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Finnis, John (1802–1872)

by H. J. Finnis

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

John Finnis, by S. T. Gill, c1838

John Finnis, by S. T. Gill, c1838

State Library of South Australia, B 343

John Finnis (1802-1872), master mariner, pastoralist and overlander, was born on 3 December 1802 at Dover, Kent, England, the second son of Gilbert Finnis and Elizabeth, née Nash. In January 1814, John Finnis was indentured to Thomas Mercer, shipowner, with whom he trained for five years as a mariner. On his first command he sailed the Thomas in 1826 from Cape Town to St Helena. In 1830 he came to Australia, and established himself in Spring Street, Sydney. Next year with Joseph Montefiore, he acquired the barque Elizabeth, 269 tons, in which he engaged in whaling in the southern fisheries, once returning with as many as 1200 barrels of sperm oil. In 1836 he sailed in charge of the Sir William Wallace, also whaling in southern waters.

In 1838 Finnis temporarily forsook the sea for the saddle, and with Captain Charles Sturt rode overland with 300 head of cattle which they had speculatively purchased in New South Wales for sale in Adelaide. On reaching Adelaide, Finnis established a cattle saleyard on West Terrace, and a cattle station at Mount Barker. He promptly returned to Sydney, and by early winter of 1839 was again on his way overland to Adelaide, this time with several mobs aggregating 25,000 sheep and 7000 head of cattle. In 1840, to escape scab, he moved 12,000 sheep from Mount Barker to Mount Dispersion station (Anlaby), some sixty miles (97 km) north-east of Adelaide. In January 1839 W. H. Dutton, on behalf of himself, Duncan Macfarlane, and John Finnis, bought the first South Australian special survey, as a result of which each partner acquired 1250 acres (506 ha) at Mount Barker and allotments in the near-by township. Part of John Finnis's share was later sold to German settlers.

Finnis's land dealings also extended to New Zealand, where, during his whaling days, he bought from the Maoris an area of 571 acres (231 ha) in the Bay of Islands; he lost his title through absence overseas when required by the New Zealand administration to register the purchase. Finnis returned to the sea in 1842, first as captain of the King Henry, and in 1843 as owner of the Joseph Albino, in which he carried passengers and cargo between England, Australia and New Zealand. He sent the ship in 1849 to California, where it was seized by the American government, and despite representations to Viscount Palmerston, was never seen again by its owner. Two years later Finnis acquired the Petrel and carried gold-diggers from Adelaide to Victoria. In 1845 he gave evidence before the committee on the pilot service at Port Adelaide, and in 1849 he was appointed to the commission to 'enquire into and report on certain shipping places on the coast and Rivers of South Australia'.

Not altogether willingly, Finnis became the publisher of the first volume of Hansard of the Houses of Parliament of South Australia. On the security of parliament's contract with James Allen to print the debates, Finnis advanced a sum of money to Allen, who failed to carry out his contract. On Finnis, therefore, fell the task of compiling Hansard mostly from newspaper reports, in which he was assisted by John Curtis, a reporter from the South Australian Advertiser. The long delay and tedious inquiries before he was paid by parliament did not inspire him to further literary effort.

On 23 March 1832 at St James's Church, Sydney, Finnis married Luduvina Rosa da Silva, the widow of Colonel Charles Cameron of the 3rd Regiment. She had seven children by her first husband. One was married to William Dutton, and another to Sir George Kingston. On the death of his first wife in Adelaide, Finnis married Mary Ann Russell on 3 September 1856; they had two sons, John Mercer who died on 2 April 1909, and Samuel who died whilst still at school.

For many years Finnis lived in retirement in Franklin Street, Adelaide, journeying to England from time to time. He died in Adelaide on 13 August 1872. A portrait by Samuel Thomas Gill is in the National Gallery, Adelaide.

Select Bibliography

  • H. J. Finnis, Captain John Finnis (Adel, 1958)
  • ‘Petition of John Finnis’, Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1858 (99)
  • Select Committee on the Petition of John Finnis, Report, Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1858 (121).

Citation details

H. J. Finnis, 'Finnis, John (1802–1872)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/finnis-john-2043/text2527, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 22 October 2014.

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

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