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David Berry (1795–1889)

by M. D. Stephen

This article was published:

David Berry (1795-1889), agriculturist and landowner, was baptized on 29 December 1795 at Cupar, Fife, Scotland, although tradition in his later years had him born in 1788 and therefore 'as old as the colony'. He was eighth of nine children born to James Berrie (d.1827) and his wife Isabel Tod (d.1830). His education began at Cupar Grammar School. After his father's death he managed the family farm until in 1835 a dispute arose with the landowner over the family's rights as outgoing tenants. An appeal to the House of Lords appears to have been decided in Berry's favour. With his brothers John and William and his sisters Janet (d.1860) and Agnes (d.1872), he put into effect a long-held idea to join their eldest brother Alexander in New South Wales. They arrived at Sydney in July 1836 in the Midlothian and went at once to Coolangatta, the Shoalhaven property which at Edward Wollstonecraft's death in 1832 had passed entirely to Alexander.

Until John Berry died in 1848 he and David managed the property jointly. The greater part of the land was undeveloped and most of the work force was convict. The number of their assigned servants appears to have increased from an original hundred to some three hundred in the 1840s. The main source of income was the breeding of cattle and horses, which were scientifically improved by imported blood. After John's death David began leasing some of the land. By 1850 he had thirty-six tenants, who paid 20s. an acre for cleared ground and were allowed five years without rent in order to clear timbered land. When convict labour ceased, trial was made of Chinese labourers and of German families hired in Hamburg. The Chinese did well as dairymen and house servants but in general their usefulness was limited. Leasing was continued and by 1863 he had almost three hundred tenants, who occupied some 8650 acres (3500 ha) or about a sixth of Coolangatta and paid an aggregate rent of about £6000. The responsibility for this reorganization was borne by David; Alexander commented: 'I am told that the management is killing you'.

The Shoalhaven property had been mortgaged in the depressed 1840s but the mortgage appears to have been discharged by 1860, probably because of David's policies. When Alexander Berry died in September 1873 David inherited his estate, valued at £400,000 and consisting broadly of 60,000 acres (24,281 ha) at Shoalhaven and 500 acres (202 ha) at North Sydney. William Berry died in October 1875, also leaving a will in David's favour. He continued to lease the Shoalhaven land on terms considered more than lenient; in some cases the sale of the unexpired portions of leases reputedly brought sufficient profit from the 'goodwill' to finance the purchase of properties on the Richmond and Clarence Rivers. Berry also introduced the practice of sharefarming with land, implements and materials provided by the estate and labour by the farmer, the profits to be shared on an agreed basis.

After 1883 the management of the Shoalhaven estate passed increasingly to Berry's cousin, (Sir) John Hay. When David Berry died unmarried at Coolangatta on 23 September 1889 he left an estate valued at £1,250,000. Hay was the principal beneficiary of his will and, with James Norton, an executor of it.

The most interesting feature of this will was its fulfilment of Alexander Berry's desire to assist the University of St Andrews. Alexander's intimate friend, Sir Charles Nicholson, had told Lyon Playfair, member of parliament for the Universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews, of Alexander's intention and had discussed with him Alexander's idea that the money should be used to endow a chair of dietetics. When Alexander died Playfair had informed David of his personal interest as a chemist in the dietetics proposal and had emphasized the university's need of money. David Berry's will provided £100,000 for the University of St Andrews, £100,000 for a hospital in the Shoalhaven area and £30,000 for the Presbyterian Church in New South Wales. Before the bequests could be finalized, much of the land upon the sale of which they depended had to be drained and improved to make it marketable. Some alteration was later made by Act of parliament in the form of the Shoalhaven hospital bequest.

Berry's funeral service was remarkable in that the local Church of England, Presbyterian and Methodist clergymen shared in it. Archbishops John Bede Polding and Roger Vaughan had regarded him as a kind and friendly figure. He had none of the irritability which Alexander acknowledged in himself. This irritability creates a misleading impression in Alexander's letters to David: David was no more dilatory as a manager than Alexander had been before 1832 when Wollstonecraft pestered him with vituperative letters about Shoalhaven affairs. Like Alexander, David was immensely hospitable within a framework of great social dignity, a generous quality which Henry Parkes freely acknowledged. He was deeply interested in the education of the children on the estate. In Alexander's words, 'David's delight was to provide them with schools'. In the early years he undertook much of the teaching himself. Like Alexander he read widely; he took particular interest in the Scientific American, first published in 1859. He had many scientific interests: he and William Berry experimented with paddle wheel and screw propeller design; much of the farm machinery was made on the estate; and he supervised the building of two steamers, Meeinderry and Coomonderry. Roads, wharves and a wide variety of buildings were constructed under his management and when he died he had plans for three churches. He was concerned for the welfare of local Aboriginals and sought to absorb them gradually into the life of the estate. He helped to develop an agricultural society amongst the increasing Shoalhaven tenantry and one of his last acts was to provide uniforms and instruments for a local brass band. Under his patient direction, an estate which before 1850 had occasioned more envy than profit to its owners was brought into efficient development. There seems no reason to disagree with the opinion expressed at his death that he had been 'a large-hearted and generous colonist'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Cameron, Centenary History of the Presbyterian Church in New South Wales (Syd, 1905)
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 5 Oct 1889, 10, 13-17 May 1890
  • David Berry papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

M. D. Stephen, 'Berry, David (1795–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




23 September, 1889 (aged ~ 94)
Shoalhaven area, New South Wales, Australia

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