Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Peel, Thomas (1793–1865)

by Alexandra Hasluck

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

Thomas Peel (1793-1865), colonial promoter and landowner, was born in Lancashire, England, probably at Peelfold, near Blackburn, the second son of Thomas Peel and his wife Dorothy, née Bolton. His father, directly descended from the Peel who founded the family's cotton manufacturing fortunes, inherited the business. When his elder brother entered the church, young Thomas showed no desire to follow his father in the family firm. After education at Harrow, he joined a firm of attorneys. About 1823 he married Mary Charlotte Dorking Ayrton, and after his children, Julia and Thomas, were born they moved to the estate of Carnousie in Banffshire, Scotland, where a second daughter, Dorothy, was born in 1827, and where he became master of the Turriff Hunt.

In 1828 Peel went to London and was planning to emigrate to New South Wales, when reports of the new free colony to be founded at Swan River changed his mind. He joined a syndicate of financiers in proposing to the government a plan whereby they would transfer ten thousand settlers with requisite stock and stores to the new colony within four years, and place them each on 200 acres (81 ha) of land, in return for which the syndicate wished to receive four million acres (1,618,760 ha) of land. The Colonial Office, however, was under pressure from Captain (Sir) James Stirling, who had explored the Swan River in 1827, either to grant him the right to develop the place under a proprietary charter, or to proclaim it a new crown colony of which he would be the governor. When Sir George Murray took charge at the Colonial Office in May 1828 he did not wish to grant a charter, or to incur the expense of forming a colony. The interest of Thomas Peel's association of investors seems to have been a deciding factor in persuading the government that the place could be a crown colony and at the same time be largely developed by outside capital. The government, however, felt it could not agree to the amount of territory the investors wished to receive, and could sanction only a grant of one million acres (404,690 ha). At this, all the financiers interested withdrew, except Thomas Peel. While he hesitated, Solomon Levey proposed a ten-year partnership with him in the venture, to which he agreed. A deed of co-partnership was drawn up between them, a long and complicated document by which Levey was to finance the scheme and Peel, not being as wealthy as was thought, was to be the salaried manager of it in the colony, although he was to apply for the title deeds to the land in his own name, it being understood that these lands, with the exception of 25,000 acres (10,117 ha), were in joint ownership.

Solomon Levey had amassed a fortune in property in New South Wales before he returned temporarily to England and thought he saw good potential in the new colony. Being both a Jew and a former convict, perhaps he considered it better not to appear as Peel's co-partner to the authorities. Their partnership, therefore, was concealed for four years from the Colonial Office. Peel appeared as the sole negotiator with the Colonial Office and as the sole investor and promoter of their emigration scheme. As a natural corollary he reaped the notoriety that resulted, first, when charges were made of favouritism on the part of his cousin, the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, in the granting of so much land; and second, when the scheme collapsed shortly after the emigrants' arrival in the colony.

By the agreement Peel negotiated with the Colonial Office he was granted priority of choice of 250,000 acres (101,172 ha), which he chose on the southern banks of the Swan and Canning Rivers, with a further 250,000 (101,172 ha) to be allotted when he had landed four hundred settlers; after twenty-one years, if improvements and capital (which included the dispatch of emigrants) had been expended on the first 500,000 (202,345 ha), the remaining 500,000 acres (202,345 ha) would be allotted. But at the end of the negotiations in January 1829 the government suddenly stipulated that the first shipload of emigrants was to be landed before 1 November 1829, if priority of choice of land were to be retained.

Unfortunately, the Gilmore, the partnership's first ship bearing 179 emigrants, arrived six weeks late. Peel found his chosen land taken up, and had to accept 250,000 acres (101,172 ha) contiguous to it but farther south. In the next six months the Gilmore was followed by a small ship carrying stores, and two other emigrant ships. By Peel's arrangement with Levey, more stores and stock, paid for in London, were to be sent to Swan River from Sydney by the firm of Cooper & Levey. They never arrived. Peel was left, with inadequate funds and very little food beyond the flour and salt meat he had brought from London, to cope with 540 agitated settlers.

Peel was not impressed with the land allotted to him and, while he explored farther for better land and waited for Levey's promised stock and stores to arrive from Sydney, winter descended. Malnutrition and disease were rife among the emigrants encamped on the beach at the proposed town site of Clarence near Fremantle. Peel himself became ill and incapacitated from a gun-shot wound in the right hand, probably received in a duel with the captain of the Rockingham, his last ship, which was wrecked while anchoring in Cockburn Sound. This removed him from the scene at a critical time when his leadership was badly needed. His settlers became dissatisfied with conditions and with the promissory notes drawn on the firm of Cooper & Levey, with which they had been paid for the first few months, when Daniel Cooper announced his refusal to pay them. Many emigrants sought other employment, those who were good artisans finding it easily enough. They were to spend the next few years suing Peel for wages which he had guaranteed but for which they had not worked, while he sued them for repayment of passage money. Many workmen applied to the local court to be freed from their indentures; others followed Peel in an attempt to begin farming operations on his grant at the Murray River, forty-five miles (72 km) south of Fremantle. Over this crucial time Peel had been advanced stores for their sustenance by the government, which held him responsible for the debt incurred.

After frequent attacks by Aboriginals most of the settlers at the Murray drifted back to Fremantle, leaving Peel almost alone. In 1833 his partner Levey died. The settlement scheme was by now a failure. Nevertheless in 1834 Peel claimed and received the title in fee simple to 250,000 acres (101,172 ha), as the terms of the partnership obliged him to do. In that year his wife and children came out from England to join him.

Up to 1839, when the partnership with Levey or his heirs would cease, Peel was actively occupied in trying to develop his grant, partly by agriculture and partly by ventures such as whaling. When the General Road Trust was formed, he was made a trustee for Pinjarra; he also became a member of the Legislative Council. He resigned this honour fourteen months later, having made repeated protests that he received notices too late to attend meetings in Perth. He was active in pressing for a church near Pinjarra, giving 500 acres (202 ha) of land for it, but resuming it when the church was placed in the townsite. Instead he gave 1000 acres (405 ha) to the Bishop's fund.

In 1836 Peel had forwarded to Levey's executors various documents connected with the partnership and he also applied to the Colonial Office for the remaining 250,000 acres (101,172 ha) to which he considered himself entitled by his agreement. This was refused. In 1839 he managed to sell 13,770 acres (5573 ha) of land. This enabled him to repay part of the debt to the Crown and to send his wife and daughters to England, hoping himself to follow soon to settle affairs with the executors and perhaps to make representations about the additional land he thought should be his. The years passed, however, without his return. He made no further large sales and the debt was still a burden. In 1856 his elder daughter died in London and in the next year his wife, both of consumption. His younger daughter then returned to live with him.

In 1851 Levey's heir, John Levey Roberts (who had taken his mother's name) came to Perth, and articles of agreement between Roberts and Peel were made, to avoid litigation. The debt for stores contracted on behalf of the partnership became a first charge on the property, and subject to its payment the residue of the property was to be equally divided between Roberts and Peel. This amounted to 213,764 acres (86,508 ha). In 1858 Roberts sold his moiety to the Colonization Assurance Corporation in return for 3747 shares in the company. Peel, however, retained his half until his death, when it was divided between his son Thomas and daughter Dorothy and his reputed son Frederick. Peel died at Mandurah on 21 December 1865 and was buried in the churchyard there.

As he grew older and poorer and crustier, and more withdrawn, he became a legend. Clad in a faded red hunting coat, he was often to be seen riding alone through the bush in his large domain. Governor Stirling and the first settlers had always given him the respect due to one who had made an immense attempt to aid in the foundation of the colony and whose failure was partly due to a series of unfortunate circumstances. His character has often been blamed for this failure, and it is true that he was hot-tempered, proud and often intolerant of stupidity. On the other hand he had vision, courage and strict standards of behaviour: almost unique among the early settlers, he never complained either about the country or his ill fortune. As one of his contemporaries and equals said, he 'displayed singular fortitude considering the severe losses he had sustained'.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Hasluck, Thomas Peel of Swan River (Melb, 1965) and for bibliography.

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Citation details

Alexandra Hasluck, 'Peel, Thomas (1793–1865)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/peel-thomas-2543/text3459, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 17 July 2018.

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

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