Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Degraves, Peter (1778–1852)

by Myrtle L. Reid-Mcilreavy

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

Peter Degraves (1778-1852), engineer, shipbuilder and factory owner, was the son of a 'highly respected' doctor of French extraction who lived at Dover, England. After studying civil engineering he decided in 1821 to emigrate to Van Diemen's Land. In partnership with Major Hugh McIntosh, he secured the Hope and after many delays and vicissitudes, including arrest for overcrowding his ship and imprisonment for debt, Degraves arrived in Hobart Town with his wife and eight children in 1824.

He was granted 500 acres (202 ha) of land for himself and McIntosh at the Cascades in 1824, and next year another 2000 acres (809 ha) on the face of Mount Wellington as far as the Organ Pipes. Between Thomas Lowes's distillery and the mount he soon had a sawmill in operation with an overseer and twenty millers and timber getters. He also diverted the waters of Guy Fawkes Rivulet into the town rivulet, and from a dam below the sawmill he proposed to pipe a pure water supply to Hobart if the government would give him a prescriptive charter. Unfortunately he had not satisfied his creditors before leaving England; through Francis Court, licensee of the Help-Me-Through-the-World inn in Collins Street, they renewed their charges against Degraves in 1826 and he was taken into custody for debt. During his detention he submitted to Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur a plan for improving the gaol, but although large scale alterations were made his plan does not appear to have been used. In 1826 a bill of sale was placed on his house, sawmill, machinery and timber; by order of the Supreme Court the partners and their solicitors met their creditors in December for an examination. Under a new Insolvency Act from England, the partners were thought to have fulfilled the whole 'ordeal of the Act', but Chief Justice (Sir) John Pedder ruled otherwise; the partners became insolvent, Court took over the sawmill and Degraves returned to custody until in 1831 Arthur had him released. By the will of Major McIntosh, who died about 1835, he became owner of 3200 acres (1295 ha) on Mount Wellington.

In 1832 Degraves laid down a brewery on his property. It soon flourished, and when a second sawmill, flour-mill, and bakehouses were added he employed more than fifty hands. On the mainland his beer brewed from cool mountain water was considered superior to other beers and sold well; with his sawn timber, flour, bread and biscuits, he was said to earn nearly £100,000 a year. However, he had much trouble over the water which passed through the brewery into his reservoir and thence to the town rivulet. Soon after 1833 its flow decreased in volume and citizens complained that he was exceeding his water concessions. The government retaliated by building a dam above his reservoir, but this gave only temporary improvement, and the town water supply remained a contentious subject. In 1840 Degraves proposed a scheme and the Hobart Town Courier supported it but nothing more was done until 1844, when his offer of a town supply with the necessary piping and a filtering reservoir at the 'edge of the city', for £4000, was accepted by the government. In April 1845 Degraves temporarily cut off the water and caused a public outcry. In 1846 when his contract was under revision, consumers complained that his supply was tainted; an earlier scheme promulgated by Sir John Franklin's government for diverting the water from the springs on Mount Wellington was popularly believed the only way to get pure water. Degraves's contract was broken and the town supply was handed over to Major (Sir) Sydney Cotton, who had been employed on irrigation work in India. Next year Degraves's claim against the Public Works Department was countered by a public petition. Feeling ran high and H. Moore, editor of the Hobart Town Guardian, held him up to ridicule and, when threatened with assault, prosecuted him. Degraves was imprisoned in 1848 but quickly released on bail. Although his two sons later pleaded for restoration of their riparian rights the solicitor-general gave his opinion that their father's rights were so detrimental to the rights of the citizens that it was they who should be recouped rather than the Degraves family.

In 1834 Degraves was prominent in designing the Theatre Royal which is still considered one of the best theatres in Australia for acoustics. His syndicate opened it in 1837, but he fell out with other members and by 1840 was practically sole proprietor.

As early as 1836 Degraves had thought of building ships. Next year he applied for an allotment on the Old Wharf for a patent slip. When this was refused he later tried to secure a frontage near Mulgrave Battery on the foreshore of the Derwent, but was again unsuccessful. In 1841 he established a shipyard between Perry's Point and the end of Castray's Esplanade. His first foreman is said to have been John Watson, formerly builder at the government's yard at Port Arthur. Among the ships turned out by Degraves were the barque Lady Emma (203 tons), and the schooners Miranda (127 tons), Fair Tasmanian (145 tons) and Jenny Lind (136 tons). In 1847 he built the barque Tasman (563 tons), said to be the largest ship built in Van Diemen's Land. The schooner Circassian (105 tons), the brig Yarra (139 tons) and the barque Melbourne (150 tons) were built in 1851. Degraves closed his shipyard after the gold rush began in Victoria, and loaded his ships with timber for the growing town of Melbourne. He died at Hobart on 31 December 1852, predeceased on 30 May 1842 by his wife Sophia, née McIntosh, at the age of 50.

Degraves was typical of those practical men who were essential for the building of new colonial economies. In spite of obstacles, checks and frustrations which daunt men of lesser purpose, he pursued his self-ordained tasks with that energy which flows from dedication and ambition. In Tasmania he discovered an environment in which his versatility and ability as a pioneer industrialist could flourish. At least two industries, shipbuilding and brewing, which he established have continued to the present day. The Theatre Royal at Hobart still stands, with little alteration, and remains an important institution.

Select Bibliography

  • correspondence file under Degraves (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Myrtle L. Reid-Mcilreavy, 'Degraves, Peter (1778–1852)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/degraves-peter-1973/text2387, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 20 December 2014.

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

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