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Wyatt, William (1804–1886)

by Alan Rendell

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

William Wyatt (1804-1886), by unknown photographer

William Wyatt (1804-1886), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7829

William Wyatt (1804-1886), surgeon, landowner and public servant, was born at Plymouth, Devon, England, the son of Richard Wyatt, gentleman. Apprenticed at 16 to Thomas Stewart, a Plymouth surgeon, he became a licentiate of the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries in London and the surgeon of a large dispensary. In 1828 he was admitted a member of the Royal College of Surgeons and began a private practice at Plymouth, where he was also curator of the museum of the Literary and Scientific Institution, and studied zoology and other sciences allied to medicine. In 1836 he applied without success for a post in South Australia, even though a supporter thought him studious, prudent, moral and much else besides. Wyatt was determined, however, to emigrate with his wife and hoped to practise medicine and be an agricultural proprietor as well. As surgeon in the John Renwick he arrived in February 1837 in Adelaide, where at next month's opening land sale he bought six town acres (2.4 ha); he later acquired many suburban and rural sections as far afield as Port Lincoln.

Wyatt does not appear to have practised much, although he claimed the first amputation of a leg in the province. He was appointed the third protector of the Aborigines in 1837 when he also became city coroner and colonial magistrate. Next year he was made a justice of the peace, joined the local School Society and helped to found the short-lived South Australian Club. As protector he had an invidious task; with no funds and no proper authority he could do little for the Aboriginals, yet he was blamed for every trouble. He was glad to resign in 1839. Land values were then quickly appreciating and Wyatt sold some of his blocks, making nearly £2000 profit on an investment of £700.

In the 1840s Wyatt bought more land during the depression, became an early member of the Medical Board in 1844 and its secretary until his death; he also helped to free Trinity Church from debt in 1848, served on the Immigrants' Welcome Committee, became a director of the abortive Colonial Railway Co., and was elected one of the first proprietors of the Collegiate School of St Peter, where his name was later given to a house and an annual prize. In the 1850s he took a leading part in the South Australian Institute, Acclimatization Society, Botanic Gardens, Royal Society and Society of Arts. In 1851 he was chosen from a large field as the first inspector of schools. His initial plans were imaginative: a model school, training college, examinations for teachers and textbook depot. During his long regime none of these was properly implemented. The government pursued a shoe-string policy in education and Wyatt was too dignified to press for funds. He earned his £300 salary by visiting schools seeking to be loved by children as silver-haired 'Uncle Wyatt', and punishing miscreants by exclusion from singing lessons. After fifteen years the government schools were in a deplorable condition and he could not find a single teacher worthy of a first-class certificate. His resignation in 1874 on the eve of the introduction of compulsory education left the government with a vast and costly programme of belated reform. In retirement Wyatt published a Monograph on Certain Crustacea Entomostraca (Adelaide, 1883) and 'Some account of the manners and superstitions of the Adelaide and Encounter Bay Aboriginal tribes' appeared in J. D. Woods and others, Native Tribes of South Australia (Adelaide, 1879).

Wyatt died in Adelaide on 10 June 1886, leaving an estate of nearly £50,000. His only child to survive infancy had been murdered by a drunken workman. He left his wife well provided for, and various annuities and legacies were specified in his will. The greater part of his city and suburban property, however, was left to the Wyatt Benevolent Institution 'to benefit persons above the labouring class who may be in poor or reduced circumstances'. In 1961 the trustees were helping some 250 persons with monthly gifts to each of £5 10s.

Select Bibliography

  • E. L. French (ed), Melbourne Studies in Education 1957-58 (Melb, 1958)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 12 June 1886
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 30 May 1946
  • A. A. Lendon, biographical memoirs (State Records of South Australia)
  • W. Wyatt, land cash-book, 1837-54 (State Records of South Australia)
  • CO 13/5.

Citation details

Alan Rendell, 'Wyatt, William (1804–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wyatt-william-2821/text4043, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 21 September 2017.

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

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