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Archibald Archer (1820–1902)

by Mary O'Keeffe

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Archibald Archer, n.d

Archibald Archer, n.d

State Library of Queensland, 9001

ARCHER FAMILY: Charles (1813-1862), John (1814-1857), David (1816-1900), William (1818-1896), Archibald (1820-1902), Thomas (1823-1905) and Colin (1832-1921), pastoralists, were the children of William Archer, timber merchant, sometime of Perth, Scotland, and his wife Julia, née Walker. There were thirteen children, nine of whom spent some time in Australia. In 1825 the family moved to Larvik, Norway, where the five younger children were born.

The first brother to settle in Australia was David, who arrived in Sydney in 1834. He worked for his Walker cousins, and then became joint superintendent, according to the diary of Charles Darwin, whom he took on an unsuccessful hunt for kangaroos at Wallerawang in 1836. David Archer was joined by his brothers William and Thomas in 1838 and they determined to seek land on their own account. Hopes of joining the trek to the Darling Downs were frustrated by an outbreak of scab among the sheep, which held up the party until the best land was believed to have been taken. In 1841, however, David, Thomas and John, a sailor who had decided to settle ashore, pushed north and took up Durundur in the Moreton district, the most northerly station at that time. Ludwig Leichhardt stayed there for some months in 1843-44. His friendship with the brothers continued, one of his last letters being addressed to John Archer.

The country at Durundur proving unsuitable for sheep, the brothers in 1845 took up runs farther west but still within the Brisbane valley, at Emu Creek and Cooyar. In 1847 Thomas Archer made exploring trips to the Fitzroy Downs and in 1848 to the Burnett. As a result, land on the River Burnett was taken up in the names of David and Thomas Archer. These runs were named Coonambula and Eidsvold, the latter after the town in which the Constitution of Norway as an independent nation was signed in 1814. After Thomas left Australia in 1849 for the Californian goldfields further exploring trips were made. Charles, who had joined his brothers in 1841, and William discovered and named the Fitzroy River in 1853, and in 1854, with Colin, explored the Peak Downs district, being apparently the first to do so since Leichhardt traversed it in 1847. As a result of their examination of the valley of the Fitzroy the family partnership took up land there, and first occupied it in 1855. They had been attracted to the site not only by the suitability of the country for grazing, and the beauty of the mere which reminded them of Norway, but also by its position on the Fitzroy River which would allow them to use sea transport for taking out wool and bringing in stores; the city of Rockhampton now stands on part of the original Gracemere run. First called Farris, it was renamed Gracemere in honour of Thomas Archer's bride Grace Lindsay, née Morison, whom he had married in Scotland in 1853. Cattle as well as sheep were run on Gracemere from the earliest years, and in the early 1870s it was switched entirely to cattle, for which the district seemed better suited.

In their founding years both Durundur and Gracemere stations had escaped the interracial killings on neighbouring runs resulting from the squatters' encroachment on Aboriginal lands.  David Archer, influenced by the 1830s humanitarian movement of evangelical Christianity, refused to displace Durundur’s Aboriginal owners; although not devout, the younger brothers claimed that they followed his approach more than a decade later when they established Gracemere.

David Archer left Australia in 1852 and did not return. His son Edward Walker Archer (1871-1940) represented Capricornia in the federal parliament in 1906-10. John, who had returned to his original calling, was lost at sea in 1857. Charles died in Norway in 1862.

In 1860 Archibald Archer, who had been a planter in the South Seas, joined his brothers at Gracemere. He was a member of the Queensland Legislative Assembly in 1867-69 and 1879-95, being colonial treasurer and minister for education in 1882-83. He was a keen supporter of the Central Queensland separation movement. In 1870 he accepted the position of agent-general for Queensland, but resigned on finding that, in the opinion of the government, his already accepted obligation to present to the Colonial Office a petition from the supporters of separation was inconsistent with his holding this position. In 1892 and 1893 he led deputations to the Colonial Office on the same subject.  He died in Norway on 6 February 1902.

Thomas, who had been in Queensland again in 1854-55, after which he left on account of ill health, and in 1872-80, was agent-general for Queensland in 1881-84 and 1888-90. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1884. He was the author of a pamphlet which reprinted a letter in which he had given his brother Alexander 'An Account of the events following the sailing of the Barque “Scottish Knight” from Keppel Bay on 7th January 1880', describing how the barque, on board which he and his wife were, had struck a reef. He also published pamphlets while agent-general: The History, Resources and Future Prospects of Queensland (London, 1881); Queensland: Her History, Resources, and Future Prospects (London, 1882); Alleged Slavery in Queensland (1883). His Recollections of a Rambling Life, printed in Yokohama in 1897 for private circulation, describe his early years in Australia and his experiences in California. His son William (1856-1924) was a leading London dramatic critic, translated the works of Ibsen and wrote plays. He visited Australia in 1876.

Colin achieved fame in later life as a shipbuilder. He built the Fram, the ship in which Fridtjof Nansen made the successful exploration of the North Polar Sea in 1893-96, and also designed an improved pilot boat and a new type of rescue boat. He had taken from Maryborough to the present site of Rockhampton the first vessel to sail up the Fitzroy River—the Ellida, a ketch of about twelve tons.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Archer, Colin Archer, a Memoir (Gloucester, Eng, 1949)
  • Archer brothers, Letters from Australia, 1833-55 (typescript, privately circulated)
  • Libby Connors, Warrior (Crows Nest, 2015)
  • B. H. Crew, The History of the Walker and Archer Families (M.A. thesis, Australian National University, 1963)
  • Lorna McDonald, Over Earth and Ocean: The Archers of Tolderodden and Gracemere, a Norse-Australian Saga 1819-1965 (St Lucia, 1999)
  • Select Committee on Murders by the Aborigines on the Dawson River, Report, Votes and Proceedings  (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1858 (847)
  • V. Voss, ‘Early Pastoral Settlement in the Coastal District of Central Queensland’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 39, part 6, 1953, pp 281-347

Citation details

Mary O'Keeffe, 'Archer, Archibald (1820–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Archibald Archer, n.d

Archibald Archer, n.d

State Library of Queensland, 9001

Life Summary [details]


13 March, 1820
Newburgh, Fife, Scotland


6 February, 1902 (aged 81)
Larvik, Norway

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