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Howitt, William (1792–1879)

by Mary Howitt Walker

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

This is a shared entry with:

HOWITT BROTHERS: William (1792-1879), author and traveller, Richard (1799-1870), poet, and Godfrey (1800-1873), physician and natural scientist, were born at Heanor, Derbyshire, England, sons of Thomas Howitt and his wife Phoebe, née Tantum, daughter of a Staffordshire Quaker.

William was born on 18 December 1792 and educated at Quaker schools in Ackworth and Tamworth. He wanted to continue his studies but his father, imbued with Rousseau's teachings, apprenticed him to a cabinet maker. William tore up his articles and worked on his father's farm, roamed the countryside, studied nature and taught himself languages, botany, chemistry and dispensing of medicines. At the Friends' Meeting House, Uttoxeter, on 16 April 1821 he married Mary Botham. They lived at Hanley, Staffordshire, where William set up as a druggist. In 1822 they went to Nottingham and in 1823 began their long literary partnership by publishing The Forest Minstrel, and Other Poems. William became a borough alderman, a leader in the church disestablishment movement and a supporter of Daniel O'Connell. The family moved to Esher in 1836 and to Germany in 1840. They returned to England in 1843 and made their home a forum for writers, artists and philanthropists.

In 1852 William and two sons sailed for Victoria where they spent two years on the diggings. They gained little gold but much colonial experience; although William revelled in the free bush life and strange flora and fauna, and was stimulated by repulsing bushrangers, he found scope for reform in the land laws, in the gold commissioners and 'the comic-opera police force'. His experiences are reflected in A Boy's Adventures in the Wilds of Australia (1854), Land, Labour, and Gold; or, Two Years in Victoria (1855), Tallangetta, the Squatter's Home (1857) and The History of Discovery in Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand (1865). He returned to England in 1854. The family continued their writing and philanthropy until 1870 when they settled in Rome. At Tra Fontane he persuaded the Trappist Monks to plant malarial swamps with eucalyptus seeds from East Gippsland. With his wife, Howitt is credited with 180 published works. He also remained active as a self-styled radical crusading for truth, his actions motivated by love of freedom and hatred of injustice. He died in Rome on 3 March 1879, survived by wife who died on 30 January 1888 and by three children.

An oil painting by C. Hoffmann is held by Mrs R. W. Jowsey, East Bairnsdale, Victoria.

Richard began as a druggist in partnership with William in Nottingham and then opened his own shop. With his brother Godfrey he arrived at Port Phillip in 1840. He farmed on the Heidelberg Road until his return to England in 1844. His lively Impressions of Australia Felix During Four Years Residence in that Colony (London, 1845) was regarded as the 'most reliable description of Australian life at that date'. He also published volumes of poetry in 1830, 1840 and 1868. He died in 1870.

Godfrey, born on 8 October 1800, was educated at Mansfield, tutored by William and entered the University of Edinburgh (M.D., 1830). He practised in Leicester and in Nottingham was honorary physician to the General Hospital and to the City Infirmary. On 6 April 1831 at the Friends' Meeting House, Castle Donington, he married Phoebe Bakewell. In 1839 he decided to migrate and with his family, a nephew and his wife's brothers arrived at Port Phillip in the Lord Goderich in April 1840. Howitt erected the prefabricated wooden cottage he had brought from England, and by 1845 his land extended from Collins Street to Flinders Lane with a frontage to Spring Street where he made a large garden. He also had pastoral interests near Yea and Cape Schanck and a farm at Caulfield.

Howitt was early associated with the Melbourne Hospital; in 1847 he became president and honorary physician of the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum and joined the new Port Phillip Medical Association; in 1853-71 he served on the Council of the University of Melbourne and on the Medical School Committee. In 1854-55 he was first vice-president of the Philosophical Society of Victoria and a member of its successor, the Royal Society of Victoria, in 1859-68.

Howitt won wide repute as a botanist and entomologist. He helped to found the Entomological Society of London, was a member of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh and in 1839 published The Nottinghamshire Flora. In Victoria Mueller named the monotypic genus Howittia, a native blue- flowered mallow, 'in acknowledgement of his devotion to botany'. He died at Caulfield on 4 December 1873, survived by three sons and a daughter. To the University of Melbourne he left his books on botany and entomology, his entomological collection and £1000 for scholarships in botany, geology and zoology.

Bronze medallions by Thomas Woolner of Howitt and his family are held by descendants.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Howitt (ed), Mary Howitt. An Autobiography (Lond, 1889)
  • C. Woodring, Victorian Samplers: William and Mary Howitt (Lawrence, 1952)
  • A. Lee, Laurels & Rosemary (Lond, 1955)
  • A. Lee, In Their Generations (Plainfield, 1956?)
  • M. H. Walker, Come Wind, Come Weather (Melb, 1971)
  • W. Howitt, Autobiography (held by author)
  • Howitt family letters (held by author).

Citation details

Mary Howitt Walker, 'Howitt, William (1792–1879)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/howitt-william-3807/text6039, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 25 November 2014.

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

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