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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Watson, John Boyd (1828–1889)

by Frank Cusack

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

John Boyd Watson (1828-1889), mining magnate and investor, was born in September 1828 at Paisley, Scotland, son of James Watson, cabinetmaker, and his wife Margaret, née Boyd. He received little schooling and on 14 March 1841 arrived in Sydney in the Orestes with his parents, four brothers and two sisters. They settled at Windsor where Watson became a currier. He moved to Sydney but in 1850 left for the Californian diggings. On his return, he set off for the Victorian rushes and in late 1852 reached Bendigo Creek, where he took up a highly profitable claim at the Fifth White Hill. Quick to realize the potential richness of the Bendigo reefs, he was amongst the first to erect a crushing battery.

Watson's initial quartz-mining venture was the Old Chum Claim on New Chum Hill. Next, with a partner he bought a claim in Paddy's Gully from which he derived the sobriquet of 'Paddy' and the nucleus of his fortune. With others he floated the Cornish United Co. and in the late 1860s secured an interest in the adjoining Golden Fleece, Kent and Garden Gully claims, later buying and amalgamating them under one lease as the Kentish Mine which he owned until 1889. It produced huge amounts of gold in 1871-80, one reef alone yielding about thirteen tons of gold valued at some £1,500,000.

Watson had interests in other Sandhurst (Bendigo) mines but generally invested in real estate and commercial ventures. He owned much property in Sandhurst and his extensive Melbourne holdings included the freehold of some of the most valuable inner-city properties. He was a founder, director and principal shareholder of the Federal Bank and a large shareholder in the Melbourne Tramways Co., the Deniliquin and Moama Railway Co. and a Sydney steamship company. He had mining and pastoral interests in Queensland, owned wharves in Sydney and in 1879, with a group of Sandhurst investors, launched the Sydney Daily Telegraph.

On 6 August 1861 at All Saints Anglican Church, Sandhurst, Watson had married Mary Ann Covell, who bore him four sons and five daughters. One daughter married Billy Murdoch, another married Malcolm Donald McEacharn, co-founder of the shipping company, McIlwraith and McEacharn. The pioneer aviator Basil George Watson was a grandson. In the mid-1870s the family moved to Melbourne but retained close links with Sandhurst. Predeceased by two sons, Watson died of phthisis in Sydney on 4 June 1889 on his return from a visit to San Francisco. He was buried in the Presbyterian section of the Back Creek cemetery, Sandhurst. Under the terms of his will, which was subject to much litigation to resolve legal technicalities, almost all his fortune of between £1 million and £2 million was left to his children and grandchildren. His Victorian assets were valued for probate at £976,549.

Retiring in manner, he was described by his obituarist in the Bendigo Advertiser as 'a close and plodding sort of man'. None, however, could deny his business astuteness. Generous when occasion demanded, he did not parade his affluence and sought no public role in the community. He contributed to the fund enabling Ernest Giles to explore central Australia in 1873-74; Glen Watson in the Musgrave Ranges is named after him. The Watson Sustentation Fund, providing assistance for permanently invalided local miners, was instituted by his son John Boyd on his father's death.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Mackay, The History of Bendigo (Melb, 1891), and Annals of Bendigo (Bendigo, nd)
  • G. Meudell, The Pleasant Career of a Spendthrift (Lond, 1929)
  • F. Cusack, Bendigo: A History (Melb, 1973)
  • Bulletin, 3 Apr 1880
  • Argus (Melbourne), 5, 10 June, 4 July 1889, 22 Aug 1890
  • Bendigo Advertiser, 5, 10 June 1889, 22 Aug 1890, 8 Nov 1911, 9 Feb 1915
  • Bendigo Independent, 5, 6, 10, 17 June 1889
  • Australasian, 8 June, 5 Oct, 14 Dec 1889, 22 Feb 1890, 10 Jan 1891.

Citation details

Frank Cusack, 'Watson, John Boyd (1828–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 8 August 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 6

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