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Belcher, George Frederick (1823–1909)

by P. L. Brown

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

George Frederick Belcher (1823-1909), by unknown engraver, 1892

George Frederick Belcher (1823-1909), by unknown engraver, 1892

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/09/92/18 [detail]

George Frederick Belcher (1823-1909), pioneer, was born on 10 January 1823 at 5 Old Dominick Street, Dublin, the sixth son of Joseph William Belcher (1784-1865), an Irish solicitor of English descent, and his equally Protestant wife, Elizabeth Austin (d.1861), of Waterfall, County Cork. He attended Bective House, a local school, and on 20 February 1839 reached Melbourne via Launceston in the barque Louisa Campbell, with his elder sister Anna, following two of their brothers and her husband, Charles Williams, auctioneer. Belcher soon passed through Geelong to visit Nentingbull, the station of J. J. B. Smythe, a returning fellow-passenger, and apparently early in 1840 he accompanied Arthur Boursiquot to his run near Mount Rouse, and thence to Port Fairy. But, beginning as managing agent for Smythe's small rented properties, and living first with his Williams relations, he made Melbourne his headquarters until after the arrival of his parents, his eldest sister Elizabeth, who a year later married William, brother of Edward, George and Alfred Langhorne, four younger sisters, and another brother, in March 1842.

Although for a time Belcher worked with his father, who was soon admitted to practice, in 1844 he joined a party under Robert Haverfield which drove 500 head of cattle from Alfred Langhorne's Dandenong station to Adelaide, in time for their dray to carry the boat when Charles Sturt's last expedition set out on 10 August. Belcher then stayed with his maternal cousin, (Sir) Robert Torrens. His sisters were married to brothers of Frederick von Stieglitz: Sophia to Charles in 1844 and Marcella to Robert in 1845; in December 1844 Belcher rode north-west from Robert's Ballan station to find new country for its increasing flocks. The result was the discovery and naming of Nhill, and Belcher's occupation of the 'Coonangamamool' or Lake Hindmarsh holding, near Jeparit.

Whether we lay in cave or shed
Our sleep fell soft on the hardest bed.
Fresh we woke upon the morrow;
We had health and we had hope
All our thoughts and words had scope.
Toil and travel, but no sorrow,
Those hardy days flew cheerily
And when they now fall drearily,
My thoughts, like swallows, skim the main
And bear my spirit back again,
Over the earth and through the air,
A wild bird and a wanderer.

These verses, written in 1883, when Belcher also recorded all he could then remember of his youthful composition, 'Fill the Goblet', which he sang at the Weatherboard station for his host, David Fisher, on the 1840 journey, show his appreciation of the primitive background. But in June 1845 he had qualified by examination for an appointment at the Port Phillip sub-Treasury. He lacked squatting capital, and began to find the pastoral life monotonous. Consequently, when his father, just before moving to Geelong and founding the firm to which T. C. Harwood succeeded, secured the next vacancy for him, Belcher left the bush and, on 9 July 1846, became junior clerk in the sub-Treasury, Melbourne, where he made his way undeflected by the gold rush.

Belcher was not attracted to the diggings. In December 1852, however, he sailed from Geelong, on leave, with his parents and widowed sister, Anna Williams, who were retiring to Ireland. When he returned to Victoria, in February 1854, he brought a wife, Julia Maria Pepper, sister to one of his former squatting associates. In May 1854 he was made sub-treasurer at Geelong, and in 1855 became land officer there. He lived first in the bluestone sub-treasury, which still stands; then at the south corner of the Aberdeen Street and La Trobe Terrace junction; from 1856 at Adzar, Highton. Resigning from government service in 1869, he moved to Ariel Cottage, Skene Street, and became a financial broker and land agent, having his office at first in the Chamber of Commerce, Moorabool Street, and then in his own neighbouring building.

Belcher was appointed vice-consul at Geelong for Norway and Sweden in 1872, and for Denmark in 1881. He was elected mayor of Geelong in 1873, and again in 1875, when he married as his second wife Frederica, eldest daughter of his former Highton neighbour, C. N. Thorne, with whom he lived partly at Merchiston Hall, East Geelong, which he bought from James Cowie in 1872, and partly in Allanvale, Kensington (Leopold), where she died in 1881. Belcher had seven children by his first marriage, and four sons, the eldest Sir Charles Belcher, chief justice and ornithologist, by his second. His third marriage, in 1887, to his sister-in-law, Florence Thorne, who survived him, was childless. He represented South-Western Province in 1875-81 and Wellington Province in 1882-86 in the Legislative Council, and was on the Geelong Grammar School Council from 1884, succeeding Sir Charles Sladen. He was the effective founder of St Matthew's Church, East Geelong, and from 1877 was closely linked with St Mark's Church, Leopold. He died at Merchiston Hall on 23 November 1909.

Belcher gave Leopold the site for its public hall, St John's Church, Highton, its ground, and Geelong a fountain which stands near the city's centre. But most of his many benefactions lacked publicity. His shrewd, conscientious, often obstinate wisdom screened quiet generosity and an unusual concern for people as individuals. His Irish humour was sometimes disconcerting, but he was habitually considerate. He appreciated occasions and anniversaries, and led in such causes as the fund for Jane Cooper (Duff), the erection of a Batman monument, and the marking of James Harrison's grave. As 'Old Mortality', and in other disguises, he became an occasional journalist who specialized in relevant reminiscence. He accepted rather than sought municipal and political office. Although he enjoyed his communal responsibilities, his thoughts were increasingly fixed upon his earthly home and the heavenly one beyond it. Sustained by a simple faith through shattering bereavements, he found comfort in the last verse of Newman's 'Lead, kindly Light'.

The death of one of his sons produced the best record of Belcher's life and character. This record, not begun until May 1873, became sixteen manuscript volumes in which diary, scrapbook, and recollections compose a valuable social and historical sketch. In 1956 the whole was presented to the State Library of Victoria by Sir Charles Belcher, who added to it his own slightly abridged but more easily read transcript.

Select Bibliography

  • C. F. Belcher, Genealogical Notes Relating to William Belcher of Kells (Nairobi, 1944)
  • Emily Bowring, Sketches in Early Tasmania and Victoria, K. R. von Stieglitz ed (Hob, 1965)
  • Geelong Grammar School Quarterly, July 1884, Dec 1909
  • I. Selby, ‘The Hon. George Frederick Belcher and His Reminiscences of Early Victoria’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 15, no 3, May 1935, pp 83-92
  • P. L. Brown, ‘The Story of Allanvale, Kensington, Near Geelong’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 24, no 2, Sept 1951, pp 34-51
  • G. F. Belcher diary (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

P. L. Brown, 'Belcher, George Frederick (1823–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/belcher-george-frederick-2966/text4319, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 22 November 2017.

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

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