Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wollstonecraft, Edward (1783–1832)

by M. D. Stephen

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

Edward Wollstonecraft (1783-1832), merchant and landowner, was the son of Edward Wollstonecraft, a London solicitor, who was a brother of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Edward and his sister Elizabeth were therefore cousins of the ill-fated Fanny Imlay and of Mary Godwin who became the second wife of Shelley and was the author of Frankenstein. His parents died when relatively young. Wollstonecraft resented the notoriety of his aunt and sought escape and fortune for himself and his sister in travel and trade.

Wollstonecraft had some association with a Spanish merchant, De Zastel, of London, and on a voyage from Lisbon to Cadiz in June 1812 he met Alexander Berry. Berry introduced himself to the 'tall, formal-looking young man, dressed in black', and despite Wollstonecraft's initial reserve they became friends. They shared lodgings in Cadiz during the last stages of Marshal Soult's siege of the city. About this time Wollstonecraft became Berry's 'agent under a power of attorney' and returned to London to investigate matters arising out of Berry's earlier trading ventures. Wollstonecraft, his sister and Berry lived together in London from 1815 to 1819 when Wollstonecraft entered into full partnership with Berry and they both sailed for New South Wales, although in different ships.

Wollstonecraft arrived in Sydney in September 1819 in the Canada; Berry soon returned to England. Governor Lachlan Macquarie promised both men the usual grants of land. In Berry's absence Wollstonecraft was permitted to locate some 500 (202 ha) of his 2000 acres (809 ha) on the north side of Sydney Harbour, and his tenure was made official in June 1825. In spite of ill health he became a magistrate and a central figure in the Sydney commerce of the 1820s. As a director of the Bank of New South Wales and of the Bank of Australia, and as chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, he appears to have been chiefly concerned with maintaining the general financial liquidity of the colony's economy. He argued that the introduction of the Spanish dollar had depreciated colonial values and embarrassed external trade, and he urged the government to make loans to the colonial banks in the financial crises of 1826 and 1828.

A wide variety of merchandise passed through the warehouse of Berry and Wollstonecraft in George Street. In 1820, while Berry was still in London, Wollstonecraft advised him to concentrate on obtaining the solid necessities of a young colony and to beware of fripperies 'and the other female trash by which we are likely to lose so much already'.

Berry returned to Sydney in 1821, chartering the Royal George and bringing with him Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane and his party as passengers. With Wollstonecraft he successfully applied for a further 10,000 acres (4047 ha) on their undertaking to maintain 100 convicts. The grant was taken on the Shoalhaven River on the initiative of Berry, who explored the area, liked it and assured it of safe access from the sea by cutting a canal between the Crookhaven and Shoalhaven Rivers. On this foundation Wollstonecraft's relentless business energy worked, for he believed that the colony's greatest economic need was a reliable export staple. Finding the Shoalhaven region climatically unsuited for sheep, his long term plan at Coolangatta (Cullingatta and Coolungatta), as the property came to be called, was to clear the hillsides and drain the swamps for agriculture. Meanwhile the forests of cedar and blue gum could be put to use. Teams of sawyers, both assigned convicts and freemen, were organized, and by July 1823 thirty-six men were employed in getting and preparing timber for which Wollstonecraft was assiduous in seeking markets. The bulk of it was exported and thus provided a desirable balance to the imports demanded by the diverse trade still carried on by the partners in Sydney. While timber proved an immediate and sure source of wealth, experiments were made at Shoalhaven with other crops of similar economic potential, the chief being tobacco which was normally retailed at enormous profit to the importer. The partners generally arranged that one was at Shoalhaven and the other at the North Shore. The bond between them was strengthened by Berry's marriage in September 1827 to Elizabeth, Wollstonecraft's sister.

Both Wollstonecraft and Berry had the eighteenth-century Englishman's view of the social importance of land, and they saw at Shoalhaven the beginning of a great estate over which eventually they might rule as patriarchs. In pursuit of their object Wollstonecraft was almost morbidly jealous of encroaching settlers. His aim was to exclude them altogether or, failing that, so to encircle their holdings as to make them unworkable. This the partners were increasingly able to do, both by manipulating the location of their own grants before survey, and by buying the promises of grants from other settlers and locating them as strategy required.

Wollstonecraft died on 7 December 1832. His life in Australia depended largely on Berry's enterprise, yet Berry could rightly claim that he had 'a naturally defective temper', and that his conduct in his last years was 'such as to render my existence hardly tolerable'. His letters leave an impression of sardonic bitterness which may, however, have been the product of ill health. His business acumen and integrity were beyond question, yet it is doubtful that they would have found any important employment without the wider vision and more civilized instincts of Berry.

Wollstonecraft never married. A suburb of Sydney was named after him and another after his cottage, Crow's Nest, on the North Shore. In March 1846 his remains were removed from the Sydney burial ground and placed with those of his sister, who died on 11 April 1845, in a magnificent tomb erected by Berry in the cemetery near St Thomas's Church of England, North Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 10-13
  • Alexander Berry, Reminiscences (Syd, 1912)
  • F. L. Jones (ed), The Letters of Mary W. Shelley, vols 1-2 (Norman, Oklahoma, 1944), in which the editorial notes relating to Wollstonecraft are seriously misinformed
  • Berry papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

M. D. Stephen, 'Wollstonecraft, Edward (1783–1832)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wollstonecraft-edward-2812/text4025, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 25 October 2014.

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

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