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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lawson, William (1774–1850)

by E. W. Dunlop

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

William Lawson (1774-1850), explorer and pastoralist, was born on 2 June 1774 at Finchley, Middlesex, England, the son of Scottish parents who had lived at Kirkpatrick. Educated in London, William was trained as a surveyor, but in June 1799 he bought a commission in the New South Wales Corps for £300. As an ensign he arrived at Sydney in November 1800 in the Royal Admiral and was soon posted to the garrison at Norfolk Island, where he married Sarah Leadbeater. He returned to Sydney in 1806, was promoted lieutenant and served for a time as commandant at Newcastle, a position he again occupied in 1809.

Like many of his fellow officers Lawson quickly began to acquire agricultural interests. About 1807 he bought a small property at Concord, where he kept 6 horses, 3 bulls and 14 cows. By 1810 this property had extended to 370 acres (150 ha). As an officer he also acted on several courts martial, including those of D'Arcy Wentworth in 1807 and of John Macarthur on the eve of the rebellion against Governor William Bligh in 1808. In the interregnum after this, Lawson was appointed aide-de-camp to Major George Johnston and received a grant of 500 acres (202 ha) at Prospect; here his wife lived when he was sent to England in 1810 as a witness at Johnston's court martial. Lawson was not very enthusiastic in the cause of the rebellion, and in January 1812 returned to Sydney in the Guildford. He accepted a commission as lieutenant in the New South Wales Veterans Company. From this circumstance, when his grant at Prospect was confirmed by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, Lawson named it Veteran Hall. Here he built a fine 40-room mansion in early colonial style.

In 1813 Gregory Blaxland invited Lawson to accompany him and William Charles Wentworth on what proved to be the first successful attempt to find a route across the Blue Mountains. Lawson's knowledge of surveying made him a particularly valuable member of the expedition. His journal, with its accurate record of times and distances, enables the route to be precisely retraced. Macquarie rewarded each explorer with a grant of 1000 acres (405 ha) on the west of the ranges. Lawson selected his on the Campbell River near Bathurst. In 1819 he was appointed commandant of the new settlement of Bathurst, occupying this post until 1824 when he retired to Veteran Hall.

During his years at Bathurst Lawson undertook three journeys of exploration to find a practicable pass through the ranges to the Liverpool Plains. In this he was unsuccessful but his journeys helped to open up the rich pastoral district of Mudgee. Lawson attributed the discovery of the Cudgegong River to James Blackman, but claimed that he himself discovered the site of Mudgee some ten miles (16 km) beyond the farthest point reached by Blackman. On Lawson's advice George Cox occupied extensive lands in the Mudgee district, and his own family took up 6000 acres (2428 ha) on the opposite side of the Cudgegong. Here Lawson built a homestead at Bombira Hill, which became one of the main centres for his pastoral activities, although he had many other extensive estates, including 25,000 acres (10,117 ha) on the Talbragar River, 6000 (2428 ha) near Bathurst, 3000 (1214 ha) in Roxburgh, 1500 (607 ha) near Springwood, his Veteran Hall property, and 160,000 acres (64,750 ha) in various other leases. He imported merino rams and ewes from England, as well as Shorthorn cattle and blood horses. His horses were famous throughout the colony in the coaching days.

Lawson not only helped to blaze the first pathway to the west, but he also had a leading role in opening up this country. He is reputed to have taken the first stock across the mountains in July 1815; he escorted Freycinet's party of naturalists and botanists over the ranges in 1819; and in September 1822 he made the first discovery of coal to the west of the mountains at Hartley Vale. After his wife Sarah died on 14 July 1830 aged 47, Lawson spent most of his later years at Veteran Hall, leaving his sons Nelson and William to develop the inland stations.

A generous supporter of the Presbyterian Church, Lawson took an active part in the establishment of both Scots Church, Sydney, in 1824 and Scots Church, Parramatta, in 1838. As a magistrate he entered freely into public life and on 10 October 1825 signed a letter approving trial by jury. In 1841 he brought some labourers from Chile to work on his estates but found them unsatisfactory. He entered politics in 1843 as a member for Cumberland in the first partly-elective Legislative Council; he attended regularly until 1846, but took little part in its debates. At first he opposed the government, but did not share Wentworth's extreme views and in 1845 opposed him on several occasions. He did not support the squatters in 1844, and opposed a reduction of the price of land in 1846. After this his attendances became irregular and he did not seek re-election in 1848. On 16 June 1850 'Old Ironbark' Lawson died at Veteran Hall, and was buried in the churchyard of St Bartholomew, leaving most of his estates to his son William. His property at Prospect eventually passed into the hands of the Metropolitan Water Board, and is now largely covered by the Prospect reservoir. The house itself was demolished in 1926.

A portrait of William Lawson is in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 4-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 3-8, 10-11, 13-14, 16
  • H. Selkirk, ‘The Discovery of Mudgee’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 8, part 6, 1922, pp 339-40
  • C. H. Bertie, ‘Pioneer Families of Australia: The Lawsons’, Home (Sydney), 1 Jan 1932, pp 48, 72
  • E. C. Lawson, Lawson of Veteran Hall (microfilm, State Library of New South Wales)
  • Farmer and Settler, 10 Dec 1954
  • W. Lawson journals, 1813, 1821-22 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Bonwick transcripts, biography, vol 3 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

E. W. Dunlop, 'Lawson, William (1774–1850)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

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