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Dawson, Robert (1782–1866)

by E. Flowers

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

Robert Dawson (1782-1866), company agent and pastoralist, was born at Great Bentley, Essex, England, the youngest son of Joseph Dawson. He was educated at Dr Lindsay's Grove Hall School near Bow, whence he returned to Essex to farm the family estate. Married in 1811 to Anne Taylor, Dawson remained at Bentley Lodge until 1821 when an agricultural depression forced him to Berkshire where he managed Becket, Viscount Barrington's estate.

In December 1824 Dawson was prevailed upon by John Macarthur junior, an old school friend by whom he was highly regarded, to accept from the newly formed Australian Agricultural Co. the post of chief agent in New South Wales in which capacity he was to establish and administer a pastoral domain of 1,000,000 acres (404,609 ha) subject to a committee resident there. This committee was entrusted by the directors in England with 'extensive discretionary powers', and dominated by its many representatives of the Macarthur family, whose advice Dawson was enjoined to accept at all times. In early 1825 Dawson bought stock in France, Saxony and Spain and, with his nephew John Dawson, then 19, as his assistant, he left England in the ships York and Brothers with a party of 15 men, 14 women, 40 children, more than 600 sheep, 12 cattle and 7 horses, reaching Sydney in November 1825. The local committee, having considered the three alternatives suggested by Surveyor-General John Oxley, thought the area between Port Stephens and the Manning River was most suitable for the company's activities. Thither Dawson went in January 1826 on his first tour of inspection, penetrating as far north as the Manning River, which he named after the deputy governor of the company. On his return he praised the Port Stephens area on 'the nature of the harbour and other advantages', and the committee agreed that the whole establishment should be moved there as soon as possible. Dawson made this recommendation without any investigation of the Liverpool Plains or the head of the Hastings River, both of which Oxley had rated, for pastoral purposes, higher than the Port Stephens area. In succumbing thus to the pressure obviously applied to him by the local committee Dawson betrayed the company's trust.

By June 1826 headquarters had been established at Carrington on Port Stephens; by 1827 much land had been cleared and spacious stores and workshops erected. Already he had commenced to move stock inland as the humid coastal pastorage proved unsuitable. Handicapped by shortage of supervisors and clerks, Dawson did not see fit while he was at Port Stephens to explore thoroughly and evaluate the immense area he was ready to accept on behalf of his employers. He did, however, discover and name the Gloucester district and the Barrington River. Visitors to the settlement at this time were impressed by the results achieved so soon: typical of these visitors was James Macarthur who in May 1827 spoke highly of Dawson's management and the progress being made. Dawson had been appointed a magistrate on his arrival and was soon known for his firmness and justice to all, free and convict. His enlightened attitude towards the Aboriginals was remarked upon by visitors to the settlement.

The local committee, after influencing Dawson in his choice of site, proceeded to foist upon the company, at high prices, old and diseased sheep from their own flocks. Dawson was foolish enough to accept them, whether through carelessness, fear of the Macarthurs' power or respect for their probity. On realizing that the vendors intended to continue the practice, Dawson demurred. In June 1827 he wrote to James Macarthur: 'I was no longer disposed to make the Company Grant a burial ground for all the old sheep in the colony'. After this letter Dawson's time with the company was limited. On 27 December 1827 James Macarthur paid another visit and his report castigated Dawson for mismanagement and extravagance. In April 1828 he was suspended by the local committee and, on James Macarthur's report to the court of directors in London, was dismissed in January 1829. He was accused of bad management and insubordination, of taking up land on the north bank of the Manning River and running his own flocks on it, of using the company's resources in exploring and settling it. According to John Macarthur 'The concern cannot prosper because the Company's servants are only solicitous for their own interests'. Dawson published a convincing rebuttal of these accusations in his Statement of the Services of Mr Dawson, as Chief Agent of the Australian Agricultural Company … (London, 1829). He returned to England late in 1828 and continued to press for justice, but a full hearing was never granted to him.

His interest in Australia continued and he published The Present State of Australia; a Description of the Country, its Advantages and Prospects with Reference to Emigration: and a Particular Account of its Aboriginal Inhabitants (London, 1830).

In 1836, after repeated representations to the Colonial Office, he was given land in New South Wales in recompense for the grant he had sought unsuccessfully from Sir Ralph Darling in 1828, although such grants were now forbidden by law. He returned to New South Wales with his second wife in 1839 to superintend his estate, Goorangoola, on the upper Hunter: he also acquired a 100-acre (40 ha) grant at Little Redhead, near Newcastle. Soon after his return he was again appointed magistrate for the area. One of his last recorded actions in New South Wales was to advise on the Botany Bay water supply scheme for Sydney. Dawson returned to England in 1862. He died in 1866 and was buried at Greenwich. He was survived by two sons and one daughter of his first marriage and by one son of his second. The elder son of his first marriage, Robert Barrington, became well known as a civil servant and pastoralist.

Dawson's real achievements in his short time with the Australian Agricultural Co. were considerable. He established the company well, albeit in the wrong place, for which he must take much responsibility. He discovered valuable tracts of land in the Stroud, Gloucester and Manning districts and opened up the Port Stephens area for settlement. His lot in having to deal with the Macarthurs was not to be envied. Given a fair chance, Dawson could well have succeeded. The government's attitude towards him is indicated by the land grant and his reappointment as magistrate. That the London board of directors, while not prepared to give him justice, were well aware of where the blame lay is indicated by their words: 'The misconduct of Mr. Dawson is far exceeded in culpability by that of the Committee whose orders he was to obey', and by their action in dispensing with the committee before sending out a replacement for Dawson.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 11, 13-15, 18-22
  • J. Gregson, The Australian Agricultural Company 1824-1875 (Syd, 1907)
  • J. F. Campbell, ‘The First Decade of the Australian Agricultural Company, 1824 to 1834’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 9, part 3, 1923, pp 113-60
  • W. J. Gould, ‘Dawson of the A. A. Co.’, Monthly Journal (Newcastle and Hunter District Historical Society), vol 6, part 10, July 1952, pp 155-58
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 9 Nov, 5 Dec 1957
  • R. Dawson papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Macarthur papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • A A Co papers (Australian National University Archives and A A Co, Newcastle).

Citation details

E. Flowers, 'Dawson, Robert (1782–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dawson-robert-1969/text2379, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 3 October 2014.

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

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