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Dennis, Alexander (1811–1892)

by J. Ann Hone

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

Alexander Dennis (1811-1892), pastoralist, was born on 29 September 1811 at Trembath, in Penzance, Cornwall, England, son of Richard Dennis, farmer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Vinicombe. His grandfather, Alexander Dennis, a farmer and miller, was the author of Journal of a Tour through Great Part of England and Scotland in the Year 1810 (Penzance, 1816). His aunt Thomasin, self-taught in the classics, mathematics, chemistry and modern literature, was governess in the household of Josiah Wedgwood junior.

Alexander was thoroughly trained in farm work. In December 1837 he married Emma Williams, sister of Edward Tregurtha. Finally heeding his brother-in-law's reports, Dennis sailed in the John Bull with his wife and daughter, his brothers John and William and four servants; they arrived at Port Phillip in January 1840. Alexander settled his family at George Town, Van Diemen's Land, while he bought stock and implements, which he took to Geelong in April. He joined his brothers, who had each contributed £1000 to the venture, and they drove 600 sheep into the Western District in search of land. They decided to buy the 5000-acre (2024 ha) Keerangee-Balloort run near Birregurra from the Matson brothers. Alexander brought his wife, daughter and newborn baby from George Town to the station in September. In 1842 the Dennis brothers took up Poliah station, north-west of Lake Corangamite. Financial difficulties prevented further expansion until 1848 when they bought William Robertson's station on the Richardson River. The discovery of gold and the increased demand for meat allowed further development and in August 1853 they bought Carr's Plains adjoining Robertson's station which together included 70,000 acres (28,328 ha).

The Birregurra run was Alexander's main interest. In 1848 he changed its name to Tarndwarncoort and employed a qualified mason and master carpenter to build a stone house to his own design; a bluestone wing was added in the late 1870s. He was an ardent horticulturalist and established a fine garden at Tarndwarncoort. His elder son, Richard, specialized in fruit-growing and raised American bronze turkeys; in 1880 he began breeding Polwarth sheep, first known as Dennis Comebacks. In 1867 Alexander bought Eeyeuk near Terang and leased it to his sons, for his brothers had returned to Cornwall. The Carr's Plain property was managed by his son-in-law, Holford Wettenhall, who later bought it.

Dennis took a great interest in community affairs. He was appointed a magistrate on 15 August 1849 and sat on the local bench in Colac where his decisions were painstaking and just. He became one of the first members of the District Roads Board in 1859, served on the Shire Council in 1868-73 and was its president in 1869-70. In Colac he was a member and president of the hospital committee and in 1859 helped to found the Agricultural Society of which he was a member for over thirty years. From his arrival in the district, when the Buntingdale reserve was proclaimed on part of his land, he was concerned with the plight of the Aboriginals. After the Buntingdale mission was abandoned in 1848 Tarndwarncoort became a meeting place for the Colac tribe. In 1867-79 Dennis was honorary correspondent to the Board for the Protection of the Aborigines.

Dennis sent his sons to Scotch College, Melbourne, and his grandsons attended Geelong College. In the district he was a 'veritable pillar' of the Wesleyan Church; at various times he was lay preacher, trustee, circuit steward, society steward and conference representative. In 1848 with others, he financed the building in Colac of a small wooden church which was long used by all denominations. Methodist services were held at Dennis homestead until the late 1850s when the first Wesleyan church in the district was built on land he donated. He and his brothers had a chapel built at Carr's Plains; it was used for fifty years and served as a hall and school for the district. In 1883 Dennis gave £1000 for the building of the manse at Colac. He also helped to establish the Colac branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society. He died at Tarndwarncoort on 12 April 1892, survived by his wife, two sons and six daughters. His sons, sons-in-law and grandsons continued to maintain the properties and the traditional family links with Cornwall.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Henderson (ed), Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina (Melbourne, 1936)
  • A. W. Dennis, Six Generations (priv print, 1963)
  • Colac Reformer, 14 Apr 1892.

Citation details

J. Ann Hone, 'Dennis, Alexander (1811–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dennis-alexander-3395/text5147, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 20 October 2018.

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

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