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Watson, Robert (1756–1819)

by E. J. Lea-Scarlett

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

Robert Watson (1756-1819), harbourmaster, arrived with the First Fleet as quartermaster of H.M.S. Sirius, and was still serving in that capacity when the ship was wrecked at Norfolk Island in 1790. Next year he obtained and cultivated a grant of sixty acres (24 ha) on the island. This farm he sold in 1793 when he became mate of the schooner Francis, retaining that post until 1805 when the ship was wrecked off Newcastle. Meanwhile in 1801 Governor Philip Gidley King had granted him land at South Head, Sydney, and there he settled, later becoming boatswain of the dockyard. In April 1811 soon after the South Head Road was completed Governor Lachlan Macquarie visited Watson's Bay, as the site of the grant had come to be called. He followed up the visit by appointing Watson senior pilot and, two years later, harbourmaster. Watson's new stone house with outbuildings and a strong wall was finished about the time of Macquarie's visit and the governor later granted him a free licence to sell spirits there. For his services in piloting the Kangaroo in January-March 1814 during the evacuation of Norfolk Island, he was given a gratuity of £20 by order of the governor. Soon afterwards he resigned the post of pilot, but retained the appointments of harbourmaster and boatswain of the dockyard until he was dismissed in November 1816 on a charge of stealing canvas. The offence was not viewed severely for long, for when the South Head lighthouse was finished Watson was installed as its first superintendent in November 1818, on the same salary that he had received as harbourmaster (£50). At the end of October 1819 he requested temporary leave on account of illness, and died at his house on The Rocks, Sydney, on 1 November. He was buried in the Sandhills cemetery, from where his remains were removed in 1901 to La Perouse.

There appears to be no record of the identity of Watson's wife, but two sons and a daughter were with him in Sydney. In 1929 a stone seat bearing the following inaccurate inscription was erected in Robertson Park, Watson's Bay: 'To commemorate Robert Watson after whom this Bay is named Quartermaster of H.M.S. Sirius 1786-1790 Signal-Man South Head 1791-1811 Pilot and Harbour Master 1811-1816 Superintendent of Macquarie Lighthouse 1818 Died 1st November 1819'.

Select Bibliography

  • F. J. Bayldon, ‘History of the Pilotage Service of Port Jackson’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 20, part 3, 1934, pp 129-63
  • Sydney Gazette, 5 Oct, 2 Nov 1816, 6 Nov 1819
  • J. Watson to G. Frankland, Feb 1830 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • L. Macquarie to D. Wentworth, 4 Nov 1811, 18 Apr 1814 (Royal Australian Historical Society Library, Sydney).

Citation details

E. J. Lea-Scarlett, 'Watson, Robert (1756–1819)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/watson-robert-2777/text3949, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 17 February 2019.

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

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