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William Balmain (1762–1803)

by B. H. Fletcher

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William Balmain, by Richard Earlom, 1803?

William Balmain, by Richard Earlom, 1803?

National Library of Australia, 6054508

William Balmain (1762-1803), surgeon and landholder, was born on 2 February 1762 at Balhepburn, Rhynd, Perthshire, Scotland, the son of Alexander Balmain, a tenant in Meikle Kinnaird, and Jane Henderson. He entered the navy in 1780 as a surgeon's mate. In October 1786 he was commissioned assistant surgeon to New South Wales, sailed in the transport Alexander next May and reached Port Jackson in January 1788. He served there until October 1791, when he was sent as senior assistant surgeon to Norfolk Island; there he also acted as magistrate and raised stock.

In December 1794 the principal surgeon, John White, returned to England on leave, and in August 1795 Balmain moved to Sydney to act in his place; when White decided not to come back, Balmain was appointed principal surgeon in August 1796. He was critical of his predecessor and made persistent and necessary requests for more medical stores; he also demanded more assistants, who were needed for the colony's growing population, and after inquiries with Richard Atkins and Richard Johnson into the ill treatment of the convicts in the Britannia in 1797, he made valuable suggestions for better medical attention in convict ships. Unfortunately these were not adopted. His magisterial duties took up much of his time; he also served on the gaol and orphan committees, and in December 1800 on the inquiry into the attempted Irish conspiracy; at the same time he was placed in command of the Sydney company of the Loyal Association. John Hunter praised him as an 'active and spirited magistrate' and as one of the few to give him their utmost aid in tackling the many problems that confronted him.

With the military, by contrast, Balmain's experiences were much less happy. Early in 1796, in his capacity as magistrate, he proffered legal advice to John Baughan whose house had been destroyed by soldiers of Captain John Macarthur's company of the New South Wales Corps. The officers resented this interference, particularly after Balmain strongly criticized the conduct of Macarthur with whom he had earlier clashed over the treatment of a medical orderly. After a series of heated exchanges, culminating in a threatened duel when Balmain told Macarthur that he thought him 'a base rascal and an atrocious liar and villain', both sides agreed to 'conditions of mutual forgiveness', but Balmain's relations with Macarthur remained strained.

He furthered his economic interests by engaging in agriculture. He was first granted land at the Field of Mars in December 1794. By 1802 he owned 1480 acres (599 ha), of which 975 (394 ha) had been granted and the rest purchased, though his livestock was moderate for one of his class. He traded in liquor and other goods and in September 1800 he admitted that he had 1359 gallons (5144 litres) of spirit. In October Philip Gidley King appointed him Naval Officer, but ten months later he received the permission he had first sought in 1795 to return to Britain to settle his private affairs. He departed in the Albion on 26 August 1801, leaving his friend D'Arcy Wentworth to look after his local concerns. When he reached England he approached Lord Fitzwilliam on Wentworth's behalf and submitted proposals to Sir Joseph Banks for a reform of the civil and criminal courts. An anonymous paper envisaging the creation of a local board and urging the appointment of resident assistants to watch over the various districts of New South Wales and to aid the governor has also been attributed to Balmain. None of these proposals had any immediate effect, but they place Balmain among the earliest critics of the colony's institutions.

Balmain had intended to return to New South Wales, but late in 1802, claiming that his personal affairs were still unsolved, he sought permission to retire on a pension. He had come to look on King with disfavour and felt that the prospects of making money by engaging in trade at Port Jackson were bleak. In August 1803, the Gentleman's Magazine announced that he had been appointed surgeon to the forces, but on 17 November he died, leaving most of his property to Margaret Dawson, otherwise Henderson, of Ormskirk, Lancashire, his de facto convict wife, who was in England, and to the three children she bore him between 1797 and 1803. He was buried at the church of St Giles-in-the-Field, London. The inner western suburb of Sydney which bears his name was established on 550 acres of land granted to Balmain in 1800 by Governor John Hunter.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 1, part 2, vols 2-4
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-5
  • S. Elliott Napier, ‘Balmain: The Man and the Suburb’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 14, part 5, 1928, pp 245-81
  • mansucript catalogue under William Balmain (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

B. H. Fletcher, 'Balmain, William (1762–1803)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 17 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

William Balmain, by Richard Earlom, 1803?

William Balmain, by Richard Earlom, 1803?

National Library of Australia, 6054508

Life Summary [details]


2 February, 1762
Rhynd, Perthshire, Scotland


17 November, 1803 (aged 41)
London, Middlesex, England

Cause of Death


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