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William Bland (1789–1868)

by John Cobley

This article was published:

William Bland, attributed to Richard Read, c.1845-49

William Bland, attributed to Richard Read, c.1845-49

State Library of New South Wales, P2/250

William Bland (1789-1868), medical practitioner and politician, was born on 5 November 1789 in London, the second son of Dr Robert Bland. He trained in medicine, qualified at an examination conducted by the Royal College of Surgeons as surgeon's mate in the navy in 1809 and was promoted to the rank of naval surgeon in 1812. While serving in the Hesper at Bombay, he was involved in a wardroom argument with Robert Case, the purser. As a result Bland fought a duel with pistols with Case on 7 April 1813 and wounded him mortally. Bland was tried for murder in Bombay on 14 April and found guilty. He was recommended for mercy and sentenced to transportation for seven years.

Bland reached Hobart Town in the Denmark Hill in January 1814 and Sydney in the Frederick on 14 July. He was sent as a prisoner to the asylum at Castle Hill to take care of the inmates, but he may have been allowed to practise privately, as it is known that he treated a free person in this period. He remained at Castle Hill until 27 October 1815, when he received a pardon.

Bland began private practice in Sydney, but early in 1816 applied for office in the administration. He was offered the medical appointment at Port Dalrymple on condition that he passed an examination to be conducted by Drs D'Arcy Wentworth, William Redfern and West, but he refused as he considered himself better qualified than his examiners. His practice flourished, and in 1817 he was able to take an apprentice, William Sherwin. In that year he unsuccessfully petitioned the Lords of the Admiralty for restoration of his naval rank and privileges.

On 17 April 1817 Bland married Sarah, the 20-year-old daughter of William Henry. Her infidelity caused him again to appear in court. He sued Richard Drake, an officer of the East India Co., for £3000 damages. Bland obtained a verdict for £2000, but Drake absconded from the colony before paying. Bland and his wife separated and she left the colony.

On Thursday and Friday, 24 and 25 September 1818, Bland was in court again. 'Pipes' lampooning the governor had been found in the Parramatta Road. The 'pipes' accused the governor of misleading the farmers and referred offensively to Lachlan Macquarie's wish to perpetuate his name on foundation stones. Bland was charged with 'composing, writing and publishing … a manuscript book, containing divers libels on His Excellency Lachlan Macquarie Esq'. Bland skilfully conducted his own defence but was found guilty. He was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment, 'and to remain imprisoned until the fulfilment of the sentence', and to a fine of £50. In addition he and two others had to give security for his good behaviour for two years. Bland served his sentence at Parramatta, and from his prison wrote a letter on 14 July 1819 to Earl Bathurst. This letter was forwarded with Macquarie's own dispatches. Bland criticized seven episodes during Macquarie's administration. It is significant that three of these occurred before Bland arrived in the colony.

At the completion of his sentence, Bland returned to his private practice, and in 1821 began a long association with the Benevolent Society. He not only provided professional services at the asylum but, until 1829, also dispensed medicines at his own home. In addition, in 1825 he was asked to advise on extensions and improvements to the buildings. His advice that a room should be erected for the dual purposes of mortuary and operating theatre sounds strange in the twentieth century. Bland was praised for his exertions by Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling in a dispatch in 1828 and became a life member of the society in 1830. He continued his professional work in the asylum until 1863. He was on the staff of the Sydney Dispensary from its inauguration in 1826-27 and served it until the dispensary lost its identity by merging with the infirmary in 1845.

Bland was a philanthropist in many ways. The record of some of his subscriptions is extant and he was a regular patron of literary workers. He assisted the people of Ashfield to build a church with gifts of both money and land. He helped the development of education in the colony. Early in 1825 a free grammar school opened in Phillip Street but this school closed in 1826. The project was revived in 1828 at a public meeting convened to consider a plan advanced by Bland. The foundation stone of a new building was laid by the chief justice in 1830 and the Sydney College opened on 19 January 1835. Bland was treasurer from 1835 to 1844 and in 1845 became president, an office he held when the buildings were sold to the University of Sydney in 1853. He helped in the formation of the Sydney School of Arts and Mechanics' Institute, which opened in 1833. In 1849 Bland's interest in education and his status as a citizen resulted in the inclusion of his name in the list of proposed members of the first senate of the university. A bill to found the university was introduced in the Legislative Council, with the list of nominees for the senate appended. Robert Lowe spoke vehemently against allowing the management of the university to fall into the hands of former convicts. The bill was passed, but without the list of nominees, and the proclamation appointing the senate on 24 December 1850 did not include Bland's name.

Bland's political activity began early. In 1821 he attended meetings of an association of emancipists, and in 1825 he was responsible for a publication urging distillation in the colony, to encourage agriculture and to economize in currency. He consistently supported William Charles Wentworth and the emancipists in the struggle for a jury system and took a leading part in a public meeting in January 1827 held to demand trial by jury and a representative assembly. In 1830 he actively opposed attempts to alienate large areas of crown land, and in 1831 joined the committee of the Australian Landowners Association to fight the Ripon land regulations. At another public meeting in 1830 a committee which included Bland was formed to demand legislation by representation and to appoint a parliamentary agent in the House of Commons. Petitions demanding representative government and trial by jury failed in 1830 and 1833.

In September 1834 Sir Edward Lytton Bulwer, M.P., wrote from England that the Australian situation was not well understood in London. He suggested that an organized association should be formed, and that it should appoint a parliamentary agent for New South Wales. As a result the Australian Patriotic Association was formed in 1835, with Bland as chairman of the committee of correspondence. The object of the association was to draw up a draft bill for the government of the colony, and two draft Constitutions were completed before the end of the year. Bulwer acted as parliamentary agent until 1838, when he was succeeded by Charles Buller. A petition went forward to the British government in 1839. In 1842 parliament passed an act to authorize representative government in the colony by a single chamber of twelve nominees and twenty-four elected members. The first election was held on 15 June 1843 and Bland was elected as a representative of Sydney. He was a vigorous councillor with a distinctive approach to the land question. He believed that paying for immigration from the fund created by colonial land sales resulted in an export of capital which the colony could not afford. He diverged farther from the attitude of the majority of the landed interest by favouring government encouragement to create a yeomanry. He continued his protests against the alienation of crown lands; he was on the select committee to investigate expenditure on public buildings; he advocated a reduced municipal franchise; he was on the select committee to investigate the desirability of a parliamentary agent in London; he was appointed to the committee to investigate the lunatic asylum at Hunters Hill; he was a member of the select committee to inquire into the renewal of transportation. He was appointed a trustee of the New South Wales Savings Bank on 23 January 1844. However, in the second election for the Legislative Council in 1848, and probably because of his enthusiasm for the reintroduction of transportation, Bland was defeated by Robert Lowe. Lowe resigned in 1849 and Bland was re-elected, but he resigned in the next year. In 1858 he was nominated to the Legislative Council, by then part of the recently created bicameral parliament, and resigned with its other members in 1861, according to the terms of section 3 of the Constitution Act.

In February 1846, Bland, then a widower, married a widow, Eliza Smeathman.

Bland was a trustee and at one time president of the Australian Medical Subscription Library founded in 1846, and first president of the Australian Medical Association formed in 1859. He contributed articles to the Australian Medical Journal on 'Bites of Venomous Snakes of Australia' and on 'Dislocations'. He performed operations for removal of cataracts from the eyes and of stones from the bladder. In 1832 he performed a remarkable operation for the cure of an aneurysm of the subclavian artery; it was only the seventh known operation of its kind. Bland reported the details of the operation and of the instrument he had improvised for it in the Lancet in the same year. He performed this operation on another patient in 1838.

Apart from the surgical instruments he improvised, Bland made drawings of two inventions. He published a brochure entitled Suppression of Spontaneous Combustion in Wool Ships on 27 March 1843: carbonic acid gas was to be circulated freely through the holds of the ships and thus prevent combustion. In 1855 he published The Atmotic Ship. This contained a drawing of a balloon filled with hydrogen; it was to be propelled by four screw propellors, two driven by steam, and the other two 'by their impulsive effects against atmospheric pressure'. A model of the device against combustion was shown at the International Exhibition in London in 1851, and of the Atmotic Ship at the Crystal Palace in 1854.

Bland edited the Journey of Discovery to Port Phillip, New South Wales; by Messrs W. H. Hovell and Hamilton Hume in 1824 and 1825 (Sydney, 1831), and published New South Wales: Review of the Examination of Mr James Macarthur's Work (1839); and some of his letters to governors were printed.

A banquet was held in July 1856 to celebrate the grant of a new Constitution by the British government. Bland accepted an invitation to preside and received a deserved ovation. On 5 November 1858 he was given a sum of money and a candelabra for his services to the community, but in 1861 an attempt to procure an annuity for him was defeated in the Legislative Council. In 1861 he was declared a bankrupt.

Bland continued in active medical practice until 1868. In that year, he developed pneumonia and died intestate on 21 July. He was accorded a state funeral. A portrait of Bland is in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

There are hundreds of references to William Bland and it is surprising that there should be so many gaps in knowledge of a man who was a public figure for so long. There seems no doubt, from his brightly coloured carriages, of his flamboyance. His quarrels with Lowe and his heated newspaper battle with Dr McCrae over the treatment of a patient suggest a basically argumentative disposition, and he appears to have entered without great reluctance into the duel which led to his original conviction. Though bankrupt in 1861, he was at one time a large landowner, with property at Prospect Hill, Hunters Hill, Yass and Gerringong. He appears to have had an interest in horse racing; he was a member of the Turf Club until he resigned to join the Australian Racing Club founded in 1828. There is little doubt of his ability and patience as a surgeon, and of his selfless affection for the sick and the poor. It is also clear that he devoted tremendous energy and much time to establishing in New South Wales two basic freedoms: the right of man to be tried by his peers, and his right to participate in the election of his government. It is probable that a contemporary view of Bland provides as accurate a picture as can be contrived. Dr Evans wrote in the Empire on 21 January 1862: 'there is a class of men among the old colonists, to whom those locks, whiter than the driven snow, are a crown of glory: and who, when they shall follow him to his grave, will feel that, whoever may come after him, none can ever assume his place, as one of the earliest founders and patriarchs of liberty on this continent. For more than forty or perhaps fifty years, has this brave, consistent and accomplished man been struggling, sometimes against imperial, and at other times against local tyranny, on behalf of a people who at one moment appreciated his motives, and at another joined with their own oppressors in disparaging, if not in vilifying their greatest benefactor. An elegant scholar, a man of science, and a gentleman of that antique school of urbanity and refinement, which modern barbarism and ruffianism have almost trampled into oblivion—William Bland'.

Select Bibliography

  • A. M. McIntosh, ‘The Life and Times of William Bland’, Bulletin of the Post-Graduate Committee in Medicine, University of Sydney, vol 10, no 6, Sept 1954, pp 109-52
  • P. Thompson, William Bland (draft M.A. thesis, Australian National University, 1964).

Citation details

John Cobley, 'Bland, William (1789–1868)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 20 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

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