Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ramsay, David (1794–1860)

by Arthur McMartin

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

David Ramsay (1794-1860), medical practitioner and merchant, was born on 16 March 1794 in Perth, Scotland, the third son of John Ramsay, a prosperous corn merchant and miller, and his wife, née Pearson. He was educated in Perth and at Edinburgh University (M.D., 1817). Next year he sought a hospital appointment in London, but was unsuccessful. Reluctant to become a surgeon's assistant confined to a shop making up medicines with no opportunity of improving his medical education, he accepted the post of surgeon in the Marchioness of Exeter, at a monthly salary of £5, the use of the captain's table and liberty to trade a little. He made a modest profit on a voyage to the East Indies, but on his return to England in 1819 he found situations on ships hard to come by; after toying with the idea of furthering his professional knowledge at the University of Paris, early in 1820 he accepted a post in the Surry, Captain Thomas Raine, going to New South Wales. After four months in Sydney he sailed for Valparaiso in the Surry. On the way Ramsay did useful natural history work on several islands, including Pitcairn; his description of the visit there is one of the most informative accounts of the islanders. In June 1821 he was back in Sydney, with which he was greatly impressed, but in February 1822 he embarked once more in the Surry, now taking Governor Lachlan Macquarie and his family back to England.

Ramsay's appetite was whetted by what he considered the great commercial possibilities of New South Wales and, aided by some influential friends, he made arrangements to establish a 'House of Agency' in the import-export business with Raine as partner. Leaving England in the Thalia late in 1822 Ramsay reached Sydney in June 1823. With the establishment of the well-known house of Raine & Ramsay his career as a doctor appears to have ended, for there is no evidence available that he ever after practised medicine. Ramsay disagreed with Raine's expansionist policy and in 1828, when he complained that Raine was misappropriating large sums belonging to the firm for his personal use, the partnership was dissolved.

Although for a time short of funds, Ramsay continued to develop both his commercial and pastoral interests, including his grant of 2000 acres (809 ha) on the bank of the Fish River and his plant nursery at Dobroyd farm, a wedding present from his father-in-law, the wealthy emancipist merchant, Simeon Lord. Of some 480 acres (194 ha) about six miles (9.6 km) from Sydney, it had been originally a grant to Nicholas Bayly, who named it Sunning Hill farm; much of it is now covered by the suburb of Haberfield. Ramsay described it as 'one of the finest places in New South Wales, the oranges in the orchard alone being worth £100 per year'.

Ramsay took an active part in public affairs. He was treasurer to the Presbyterian Church in 1823, a signatory to its constitution drawn up in 1824 and a strong supporter of his fellow members in their efforts to build Scots Church in Sydney. In 1838 he was a mediator in the dispute between the synod and the presbytery and in 1845 was trustee to the congregation. He opposed (Sir) Richard Bourke's efforts to establish a National system of education in the colony, but his interest in education is shown by his election to the council of the Australian College, the brain-child of Rev. John Dunmore Lang.

He had married Sarah Ann, eldest daughter of Simeon Lord, on 31 March 1825. He had ten children of whom the third youngest son, Edward Pierson Ramsay, was a noted ornithologist who for twenty years was curator of the Australian Museum in Sydney. David Ramsay died on 10 June 1860 and was buried on Dobroyd.

Upright but shrewd, dignified but warmly affectionate, Ramsay was a man of high principles. Deeply religious he followed all his life the strict path of Presbyterian orthodoxy. Although not possessed of great intellectual gifts, he was versatile enough to succeed as a doctor, as a student of natural history and as a man of business. He had as well some taste and talent for music. His letters reveal him as a dutiful son and a devoted father and husband.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Brodsky, Dr David Ramsay (Syd, 1960)
  • R. B. Nicolson, The Pitcairners (Syd, 1965)
  • R. H. Goddard, ‘Captain Thomas Raine of the "Surry": 1795-1860’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 26, part 4, 1940, pp 277-317
  • manuscript catalogue under David Ramsay (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Arthur McMartin, 'Ramsay, David (1794–1860)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ramsay-david-2571/text3513, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 18 December 2014.

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

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