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Wedge, John Helder (1793–1872)

by G. H. Stancombe

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

John Helder Wedge (1793-1872), surveyor and explorer, was the second son of Charles Wedge of Shudy Camps, Cambridge, England, from whom he learned the rudiments of his profession. Losses during the post-war depression in agriculture induced Wedge and his brother Edward to migrate to Van Diemen's Land, where they arrived in 1824 in the Heroine. Before leaving London he had obtained an appointment in the colony as assistant surveyor.

Wedge led many arduous expeditions through heavily timbered mountainous country in the north-east and central highlands. On one journey he found a camp of the bushrangers led by Matthew Brady whom he pursued so tenaciously that they wrecked his tent. For his efforts in their capture he was rewarded with a land grant in 1826 and later applied for another grant for the capture of five absconders. He was sent to the far north-west in 1828 to examine the lands of the Van Diemen's Land Co. Wedge reported much rich soil in the heavily timbered area but the company wanted pasture land immediately available and disputed the accuracy of his map. His work included the investigation of grants surveyed earlier by George Evans and Thomas Scott who were accused of receiving bribes for measuring more than the authorized acreage to settlers. Wedge proved the accusations well founded.

In February 1835 a large expedition was organized by the surveyor-general, George Frankland, to explore the country lying between the Derwent, Gordon and Huon Rivers. As leader of one of the parties Wedge proved a resourceful, intelligent bushman, and covered much difficult ground. He won Frankland's praise for his energy in the Survey Department whose staff was overworked, but he was eager for promotion and came to believe that his hopes were being frustrated by nepotism at the Colonial Office. In his survey work Wedge had often visited John Batman at Kingston, and together they planned an expedition across Bass Strait. When Batman returned from his first visit in 1835 Wedge resigned from the Survey Department and crossed to Port Phillip where he explored along the Barwon River and surveyed the 600,000 acres (242,814 ha) 'acquired' by Batman's Port Phillip Association from the Aboriginals. He opposed the forceful removal of John Pascoe Fawkner's party by its rivals, and played an important part in the founding of Melbourne. He was one of the first to bring over sheep from Tasmania, to his station at Werribee. He also reported to Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur on the wild white man, William Buckley, whose pardon he recommended, and on outrages against the Aboriginals, for whose hopeless condition he had much compassion. Earlier he had adopted an Aboriginal boy, May Day, rescued from the surf near Circular Head. His 'Narrative of an excursion amongst the natives of Port Phillip' and a 'Description of the country around Port Phillip' were among the expedition papers published as a Tasmanian parliamentary paper (1885). In 1836 the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society printed his paper 'On the country around Port Phillip, South Australia'. The diaries of his explorations and survey work were sent home to his father; these were published by the Royal Society of Tasmania in 1962.

Wedge visited England in 1838-43. On the death of his father he returned to Tasmania to find his circumstances much reduced by economic depression. In 1843 he married Maria Medland Wills, who had been governess to Bishop Francis Nixon's children, but within a year she died in childbirth. He was then appointed by Nixon to manage (1846-51) the farms which formed the endowment of Christ's College at Bishopsbourne. Elected to the Legislative Council for the district of Morven in 1855, he held office in the short-lived ministry of Thomas Gregson in 1857, as member for North Esk, and initiated the inquiry into the convict department under its comptroller, Stephen Hampton. An active Anglican, one of his last acts before withdrawing from parliament in 1868 was to support the commutation bill that granted £100,000 to religious denominations in place of annual state aid. He died on 22 November 1872 at Medlands, a home he had built on the River Forth in 1865.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Bonwick, Discovery and Settlement of Port Phillip (Melb, 1856)
  • J. Bonwick, Port Phillip Settlement (Lond, 1883)
  • W. A. Townsley, The Struggle for Self-Government in Tasmania 1842-1856 (Hob, 1951)
  • correspondence file under Wedge (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

G. H. Stancombe, 'Wedge, John Helder (1793–1872)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wedge-john-helder-2778/text3951, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 1 October 2016.

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

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