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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mills, John Brabyn (1810–1877)

by Clive Turnbull

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

This is a shared entry with Charles Frederick Mills

John Brabyn Mills (1810-1877) and Charles Frederick Mills (1812-1855), whalers and pioneers, were born at the Officers' Quarters, Launceston, sons of Peter Mills; they were baptized by Rev. Robert Knopwood. They lived with their mother on the farm at Norfolk Plains, but early took to the sea. Long before permanent settlements were formed on the southern coasts of the Australian mainland sealing, whaling and kangaroo shooting on the shores and islands had their hey-day; wattle bark stripping began in the 1820s and all these pursuits were very profitable. The history of these ventures out of Launceston largely depends on tradition orally transmitted or written down by old men. However, there is enough evidence in reliable shipping and export records to accept the broad outlines of the story, in which the names of the Mills brothers occur frequently with those of others such as Jonathan Griffiths, William Dutton and Wishart, all men of fine physique, high nautical skill and courage, as much respected for their integrity as for deeds of daring.

According to tradition Captain James Wishart sailed the Fairy into Port Fairy, Victoria, on 25 April 1810; at some later date he gave his charts to John Mills, who with his brother Charles visited Port Fairy in 1826, and thereafter established shore bases on the southern mainland coast for sealing and whaling. The degree of permanence of these bases in relation to the well-organized settlement of the Hentys at Portland in 1834 has led to much discussion. Miss Olive Mills, a grand-daughter of Charles Mills, claims that 'John and Charles Mills who settled permanently in Victoria in 1826 and remained there until the death of Charles Mills in 1855 and of John Mills in 1877 should have the right of being recognized as Victoria's First Settlers'. Noel Learmonth, who made an exhaustive examination, summed up that 'it seems almost certain that at least one of the Mills Brothers was in Portland Bay as a temporary settler before the arrival of William Dutton' in 1828.

Captain John Mills, 'sailor, sealer, shipmaster, pelagic and port whaleman, port officer, pilot', after a wide experience in Australian and other waters suffered a financial loss in 1852 by the wreck of the brig Essington of which he was part owner, and soon afterwards retired from the coastal trade. In 1853 he was appointed harbourmaster at Belfast (Port Fairy) and in 1855 outport pilot as well. He retired on a pension in 1871 and died in 1877 at his son's home in Echuca. Charles Mills also left the sea and lived on his farm at Rosebrook, near Port Fairy, where he died after a sudden illness on 16 November 1855.

Select Bibliography

  • N. F. Learmonth, The Portland Bay Settlement: Being the History of Portland, Victoria from 1800-1851 (Melb, 1934)
  • O. M. L. Mills, Why Should Their Honour Fade? (Melb, 1960)
  • Mills papers (State Library of New South Wales and State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Clive Turnbull, 'Mills, John Brabyn (1810–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 29 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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