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Bethune, Walter Angus (1794–1885)

by Peter Chapman

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

Walter Angus Bethune (1794-1885), merchant and settler, was born in Scotland, the son of Rev. John Bethune, D.D., minister of Dornoch, and his wife Barbara, née Munro. He visited Van Diemen's Land in 1820 and returned next year to settle. He rapidly established himself as a merchant in Hobart Town, with a counting house, several city allotments, a whaling base at Slopen Island and several country holdings. With George Read as his partner he built a warehouse on Hunter Island in 1822. In the next four years he exported 320 tons of oil and 10 tons of whalebone, and he claimed to have loaded four ships in 1827 with colonial produce for London and exported 8000 bushels (214 tons) of wheat to Sydney and Isle of France. By 1830 he was a director of the Bank of Van Diemen's Land and of the Commercial Bank of Tasmania. During his first decade as a colonist, his country managers often complained of stolen stock, and, although he seldom went into the interior, he had been robbed and thrown by Matthew Brady and his bushranging gang into the Sorell Town Gaol and shut up with common felons. He twice joined in pursuit of the gang, and in one crisis acted as a constable for a month; the leaders escaped, but he had sweet revenge in capturing one, Jeremiah Ryan, with his own hands.

According to the land commissioners of 1826 Bethune's land was 'merely fit for sheep', but his Saxon sheep were well bred and his merinos came from pure English stock. In 1829 when he sailed for England with a cargo of wool, forty of the bales came from his own flock and his fleeces topped the London wool sales with 24½d. He returned in 1830 to settle permanently on Dunrobin, his large estate at Ouse. By purchase and lease he soon acquired 25,000 acres (10,117 ha), his holdings extending nearly to Lake St Clair. His high class merinos were in great demand among new settlers at Port Phillip, and in 1839 before his second trip to England, he sold 7000 sheep, and 300 cattle.

Bethune became a justice of the peace, an active organizer for roads and bridges, and a nominated member of the Legislative Council in 1834-38. With great faith in the power of public opinion, he added his name to countless petitions for civic rights and efficient government. His relentless vigour was well illustrated in his dispute with Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Arthur in 1827 over encroachment on the waterfront of his warehouse on Hunter Island; Bethune sold the store but his charge against Arthur's alleged breach of faith was carried to the Colonial Office.

Although originally Presbyterian, Bethune became an Anglican and helped to build the church at Ouse. Principled and proud, he won place and wealth for himself and his enterprise benefited the colony, before he retired to England in 1856. He died on 28 November 1885 at Kensington in London.

In 1832 at St David's Church, Hobart, Bethune had married Charlotte Elizabeth, the daughter of Captain John Charles Stracey of the 11th Dragoons, and a sister of J. C. Stracey, an auctioneer of Hobart. On the death of his wife in 1864 he married Julia Elwell, who survived him. Several of his eight daughters married into the Scottish landed gentry and the four sons took over the Tasmanian properties. One grandson, Rev. J. W. Bethune, became headmaster of Launceston Church of England Grammar School, and another, Rev. F. P. Bethune, won fame serving as a combatant officer in World War 1. A great-grandson became leader of the Opposition in the Tasmanian Parliament.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 3, vol 6
  • R. W. Giblin, The Early History of Tasmania, vol 2 (Melb, 1939)
  • Colonial Times (Hobart), 21 July 1826
  • correspondence file under Bethune (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Peter Chapman, 'Bethune, Walter Angus (1794–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bethune-walter-angus-1775/text1991, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 22 November 2017.

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

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