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Stenhouse, Nicol Drysdale (1806–1873)

by Ann-Mari Jordens

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Nicol Drysdale Stenhouse (1806-1873), by unknown engraver

Nicol Drysdale Stenhouse (1806-1873), by unknown engraver

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 10521

Nicol Drysdale Stenhouse (1806-1873), lawyer and literary patron, was born on 27 June 1806 at Coldstream, Berwickshire, Scotland, son of James Stenhouse (d. Jamaica 1806), a brewer of Clockmill, and his wife Elizabeth Pringle, née Young. Educated at a grammar school in Berwick-upon-Tweed, in 1822 he entered the University of Edinburgh (M.A., 1825) with a sound knowledge of the classics and four European languages; in 1825 he enrolled as a student of divinity. Articled to J. B. Gracie in 1828, he qualified as a lawyer in 1831. Stenhouse associated with the literary coterie who wrote for Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, and in 1831-36 he assisted Thomas De Quincey with his financial affairs, becoming intimate with the family. A keen student of German literature, he was a friend of the metaphysician Sir William Hamilton and in 1835 became first clerk in his legal firm.

With opportunities limited in Edinburgh, Stenhouse migrated to Sydney, arriving on 22 October 1839 as a steerage passenger in the Georgiana. Admitted as a solicitor on 1 April 1840, he practised in Sydney with William Hardy until 1872: Daniel Deniehy was one of their articled clerks. Stenhouse's scholarship, lively literary conversation and encouragement of Deniehy's writing talent earned him repute as a literary patron. He accumulated one of best private collections of classical, religious, British and European literature in the colony, which he lent freely. His home, Waterview House, Balmain, became in the 1850s and 1860s a centre for such colonial writers and intellectuals as Richard Rowe, Frank Fowler, Charles Harpur, Henry Kendall, Joseph Moore, James Michael, Henry Halloran, William Bede Dalley, (Sir) Henry Parkes and professors John Woolley and Charles Badham. He had written some translations of contemporary German works and essays on literary topics for the Quarterly Review and the Border Magazine, but published nothing after migrating.

Although neither wealthy nor leisured Stenhouse was generous with his money, time and help to those with literary or personal difficulties, and he was active in colonial institutions. A committee-man of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts in 1855-63, he was its senior vice-president in 1863-67 and president in 1867-73. A committee-man of the Australian Library and Literary Institution in 1857-69, he was a foundation trustee of the Free Public Library in 1869-73. He became a trustee of the Sydney Grammar School in 1866, and a law examiner of the University of Sydney and a member of the Senate in 1869. An alderman of Balmain Municipal Council, he was its chairman in 1862. A devout Presbyterian, he was a friend and sometime legal adviser of Rev. John Dunmore Lang and an elder of the Balmain congregation in 1858.

Stenhouse died of chronic nephritis on 18 February 1873 at his home and was buried in the Balmain Presbyterian cemetery. He was survived by his wife Margaretta, née Underwood, whom he had married at the Scots Church on 23 January 1846, and by two sons and five daughters. His goods were sworn for probate at £1800. His library of some 4000 titles was bought by the philanthropist Thomas Walker and, donated to the University of Sydney in 1878, it helped to prompt the foundation of the Fisher Library. Described by his early biographers as 'the Maecenas of Australian Literature', Stenhouse is entitled to be regarded as the colony's first, and probably foremost, nineteenth-century literary patron.

Select Bibliography

  • Catalogue of Books in the Library of the University of Sydney (Syd, 1892)
  • D. H. Rankin, The Spirit that Lives (Melb, 1945)
  • H. Bryan, ‘An Australian library … Earlier years of the University of Sydney library’, JRAHS, 55 (1969)
  • A. M. Jordens, ‘The Stenhouse collection’, Australian Academic and Research Libraries, Mar 1973
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21, 24, 25 Feb, 5 Mar 1873
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 2 Feb 1899
  • A. M. Williams, Nicol Drysdale Stenhouse: A Study of a Literary Patron in a Colonial Milieu (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1963)
  • C. Harpur papers, and H. Kendall letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Stenhouse letters (State Library of New South Wales and National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ann-Mari Jordens, 'Stenhouse, Nicol Drysdale (1806–1873)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stenhouse-nicol-drysdale-4638/text7643, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 22 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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