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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Dawson, Robert Barrington (1815–1891)

by Louise T. Daley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Robert Barrington Dawson (1815-1891), studmaster, civil servant and pastoralist, was born at Great Bentley, Essex, England, the eldest son of Robert Dawson and his first wife Anne, née Taylor. His formal education at Uxbridge School ended in 1830 when he went to Madeira to work for a Portuguese wine merchant. He arrived at Sydney in 1835 and gained experience on stations in the Hunter, Castlereagh and Liverpool Plains districts. In 1840 he returned to England with a commission to buy and import sixteen thoroughbred mares and stallions of much-needed bloodlines. At Belford, Hunter River, in 1841 he established a stud whence he later exported 'walers' for the Indian army and imported high-caste Arab sires, a breed on which he was a recognized authority. In 1844 he entertained Ludwig Leichhardt on his way to Port Essington, and the Dawson River was named after him in gratitude for his financial assistance. Ruined by drought in 1848-49 and the failure of his Indian partner, Dawson sailed for California in February 1850 with A. A. Leycester and John Maister. They found no payable gold but maintained themselves by shooting game and growing vegetables for the San Francisco market. Dawson returned in 1851 and collected firewood for sale to Sydney householders, but a bushfire consumed his stacks. A trip to the Nundle gold-diggings was equally unfortunate.

In 1857 Dawson was appointed road superintendent for the Bathurst-Hartley district, and in Sydney married the widow Jessie Terry. He resigned from the department of roads in 1867 to become commissioner of crown lands for the Clarence, Richmond and Tweed including parts of New England, the Gwydir and Liverpool Plains. In this enormous district he had to ride long distances, and inspect all types of country in order to administer appraisal courts, but he held the appointment until commissionerships were abolished in 1881 and was compensated for his compulsory retirement. He then managed his property, Bentley, between Casino and Lismore where his ingenious and cultivated mind led him to build a homestead of wattle and daub with a bark roof to suit the climate. Aged 75 he died there on 19 January 1891 and was buried with Anglican rites at Casino. His wife and their two sons, Arthur David and Robert Leycester, inherited his estate worth over £8400.

Slight of figure, friendly of temperament and an accomplished horseman, Dawson may have benefited in his youth from the natural sympathy accorded to his father's son by the squatters, but he later proved himself an able administrator and a competent and democratic grazier.

Select Bibliography

  • R. L. Dawson, ‘Leaves from a Crown Lands Commissioner's Letters’, Journal(Richmond River Historical Society), vol 1, 1938, pp 38-44
  • R. L. Dawson, ‘Casino in the Seventies and the Building of Bentley’, Journal (Richmond River Historical Society), vol 2, 1938, pp 69-73
  • Maitland Mercury, 18 Mar 1843
  • Clarence and Richmond River districts, papers, 1868-71 (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Louise T. Daley, 'Dawson, Robert Barrington (1815–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 15 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

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