Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mills, Peter (1786–1816)

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

Peter Mills (b.1786), sailor, surveyor and settler, was born in Dublin. In February 1804 he entered the navy as an able seaman in the Hazard and soon transferred as a midshipman to the Warrior under Captain William Bligh. On 13 April 1805 Bligh, who had been appointed governor of New South Wales, told Sir Joseph Banks that he would like to take 'Mr Peter Mills, a young gentleman, 19 years of age', with him to the colony and asked for his discharge to be arranged. He arrived at Port Jackson with Bligh in 1806. There is no contemporary evidence for the legend that a Lieutenant Peter Bernard French Mills acted as secretary to Bligh and was recalled to London to give evidence at Major George Johnston's trial after the governor was deposed.

In July 1807 Peter Mills was sent in the Estramina to Port Dalrymple to act as harbourmaster and deputy-surveyor. In the small community on the River Tamar Mills soon caused trouble between the civil and military officers, and was relieved of his duties as harbourmaster but allowed to continue as deputy-surveyor. On 23 January 1810 at Launceston he married Jennifer Ann, eldest daughter of Captain John Brabyn. Soon afterwards Mills was made superintendent of government stock by Brabyn, but the appointment was quickly overruled from Sydney. He had been granted 100 acres (40 ha) on the South Esk River but later discovered that the land had already been alienated. Although he was granted another 200 acres (81 ha) on Norfolk Plains in compensation for improvements he had begun, other mistakes in his surveys led to much litigation. In June 1812 he was suspended by Governor Lachlan Macquarie but allowed to become a settler with rations for his family and assigned servants.

Out of office Mills's fortunes fell to 'so low an Ebb' that no one would trust him and in 1814 to escape his creditors he and the deputy-commissary, George Williams, and a few convicts formed a bushranging gang in emulation of Michael Howe who was then marauding in the area. In May Macquarie heard exaggerated accounts of their exploits and indignantly issued a proclamation for their arrest. However, Mills and Williams found little opportunity to 'support themselves by Rapine and Violence' and quickly tired of the discomforts of 'the Woods and retired Places'. In September they returned to Launceston, surrendered and were placed in custody. One October night Mills's wife brought rum to the guards and the prisoners escaped. Mills was soon found under a heap of straw in a stable. At his trial in Launceston he gave much information on the misuse of government stock by unfriendly officers and was duly committed to the Supreme Court in Sydney. His hearing there was delayed because the commandant at Launceston had failed to send the necessary papers and witnesses. Mills was therefore discharged after promising to behave. Macquarie had little hope of his reformation but 'from mere motives of humanity' let him return to his family in Van Diemen's Land. From Norfolk Plains Mills moved to Hobart Town, whence he sailed in October 1816 in the Adamant and was reputed to have been lost at sea.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 7-8, series 3, vols 1-3, series 4, vol 1
  • correspondence file under Peter Mills (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • Adm 36/16620, 17097 (National Archives of the United Kingdom).

Citation details

'Mills, Peter (1786–1816)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mills-peter-2458/text3287, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 24 April 2014.

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

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