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Curr, Edward (1798–1850)

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

Edward Curr (1798-1850), company manager, was born on 1 July 1798 at Bellevue House, Sheffield, England, the third son of John Curr, a civil engineer who managed the estate and coal-mines of the Duke of Norfolk. His brother John settled in New South Wales and Joseph became a Catholic priest. At 5 Edward went to a school at Sedgeley Park and thence to Ushaw College. He then worked in a Liverpool office for two years and, rejecting his father's help to study for a profession or to buy a business, sailed for Brazil but soon returned. At Sheffield he married Elizabeth, the only child of Benjamin (1762-1798) and Mary Micklethwait, 'with whom he received a considerable sum'. In 1819 with a guarantee from his father he entered into a partnership with John Raine, a London merchant about to sail for Van Diemen's Land.

Curr sailed with his wife in the Claudine and arrived in Hobart Town in February 1820. Although hard in business deals, he soon objected to Raine's sharp practice and after a visit to Sydney he formed another partnership with Horatio William Mason, an innkeeper and merchant. When Raine became insolvent in 1822 and returned to England, Curr had only partial success in recovering his own and his father's debts. He became friendly with Lieutenant-Governor William Sorell and was granted 1500 acres (607 ha) at Cross Marsh. He also served in the Deputy Judge Advocate's Court and on several committees of inquiry. In 1822 he was treasurer of a fund for building a Catholic church and dwelling for a priest on land in Harrington Street allotted by Sorell. In 1823 his father died, the partnership with Mason was dissolved, and Curr returned to England with his wife and two sons born in Hobart; a third was born on the voyage. Next year his Account of the Colony of Van Diemen's Land, Principally Designed for the Use of Emigrants was published in London after many tiffs with George Daniel who had put his memoranda in order for the press. Curr was proud of this 'little work' and confided to Daniel, 'I send it like the dove from the Ark and I wait anxiously to see if it returns with a green branch in its mouth'. His hopes were soon realized.

The promoters of the Van Diemen's Land Co., after their first meeting in May 1824, had applied for a grant of 500,000 acres (202,345 ha). As Sorell had just returned to England, the Colonial Office sought his opinion and was told of the colony's desperate need for capital. Through Sorell, Curr was introduced to the company's directors and appointed their chief agent at a salary of £800. He won Earl Bathurst's support in April 1825, and was sent to (Sir) Robert Wilmot Horton, with whom he arranged satisfactory terms for buying the company's land. After the passing of the Van Diemen's Land Co.'s Act (6 Geo. IV, c. 39) and the granting of its charter, he left England in the Cape Packet with his family and staff. Livestock, implements and emigrant labourers were to follow in the Tranmere and, since the company's land was simply described as 250,000 acres (101,173 ha) in the form of a square in the north-west of the colony, Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur was instructed to work with Curr while the boundaries were surveyed and then to issue the occupation licence.

On arrival in Hobart in May 1826 Curr hurried north with his surveyors to locate the company's lands. After three weeks of struggle with difficult terrain, his first choice was at North Down between Port Sorell and the Mersey River, but Arthur promptly ruled that this choice was not consistent with his instruction to preserve a wide gap between the company's land and the settled districts. As the Tranmere was daily expected and his chief assistant, Stephen Adey, had orders to find new coastal headquarters for the survey, Curr dashed back to Hobart determined to convince Arthur that no decision should be made until the entire north was surveyed. The company was powerfully backed, and with great caution Arthur invited Curr to join the Legislative Council. As a conscientious Catholic, Curr refused to take the required oath, but the formality was waived and he took his seat pending confirmation from London. By September Circular Head was chosen as the company's base and the Tranmere was directed to it, but reports on the coastal lands called for much more exploration. Curr ordered his surveyors inland and made some inspection himself; he was staggered by the wild country and heavy timber, and soon decided that the company's land must be taken in separate sections. Arthur opposed him bitterly, reporting to Bathurst in November that 'scarcely less than one fourth of the whole island' would satisfy Curr. Precautions were taken to keep the transactions out of the press, but rumour was rife and settlers became jealous of the company's privileges. The controversy dragged on until 1830 when the company was given six locations with a total of 350,000 acres (141,642 ha). Although much of the land was bleak and barren, Curr believed at first that he had secured the pick of the north-west at the nominal price of £10,000. He soon realized, however, that most of the land was quite unsuited for large scale sheep-rearing, and urged his directors to press for a grant at Port Phillip. They declined, encouraged by the £1500 netted for the sale of the 1830 clip in England. In 1831-34 cold, disease and marauding animals destroyed the flock of Saxon sheep at the Surrey Hills, the only large area of natural grassland in the company's grant, and determined the directors to attempt an exchange of land. Their efforts continued until 1839, but as they had received their original grant only by assuring the government of its suitability for their purposes, their suggestions were rejected by the Executive Council in Hobart and by the Colonial Office.

Curr took his family to Circular Head in November 1827, and although he was a large shareholder in the company, they lived in a small cottage until 1835 when Highfield was built with its twenty-four rooms. With heavy cost and frequent accidents, land was cleared, wells sunk, and buildings and fencing commenced. Exceptional crops of wheat and vegetables in 1828 prompted misleading hopes of self-sufficiency. After the disastrous loss of the valuable sheep, it became necessary to reconsider the company's programme, and Curr sailed for England in April 1833 with his wife and six children to discuss it with the directors. It was decided to abandon large scale sheep-rearing, to reduce expenditure at the Circular Head and Woolnorth (Cape Grim) farms, and to institute a tenant scheme to provide the company with rents and a market for its stud stock. In support of this scheme, Curr had his 'little work' republished in London and Edinburgh in 1834 with the title Three Years Residence in Van Diemen's Land. In London he also gave evidence to a committee of South Australian promoters on the virtues of small farms and adequate labour, thereby helping to fix the price of land in the new colony. After Curr's return to the colony in November 1834, the company's main income was from the sale of breeding stock in Van Diemen's Land, Port Phillip and to a lesser extent in South and Western Australia. Durham cattle and Suffolk Punch and Clydesdale horses were introduced, and English grasses sown. The late 1830s were years of moderate prosperity for the company and small dividends were paid in 1837 and 1838. But these were temporary reversals of the pattern of heavy losses and frequent calls on shareholders. The tenant scheme finally got under way in 1840, and settlers began to come in small numbers in 1842.

In the late 1830s the directors became increasingly dissatisfied with Curr, partly because of the slow progress, but chiefly because of his frequent and acrimonious disputes with the colonial government. Dubbed 'Potentate of the North' by a hostile press, he had a tendency to see, in anyone with whom he disagreed, a desire to persecute him. He contested on principle almost every decision made by the government on matters concerning the company, and his letters were written in such heated terms that in 1837 Sir John Franklin refused to hold further correspondence with him, thereby bringing Curr sharp reprimand from his directors in London. His persistent refusal to pay part of the salary of the police magistrate stationed at Circular Head greatly embarrassed the directors who were then negotiating for a land exchange. When they ordered Curr to pay the salary in 1839, Curr refused on the ground that compliance would injure his dignity. He was promptly given a year's notice. He left Circular Head in 1841 after James Gibson arrived to take his place as manager.

Curr had visited Melbourne in 1839 and returned with his family to settle there in 1842. He had bought the right to Wolfscrag, a pastoral run near Heathcote, and soon acquired other grazing leases, but left their management to his sons, making his home at St Helier's, on the River Yarra at Abbotsford. He was soon immersed in public affairs. A quarrel with another magistrate, who had enticed away his cook, led to violent scenes in the police office. In a letter to Charles La Trobe, Curr complained that he was being victimized; before the letter was sent on to Governor Sir George Gipps, it was shown to Judge John Willis who thought it a scurrilous insult and handed it to William Kerr who printed it in the Port Phillip Patriot. Curr's evidence on this episode before the Executive Council in December 1842 contributed to Willis's amoval from the bench. Next March Curr was the first candidate nominated for Melbourne in the first elections for the New South Wales Legislative Council. His popularity induced John Dunmore Lang to begin a rancorous sectarian fight. Curr injudiciously announced that he would not sit in council if Lang also won a seat. The election in June was wild and riotous; Curr was narrowly defeated by the mayor, Henry Condell, who soon resigned. Curr spurned nomination in the new election, but worked off some resentment by rallying Irish opposition to the successful candidate.

An avowed conservative, Curr lamented that Port Phillip was 'unfit for separation' from New South Wales, but feared that without it the district would have a rebellion led by Orangemen and other dread radicals. In 1844 he threw his energies into the cause with such unmatched zeal that, although the movement had begun in 1840, he was later called 'the Father of Separation'. Hard work on the organizing committee of the Separation League soon led to his election as chairman. He chaired many public meetings and prepared many petitions, some of which were published as a pamphlet in 1844 with an introduction by Curr. He also wrote to the press and urged his friends in England to influence the Colonial Office and members of parliament.

As a large leaseholder, Curr was prominent in opposing Gipps's squatting regulations in 1844 and an acknowledged leader of the movement for introducing convicts to supply much-needed rural labour. The Western District squatters welcomed his help, but suspected that his alliance with the demagogues of Melbourne might prejudice the cause of separation. He was elected to the Legislative Council in September 1845 and vacated his seat after nine months. With great resource, Curr held his urban followers together even when he was exposed for sharing in the suppression of their petition against convict labour. To force the separation issue, he helped to arrange the farce of electing Earl Grey as member for Melbourne in July 1848. He was elected himself in September 1848 but resigned next June. Undeterred by a sneering opposition and a lingering illness, he continued the fight for separation until his death on 16 November 1850, five days after news of separation reached Melbourne. He left his wife and eleven surviving children well provided for.

With his commanding presence and clear goals Curr could not be kept from leadership on major issues. According to his son, 'Habitually and unknown to himself he imposed his will on others, and I have always felt that people treasured up a resentment against him, what I might call a state of momentary vassalage to which they habitually found themselves reduced in his company'.

Select Bibliography

  • A. L. Meston, The Van Diemen's Land Company 1825-42 (Launceston, no date)
  • J. Bischoff, A Sketch of the History of Van Diemen's Land and an Account of the Van Diemen's Land Co. (Lond, 1832)
  • E. M. Curr, Recollections of Squatting in Victoria (Melb, 1883)
  • Garryowen (E. Finn), The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1888)
  • H. G. Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria, vol 1 (Lond, 1904)
  • K. R. von Stieglitz, A Short History of Circular Head and its Pioneers (Launceston, 1952)
  • M. L. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday (Melb, 1961)
  • A. McKay (ed), Journals of the Land Commissioners for Van Diemen's Land 1826-28 (Hob, 1962)
  • S. M. Franks, Land Exploration in Tasmania, 1824-1842 (M.A. thesis, University of Tasmania, 1959)
  • Van Diemen's Land Co records (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • manuscript catalogue under Curr (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

'Curr, Edward (1798–1850)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/curr-edward-1944/text2331, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 2 September 2014.

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

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