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Charles Bonney (1813–1897)

by H. J. Gibbney

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Charles Bonney (1813-1897), overlander, politician and civil servant, was born on 31 October 1813 at Sandon, near Stafford, England, son of Rev. George Bonney and his wife Susanna, née Knight. His family reputedly left France after the revocation of the edict of Nantes; they mainly became small county gentry, but his grandfather, father, elder brother and two cousins entered the church. After his father died in 1826 his brother Thomas, headmaster of Rugeley Grammar School, undertook his education and gave him a home for seven years.

On 5 August 1834 Bonney left England in the John Craig for Sydney. He landed on 12 December, worked as a clerk for Judge (Sir) William Burton for about nineteen months and then resigned to join Charles Hotson Ebden in setting up a new station on the Murray River. Since Ebden had asked him to seek a practicable stock route to the new Port Phillip settlement, he left the new station soon after his arrival but, deeming the flooded Ovens River too dangerous to cross, was forced to abandon the attempt. Starting again on 25 December with a bullock dray and seven men, he arrived safely in Melbourne on 7 January 1837. He then crossed to Launceston where he met Captain John Hart with whom he was later associated in Adelaide. On 18 February Bonney reached Sydney, left at once for Ebden's station and in March set out with 10,000 sheep for Melbourne. On this trip he had some trouble with bushrangers and selected a station for himself at Kilmore, abandoning it at the end of 1837 for a more convenient run at Mount Macedon.

On 4 January 1838 he was invited by Joseph Hawdon to join an expedition taking cattle to South Australia. Bonney accepted at once and joined the party at the Goulburn River on 17 January. They travelled down the Goulburn to the Murray, which they followed until they saw the Mount Lofty Range and then turned west to Adelaide where they were enthusiastically welcomed by the colonists, many of whom were living on kangaroo meat. On the journey Bonney had often pacified hostile Aboriginals by his cheerful demeanour and the music of his flute.

Early in May Bonney left in the Water Witch for Melbourne whence, responding to a subpoena requiring him to be a witness at a murder trial, he proceeded to Sydney on the revenue cutter Prince George. After waiting several weeks for a summons that never came, he went to Hawdon's station at Howlong on the Murray to take a second herd to South Australia for Hawdon by a shorter route. He started from Hughes Creek near the Goulburn River about 26 February 1839 with 300 cattle, two bullock drays and ten men. Instead of travelling down the Murray he struck across country to the Grampians, followed the Wannon and Glenelg Rivers, turned west to Lacepede Bay and then moved along the coast, reaching Lake Alexandrina about 6 April. Although the journey was much shorter than the Murray route, water was scarce and the party was only saved from disaster by Bonney's bushcraft.

During two years in Adelaide as Hawdon's agent he shared a station with Edward John Eyre, was secretary of a committee to raise funds for Eyre's exploring work and in August 1840 took part in a punitive expedition led by Major William O'Halloran against the Aboriginal murderers of the passengers and crew wrecked on the Coorong in the Maria. In the depression Hawdon's business declined and his station was taken by a special survey; Bonney returned to Port Phillip about April 1841 to take up a station in partnership with his old friend Ebden. When this venture failed early in 1842 he gladly accepted an offer from Governor (Sir) George Grey to become commissioner of crown lands in South Australia. He left Port Phillip in the Iona, took office in May and his appointment was confirmed in November. His main task was to define the boundaries of pastoral leases which until then had been described haphazardly. In this office he was so successful that in 1854 some crown tenants in the south-east of the colony presented him with £700 as a mark of esteem.

On 13 December 1846 Bonney married Charlotte Heritage and settled in Parkside, near Adelaide, where his first son Charles Augustus was born on 24 October 1847. When Norwood became a municipality in 1853 he was appointed its first mayor, serving for three consecutive terms. Because of his efficiency and popularity he was often given minor honorary public offices, including a position as commissioner of the Adelaide-Gawler railway. He retained a close interest in railway matters for many years.

In 1855 Bonney stood for election to the Legislative Council but withdrew when his candidature was opposed because of his official position. On 24 October 1856 he was appointed commissioner of crown lands in the first responsible ministry and on 26 February 1857 was elected to the House of Assembly for East Torrens. On 21 August he left the ministry in protest against the raising of public loans by borrowing and on 26 January 1858 he resigned his seat. In April he left Adelaide with his family and a financial testimonial from the colony. He intended to settle permanently in England but was soon involved as chairman of directors in forming the Great Northern Mining Co. to mine copper in South Australia. He visited Adelaide in 1860 to investigate complaints about the prospectus and returned permanently at the end of 1861 as local superintendent for the company. Although early prospects in the eleven purchased mines seemed bright, the ore bodies proved to be generally superficial; after two or three years operations the capital dwindled and the company wound up.

In March 1865 Bonney was elected to the Legislative Council and in September was appointed to a commission investigating the effects of a disastrous drought on northern runs. On 25 August 1866 he resigned his seat to become valuator of runs for the Lands Department. He retained this position until 7 June 1869 when he was appointed general manager of the government railways. On 1 June 1871, after retrenchment and reorganization in the Railways Department, Bonney became inspector and valuator of improvements on runs and selections at a salary of £600; he held the position until his retirement through ill health on 1 September 1880. A year earlier he had acted as South Australian commissioner to the Sydney exhibition and then visited New Zealand. In 1880 he settled temporarily in Melbourne, acted as South Australian commissioner to the Melbourne exhibition and served as juryman in the Department of Mining and Metallurgy. From April 1882 he lived in retirement in Sydney where he died, blind and bedridden, on 15 March 1897. He was survived by his widow and five of their nine children.

Bonney was generally respected for his honest and practical ability. Throughout his official and political life he was in constant demand for parliamentary committees as an expert witness in subjects relating to mining, land and railways. He was a capable and intelligent bushman and his wide knowledge of Australian geography was recognized when he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1861. His name is commemorated in a creek named by John McDouall Stuart and a lake named by Hawdon. Politically he was a rather old-fashioned and cautious Liberal and his administration of crown lands was directed mainly towards fair distribution of the land and the prevention of land monopolies.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hawdon, The Journal of a Journey from New South Wales to Adelaide (Melb, 1952)
  • Select Committee on Colonial Estimates, Evidence, Votes and Proceedings (South Australia), 1855-56 (158)
  • Select Committee on Prospectus of Great Northern Mining Co., Report, Votes and Proceedings (South Australia), 1860 (83)
  • Select Committee on the Great Northern Mining Co., Correspondence and Report, Votes and Proceedings (South Australia), 1866-67 (26, 56)
  • Select Committee on Port Augusta Railway, Evidence, Votes and Proceedings (South Australia), 1869-70 (119)
  • manuscript catalogue and newspaper indexes under Charles Bonney (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Bonney, Charles (1813–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 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

Charles Bonney (1813-1897), by unknown artist, c1900

Charles Bonney (1813-1897), by unknown artist, c1900

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7390, with the permission of the City of Norwood, Payneham & St Peters

Life Summary [details]


31 October, 1813
Sandon, Staffordshire, England


15 March, 1897 (aged 83)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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