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George Bates (1800–1895)

by Jean M. Nunn

This article was published:

George Bates (1800-1895), Hammer & Co., c1900

George Bates (1800-1895), Hammer & Co., c1900

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 867

George Bates (1800?-1895), sealer and trader, was born possibly on 13 April 1800 at Cheapside, London, son of a militiaman. After attending the Marine Society's school George proceeded to a school-ship at Deptford. He began life at sea in the man-of-war H.M.S. Warriorwhen aged 11 and saw Bombay, the Persian Gulf and the Cape of Good Hope on naval service. In 1823 in the crew of the convict ship Commodore Hayes he reached Hobart Town, where he joined the sealing vessel Nereus, which operated in Bass Strait and beyond. While anchored in one of Kangaroo Island's sheltered bays in January 1824, he and a mate stole ashore and hid in the scrub.

At first Bates planned to return to England, but soon joined other renegades and remained on the island. His impressive figure, red hair and beard earned him the nickname 'Fireball'. Many of the fugitives, including Bates, abducted Aboriginal women from Van Diemen's Land and the mainland. Using their traditional skills, these captive women helped islanders to gather seal, kangaroo and wallaby skins and salt from the lagoons. Islanders bartered this produce with crews of vessels from Port Jackson and Hobart Town for subsistence requirements, including rum and tobacco, enabling the men to survive in relative ease.

Bates relished his independence and roamed far and wide, living by his own rules. On one excursion to the mainland he glimpsed Lake Alexandrina, passed on the information and inadvertently contributed to growing interest in South Australia. In July 1836 he shared the dismay of other unofficial settlers as the South Australian Co.'s official colonists disembarked from the Duke of York. William Light hired Bates and his women. The islanders' uncivilized appearance alarmed the newcomers who, to survive, eventually adapted some of their unconventional companions' skills. Bates chose to retain his independence and bypass authority. He retreated to Hog Bay (Penneshaw) where he continued to live by trading. In the 1840s he loaded ships on Port Adelaide wharves. Sometimes he helped those in authority, such as Alexander Tolmer, to pursue lawbreakers but his sympathies were with the fugitives, whom he also assisted.

On 7 August 1848 at Holy Trinity Church of England, Adelaide, Bates married illiterate, English-born Elizabeth Mainstone. In the 1850s he joined in the rush to the Victorian goldfields but had little success and returned to island life. Building a stone cottage at Hog Bay he settled into a degree of conformity. By 1870 he was unable to support his wife; neighbours arranged for the frail couple to receive government assistance. Aged 87, Bates was an honoured 'Old Colonist' at the Jubilee Exhibition in Adelaide, where his reminiscences of the lawless years entertained the staid citizens. An interviewer in 1895 reported that the old man's 'intellect is clear, his hearing fair, and his speech good'; he liked reading history, geography and travel books but 'did not care for . . . love novels'. Predeceased by his wife, Bates died in the Destitute Asylum, Adelaide, on 8 September 1895. His remains were buried in the hilltop cemetery above his former dwelling at Penneshaw.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Tolmer, Reminiscences of an Adventurous and Chequered Career at Home and at the Antipodes (Lond, 1882)
  • J. S. Cumpston, Kangaroo Island 1800-1836 (Canb, 1970)
  • J. M. Nunn, This Southern Land (Adel, 1989)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 27 Dec 1886, p 6
  • Observer (Adelaide), 2 Feb 1895, p 16, 14 Sept 1895, p 16
  • Register (Adelaide), 9 Sept 1895, p 7
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 2 Mar 1933
  • Woodforde family papers (State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

Jean M. Nunn, 'Bates, George (1800–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George Bates (1800-1895), Hammer & Co., c1900

George Bates (1800-1895), Hammer & Co., c1900

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 867

Life Summary [details]


13 April, 1800
Cheapside, London, England


8 September, 1895 (aged 95)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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