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Townson, Robert (1762–1827)

by V. W. E. Goodin

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

Robert Townson (1762?-1827), scholar, scientist and settler, was probably baptized on 4 April 1762 at Richmond, Surrey, England, son of John Townson, merchant. Robert's zest for natural history dictated his activities for many years. He travelled widely as a gentleman scholar, collaborating with the professors at the universities he visited. In 1791 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He then visited the Universities of Copenhagen and Uppsala. After contributing a paper to the Linnean Society of London in 1792 on 'The Perceptivity of Plants', he made his headquarters at Göttingen University. While there he made expeditions into France and Austria, visited the University of Vienna, made an extensive tour of Hungary and he published Observationes Physiologicae de Amphibiis (Göttingen, 1794). A period of authorship followed. In 1797 Travels in Hungary was published and appeared in French in Paris in 1798; in that year he published Philosophy of Mineralogy and in 1799 Tracts and Observations in Natural History and Physiology, which included his Linnean paper and a translation of his Latin work of 1794.

After his plans for the study of mineralogy and geology in India had fallen through, Townson's thoughts turned to Australia. He was often at the home of Sir Joseph Banks and had there met William Paterson of the New South Wales Corps. His brother, Captain John Townson, also returned to England in 1800, so he had ample opportunities to learn about the new settlement. When John decided to return as a settler, Robert approached the British government. He was warmly received, informed that he was the type most urgently needed in the colony, promised land and indulgences, and allowed £100 to buy books and a laboratory for the colony. Dr Townson arrived in Sydney in the Young William on 7 July 1807. Proficient in all branches of natural science and also in Latin, Greek, German, French, he was the most eminent scholar in the young colony.

Much to his surprise Robert found John, who had arrived in August 1806, preparing to leave for England. John had brought a letter stating that the secretary of state intended to direct Governor William Bligh to grant him 2000 acres (809 ha) and certain indulgences. Bligh would not 'locate the grant' until he received specific instructions from London, but proposed that meanwhile Townson should select and occupy his land, buy livestock and have the use of four convicts for eighteen months. Robert was armed with a similar letter and received similar treatment.

Townson was further affronted when Bligh displayed neither appreciation nor understanding of his talents, and insisted that he consult the governor over the use of the scientific material he had brought out and that he could not go in the Porpoise to the Derwent to settle there but must charter a private ship. Greatly frustrated and deeply chagrined he became an opponent of Bligh, and when rebellion took place some months later he was judged one of the principal six 'who previously concerted together with Major George Johnston the arrest and imprisonment of the Governor'. He was present at the dinner at the officers' mess on the eve of the trial of John Macarthur which precipitated the revolt: he signed the requisition to Johnston to depose Bligh on 26 January 1808, though not the declaration of thanks next day, and took part in the formal deposition of Bligh at Government House. He served on the insurrectionary committees set up to obtain evidence against Bligh, but soon fell out with the rebel administration. Johnston refused to give him the land he wanted at Emu Island, near Penrith; though he was given 2000 acres (809 ha) at Botany Bay near the present Blakehurst and twenty-eight government cattle, he claimed that only half the grant was of any use, and his long complaints against Bligh written in 1807 and 1808 were followed by another, equally querulous, in 1809 against his supplanters.

Governor Lachlan Macquarie had to cancel the grants to Townson, like all others made by the rebels, but in 1811 he regranted him 1680 acres (680 ha) at Botany and added 1000 acres (405 ha) near the present Minto. This became the famous Varro Ville farm, but since these grants were made on the customary condition that the land be cultivated and not sold for five years, Townson again felt aggrieved. He had been living on his capital for nearly four years and was afraid of penury. He sought permission to sell his land and return to England. In the end he remained but developed a psychopathic personality. He subordinated everything to the development of his farms, shut himself off from society, and apparently did no scientific work in New South Wales. He became 'singular' and eccentric, and his rigid economy became a byword. He also nursed undue hostility towards all who had contributed to his critical situation; Macquarie described him as 'discontented' and one of his leading opponents, though there is no evidence that Townson took part in intrigues against him.

After Macquarie departed Townson began to take his rightful place in the community. In 1822 he became a foundation vice-president of the Agricultural Society and a member of its Horticultural and Stock Fund Committees; Edward Wollstonecraft proposed him for membership of the Philosophical Society of Australasia in the same year, and though the society's records do not disclose whether or not he was elected, it is probable that he was. In 1822 he joined in the protest against the commissariat paying for purchases in dollars, and in 1824 in the memorials against the British duties on wool. In 1826 he was appointed a magistrate. His name appeared regularly on subscription lists, and headed the list of donations towards establishing the Sydney Dispensary to give free medical attention to the poor. His invitations to dinner called for an early arrival so that there could be at least two hours of conversation before the meal. The contents of his library offered for sale after his death reveal his wide interests. Varro Ville became a show place for its beauty, abundance and variety in orchard and garden; his vineyard was second only to that of Gregory Blaxland; his fine-woolled sheep and their clip were in great demand; his cattle were numerous and in the opinion of his contemporaries 'no single man had accomplished more in the rearing of stock'.

Townson died at Varro Ville on 27 June 1827 and was buried at Parramatta. A bachelor, he left his fortune to his brother, Captain John Townson of Van Diemen's Land, to two nieces residing in England and to his nephew, Captain John Witts, R.M.

A portrait, attributed to Augustus Earle, was transferred from the Australian Museum to the Mitchell Library in 1961.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 6-7
  • Sydney Gazette, 2 July 1827
  • manuscript catalogue under Robert Townson (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

V. W. E. Goodin, 'Townson, Robert (1762–1827)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/townson-robert-2743/text3879, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 23 October 2014.

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

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