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Shenton, George (1811–1867)

by J. H. M. Honniball

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

George Shenton (1811-1867), chemist and merchant, was born on 2 January 1811 at Winchester, England, a son of William Shenton of Buriton Manor and his wife Anna Marie, née Young. At 15 he was articled to a Portsmouth druggist, a pious Wesleyan who strongly influenced his character. After completing his professional training he set out for Western Australia in the hope of improving his health and his fortune. He arrived in the Cygnet on 27 January 1833 and joined his cousin William Kernot Shenton, an engineer who had preceded him in October 1829. Sixteen months later he had sole charge of his cousin's flour-mill at South Perth when it was attacked by Aboriginals. Although Shenton himself was unharmed, 980 lbs (445 kg) of flour were stolen; together with other depredations the attack prompted Governor (Sir) James Stirling to retaliate and the 'Battle of Pinjarra' followed in October 1834.

Shenton established himself as the first chemist and druggist in Perth and quickly prospered; in 1838 he moved to more capacious premises in Hay Street. He soon extended his trade and built up a flourishing general merchandising and agency business, employing Francis Armstrong as manager and confidential clerk. Taking a lead in the colonists' efforts to overcome the depression of the early 1840s and to boost exports, Shenton sent a sample shipment of jarrah and sandalwood to England in 1845. Timber quickly became a major export. In 1847 he advertised that he would buy 'sandalwood, wool, oil, wheat, gum and all other colonial produce'. Offices and warehouses were built on the waterfront behind his St George's Terrace home, Rose Hall, and the main shipping department was later transferred to Fremantle.

From 1848 Shenton played an important part in opening the Geraldton district. With other Perth businessmen he invested in a succession of mining ventures. The output of these copper and lead mines around the lower Murchison River and Northampton fluctuated considerably, partly because of the caution of the directors and managers. Minerals, however, provided a valuable export, vying with sandalwood for second place to wool after 1859. The exploitation of the Geraldton district's potential for wool and wheat quickly followed. In 1852 Shenton exchanged his own farm at Wanneroo, near Perth, for land on the Greenough River flats. He established a store at Geraldton and gave experience in management there to his eldest son George, when he came of age. From it the mining settlements and convict road parties were victualled. In this and other districts Shenton set many a farmer and grazier on his feet, but he had less success as one of the promoters of pastoral settlement at Roebuck Bay (Broome) in 1864. His commercial career culminated in his election as a director of the Western Australian Bank from 1847 to 1867, and he was chairman at the time of his death.

Shenton supported many public enterprises and activities. A man of high ideals and liberal principles, he saw his own fortunes synonymous with Western Australia's progress. As agent for various shipping companies in 1848 he joined in pressing the government to encourage overseas steam communication. He opposed the suggested introduction of female convicts. Elected a member of the Perth Town Trust in 1847, he served as chairman from 1853 until 1858 when he guided its transformation into the Perth City Council. In 1858, when the nominated members of the Legislative Council reflected landed rather than commercial interests, he joined a deputation to advocate representative government.

Shenton was a trustee of the Swan River Mechanics' Institute and of the Western Australian Total Abstinence Society, and as a keen gardener was a committee-man of the Vineyard Society. Cape lilac trees which he provided were planted along the western side of St George's Terrace in 1857. Of firm religious convictions, he served the Wesleyan Methodists as secretary and trustee, lay-preacher, particularly at Fremantle, Sunday school superintendent and class leader. He was a strong supporter of the church's missions to the Aboriginals at York and Wanneroo, and he gave generously towards the building of Wesley Church, Perth.

On 29 November 1838 Shenton married Ann Catherina (1821-1904), daughter of John Cousins, retired officer of the merchant marine. Of their eleven children, three sons, George, Edward and Ernest, followed their father into commerce, and seven daughters married into well-known Western Australian families.

Though frail of body, George Shenton was energetic, persevering and perceptive. His honourable and successful career was cut short on 25 March 1867 when, on an intended business visit to Bunbury, he was drowned in the wreck of his schooner Lass of Geraldton near Mandurah.

Select Bibliography

  • Swan River News, 2 (1843)–4 (1847)
  • Western Australian Almanack, 1849
  • Civil Service Journal (Perth), 20 July 1929
  • West Australian, 30 Oct 1847, 29 Mar, 12 Apr 1867
  • G. J. Kelly, ‘History of Mining in the Geraldton District’, Early Days, 6 (1962-65)
  • P. U. Henn, genealogical notes (State Library of Western Australia)
  • George Shenton letters (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

J. H. M. Honniball, 'Shenton, George (1811–1867)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shenton-george-2654/text3703, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 25 October 2014.

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

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