Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Thomas Barker (1799–1875)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

Thomas Barker, by Barcroft Boake, 1873

Thomas Barker, by Barcroft Boake, 1873

State Library of New South Wales, P1/94

Thomas Barker (1799-1875), engineer, manufacturer, grazier and philanthropist, was born on 25 March 1799 in Soho, London, the son of James Barker and Mary, née Shuldham. Both his parents died when he was 9, and after education at private schools he was articled by his guardian to John Dickson, with whom he arrived in Sydney in the Earl Spencer in October 1813.

Barker won repute as a skilful engineer and millwright; in partnership with John Smith he built a large windmill at Darlinghurst in 1826 and soon afterwards another close by. He wrote to Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling in June 1826 about the 'flagrant system of monopoly' in the milling business: 'it is my wish to oppose as far as my means will allow, those overgrown Millers, by building other Mills'. About 1828 he bought a steam flour-mill which he greatly enlarged. In the late 1840s he built a cloth-mill adjacent to his extensive flour-mills near the corner of Sussex and Bathurst Streets, the machinery of which was mostly manufactured on the premises.

He was granted 800 acres (324 ha) at Yass in May 1824 and by the 1830s, according to D. L. Waugh, had 'three most extensive farms' including Nonorrah (later Maryland) at the Cowpastures and Mummel on the Goulburn Plains. In the 1840s he grazed sheep and cattle on the Murrumbidgee and in the 1850s he bought more land in the county of Argyle. By the end of 1834 Barker had done so well in his various enterprises that he was able to retire from the milling business which he let to his brother James for £2000 a year. Waugh said that he believed on good authority that Barker had made about £20,000 in 1834. In 1837 he undertook a sea voyage for his health and visited China, the Cape of Good Hope, England and various countries on the Continent before returning to Sydney in 1840. Meanwhile his brother had entered into partnership in the milling business with Ambrose Hallen but their firm was one of the early failures in the depression. On his return to Sydney Barker re-entered the business, and he and his brother carried on as Barker & Co. until about 1860. Barker's woollen-mill began operations in 1852; in March 1853 O. B. Ebsworth was admitted into partnership but in July 1854 he sold his interest in the mill to Barker. In 1862 Ebsworth bought the mill, which after his death in 1870 was taken over again by Barker; it was acquired by John Vicars in 1874.

Equally energetic in public affairs, Barker was one of the earliest promoters of railways in the colony. He and a few others paid for the survey from Sydney to Goulburn, conducted by Thomas Woore. He was a director and president of the Sydney Railway Co. and in 1855 held an honorary appointment from the government as commissioner for railways. He was a director and chairman of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney, a founder and director of the Sydney Exchange Co. and a trustee for nearly forty years of the Savings Bank of New South Wales. He was appointed a magistrate in 1834 and warden of the council of the Sydney district in 1843. He was honorary secretary of the committee that prepared a petition to the Queen for a new Constitution in 1853, and a member of the Legislative Council from April 1853 to February 1856. In the first Legislative Assembly under responsible government he represented the counties of Gloucester and Macquarie from April 1856 to December 1857.

He was particularly active in the encouragement of education. He was elected to the council of the Australian College in 1831, served on the committee set up in opposition to the proposed National school system in 1836 and became a member of the Denominational School Board in 1848, a council member of the Sydney College and a trustee of the Sydney Grammar School and the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts. His gift of £1000 for a scholarship for proficiency in mathematics was the first direct benefaction to the University at Sydney; in 1857 he gave a further £100 for a side window in the Great Hall. His philanthropic activities were wide; he was a founder of the Destitute Children's Asylum, a trustee of the Sydney Bethel Union and with his wife an active member of the Sydney Female Refuge Society.

On 4 June 1823 at St Philip's Church he married Joanna, niece of John Dickson and daughter of James and Helen Dickson of Bringelly. She died in 1851 without issue. In 1857 he married Katherine Heath Gray, by whom he had one son, Thomas Charles (1863-1940). In 1833 he bought about sixteen acres (6.4 ha) at Darling Point and there built Roslyn Hall; it was designed by Hallen and said to be 'more like a palace than a private house'. He died at his Bringelly estate on 12 March 1875 and was buried in St Stephen's churchyard, Camperdown.

A medallion profile by Thomas Woolner is at the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 14-18, 21, 24-26
  • D. L. Waugh, Three Years Practical Experience of a Settler in New South Wales (Edinb, 1838)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1832-37, p 650-51
  • Empire (Sydney), 26 Apr 1856
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13, 15 Mar 1875
  • CSO, letters re land, 2/1751 (State Records New South Wales)
  • Waugh family letters, 1834-59 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • D. L. Waugh diary, 1833-34 (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Barker, Thomas (1799–1875)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 29 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

Thomas Barker, by Barcroft Boake, 1873

Thomas Barker, by Barcroft Boake, 1873

State Library of New South Wales, P1/94

Life Summary [details]


25 March, 1799
London, Middlesex, England


12 March, 1875 (aged 75)
Bringelly, New South Wales, Australia

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.

Passenger Ship
Key Organisations
Political Activism