Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Watt, John Brown (1826–1897)

by G. P. Walsh

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

John Brown Watt (1826-1897), merchant, businessman and politician, was born on 16 May 1826 in Edinburgh, eldest son of Alexander Hamilton Watt and his wife Margaret, née Gilchrist. He matriculated at the University of Edinburgh in 1840, but a severe pulmonary illness led him to migrate to Australia. He arrived in Sydney in the Benares on 6 December 1842 and became a clerk in the mercantile and shipping firm of (John) Gilchrist (his uncle) and Alexander.

Watt's journal and letters to his father in 1845-58 reveal him as an introspective and intensely religious Calvinist. Almost a recluse, enduring a clerk's soulless life for less than £50 a year, he immersed himself in business but often thought of going to the bush; in 1848 he spent a year travelling in the interior and North Queensland. He went to England in 1850 and, on hearing of the discovery of gold, he obtained a diploma as an assayer of precious metals. On his return he induced Gilchrist to enter the lucrative gold-buying business. His perseverance and foresight were rewarded when he was made a partner in 1852. When John Alexander retired in 1853, the firm became Gilchrist, Watt & Co. and on the death of his uncle in 1866 Watt became the senior partner.

With a branch in London in 1860, the business continued to flourish and Watt began to rise in society, gaining respect for his probity and judgment. In 1861 he was appointed to the Legislative Council and next year to a board of inquiry into the Post Office Department. On 30 July at St Paul's Church, Canterbury, Sydney, he married Mary Jane (d.1879), daughter of George Kenyon Holden. In 1866, in bad health, he resigned from the council and left for a long holiday, returning to Sydney late in 1868. Involved in the Pacific islands trade, he headed a deputation of Sydney merchants and others to (Sir) Henry Parkes in 1873 seeking the British annexation of Fiji.

Watt was a director of the New South Wales Marine Assurance Co., the Liverpool & London & Globe Insurance Co., the Union Bank of Australia, the Australasian Steam Navigation Co., the Clarence and Richmond River Steam Navigation Co., the Pyrmont Bridge Co., the Australian Gaslight Co., the Sydney Meat Preserving Co., the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. (in 1880-84, 1886-88), and of the Sydney Exchange Co. He was chairman of the Newcastle Coal and Copper Co., and the Mutual Life Association of Australasia; president of the Commercial, Pastoral and Agricultural Association and of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce in 1870-71 and 1879-83. With Robert Towns and Jacob Montefiore, Watt had helped to revive the chamber in 1865. An ardent free trader, he was also vice-president of the Marine Board of New South Wales in 1872-83. He invested in pastoral property in New South Wales and Queensland.

In 1876 Watt visited England, and was involved in an experiment with charter steamers via the Cape of Good Hope that led to the formation of the Orient Steam Navigation Co.; Gilchrist, Watt & Co. acted as its general agents in Australia. The firm also acted for other shipping companies, including Lund's Blue Anchor Line in which Watt was a shareholder. In 1901 the Sydney maritime business was converted into a public company under the style of Gilchrist, Watt & Sanderson Ltd, while the pastoral and financial aspects were carried on by the firm Gilchrist, Watt & Co. both in Sydney and London.

In 1874-90 Watt was again a member of the Legislative Council; active in debate, he was regarded by Lord Carrington as 'one of its most valuable members'. His political interests reflected his diverse business connexions, though he favoured payment of members. In 1881 he sat on the royal commission on military defences. He was a commissioner for New South Wales at the exhibitions at Philadelphia (1876), Paris (1878), Sydney (1879), Amsterdam (1883) and at Calcutta (1883-84). Interested in education, he was on the committee to examine the possibility of a Presbyterian college within the University of Sydney in 1858, and in 1877 gave £1000 to the university to found an exhibition for students from public schools. He was also a director of the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary in 1869-73 and the Prince Alfred Hospital and a founder of the Hospital for Sick Children, Glebe. In England in 1884 Watt was on the executive committee of the Imperial Federation League.

Watt was independent, broadminded, kind and generous. R. D. Adams commended him as a possible investment adviser to Robert Browning at the Athenaeum Club in 1889 and described him as 'a man of cultured taste' who could appreciate the poet's 'genius'. Watt's intimate friends included Sir Alexander Stuart, Sir John Robertson, William Bede Dalley, Archbishop Roger Vaughan, Edward William Knox and Parkes. He was a member of both the Union and Australian clubs and for many years president of the Mercantile Rowing Club. He had gone back to England in 1888 and his second daughter's marriage and the education of his sons delayed his return to Sydney for two years; by this time his health rendered a voyage risky. He died of paralysis agitans and pneumonia at Brunstath House, Grove Road, Bournemouth, Hampshire, England, on 28 September 1897 and was buried in St Jude's churchyard, Randwick, Sydney. He was survived by three of his five sons and five daughters; his youngest son Walter Oswald (1878-1921) was a noted pioneer aviator. His estate in New South Wales was sworn for probate at £196,386 and in England at £33,125. He willed £2000 to public charities in Sydney and smaller amounts to charities in England.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Digby, Australian Men of Mark, vol 1 (Syd, 1889)
  • E. A. S. Watt, A Few Records of the Life of John Brown Watt (Syd, priv print, nd)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1863-64, 3, 1254, 1881, 4, 581
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Jan, 6 Apr 1858, 14 Oct 1873, 2 May 1876, 19 Mar 1881
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 22 July 1876
  • Bulletin, 21 Jan 1882
  • Henry Parkes letters and J. B. Watt papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Watt, John Brown (1826–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/watt-john-brown-1008/text8027, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 2 October 2014.

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

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