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Thompson, Joseph (1784–1839)

by D. F. Branagan

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

Joseph Thompson (c.1784-1839), mariner, pearler and pastoralist, was born probably in England. By 1809 he was sealing in the Auckland Islands, south of New Zealand, in the Perseverance. He participated in the attack on Te Pahi's island, Bay of Islands, on 26 March 1810, when whaling crews revenged the Maori leader's alleged part in killing the crew of the Boyd in Whangaroa harbour. Thompson was on board Perseverance when Macquarie Island was discovered in July that year, and by August 1812 was chief officer.

From 1811 he worked for William and Robert Campbell and others on Pacific voyages for seals, whales, pearls, sandalwood, arrowroot, molasses and bêche-de-mer. On 13 January 1812 in St John's Church of England, Parramatta, Thompson married Isabella Wood. He was master of the Trial in 1814-16. In charge of sealers at Macquarie Island, he recorded in a journal the effects of earthquakes between October 1815 and April 1816. From late 1816 to 1822 he commanded the Active for the Church Missionary Society. Although he chiefly supplied missionaries' needs in New Zealand and the Pacific, the society was not averse to trade and Thompson ranged widely, his cargo including pine spars, timber planks, salt pork and coconut oil from Tahiti.

About July 1822 he took over the Midas. Thompson habitually included Tahitians and Maoris among his crew. With Peter Dillon, Richard Siddins and others, he formed the Sydney Bethel Union to provide regular church services for sailors in port, and in 1823 made the Midas available for divine worship. In 1827 he sat on a committee to examine the Fame as a possible permanent chapel. He was also involved in the Benevolent Society of New South Wales.

In 1824, with the majority shareholder in the Midas Thomas Icely, Thompson sailed for London, where they contacted investors for a proposed Pacific Pearl Fishery Co., which was floated in April 1825. The enterprise advertised its dependence on 'the application of science' by using modern equipment, including a diving bell, and the leadership of Thompson, 'an experienced and able person' with extensive local knowledge. The naturalist Samuel Stutchbury documented the expedition around the world. Leaving Gravesend in August 1825 in two ships, it made important scientific observations and obtained pearls from Hao Atoll in the Tuamotus. One vessel, the Sir George Osborne, completed the voyage at Dartmouth in May 1827.

Thompson, however, had not gone back to London, but sailed on the second ship, the Rolla, from Tahiti directly to New South Wales. Reaching Sydney on 21 February 1827 he quit seafaring. His wife died next year, leaving him to care for two daughters and three sons, two of whom attended Captain John Beveridge's Mercantile and Naval Academy. In 1829-30 Thompson imported goods and traded from his home, particularly offering charts of the Pacific region. He was elected to the committee of the Church Missionary Society in 1829 and in March 1831 supported the subscription to commemorate Laurence Halloran. On 14 June 1831 in St Philip's Church of England he married Catharine Ann Dean, a widow, whose eleven children had all died. In 1833 he established Biggan station in the Monaro district. Next year the Thompsons moved to Liverpool. About 1837 he began to suffer mental illness, disturbing the services at St Luke's Church. Rev. Richard Taylor recorded that Thompson 'had in early life I fear been a dishonourable character . . . his children are undutiful and a constant anxiety . . . and he . . . always in a passion, swearing, drinking and keeping company with a bad woman'.

Thompson died after a long and painful illness on 24 September 1839 in his cottage and was buried at Christ Church St Laurence, Sydney. His son William leased Biggan in 1850.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Stutchbury, Science in a Sea of Commerce (Syd, 1996)
  • Sydney Gazette, 1 June 1816, p 2, 15 June 1816, p 2, 2 Jan 1819, p 2, 9 Jan 1819, p 2, 6 Feb 1819, p 4, 19 June 1823, p 2, 15 July 1824, p 2, 8 Dec 1825, p 2, 24 Feb 1827, pp 2 & 3, 3 Oct 1839, p 3
  • Times (London), 31 Mar 1825, p 2
  • Australian (Sydney), 29 Dec 1825, p 3, 13 Nov 1835, p 2, 19 June 1838, ‘supplement’, p 2
  • Cooper & Levey ledger book (University of Sydney Library)
  • Richard Taylor’s journal (National Library of New Zealand)
  • Mitchell Library catalogue under Joseph Thompson (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Church Missionary Society archives, London.

Citation details

D. F. Branagan, 'Thompson, Joseph (1784–1839)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thompson-joseph-13217/text23933, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 25 October 2014.

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

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