weatherboards fit for a house on Batman's Hill, to which he brought his wife and seven daughters when he settled there in April 1836. His only son, John Charles, was born in the following November. Batman had then improved, with buildings, garden, and orchard, some twenty acres (8 ha) west of the future town boundary. He employed some thirty servants, and began as the association's official manager, collaborating with Wedge, and controlling the incoming flocks. He grazed his treaty-block, north of the settlement, promoted racial harmony, and gave temporary office space to the first police magistrate, William Lonsdale. Miss Caroline Newcomb was his children's governess. He had a library, good sheep, exceptional horses, attractive cattle, a superior house in a splendid situation. He had sold Kingston on terms for £10,000 and brought his all to the Yarra. Despite the association's troubles, his barometer seemed high and rising.

But illness disabled him. Although he was fit to ride thirty miles (48 km) through a wild night in June 1835, he was under medical treatment a few weeks later, and early in the new year he seemed 'at the point of death'. In July 1836 he apparently walked with difficulty; in November 1837 James Backhouse noted that he had 'been much of an invalid since his removal'. Eventually Batman became so physically helpless that he needed a rush-work perambulator. He was forced to curtail his squatting and attempt trading and investment. The tribute depot he established on Batman's Hill became his general store, replenished from his schooner, the Gem. He secured commissariat contracts. He bought three allotments at the first Melbourne land auction, five at the second (total cost £450), and built on several. But delegation involved him in great expense and made him largely defenceless. He borrowed too much, and lent without security. As his illness increased, his ambition for his children sharpened. After Miss Newcomb left, he engaged Nichola Anne Cooke, a young Vandiemonian widow, to care for the girls, and in May 1838 installed her in his house at the north-west corner of Swanston and Flinders Streets, at an annual rent of £100, little more than her basic quarterly fee.

Batman died on 6 May 1839. His will, dated 18 December 1837, and drafted by Gleadow & Henty, solicitors, Launceston, was complicated, rigid, and out of date. Most of the real estate devised to Batman's daughters was already sold. Although the immediate proceeds of the personal assets (£5500) fell £1000 short of the verified debts, to which claims for more than £4000 were afterwards added, the executors, 'my friends' Lonsdale and Simpson, held themselves powerless to release the three remaining allotments, which were rented at £790, and valued in 1842 at £9000. They soon assigned their task to two trustees, P. W. Welsh, a leading Melbourne merchant, and E. T. Newton, accountant, Batman's manager at £400 a year. But all four were joined as defendants when Anthony Cottrell, as the 'next friend' of Batman's younger girls, took legal proceedings. Also called in defence, with separate lawyers, were Batman's son, as heir-at-law, Batman's eldest daughter Maria (and eventually her second husband, Robert Fennell), and Batman's widow, whose stubborn claim for dower was sustained by her second husband, William Willoughby, formerly Batman's clerk, whom she married in 1841. The case dragged on through chancery, months after Batman's son was drowned in 1845. Its costs (£2299) and the balance of dower (£400) more than absorbed the price (£1131) obtained for the two still saleable allotments. The girls had nothing beyond their education, which Welsh, to his credit, maintained until 1842, thus contributing to his own bankruptcy, but enabling the younger ones to take refuge without embarrassment in friendly households, with Dr and Mrs Alexander Thomson, the Misses Drysdale and Newcomb, John Aitken, and their father's former agent, Joseph Griffin of Geelong. Lucy, the second daughter, apparently kept a school.

Batman gave his wife £5, and tried to bar her dower. There can be little doubt that the natural leader of 1835, to whom she was closely linked, lost her affection as a thwarted cripple. She traced his downfall to excessive exposure; others to grog and venery. Simpson himself feared Batman in his cups. But there was no break with Eliza until the physical failure, when suggestions of nasal syphilis developed, and Batman's Sydney natives became his only attendants. Batman wrote his own letters until at least February 1838. From August, Newton seems to have acted as amanuensis, if not as author; but as late as 12 March 1839 Batman's normal signature followed his final plea for the pre-emptive purchase of Batman's Hill, where he claimed to have spent more than £1500. By that time Eliza had left him, at his expense, possibly to push their joint interest. She sailed for England as a cabin passenger in February 1839, and first heard of his death at Adelaide on her return in March 1840. Without Batman, she was lost, drifting, it seems quite certain, until she became that Sarah Willoughby, 'of somewhat abandoned character', who was murdered at Geelong on 31 March 1852. Nevertheless, she was an able woman, wrote a good letter, and, through her second husband, secured one of Batman's allotments. In July 1853, when married to William Weire, town clerk of Geelong, her fourth daughter, Elizabeth Mary, described her as 'Elizabeth Callan, governess'.

'After a protracted illness, Mr Batman died last night'. This bald addendum to a report from Lonsdale that effectively smashed the Batman's Hill property, and sacrificed its buildings for £200, shows the classic proportions of the personal tragedy. Batman's exceptional talents brought him from humble beginnings into auspicious prominence. He grasped a chance that many may have seen, but no other seized, and initiated a free colony on a basis consistent with the welfare of its Aboriginals. He conjured prosperity and domestic happiness from most unlikely sources, sought their extension, and aspired beyond them. Cursed by common failings, he yet had a grand intention and perseverance to back it, was brave and considerate, capable of bluff; but fundamentally honest. Suddenly, he lost everything.

At least one title to land near Fyansford, Geelong, where his association invested its remission money, still traces back to the grant, 'Native Chiefs to John Batman'. The basic documents must be sought in three counterparts of each of two deeds of feoffment, one covering the Melbourne, and one the Geelong district. These parchment agreements were in general prepared by Gellibrand, but apparently Todd and Batman added the essential particulars. Two counterparts (Batman's set) are in the State Library, Victoria. One Geelong counterpart (apparently from the set that was sent to Mercer) is held by Harwood & Pincott, Geelong solicitors; the corresponding Melbourne deed is held by the Museum of Australia. The third Melbourne counterpart is in the British Museum; the third Geelong counterpart is in the Mitchell Library. Various miniatures, endorsed by himself as true copies, and evidently done for his partners, attest Batman's care for detail, during 1835.

A contemporary portrait of Batman seems to survive in a photograph at the State Library, Melbourne. His only Australian descendants derive from Mrs Weire. His fifth daughter, Ellen, died young; but the others made reasonable, and, three of them fruitful, marriages: Maria, first with John McKinney, tide-waiter (d.1841); Lucy with Joseph Lomas of Craigieburn; Eliza with William Collyer, squatter; Adelaide with John, his brother, and, as a widow, with William Bertram, Scotland; Pelonamena with Daniel Bunce.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Backhouse, A Narrative of a Visit to the Australian Colonies (Lond, 1843), pp 147, 504
  • J. D. Lang, Port Phillip (Glasgow, 1853), pp 100, 112
  • J. Bonwick, John Batman (Melb, 1867)
  • F. P. Labilliere, Early History of Victoria, vol 2 (Lond, 1878)
  • R. Brough Smyth, The Aborigines of Victoria, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1878)
  • J. Bonwick, Port Phillip Settlement (Lond, 1883)
  • I. Selby, History of Melbourne (Melb, 1924)
  • The Diaries of John Helder Wedge, 1824-1835 (Devonport, 1962)
  • J. Blackman, ‘The Locality of Batman's Treaty With the Port Phillip Natives’, Transactions of the Historical Society of Australasia, vol 1, 1885-86, pp 45-57
  • A. S. Kenyon, ‘The Aboriginal Protectorate of Port Phillip’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 12, no 3, Mar 1928, pp 134-71
  • A. J. Hopton, ‘A Pioneer of Two Colonies: John Pascoe Fawkner, 1792-1869’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 30, no 3, Apr 1960, pp 103-69
  • P. L. Brown, ‘The Batman Stone’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 34 (1963)
  • Hobart Town Courier, 22 May, 26 June 1835
  • Port Phillip Patriot, 6 May, 5, 31 Aug, 16 Oct 1839, 16 Mar 1840, 11 Feb 1841
  • Argus (Melbourne), 1 Apr, 15, 24 June 1852
  • Yeoman, 20 Sept 1862
  • Bendigo Independent, 2 Aug 1882
  • Herald (Melbourne), 11 July 1934
  • Batman papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • Bannister papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • W. Todd, Port Phillip journal (State Library of Victoria)
  • A. S. Kenyon, Notes on Batman (State Library of Victoria)
  • G. Arthur, letters, p 185, 202-03 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Colonial Secretary in-letters, 4/2510, 30 Mar 1839 (State Records New South Wales)
  • O'Cock ledger (Royal Historical Society of Victoria, Melbourne)
  • A. Drysdale, diary (held by author)
  • John Sutch to author 28 June, 2 July 1964
  • other private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

P. L. Brown, 'Batman, John (1801–1839)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/batman-john-1752/text1947, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 22 September 2014.

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

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