Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Dickson, John (1774–1843)

by G. P. Walsh

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

John Dickson (1774-1843), engineer, manufacturer, and grazier, was a Scotsman and with his father probably associated with the eminent Scottish engineers, Watt and Rennie. In 1798 Dickson took out his first patent 'for steam-engines, pumps, and other hydraulic machines' and about this time moved from Dockhead to Narrow Wall, Lambeth, on the Thames. He began to manufacture steam engines and in 1808 took out a second patent for 'a stopcock or valve for fluids', or more particularly for steam. In 1811 he had premises in Maid Lane, Southwark. When he applied for permission to settle in New South Wales the Colonial Office informed Governor Lachlan Macquarie in March 1813 that Dickson was 'an excellent Engineer and Millwright' and was to be given a town grant in Sydney and land in the interior proportionate to his capital.

He arrived in Sydney in the Earl Spencer in October 1813 bringing goods and machinery valued at about £10,000, including a steam-engine from his Southwark manufactory, tools and turning lathes worth £5200. Among his apprentices was Thomas Barker. 'Having brought a Considerable Capital with him, and being of an Enterprizing Spirit and persevering Industry, I look upon Mr. Dickson as a very great Acquisition to the Colony', wrote Macquarie in April 1814 when he reported to London that he had granted Dickson fifteen acres (6 ha) in the town for his steam mill and 3000 acres (1214 ha) on South Creek, at Bringelly, near Camden, as a grazing farm. The steam-engine was erected at the town grant on Cockle Bay (Darling Harbour), on a site commanding a water conveyance of grain, timber and firewood. A portion of land at the mouth of a small stream at the head of the bay was dammed to exclude salt water and from this reservoir the engine pumped its own water. It began operations in 1815, but though also intended to power saw-mills and tan-bark mills it seems to have been solely used for milling grain.

In 1823 Dickson and James Chisholm gave sureties for £6000 each for William Campbell for an appeal to the Privy Council in the case of Campbell v. John Macarthur. By 1828 Dickson had 17,000 acres (6880 ha) of land, 1500 (607 ha) of which were cleared and 300 (121 ha) cultivated, and 3000 cattle and 2000 sheep; ten years later he arranged with his agent, Matthew D. Hunter of Sydney to sell parts of his real estate in the Counties of Cumberland and Argyle for £23,000. He had been one of the original members of the Agricultural Society, as a merchant traded to China, Mauritius and Van Diemen's Land and salted beef for export.

The size of the domestic market did not permit much specialization by early manufacturers, and about 1826 Dickson made a partnership with John Mackie and established a brewery and a soap-and-candle works near his flour-mill. In October 1829 the partnership was dissolved by mutual consent. Dickson enlarged his mill in 1831, but in July 1833 it and its associated manufactories were advertised for sale. He lost the case Brown v. Dickson and had to pay £333 in damages. He was also prosecuted for forgery and absconded to England while on bail. He died at his home in Brook Street, Holborn, London, on 23 May 1843, aged 69.

From an alliance with his housekeeper, Susannah Martin, Dickson had three sons and four daughters. In 1834 his eldest daughter, Lily, married Willoughby James, son of Vincent George Dowling and nephew of Sir James Dowling; two other daughters married brothers, John and Thomas Woore, and in turn John Woore's daughters married Jesse Gregson and Robert Breillat.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 7, 8, 10, 11, 14, 15
  • Sydney Gazette, 17 June 1815, 15 Aug 1828, 24 Oct 1829, 14 Jan 1836
  • Sydney Herald, 19 Dec 1831, 29 July 1833
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Nov 1843
  • CSO in-letters, 4/1728 (State Records New South Wales)
  • CO 201/68
  • private information.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Dickson, John (1774–1843)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dickson-john-1977/text2395, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 20 September 2014.

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

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