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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cole, George Ward (1793–1879)

by Weston Bate

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

George Ward Cole (1793-1879), by unknown artist, c1840

George Ward Cole (1793-1879), by unknown artist, c1840

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2310700

George Ward Cole (1793-1879), merchant, was born on 15 November 1793 at Lumley Castle, Durham, England, the fourth son of John Cole and his wife Eliza, née James. In 1807 he joined the navy and as a midshipman was stationed in the West Indies until 1810 when he transferred to the Channel Squadron. He was promoted lieutenant in 1814 and spent the next year on the North American coast in various amphibious operations, among them the destruction of Washington. In 1817, after further service in the West Indies, he was retired on half-pay. Then began an adventurous career in the merchant marine, sometimes as part-owner of the ships he commanded. He engaged in such speculative trades as opium, furs and sandalwood and spent some time pearl-fishing. In the 1830s he was whaling and trading out of Honolulu. Here he antagonized the missionaries by opening a grog shop, and he helped to found a non-mission school for European children. He had several clashes with natives, and in 1834 he won a lawsuit with Pomare of Tahiti over the theft of his vessel, the Truro. Shortly before settling at Port Phillip in 1840, he set up in business at Sydney, fitting out whaling ships, and had even bought land there for a patent slip. He was in England buying machinery when he changed his mind.

Cole arrived in Melbourne on 4 July 1840 in the schooner Waterlily, of which he was part-owner. He set up as a general merchant, and in 1841 bought land on the Yarra River near Spencer Street, where he built Cole's Wharf. In 1842 he married for the second time. His first wife had been a widow, Eliza Cantey, the daughter of Colonel Charles Brietyche. His second wife was Thomas Anne, daughter of William Gordon McCrae, formerly of Westbrook, Midlothian, Scotland. He had one son by the first and three sons and three daughters by the second marriage.

In Melbourne he continued his interest in shipping. He operated paddle-steamers on the Yarra and in Port Phillip Bay, and in 1851 he built the City of Melbourne, the first screw steamer south of the equator. He ran it between Melbourne and Launceston until it was wrecked. He also had important banking and squatting interests and was agent for Lloyds. He had quickly established himself as a prominent citizen, and his wealth is evident in the scale of a fishing and picnic party he gave in December 1841 for 150 friends, including Superintendent Charles La Trobe; and in the purchase, in 1842, of 24 acres (9.7 ha) on the sea front at Brighton, where the famous St Ninian's was erected from prefabricated teak.

Cole won the Gippsland seat in the Legislative Council in 1853. He may have been motivated by a desire to obtain full redress for the resumption of his wharf in 1852, at the height of the gold rush, just when it would have made a fortune. If so, he had a long and disappointing wait: not until 1868 did he receive £19,000 in compensation. He considered this sum paltry when set against his expenditure and the revenue he might have had from the thousands of immigrants who used the wharf in the 1850s. He resigned from the Legislative Council in 1855 and went to England, but on his return in 1857 was elected for the Central Province and again in 1860 and 1870. An ardent protectionist, as one of his pamphlets dated 1860 shows, and a radical, he supported (Sir) James McCulloch in the Darling grant deadlock in 1867. In that year he was made an executive councillor. Cole published a number of pamphlets in the 1860s and 1870s in which he displayed an interest in social and economic questions ranging from unemployment and the establishment of a harbour trust to the Yarra floods and the need for gunboats and a local powder manufactory.

The Coles's life at St Ninian's was far from ostentatious, much of their food coming from the property itself, but they were frequently received at Government House, and counted as friends many prominent people. They were members of the Church of England. Captain Cole was keenly interested in horticulture. In the 1860s St Ninian's was the scene of the celebrated Brighton Flower Show. He introduced sugar beet into the colony in 1863 and was a pioneer in the use of seaweed as a fertiliser. In parliament he strongly advocated the establishment of agricultural colleges. He died at Melbourne on 26 April 1879.

Portraits are in the Brighton City Council chambers, Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • Men of the Time in Australia, Victorian series (Melb, 1878)
  • A. Sutherland, Victoria and its Metropolis, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1888)
  • W. Bate, A History of Brighton (Melb, 1962).

Citation details

Weston Bate, 'Cole, George Ward (1793–1879)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 27 September 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 1

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