Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Broun, Peter Nicholas (1797–1846)

by Malcolm Uren

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

Peter Nicholas Broun (1797-1846), by unknown artist, 1840s

Peter Nicholas Broun (1797-1846), by unknown artist, 1840s

State Library of Western Australia, 003117D

Peter Nicholas Broun (1797-1846), public servant, was born on 17 August 1797, at Guernsey, Channel Islands, the second son of Sir William Broun, sixth baronet, and his wife Annie, daughter of Peter de Mirgy, colonel of the Guernsey Artillery. He spent his early life in Scotland as a gentleman clerk, and in 1825 married Caroline, daughter of James Simpson of Dumfriesshire.

With recommendations from Sir George Murray and other influential patrons he was nominated by Captain (Sir) James Stirling in December 1828 as secretary of government for the new settlement at Swan River, and formally appointed next January at a salary of £400. With the governor's party he sailed with his wife and two children in the Parmelia, arriving in Western Australia in June 1829. The regulations for the colonial secretary's office, drafted on the voyage, set out in detail his multifarious duties: daily consultation with the governor, hours of business, recording of correspondence, musters and accounts, and general supervision of the entire civil establishment. On arrival his tent at Garden Island became the centre of urgent activity. He had to issue civil orders for the landing of troops, settlers and stores, and after 12 August he had to arrange accommodation in the new town of Perth for his own and other departments. Most of his work he did himself, for his first clerks were poorly paid and unreliable.

By January 1830 Broun and his family were living in his temporary office; he made his permanent home at the corner of Hay and Irwin Streets. He had brought livestock, equipment and furniture valued at more than £500, which entitled him to 9626 acres (3896 ha). He selected part of his grant on the Upper Swan, calling it Bassendean after a family property in Scotland. He became prominent at meetings of farmers and later of the Agricultural Association, though he had little time to devote to his holdings. One hindrance arose indirectly from his additional role of acting treasurer. On arrival Stirling gave him charge of public funds and many settlers deposited their surplus cash with him. A colonial treasurer was appointed in 1832 and a colonial bank was proposed, but nothing was done, so Broun continued as a private banker. Next year when currency became scarce through payments for imports, he began to issue promissory notes which had somewhat insecure backing. In January 1834 the government's issue of a limited number of £1 notes raised public suspicion of Broun's notes. Although denounced as a scoundrel and threatened with assault, he honorably repaid some of his notes by selling his estate and stock at Bassendean; for others, held by the government, he assigned part of his salary. These setbacks, however, did not prevent him or his family from joining in the gay rounds of the colony's leading society.

In addition to his duties as colonial secretary and registrar, Broun was also clerk of the councils and second in importance only to the governor in the civil government. The Executive Council sometimes met four times a month, and during Stirling's absence from August 1832 to August 1834 his duties were particularly heavy. Although Broun himself had suffered from Aboriginal marauders, he steadfastly counselled settlers to maintain prudence and humanity, and pressed the government to establish an adequate police force. With equal vigour he vented his wrath on the engineer, Henry Reveley who in September 1833 sought a succession of government loans to improve his flour-mill before he would grind the 2000 bushels of wheat sent from Van Diemen's Land to stave off starvation at Swan River. With the coming of Governor John Hutt in 1839 the increased responsibility of the Legislative Council relieved Broun of many onerous decisions. The work of his office grew year by year, but much was delegated to other departments and routines steadily became more organized. The 178 volumes of his official correspondence, now in the Battye Library, bear witness to his industry and sound judgment as founder of the public service in Western Australia.

In 1842 Broun was elected to the first Perth Town Trust and played a part in planning the city. Nevertheless in 1845 he still called himself a 'bird of passage', and warned 'permanent settlers' against the evils of introducing convict labour. He was never robust and when his health broke down after seventeen years in office he was replaced by George Moore. He died at Fremantle on 5 November 1846, 'without the slightest prospect of a donation or pension being extended to his family'. His wife sailed for England in the Hindoo which caught fire at sea and was burned to the water's edge. She was saved but his papers and diaries that she had planned to publish in London were destroyed.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Uren, Land Looking West (Lond, 1948)
  • C. Bryan and F. I. Bray, ‘Peter Nicholas Brown (1797-1846): First Colonial Secretary of Western Australia (1829-1846)’, Journal and Proceedings (Western Australian Historical Society), vol 2, part 18, 1935, pp 1-33
  • P. U. Henn, genealogical notes (Battye Library, Perth)
  • P. U. Henn, Parmelia passengers (State Library of Western Australia)
  • CO 18/1, 20/1.

Citation details

Malcolm Uren, 'Broun, Peter Nicholas (1797–1846)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/broun-peter-nicholas-1833/text2109, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 31 August 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Peter Nicholas Broun (1797-1846), by unknown artist, 1840s

Peter Nicholas Broun (1797-1846), by unknown artist, 1840s

State Library of Western Australia, 003117D