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Hovell, William Hilton (1786–1875)

by T. M. Perry

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

William Hilton Hovell (1786-1875), by unknown artist

William Hilton Hovell (1786-1875), by unknown artist

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 17657

William Hilton Hovell (1786-1875), sailor, explorer and settler, was born on 26 April 1786 at Yarmouth, Norfolk, England. He went to sea as a boy and by 1808 commanded a vessel trading with South America. In London on 10 May 1810 he married Esther, a daughter of Surgeon Thomas Arndell, and in November 1811 applied for permission to settle in New South Wales. With an order for a grant of land, the Hovell family sailed in the Earl Spencer and in October 1813 arrived at Sydney. There Hovell became associated with Simeon Lord for whom he commanded vessels trading along the coast and with New Zealand; in 1816 he was wrecked in the Brothers in Kent's Group near Bass Strait. He appears to have had some mercantile interests, for in 1814 he was one of 'the Merchants of Sydney' who petitioned Governor Lachlan Macquarie for a charter for a company to trade with New Zealand. In November 1813 he chose a site at Narellan for a 600-acre (243 ha) land grant, but the deed was not issued until he took up residence there in December 1816, when he apparently forsook the sea.

Like other settlers Hovell made short exploratory journeys in the country surrounding the Cumberland Plain and in 1823 discovered the Burragorang Valley. At this time Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane hoped to have the country between Lake George and Bass Strait explored and planned an official expedition which never eventuated. Hovell and Hamilton Hume, who had been considered as the principals of Brisbane's party, decided to undertake the journey at their own expense, and on 17 October 1824 left Hume's station near Gunning for Westernport, the government having assisted them with some stores and equipment. After crossing the Murrumbidgee River, then in flood, they discovered a large river which Hovell named the Hume (later proved to be part of the Murray), crossed the Mitta Mitta, Goulburn and Ovens Rivers, and on 16 December sighted Port Phillip. An error in calculating their position led Hovell to believe that they had arrived on the western shore of Westernport, but they were on Corio Bay in Port Phillip. They returned to Gunning on 18 January 1825 and, as a result of their report, Brisbane decided to send a party to Westernport by sea. The party, which included Hovell, left Sydney late in 1826 under the command of Captain Wright and returned five months later. On arrival at Westernport Hovell realized his mistake; but the surrounding country was examined and 'great quantities of very fine coal' were discovered.

Hume and Hovell were each rewarded with grants of 1200 acres (486 ha), and Hovell was given a grant of 1280 acres (518 ha) for his part in Wright's expedition, though under unfavourable conditions. As his earlier grant had to be sold to defray expenses of the 1824-25 journey Hovell repeatedly sought more generous recognition of his own work and Hume's. He petitioned Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling in 1828 and 1829, the Colonial Office in 1829 and 1830, Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke in 1833, and the Colonial Office again in 1839. None of these applications was successful though Bourke did cancel debts to the government in 1837, about which time Hovell went to live on his property at Grabberdrack near Goulburn.

In 1853 Hovell revisited Port Phillip where he was welcomed as the discoverer of the district. An inaccurate press report of a speech Hovell made at a dinner in Geelong led Hume, who had already taken offence when William Bland placed Hovell's name first in the Journey of Discovery to Port Phillip … (Sydney, 1831), to believe that Hovell was claiming all the credit for their work. Hume therefore published A Brief Statement of Facts in Connection with an Overland Expedition from Lake George to Port Phillip in 1824 (Sydney, 1855). Hovell replied with An Answer to the Preface of … Hume's 'A Brief Statement of Facts …' and a Reply to 'A Brief Statement of Facts …' by Hamilton Hume (both Sydney, 1855). The ill feeling engendered by this exchange continued until Hume's death and for some time later. It is clear that the credit for the 1824-25 expedition must be shared by the two principals: Hume was certainly the better and more experienced bushman, but was unable to make observations or calculate position, which was Hovell's task; and although Hume claimed to have known that they had arrived at Port Phillip and not at Westernport he did not make this public when they returned to Sydney.

By his first wife Hovell had two children, Elizabeth Emily (1811-1848) and Arndell John Palmer (1813-1827). In 1848 at Goulburn he married Sophia Wilkinson (d.1876) who left £6000 to the University of Sydney to found the William Hilton Hovell lectureship in geology and physical geography. As a settler Hovell appears to have led a quiet and undistinguished life, his chief claim to fame being his part in the discovery of 'a vast range of country invaluable for every purpose of grazing and of agriculture—watered by numerous fine streams and rivers, and presenting an easy inland intercourse extending from Port Phillip and Westernport to the settled districts'. He died in Sydney on 9 November 1875 and was buried at Goulburn, survived by a natural son.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 7, 8, 10-15, 17-20, series 3, vol 5
  • E. Scott, ‘Hume and Hovell's Journey to Port Phillip’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 7, part 6, 1921, pp 289-307
  • manuscript catalogue under William Hovell (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

T. M. Perry, 'Hovell, William Hilton (1786–1875)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hovell-william-hilton-2202/text2847, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 2 October 2014.

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

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