Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Austin (1776–1831)

by G. H. Stancombe

This article was published:

James Austin (1776-1831), landowner and ferry proprietor, was baptized on 13 August 1776 at Baltonsborough, Somerset, England, son of John Austin and his wife Sarah. He was a farm labourer at Baltonsborough when he and John Earle were convicted of stealing beehives and honey and each sentenced to transportation for seven years. On regaining his freedom, Austin was granted thirty acres (12 ha) on the River Derwent where by 1819 he had a flock of 700 sheep and was employing eight convict servants. In partnership with Earle, Austin also established a very useful ferry across the river.

Awake to the benefits of their monopoly, the partners opened a quay-side inn, the comforts and setting of which greatly impressed Governor Lachlan Macquarie who stayed there in 1821 and named it Roseneath. In the same year they judiciously took a licence to run an inn on the opposite bank of the Derwent and thus faced the traveller with a predicament which the land commissioners were later to advance successfully as an argument for a bridge to replace the ferry: 'if he steers clear of Scylla, Charybdis in all probability engulphs him, one night's charges there, deprives him of at least as much as the Ferry', charges for which they considered a serious drain on the colonial economy.

With one of their punts able to carry a flock of 300 sheep or five loaded carts at once, Austin's ferry service was an important link in communications with the interior until the completion of the Bridgewater causeway in 1836, and reaped an annual profit to the enterprising partners of £2000.

With the proceeds Austin improved his farm and by 1823 claimed to have the largest orchard in the colony as well as considerable livestock which earned him further grants. In 1831 he owned nearly 3000 acres (1214 ha) by grant and purchase, and had built three large stone houses and all their accompanying farm buildings.

By these large investments in the colony, his allowance of free ferry passage to government officers, and ready help in the construction of the New Norfolk road, he won high credit with the colonial administration. His reputation encouraged Andrew Bent, then in trouble for libel, to hope that by taking cover under Austin's proprietorship and publishing licence he might continue his attacks on the Arthur administration in the Colonial Times. As Austin, for all his virtues of industry, was almost illiterate, it required little sagacity for the government to see through this scheme, and his friendly efforts for Bent were frustrated by the refusal of his licence.

'Wealthy but eccentric', Austin never married, but before his death at Roseneath on 28 December 1831 his generosity had helped to establish in the colony several of his nephews, including James and Thomas Austin, who emigrated from Somerset in 1825 and later played a prominent part in the breeding of stud merino sheep in Victoria and New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • A. McKay (ed), Journals of the Land Commissioners for Van Diemen's Land, 1826-28 (Hob, 1962)
  • correspondence file under Austin (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

G. H. Stancombe, 'Austin, James (1776–1831)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 19 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

Life Summary [details]




28 December, 1831 (aged ~ 55)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Passenger Ship
Convict Record

Crime: theft
Sentence: 7 years
Court: Somerset
Trial Date: 13 January 1802