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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ingham, William Bairstow (1850–1878)

by H. J. Gibbney

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

William Bairstow Ingham (1850-1878), trader and government agent, was born on 4 June 1850 at Blake Hall, Mirfield, Yorkshire, England, son of Joshua Ingham and his wife Mary, née Cunliffe. He was educated at Malvern College and matriculated in University College, Oxford, but in 1873 left without a degree to join his brother Thomas on Malahide station in Tasmania. In 1874 Ingham began searching for a property of his own and selected a 700-acre (283 ha) sugar plantation called Ings on the Herbert River in north Queensland. He soon became popular, was appointed a justice of the peace and the first township, surveyed late in 1875, was named after him on the petition of the residents. When his first crop failed from disease, he bought the 7-ton stern-wheel steamer Louise, which he used as a general carrier on the Herbert River, and soon afterwards abandoned the plantation. Late in 1876 he moved to Cooktown with a friend, A. T. Clarke, and set up a general water-transport service. He carried diggers to the Hodgkinson goldfield, did some exploring and won repute for seamanship and honesty.

The reported discovery of gold in New Guinea in 1877 inspired Ingham to start trading there. In January 1878 he chartered the 13-ton stern-wheel steamer Voura, armed her with three small cannon and sailed for Port Moresby. Before leaving, he had written to the colonial secretary in Brisbane offering to act as unpaid government agent at Port Moresby. The Government Gazette, noting his appointment to the post, arrived in the schooner Colonist on 22 April with the first wave of a small gold rush but without any official instructions. Ingham therefore did what seemed necessary: he carried out minor police actions, offered to receive and forward mails, confiscated a schooner suspected of illegal activities, deported two prostitutes, recorded land transactions and reported to Brisbane what was going on in New Guinea. On 25 April he persuaded a meeting of native chiefs to petition for British protection and on 13 May recommended annexation. On 3 June the colonial secretary wrote his only letter to Ingham, cautiously approving his activities, emphasizing that he had no legal authority and instructing him to discourage ideas of annexation. At the same time he instructed Henry Chester, a judicial commissioner for the western Pacific, to visit Port Moresby and report. Copies of the correspondence were then sent to London and to Levuka.

After a visit to Cooktown, Ingham returned to Port Moresby early in October and heard that the natives of Brooker Island (Utian) in the Calvados Chain had massacred the bêche-de-mer party under Captain Edwin Redlich and captured some weapons. Ingham promptly left for the island and arrived there on 24 November. Believing that he understood natives, he soon made them surrender the arms but three days later he and most of his crew were killed in a surprise attack. Hearing of the massacre on 5 December at Dinner Island, Rev. Samuel Macfarlane of the London Missionary Society sailed at once to Brooker where he saw the Voura broken up and was convinced that no one had survived. In March 1879 H.M.S. Cormorant ineffectually bombarded Brooker. H.M.S. Wolverene later carried out a more determined punitive operation and retrieved a few of Ingham's effects. One survivor of the massacre testified early in 1879 that the party was roasted and eaten the same night.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1878
  • Further Correspondence on New Guinea, Parliamentary Papers (Great Britain), 1883 (Cmd 3617)
  • Government Gazette (Queensland), 30 Mar 1878
  • Australasian, 25 Jan 1879, supplement
  • Queensland Supreme Court papers, 1880/2012 (Queensland State Archives)
  • biographical notes (privately held)
  • CO 234/38, 39
  • Colonial Secretary's letters, 1878-79 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Ingham, William Bairstow (1850–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 4

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