Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Simpson, Percy (1789–1877)

by Beverley Johnson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Percy Simpson (1789-1877), surveyor, engineer and administrator, was born on 5 March 1789 in Canada, son of Major Noah Simpson of the 31st Regiment of Foot, and reputedly christened Pierce. Young Simpson was commissioned in the 1st Garrison Battalion in 1809. In 1812 he became a lieutenant in the Royal Corsican Rangers as well as judge-advocate then governor (1812-16) of the Ionian Island of Paxos. On 1 October 1819 at Ballymascanlan, County Louth, Ireland, he married Hester Elizabeth McNeill (d.1875).

The family migrated to New South Wales in the Mangles in November 1822 with sufficient capital for a grant, cattle, convict servants and six months rations. As a relation of Major John Ovens, Simpson had immediate entrée to Governor Brisbane, who persuaded him to become commandant of an experimental agricultural settlement for 'educated convicts' in the Wellington valley, north-west of Bathurst. Simpson later described his responsibilities as unlike those of any other in the colony: commandant, chaplain, commissary and engineer, he was paid on productivity rather than a set salary. The system of payment was flawed; for the rest of his life he petitioned against the financial loss he incurred.

In June 1828 Simpson was appointed an assistant surveyor of roads and bridges and a magistrate, responsible for the construction of the technically challenging Great North Road through difficult terrain from Wisemans Ferry. Based on MacAdam's principles, the buttresses, culverts and drains were built by convict road gangs, often working in irons, under Simpson's overall direction. The work, his part of which was completed in 1832, was tangible evidence of his engineering skills.

Declared insolvent late in 1830, Simpson found his government employment under threat and argued that the Wellington valley issue was the cause, rather than 'speculation and extravagance'. Governor Bourke intervened to prevent his dismissal, reporting that Simpson had paid his debts (he sold his army commission for £700), was of good character and had no access to public funds. In 1832 he moved to Parramatta, where he built Oatlands House, Dundas (which he was later forced to sell). The same year he declined to supervise the construction of the Western Road, as he was unwilling to impose the rigours of another isolated posting on his delicate wife and his large, young family. In 1833 he was reappointed assistant surveyor and became a commissioner of crown lands.

Simpson's ability to manage convict labour and his administrative and engineering skills were recognized by successive governors who valued his 'zeal, assiduity and ability, as well as respectability of demeanor in private life'. Mitchell knew of 'no other officer in the Colony to whom I could with better expectation as to the results, intrust any work connected with the formation of roads, bridges and streets'. The difficult line from Lapstone Hill to Mitchell's pass, bridges at Wollombi, Lansdowne and Duck Creek, and the Queen's Wharf—designed by David Lennox—were all examples of Simpson's skill.

In 1836 responsibility for road works was transferred from the surveyor-general to the Royal Engineers. Now a civilian with no formal training as a surveyor, Simpson was placed in charge of the depot office of the County of Cumberland Road Department, based at Parramatta. Governor Gipps abolished this position in February 1839 and appointed Simpson police magistrate at Patrick's Plains (Singleton), where the family lived until the appointment was terminated in 1842. Next year Simpson went to Britain to pursue his Wellington valley claim with the government. He also sought a loan from relations to support his family. For six years he worked with two railway companies in Ireland.

Returning to Sydney in March 1850, now a civil engineer, Simpson was involved in the design and construction of Parramatta Dam on Hunts Creek, which was built to a radical new circular (arch) design. In the late 1850s and 1860s he served as Parramatta district registrar. He died on 25 September 1877 in Sydney and was buried with Hester in Balmain cemetery. Three sons and three daughters survived him, including (Sir) George Bowen Simpson. Edward Percy Simpson, Helen De Guerry Simpson and Edward Telford Simpson, were Percy's descendants. His works on a disused section of the Great North Road and Parramatta dam have been listed by the Australian Heritage Council (1978) and by the Heritage Council of New South Wales (1989). Part of his house, Oatlands, still survived in 2004.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 13, p 402
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1859-60, vol 4, p 1257
  • Royal Australian Historical Society, Journal and Proceedings, vol 6, 1920, p 201
  • Australian, 2 July 1828, p 3, 10 Mar 1837, p 2, 3 Aug 1842, p 2
  • Empire, 26 June 1852, p 1135
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 June 1852, p 3, 29 June 1852, p 3
  • United Service, Apr 1992, p 29
  • C. Liston, N.S.W. Under Governor Brisbane 1821-1825 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 1980)
  • G. Karskens, ‘The Grandest Improvement in the Colony’ (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1986)
  • WO 25/744, f 24r and 24v (National Archives of the United Kingdom)
  • Governor’s despatches, vol 53, p 1037, A1242, and 1830-31, p 1349, A1267-13, (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Colonial Secretary, letters received, 1832, 4/2140, p 13 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Beverley Johnson, 'Simpson, Percy (1789–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/simpson-percy-13196/text23891, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 1 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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