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Tench, Watkin (1758–1833)

by L. F. Fitzhardinge

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

Watkin Tench (1758?-1833), officer of marines and author, was born between May 1758 and May 1759 at Chester, England, the son of Fisher Tench and his wife Margaret (Margaritta). His father, a native of Chester, was a dancing master and proprietor of 'a most respectable boarding school', which was no doubt the source of Tench's very sound education and of the influential contacts, especially with the Wynne Williams family, which helped to launch him on his career. The year before Watkin's birth Fisher Tench became a freeman of Chester on the nomination of the mayor. Several children born before Watkin had died in infancy; only two, John and Watkin, survived their father, who died in 1784.

On 25 January 1776 Tench entered the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant. During the war for American independence he served off the American coast, first in the Nonsuch and then as first lieutenant in the Mermaid. When the Mermaid was driven ashore he spent three months as a prisoner of war in Maryland and then from October 1778 to March 1779 served in the Unicorn. He was promoted captain-lieutenant in September 1782 but, with the war over, was placed on half-pay in May 1786.

Towards the end of the year he volunteered for a three-year tour of service with the convict settlement about to be formed at Botany Bay. He sailed in the transport Charlotte on 13 May 1787 as one of the two captain-lieutenants of the marine detachment under Major Robert Ross, and arrived in Botany Bay on 20 January 1788.

After the transfer to Port Jackson and the formal establishment of the settlement Tench was occupied with his military duties and with routine tasks. In March 1788, with four other officers, he was placed under arrest by Ross for refusing to alter the sentence of a court martial of which he was president, but they were soon released. Apart from this, he seems to have maintained good relations with everyone in the little community, being especially intimate with Lieutenant William Dawes, whose observatory provided a quiet refuge and whose interest in the Aboriginals Tench shared. Tench was a keen explorer and much of his leisure was spent as a member or as leader of expeditions to the west and south-west of the settlement, discovering the Nepean River and tracing it to the Hawkesbury, and penetrating as far as the Razorback. It is clear that he felt the fascination of the bush, of its strange solitude and of its informal camp-fire nights, but he had also a keen practical interest, noting the absence of water and taking samples of the soil wherever he went. Apart from this his main relaxations seem to have been observing the life about him for description in his journal, for which he seems to have arranged publication before leaving England, studying the Aboriginals and watching the first struggling attempts at agriculture.

Tench sailed for England with the marines in the Gorgon in December 1791. Promotion to brevet major awaited him on his return, and with the outbreak of war with France he was soon at sea again. In November 1794 his ship, the Alexander, 74 guns, under Admiral Rodney Bligh, was captured after a desperate battle with three French 74s, and Tench spent six months as a prisoner of war, mostly on parole at Quimper as interpreter to Bligh. Here he turned some previous knowledge of France and his observant eye to the study of the effects of the revolution in that remote corner of Brittany, and his Letters from France, published after his return, display the same qualities as his better known Australian journals. After being liberated by exchange, he served for the rest of the war in the Channel Fleet in the Polyphemus and Princess Royal, being promoted brevet lieutenant-colonel in 1798. From March 1802 he served in various shore depots with regular promotions until he retired on half-pay as major-general on 1 January 1816. Three years later he returned to the active list as commandant of the Plymouth Division, retiring with the rank of lieutenant-general on 18 July 1821.

Some time after his return from Australia Tench married Anna Maria, daughter of Robert Sargent, surgeon, of Devonport, who was five years his junior. They had no children, but in 1821 they adopted the four orphaned children of one of Mrs Tench's sisters and her husband Captain Bedford, R.N. Two of the boys became captains in the navy and one a bank manager at Penzance; the fourth child, a girl, died at Penzance in 1832. Tench died at Devonport on 7 May 1833; his wife, aged 82, on 1 August 1847.

Tench's claim to remembrance rests on the two books in which he described the voyage to and the early years of the settlement in New South Wales, at once the most perceptive and the most literary of the contemporary accounts. Less detailed than David Collins, less matter of fact than Arthur Phillip or John White, Watkin Tench was the first to mould Australian experience into a work of conscious art. To a sound eighteenth-century style—he had read Voltaire and Gibbon—he added an interest in the novel, the picturesque and the primitive which foreshadows romanticism. His eye ranged over the convicts and the Aboriginals with a mixture of shrewd commonsense and sympathetic tolerance, and his reaction to the country itself shows the same qualities. His notes, made while the events were fresh, were no doubt polished at leisure and were then selected and arranged to bring out the main themes, and his writing combines the freshness of immediately recorded experience with more elaborate set pieces and reflections.

Tench published three books: A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay: With an Account of New South Wales, its Productions, Inhabitants &c (London, 1789, three editions; also Dublin and New York editions and translations into French, German and Dutch); A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, in New South Wales, Including an Accurate Description of the Situation of the Colony; and of its Natural Productions; Taken on the Spot (London, 1793; German and Swedish translations); and Letters Written in France, to a Friend in London, Between the Month of November 1794 and the Month of May 1795 (London, 1796). The Narrative was reprinted in Sydney in 1938, and the Narrative and the Complete Account, with introduction, notes and bibliography, under the title Sydney's First Four Years in Sydney in 1961 (revised ed., 1964).

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 1, part 2
  • J. Hemingway, History of the City of Chester, vol 2 (Chester, 1831), 32-33
  • G. C. Boase, Collectanea Cornubiensia (Truro, 1890), 64, 975
  • G. A. Wood, ‘Lieutenant William Dawes and Captain Watkin Tench’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 10, part 1, 1924, pp 1-24
  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, ‘The Origin of Watkin Tench: A Note’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 50, part 1, 1964, pp 74-77.

Citation details

L. F. Fitzhardinge, 'Tench, Watkin (1758–1833)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tench-watkin-2719/text3829, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 26 October 2014.

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

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