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Alexander Berry (1781–1873)

by T. M. Perry

This article was published:

Alexander Berry (1781-1873), merchant and settler, was born on 30 November 1781 in Fife, Scotland, one of nine children of James Berrie (d.1827) and his wife Isabel Tod (d.1830). He was educated at Cupar Grammar School and at the Universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh where he studied medicine. Despite his father's opposition he became surgeon's mate in an East Indiaman bound for China and later in the Lord Hawkesbury on a voyage to Madras. His dislike of the flogging of seamen and a recognition of the profit to be won from commerce led him to abandon medicine.

In October 1806 he had speculated in goods for the Indian market and next year, in partnership with Francis Shortt, he chartered the Fly for a 'commercial venture' to the Cape of Good Hope. There the partners heard of the shortage of provisions in New South Wales and invested their profits in the prize, Rapadora, 520 tons, in which, renamed the City of Edinburgh, Berry sailed as supercargo with supplies to Port Dalrymple, Hobart Town and Sydney. He arrived in Sydney in January 1808 and witnessed the deposition of Governor William Bligh, but had much difficulty in selling his cargo and replacing it with the sawn timber which he had agreed with Shortt to take to the Cape. Accordingly he accepted a charter to transfer settlers from Norfolk Island to the Derwent, but the City of Edinburgh was badly battered on the voyage and involved him in costly repairs on his return to Sydney. Berry then decided to go to New Zealand for spars and to Fiji for sandalwood. Returning to New Zealand he rescued the survivors of the massacre of the Boyd and then sailed east to rejoin his partner. On this voyage the City of Edinburgh lost her rudder, and limped into Valparaiso and thence to Lima where she was repaired. Berry sold his timber profitably on long terms and was permitted to take on a cargo at Guayaquil for Cadiz. After rounding Cape Horn he put into Rio de Janeiro, where he was chided by James Birnie for failing to fulfil his agreement with Shortt, who had become insolvent. After leaving Rio, the City of Edinburgh ran into storms, became waterlogged and had to be abandoned off the Azores. Her crew and passengers were landed safely and Berry went on to Lisbon. From Cadiz he sailed for England but his ship was captured off Cape St Vincent. Transferred to a Swedish ship, he was landed at Malaga and by way of Cadiz reached London late in 1812. He had not heard the last of the City of Edinburgh.

In Cadiz Berry met Edward Wollstonecraft, who subsequently became Berry's London agent, and later his partner when they decided to start a business in Sydney. On 22 September 1827 Berry married Wollstonecraft's sister Elizabeth (1782-1845). Berry returned to Sydney in the Admiral Cockburn on 31 July 1819, and Wollstonecraft arrived in the Canada on 1 September. While Wollstonecraft supervised their George Street business Berry visited England in March 1820, carrying Governor Lachlan Macquarie's dispatches, one of which described him as 'an eminent merchant of this place'.

Like other merchants Berry and Wollstonecraft often had to accept stock in payment of debts, and Berry sought a grant of land on which to accommodate it. Macquarie refused, as Berry was about to leave for England, but promised him a grant when he took up permanent residence. While he was away Wollstonecraft obtained a grant and located part of it on the North Shore where he built a cottage, Crow's Nest.

On Berry's return he sought a site for the grants made to himself and Wollstonecraft, travelling widely even in unsettled districts because 'Everybody was flocking to the Hunter River, Bathurst, and other places … and all were elbowing one another. But we neither wished to elbow any one nor to be elbowed'. Berry first visited the Shoalhaven in January 1822 taking the cutter Snapper into Crook Haven (formerly Shoals Haven on the charts) from which he proceeded overland to examine the country on either side of the river. The rich alluvial soils and natural grassy 'meadows' led him to choose the Shoalhaven as the site for an estate and he returned in June 1822 to occupy it. While a boat was seeking a passage into the river, it was overturned and Thomas Davidson was drowned, an accident that Berry bitterly regretted. To allow vessels to enter the Shoalhaven, Berry had a short canal cut between the river and an arm of Crook Haven so creating Comerong Island which the government later refused to regard as part of his grant. 'The Canal' and Crook Haven later became the virtual mouth of the Shoalhaven River which discharges through them except when it is in flood and flows over the sand bar across its original mouth.

The two original grants made to Berry and Wollstonecraft were located on the south side of the river between the Shoalhaven and Crookhaven Rivers, but Berry established his headquarters at the foot of Mount Coolangatta on the north side of the river. In February 1822 Berry and Wollstonecraft had jointly applied for a grant of 10,000 acres (4047 ha), under the regulation introduced by Governor Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane that those accepting grants should maintain, free of expense to the crown, one convict for each hundred acres of the grant. This grant was approved by Brisbane and located on the north side of Shoalhaven, though the deed was not issued until 1830. Later purchases of land from the crown and private individuals increased the size of the estate to about 32,000 acres (12,950 ha) by 1840, and to more than 40,000 acres (16,187 ha) by 1863.

Unlike other Sydney merchants who took up land but seem to have kept their mercantile and pastoral activities separate, Berry and Wollstonecraft set out to integrate the two and during its early years the Shoalhaven estate was the source of much produce sold in the George Street store. When the Blanch returned to Sydney after establishing the settlement at Coolangatta she carried a cargo of hay and cedar from the Shoalhaven.

The partners' effort to enlarge their estate at every opportunity was probably to secure for themselves the cedar growing in the district, for by the 1820s the supply of cedar from the Illawarra and the Hunter River valley was nearing exhaustion. Maize, tobacco, wheat, barley and potatoes were planted and marketed in Sydney; pigs were also reared and cattle were brought to Shoalhaven from the Illawarra over a road made for the purpose. Besides buying a ship to provide transport between Sydney and Shoalhaven the partners built a sloop (registered in 1824, the first of several vessels built at Shoalhaven) and began to drain the extensive swamps included in their grants. Barron Field feared that 'these grants will hardly ever repay Messrs. Berry and Wollstonecraft for their outlay upon them', but they did, and handsomely, if only because of the profit on the cedar cut on them. None the less the partners had difficulty.

In February 1823 in the New South Wales Equity Court, Francis Shortt claimed a share in Berry & Wollstonecraft, on the grounds that his own partnership with Berry had not been dissolved. Berry proved that he had heavy expenses for repairs and wages in the City of Edinburgh and that he had paid part of the profits to Shortt. Half the merchants in Sydney appeared to be involved and the case dragged on until 1828 when Chief Justice (Sir) Francis Forbes ordered Berry to pay Shortt another £6000 to close their partnership.

With this setback the enthusiasm of the partners appeared to flag: in 1830 Wollstonecraft claimed that 'It becomes imperative to have some other dependence than upon our wood', and in 1831 complained of the 'silly wheat culture, the same thoughtless Expenditure on Improvements, the same useless Employment of People, and same lavish display of money', and suggested dividing the Shoalhaven estate into 'two fair and equitable portions, of which each party shall take one, … or selling the whole of the Land, Stock and Implements'. This disagreement appears to have been patched up, or perhaps was still in progress, when Wollstonecraft died in December 1832. It seems certain that Wollstonecraft felt that the lands at Shoalhaven were not being satisfactorily developed, a complaint that Berry repeated in 1863 to his brother David, and one reason for the attacks made on Berry by Rev. John Dunmore Lang in the 1850s. The estate certainly brought Berry much trouble: he was publicly accused of negligence in his care of convict servants and of ill treating them; it was said that a government tax on cedar cut on crown land was engineered to give Berry and Wollstonecraft a virtual monopoly, and that a tax on imported tobacco was introduced for their benefit. By 1846 Berry wrote that he had lost interest in the estate and 'would gladly part with it upon any terms'; this feeling grew as labour became more scarce after the abolition of transportation and the discovery of gold. In the 1850s Berry began to let farms on clearing leases, and with this occupation by tenant farmers the real development of the Shoalhaven district commenced.

Meanwhile the George Street business had also dwindled. In its early years it dealt in rum and other spirits, supplied medicines to the hospital, employed convict tailors in making slop clothing, and in 1822 offered the governor 'a large Barrel Organ and an Elegant Mahogany Pulpit'; they were declined though the governor offered a subscription if other 'benefactors' could be found to present the organ and pulpit to the church. In 1823 the partners exported coal to Rio de Janeiro. In 1828 Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling commented in a dispatch that they were closing the business, 'intending to confine themselves to the cultivation of their land and the Improvement of their Flocks and Herds'.

Like other prominent merchants and landowners Berry was active in colonial affairs, becoming a justice of the peace in 1822 and, for a time, secretary of the Agricultural Society. A man of learning and wide reading he was particularly interested in the natives and geology, making a collection of Aboriginal skulls and sending mineral specimens to the Edinburgh University museum. He was a member of the short-lived Philosophical Society, founded in 1821, before which he read a paper, and a councillor of the Australian Philosophical Society formed in 1850. An essay on the geology and geography of the coast was published in Geographical Memoirs on New South Wales by Various Hands (London, 1825), edited by Barron Field and others in the Sydney Gazette, 17 September 1827, and the South-Asian Register, October 1827. The pioneer geologist, Rev. William Branwhite Clarke, was a close friend for whom Berry obtained specimens and moved in the Legislative Council for a grant to be made for the publication of Clarke's scientific work.

In 1828-61 Berry was a nominee in the Legislative Council, but spoke rarely, and only on matters affecting his own interests. His opinions were not taken seriously either by the council or the press which regarded him as 'a person of retired habits, and singularly antiquated ideas'. A self-confessed conservative, Berry entertained no high opinions of politicians or governors, and in 1834 attributed the colony's troubles, not to her convict population, but to 'the ill conduct of our Rulers—the fact is the present disorders arise from their affected Liberal principles which induces them to take the part of the Servants against the Masters'. He achieved notice for his opposition to the municipal bill of 1842 and particularly to the Municipal Council Act in 1858, the weaknesses of which were revealed by the action, Berry v. Graham, wherein both the Supreme Court and the Privy Council upheld his refusal to pay rates on his land at Shoalhaven. He believed that none but men of property should be empowered to manage the property of their fellow citizens and seemed to fear that under a system of local government the country people would become 'serfs': 'the poor country people seem to be a set of asses only fit to be the negroes or slaves of the town … I cannot help laughing at the absurdity of the abolition of negro slavery when I perceive the Country people of New South Wales anxious to become the White Negroes of the Jews and publicans of Towns and Villages'.

For all his conservative views Berry was solicitous of the welfare of his own assigned servants. He considered that many were the victims of harsh laws and found that they worked well and faithfully if well treated. Consequently he was outraged by suggestions that he treated his servants harshly, and opposed representative and municipal government firmly believing that his people would be better off under his paternal care than under any form of democratic government in the hands of 'unprincipled ignorant Ruffians'. As a result of attacks made upon Berry by Lang, the attorney-general laid a charge of criminal libel against Lang in 1859. Berry was greatly distressed when a verdict of not guilty was returned, for Lang had described him as 'the Shoalhaven incubus' who had reduced 'Shoalhaven serfs to miserable vassalage and degradation' and who lived a life 'of heartless injustice and long continued and determined oppression of his fellow men!' In a letter and an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, 12 March 1859, Berry attempted to justify his position, but in rambling through his personal history he avoided most of the questions at issue. Later he obtained verdicts against Kiama and Wollongong papers that had published Lang's criticisms of him.

After his wife's death in 1845 and the unpleasant notoriety Lang had given him, Berry became a recluse in Crow's Nest House. After his brother David (d.1889) took charge of the Shoalhaven estate in 1836 he appears to have visited it rarely, but he poured abuse on his brother for his indolence and mismanagement, and on his tenants for their Methodism, Presbyterianism, drunkenness and desire for local government. In severe pain but still in full possession of his faculties he died at Crow's Nest on 17 September 1873. He had no children and his property passed to his brother David.

His Reminiscences (Sydney, 1912) were written in his last years, and dealt very briefly with his life in New South Wales, but he gave an impression of himself as a genial old man, surrounded by servants long in his service, and leading a simple, though cultivated, life: 'When I am alone I always eat porridge and milk to breakfast … I eat it because I like it, for I am no anchorite, and like to live generously'.

Select Bibliography

  • F. A. Larcombe, The Development of Local Government in New South Wales (Melb, 1961)
  • J. Jervis, ‘Alexander Berry, the Laird of Shoalhaven’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 27, part 1, pp 18-87
  • Equity Court papers (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

T. M. Perry, 'Berry, Alexander (1781–1873)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 22 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

Alexander Berry, 1856

Alexander Berry, 1856

State Library of New South Wales, 1 - 33012

Life Summary [details]


30 November, 1781
Fife, Scotland


17 September, 1873 (aged 91)
Crows Nest, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


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