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Boyd, Benjamin (Ben) (1801–1851)

by G. P. Walsh

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

Benjamin Boyd (1801-1851), entrepreneur, was born on 21 August 1801 at Penninghame, Wigtown, Scotland, the second surviving son of Edward Boyd, a London merchant of Merton Hall, Wigtonshire, Scotland, and his wife Janet, daughter of Benjamin Yule of Wheatfield, Midlothian. By 1824 Boyd was a stockbroker in London, where he also had an interest in the St George's Steam Packet Co. In October 1840 he wrote to Lord John Russell about his plans for 'further developing the resources of Australia and its adjacent Islands'. Convinced that regular communication between the various settlements could only be effected by large steamships, he told Russell that he had already sent one to New South Wales, another was soon to follow and that he intended to go too. To ensure success he asked for permission to select five or six locations on the Australian coast for harbours and coaling stations, with the right to buy land near by. Boyd was promised 'every facility and assistance' for his navigational proposals and Governor Sir George Gipps was instructed to help him, but the Colonial Office was non-committal on the less definite objects of Boyd's plans relating to the Pacific Islands. The finance for Boyd's proposed schemes was provided by the Royal Bank of Australia formed in London in 1839 with a nominal capital of £1,000,000; debentures of £200,000 were sold and this sum was taken by Boyd to Australia. Boyd also had formed in November 1841 the Australian Wool Co. and £15,000 of its debentures were deposited with the Royal Bank of which he was a director and his brother, Mark, the manager.

Boyd left Plymouth in his schooner Wanderer, a unit of the Royal Yacht Squadron, reached Port Phillip on 15 June 1842, and arrived in Port Jackson on 18 July 1842. On coming up the harbour the neighbouring heights were crowded with spectators to see the Wanderer, and the schooner Velocity fired a salute. Among his passengers were his brother James, Oswald Walters Brierly (later marine artist to Queen Victoria), and Adam Bogue and Downes who later became captains in Boyd's whaling fleet. Boyd's arrival at Port Jackson had been preceded by the steamers Seahorse in June 1841, Juno in March 1842, Velocity in May and Cornubia in June, all bringing supplies for his ventures.

Boyd lost no time in launching his various enterprises; with Joseph Phelps Robinson as his partner and fellow director he set up the Sydney office of the Royal Bank at Church Hill and advertised that they would sell their drafts, or Scotch Bank acceptances payable in London at 2 per cent; his coastal steamships concentrated on the southern route to Twofold Bay and Hobart Town, and by May 1844 he had become one of the largest landholders and graziers in the colony. His fourteen stations in the Monaro and four in the Port Phillip District included 426,000 acres (172,398 ha); the pastoral rights to most of this land were bought from their former holders, and according to Gipps the stations were 'well-watered, and in the best parts of the Colony'. By 1844 he had 20,000 sheep and 10,000 cattle in the Monaro. During the 1840s the Royal Bank, or Boyd & Robinson, had more than 160,000 sheep and controlled over 2,500,000 acres (1,011,715 ha) in the Monaro and Riverina alone, for a trifling annual licence fee.

For his pastoral activities Boyd had much trouble in recruiting suitable labour. In evidence before the select committee on immigration on 27 September 1843 he claimed that he employed some 200 shepherds and stockmen, but despaired of the colony's prosperity 'unless we have cheap labour, and can bring the wages of the shepherd who will undertake large flocks to £10 a year with rations'; these included meat and flour, but not tea and sugar which he considered luxuries. Boyd's avowed interest in the unemployed was unconvincing: Samuel Sidney thought it typical of 'the haughty gentlemanly, selfish class he represented' and contrasted it with the more liberal attitude of Charles Campbell. Nevertheless the meagre supplies of immigrants and former convicts who were willing to go to outback stations often proved unsatisfactory, and Boyd looked for alternative sources. He suggested a plan whereby convicts with tickets-of-leave in Van Diemen's Land might be granted pardons conditional upon them going to work in New South Wales, but it did not appeal to the government. He then envisaged recruiting labour from the Pacific Islands. In 1847 some 200 natives from Tanna (New Hebrides) and Lifu (Loyalty Islands) and other islands were brought to the colony as shepherds and labourers, but most of them had to be sent back to the islands by the end of the year. The liberals and the humanitarians objected, and workers protested that this first introduction of native labour into Australia threatened their standard of living. Boyd claimed that his scheme failed chiefly because the natives were not covered by the Masters and Servants Act (9 Vic. no 27), but these 'children of nature' were too wild and unreliable for the more sophisticated prospects that were opened before them. There were also rumours that many had been brought to the colony against their will; these charges were investigated by the attorney-general in Sydney and in December 1847 Sir Charles FitzRoy reported to the Colonial Office that they had been found unsubstantiated.

Boyd chose Twofold Bay for his coastal base through which he could ship livestock, wool and tallow from the Monaro hinterland. Two small townships were planned. At Boyd Town an hotel, church, houses, stores, salting and boiling-down works, jetty and lighthouse were erected. At East Boyd he established a whaling station, thus adding to his multifarious undertakings an industry with which the bay was already familiar. At Port Jackson Boyd fitted out his ships in Mosman Bay and small coasters brought his wool from Boyd Town to Neutral Bay where, in his stores and wool-washing establishment, he prepared it for shipment to London.

The 1840s saw much conflict and agitation between the settlers and the government over land policy, and to safeguard his interests Boyd entered the public life of the colony. In 1844 he was president of the newly formed Pastoralists' Association which sent Archibald Boyd to London to present their views to the British government, and from September 1844 to September 1845 he represented the Port Phillip District in the Legislative Council. Boyd's methods of financing his trading, shipping and pastoral pursuits were complicated and obscure; he soon overreached himself in his investments and was in financial trouble. He lost a long and costly legal action in an endeavour to recover £25,000 in insurance on his damaged steamer Seahorse in 1846, and his reports to the London directors of the Royal Bank misrepresented the prices obtained for sheep and cattle, purporting to show profits of £36,071 for 1845. Suspicious shareholders and debenture holders forced him out in 1847 in favour of his brother, William Sprott Boyd, but he too failed to retrieve the situation and in 1849 was replaced by a liquidator. Boyd's Royal Bank had proved little more than a bank in name only; although it sold bills in London and its notes had wide circulation, its main purpose was to finance Boyd's grandiose schemes and its impact on the general banking structure was negligible. Its involved affairs and the bankruptcy of Mark Boyd were not settled for many years.

After his spectacular failure Ben Boyd decided to try his luck on the Californian goldfields. On 26 October 1849 as the Wanderer sailed out of Port Jackson she accidentally lost her best bow anchor on the reef, 'as a parting legacy', wrote Boyd, 'to the colony in which I had hoped for so much, and though in part succeeded, yet in the main failed through little of my own fault'. In America he was unsuccessful at the diggings and, according to John Webster, he decided to cruise in the Pacific Islands with the idea of establishing a 'Papuan Republic or Confederation'.

In June 1851 the Wanderer with her tender Ariel sailed from San Francisco. After visiting the Hawaiian Islands the ships reached the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons and early in the morning on 15 October Boyd went ashore with a native to shoot game. His boat was seen to enter a small creek and soon afterwards two shots were heard at intervals of a quarter of an hour. When Boyd failed to return, his companions in the yacht went ashore and searched in vain; his body was not found and it was concluded that he had been killed by natives. After carrying out reprisals on the natives his party sailed for Australia, but on 12 November 1851 the Wanderer was wrecked in a gale off Port Macquarie. After Guadalcanal, wrote Webster, 'it seemed as though an evil fortune brooded over the yacht; and in one short month after the death of him whose pride she had been, … the wanderings of the Wanderer were at an end'. Later, rumours that Boyd was still alive and possibly a prisoner on the island led to the Oberon and H.M.S. Herald being sent to search for him in 1854, but they proved groundless. In May 1864 letters of administration of Boyd's estate and effects, valued at less than £3000, were granted to the London manager of his creditor, the Royal Bank of Australia.

Benjamin Boyd was tall, with an imposing personal appearance and fluent tongue; he also possessed a fair amount of business acumen. Georgiana McCrae, the artist and diarist, who entertained him to dinner in June 1842 at Port Phillip, wrote: 'He is Rubens over again. Tells me he went to a bal masque as Rubens with his broad-leafed hat, and was considered comme il faut'. In the palmy days he entertained lavishly at Sydney and Boyd Town. He had the sanguine temperament, exuberant vitality and daring enterprise of the typical adventurer; according to his friend Brierly, he was 'always devising some plan of pleasure or business'. The only surviving evidence of his colourful schemes in Australia are a few mouldering relics of a ghost town. He never married.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 21, 23, 24, 26
  • S. Sidney, The Three Colonies of Australia (Lond, 1852)
  • J. Webster, The Last Cruise of the Wanderer (Syd, 1863)
  • H. McCrae (ed), Georgiana's Journal (Syd, 1934)
  • H. P. Wellings, Benjamin Boyd in Australia (Syd, nd)
  • J. H. Watson, ‘Benjamin Boyd, Merchant’, Journal and Proceedings (Australian Historical Society), vol 2, part 6, 1907, pp 129-39
  • H. P. Wellings, ‘Ben Boyd's Labour Supplies’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 19, part 6, 1933, pp 374-84
  • H. P. Wellings, ‘Ben Boyd in Riverina’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 20, part 2, 1934, pp 114-21
  • H. P. Wellings, ‘Benjamin Boy's Three Steamers: Seahorse, Conubia, Juno’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 21, part 5, 1935, pp 320-35.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Boyd, Benjamin (Ben) (1801–1851)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/boyd-benjamin-ben-1815/text2075, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 23 October 2014.

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

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