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James Backhouse (1794–1869)

by Mary Bartram Trott

This article was published:

James Backhouse (1794-1869), naturalist and Quaker missionary, was born on 8 July 1794, the fourth child of James and Mary Backhouse, members of a well-known Quaker business family of Darlington, Durham, England. He was educated in a school kept by a Friend at Leeds, then apprenticed to a chemist in Darlington where he developed tuberculosis. Regaining health with outdoor work, he trained for two years in a Norwich nursery, where the sight of Australian plants and association with Friends interested in prison reform and transportation contributed to his concern to visit the convict colonies. In 1816, with his brother, he bought a nursery in York, and in 1822 married Deborah Lowe who died five years later. Growing activity in schools for the poor, temperance and Bible societies, prison visiting and the Quaker ministry roused his interest in similar service abroad. He left his business and two children with relations and in September 1831, with the financial support of the London Yearly Meeting, sailed for Australia with George Washington Walker.

From their arrival at Hobart Town in February 1832 until their departure from Fremantle in February 1838, they visited from house to house in most of the scattered Australian settlements and found much demand for their services. During their three years in Van Diemen's Land (1832-34) Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur found many useful tasks for them. His ready co-operation and disregard of red tape contrasted with that of the naval authorities in London who had refused their proffered services in a Sydney-bound convict transport because they lacked official status. In later voyages in convict ships in Australian waters Backhouse's medical knowledge helped the sick and wounded. Arthur granted the missionaries free access to all penal and Aboriginal establishments, encouraged their investigations and urged them to suggest improvements. They gave Arthur eight valuable reports on the penal settlements of Macquarie Harbour and Port Arthur, the Aboriginal establishment on Flinders Island, the conditions of road-gangs, chain-gangs, assigned servants and their masters, and the Van Diemen's Land Co., with the result that some newspapers labelled them government spies.

In New South Wales and its dependencies Governor Sir Richard Bourke encouraged similar work in 1835-37, and in three reports to him they described the penal settlements of Norfolk Island, Moreton Bay and Port Macquarie, and the Aboriginal station in Wellington Valley. Their reports were sent to London Friends and to the Colonial Office and used by reformers of prisons and Aboriginal settlements. They were the basis of the help the two Quakers gave on their return visit to Van Diemen's Land in 1837 to Alexander Maconochie in formulating his new penal system. Throughout these arduous journeys Backhouse also collected a valuable herbarium which he sent to Kew Gardens. In recognition of his contribution to the knowledge of Australian vegetation, particularly of inland species, the genus of a myrtaceous shrub was named Backhousia.

At large public meetings the Quakers urged the formation of non-sectarian British charities which included the Temperance, Religious Tract, British and Foreign Bible, and British and Foreign School Societies. They distributed many tracts, Bibles and the non-denominational text books of the School Society. Many schools in the colonies followed its curriculum and it became the official system in the early public education of some colonies. They encouraged savings banks, benevolent societies, and ladies' committees for prison visiting on Elizabeth Fry's model. They inspected hospitals and recommended humane treatment for the insane and asylums like the Quakers' York Retreat. In Sydney they gathered a group for Quaker worship. In 1833 in Hobart they established a Monthly Meeting, next year the Van Diemen's Land Yearly Meeting, and in 1837 bought a meeting house property, which was used for 120 years.

Leaving Hobart in November 1837 they visited Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, in each place promoting temperance and Aboriginal protection committees. During a three-month stay at Mauritius they encouraged Protestant philanthropy. Arriving in Cape Town in June 1838, they equipped a covered wagon and penetrated the interior of the colony in a journey of 6000 miles (9656 km). In an ecumenical spirit they visited eighty mission stations and learnt the colonial Dutch language in the hope of reconciling the far-trekked Boers, who were so resentful of being compelled to release their slaves. In Cape Town they established a multi-racial school for the poor, which lasted forty years. They made reports to the governor and to members at Westminster on the treatment of the native Africans.

After Walker left for Hobart Backhouse returned in 1841 to York, where he kept in touch with the colonies, corresponded with the Royal Society of Tasmania, advised the young Quaker meetings, sent agricultural equipment and books to the Africans, and raised money for Moffat's Sechwaña translation of the Bible. With his son James, also a gifted naturalist, he continued his nursery business, travelled extensively in England on botanical excursions, and three times visited Norway under religious concern. He recorded his journeys in A Narrative of a Visit to the Australian Colonies (London, 1843) and A Narrative of a Visit to the Mauritius and South Africa (London, 1844). Later with Charles Tylor he wrote The Life and Labours of George Washington Walker (London, 1862). He also produced numerous religious tracts and lives of Quakers, including those of Deborah Backhouse, Thomas Bulman, Francis Howgill and William and Alice Ellis. He gave Kew two manuscript volumes of botanical recollections in Australia. The most widely read of his works was a paper-back pamphlet of extracts from his letters from Van Diemen's Land and New South Wales, compiled by the London Yearly Meeting. Because of its little-known subject this went into many editions. His larger works with the ponderous style of the period belie the sense of humour and straightforward simplicity for which he was so well known and liked, but they have provided valuable material on Australian Aboriginals and convict conditions, and the South African volume is reputed to have introduced many missionaries to Africa. Backhouse died on 20 January 1869 in York.

His genial good nature, and shrewd common sense, remained agreeable memories to his hosts. A strict Quaker with peculiar plainness of dress, address and profession, he had a broad tolerance and ability to befriend and mix with everyone from domineering governors to confused Aboriginals. With an understanding freed from pretensions and outward signs, he saw with a scientist's precision the inner core of real religion in heathen Hottentot, Australian Aboriginal and colonial convict.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Backhouse, Memoir of James Backhouse (Lond, 1870)
  • W. Robinson (ed), Friends of a Half Century (Lond, 1891)
  • J. D. Hooker, The Botany of the Antarctic Voyage of H. M. Discovery Ships Erebus and Terror in the Years 1839-1843, parts 5-6 (London, 1860)
  • James Backhouse, journals and letters (Friends House, London)
  • James Backhouse records (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Walker papers (University of Tasmania, and State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Mary Bartram Trott, 'Backhouse, James (1794–1869)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 25 May 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

James Backhouse, n.d.

James Backhouse, n.d.

Archives Office of Tasmania, NS6192

Life Summary [details]


8 July, 1794


20 January, 1869 (aged 74)
York, Yorkshire, England

Cause of Death

heart disease

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.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.