Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Blaxland, Gregory (1778–1853)

by Jill Conway

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

Gregory Blaxland (1778-1853), by unknown artist

Gregory Blaxland (1778-1853), by unknown artist

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 14069

Gregory Blaxland (1778-1853), settler, was born on 17 June 1778 at Fordwich, Kent, England, the fourth son of John Blaxland, mayor from 1767 to 1774, whose family had owned estates near by for generations, and Mary, daughter of Captain Parker, R.N. Gregory attended The King's School, Canterbury. In July 1799 in the church of St George the Martyr there, he married Elizabeth, daughter of John Spurdon; they had five sons and two daughters.

The Blaxlands were friends of Sir Joseph Banks who appears to have strongly influenced the decision of Gregory and his eldest brother, John, to emigrate. The government promised them land, convict servants and free passages, in accord with its policy of encouraging 'settlers of responsibility and Capital'. Leaving John to sell their Kent estates, Gregory sailed in the William Pitt on 1 September 1805 with his wife, three children, two servants, an overseer, a few sheep, seed, bees, tools, groceries and clothing. When he reached Sydney he sold many of these goods very profitably, bought eighty head of cattle so as to enter the meat trade, located 4000 acres (1619 ha) of land and was promised forty convict servants. Soon afterwards he also bought 450 acres (182 ha) at the Brush Farm (near Eastwood) from D'Arcy Wentworth for £1500, while also displaying some of his future characteristics by commencing litigation against the master of the William Pitt.

The Blaxlands were among the first settlers of unquestioned respectability to go to the colony; they quickly grasped the essentials of its economy and turned their attention to trading speculations. In August 1807 Governor Philip Gidley King warned William Bligh that he would 'be plagued with' Gregory Blaxland, and he was right. Both he and his brother John, who arrived in April 1807, thought themselves entitled to far more government assistance than they received, while Bligh criticized their 'speculative' and 'mercantile' activities. They joined those opposing the governor, and in January 1808 signed the letter requesting Major George Johnston to arrest Bligh. But they soon became 'extremely troublesome' to Johnston too, and in a dispute concerning the ownership of the ship Brothers took the law into their own hands, assaulted the master and used the ensuing trial 'as a mask' to display 'vexatious opposition' to him.

In addition to commercial speculations, sometimes undertaken in partnership with Simeon Lord, the Blaxlands bought a stockyard on the site Governor Lachlan Macquarie turned into a market in Sydney, and expanded their cattle grazing. In 1809 Lieutenant-Governor William Paterson granted Gregory 2000 acres (809 ha) at Evan. When Macquarie arrived he confirmed this, adding a further 2280 acres (923 ha) there in place of the original grant made by Governor King, and 500 (202 ha) more in the district of Cooke in 1812; this, he thought, satisfied all the claims for government assistance to which Gregory was entitled. He became very critical of the brothers for remaining 'restless and dissatisfied' and refusing to grow grain, despite their large numbers of convict servants; but Blaxland was concerned with his livestock. By 1813 he had come to realize that his flocks of sheep and cattle were expanding beyond the resources of his coastal grant. Macquarie could not be persuaded to grant extra lands to large flock owners on the coast, and Blaxland thus drew the correct conclusion that the solution to the pastoralists' land problem lay in discovering a route to the interior. In 1810 he had explored part of the Nepean River. Early in 1813 he requested Macquarie's approval of an exploring expedition across the Blue Mountains, and on 11 May he set out with William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth. Though as early as 1816 Blaxland claimed to have been the leader of the expedition, contemporary records suggest that none of the three men assumed this position but that their effort was a joint one. They achieved success by adopting the novel method of traversing the mountains by the ridges instead of looking for a route through the valleys. They found the way across by Mount York, and then went on past Cox's River to a sugar loaf hill later named Mount Blaxland; from its summit could be seen 'enough grass to support the stock of the colony for thirty years'.

Blaxland's diaries show that he had a clear grasp of the scale upon which agricultural and pastoral activities would be profitable in Australia, but he was over ambitious in some of his speculations, and his role in the colony was thus less significant than that of other early pastoralists. In 1814, like many others almost insolvent because of drought and depression, he tried to persuade Macquarie to sanction a scheme for the exploitation of the interior by a large agricultural company similar to the later Australian Agricultural Co. of the 1820s. Macquarie would not agree nor would he allow Blaxland land in the interior for his own flocks. Since Blaxland then had to dispose of his livestock, it is not surprising that he joined the colonial opposition to Macquarie, and in 1819 sharply criticized his administration to Commissioner John Thomas Bigge.

By 1820 Blaxland had settled down on his Brush Farm estate, which Macquarie had admitted to be a 'very snug good farm and very like an English one in point of comfort and convenience'. Here he conducted many experiments with crops and grasses, unsuccessfully with tobacco growing but most successfully with buffalo grass and viticulture. He had brought vines from the Cape of Good Hope, found a species resistant to blight, took a sample of his wine to London in 1822 and won a silver medal for it. While in England he published his A Journal of a Tour of Discovery Across the Blue Mountains in New South Wales (London, 1823). After the death of his wife in December 1826 he made another visit to England. Still opposed to the governor's authority, this time he bore a petition in support of trial by jury and some form of representative government, and again carried samples of his wine, for which he won another medal in 1828. He successfully petitioned the Colonial Office for a drawback on the import duty on brandy imported into the colony and 'actually used in the manufacture of wine'. He was also given an order for 40,000 acres (16,187 ha) for growing tobacco but fortunately this was conditional for, as Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling reported, Blaxland had obtained it by deception. Darling allowed him 1280 acres (518 ha) at Sutherland, but this was 'transferred to his Creditors'. Thereafter Blaxland disappeared from public activity and when he committed suicide on 1 January 1853, his death was scarcely noticed in the press. Always a man of moody and mercurial character, Blaxland devoted his colonial activities almost entirely to the pursuit of his economic interests, and his diaries do not suggest great attachment to the colonial environment beyond what was suggested by the hope of personal gain.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 5-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 5-9, 11, 13, 14, 16
  • G. Mackaness (ed), Fourteen Journeys over the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, 1813-1841: Part 1, 1813-1815 (Syd, 1950)
  • J. K. S. Houison, ‘John and Gregory Blaxland’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 22, part 1, 1936, pp 1-41
  • W. L. Havard (ed), ‘Gregory Blaxland's Narrative and Journal Relating to the First Expedition Over the Blue Mountains, New South Wales’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 23, part 1, 1937, pp 28-42
  • newspaper indexes under Blaxland (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under Gregory Blaxland (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Jill Conway, 'Blaxland, Gregory (1778–1853)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blaxland-gregory-1795/text2031, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 20 December 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Gregory Blaxland (1778-1853), by unknown artist

Gregory Blaxland (1778-1853), by unknown artist

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 14069