Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Bryan (c. 1801–1837)

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William Bryan (b.1801?), pastoralist and litigant, was born in Dublin, the youngest son of Robert Bryan and his wife Sarah Elizabeth, née Butler. Recommended to the Colonial Office by his relatives and by Colonel Talbot of Malahide Castle, near Dublin, and claiming a capital of £8000, he left Ireland and arrived in Hobart Town with his wife Jane in the Ardent in May 1824. His brother Samuel (1794-1862) had arrived two years before, and had been granted over 2000 acres (809 ha) on the South Esk, twenty miles (32 km) from Launceston, where he married Jane Henty on 16 October 1832. William's colonial beginnings were no less felicitous. His free grant at Glenore near Carrick was in superior country, and with some help from his brother Robert Butler Bryan of the Irish Bar, he was given another grant at Clarence Point on the West Tamar. By 1830 he could claim a total of 11,000 acres (4452 ha), on which he had thirty assigned servants and had spent £8000 in land, equipment and cultivation. With Samuel he chartered the William for £1000 and sent stores and livestock to the infant settlement at Swan River, and with great enterprise he built a mill on the River Liffey, improved near-by roads, and constructed a wharf to accommodate a steamboat ordered from England for carrying produce. Samuel and William were commended for their energy in ridding the north of bushrangers and William became a justice of the peace, but his solid foundations of prosperity were suddenly shattered when he encountered the antagonism of Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur.

According to William Bryan, the trouble began in 1832 when he had a convict servant, Samuel Arnold, severely punished for cruelty to his cattle. In Bryan's absence next year, Arnold was arrested and tried by Captain William Lyttleton, the police magistrate at Launceston, for cattle stealing. His sentence of death was commuted by Arthur, and after the trial Lyttleton publicly implied that the master ought to have been tried instead of the servant. Bryan sent Thomas Lewis to demand an explanation, but Lyttleton claimed that he was challenged to a duel, and Lewis was prosecuted for inciting a breach of the peace. Tried by Algernon Montagu Lewis was fined £150 and sentenced to eighteen months in gaol. Bryan replied with actions against Lyttleton for defamation and conspiracy, applying for the cases to be heard in Hobart where his enemy had no control over jury lists. His application failed and he abandoned his suits. His resignation from the Commission of the Peace was also refused; instead, his name was erased from the list of justices and his assigned servants were withdrawn during harvest and shearing, causing him great loss. Depositions by Arnold and his other convicts purported to reveal a three-year-old system of cattle duffing and brand faking in which Bryan had connived, sharing the proceeds with his men and with Robert Bryan, his overseer and nephew. Although Bryan avowed: 'not a single act of mine since my arrival in these colonies that I would wish to screen from the severest scouting', his fiery denunciations of Arthur brought him no relief, so he went to Sydney and thence to London in 1835 to present his case in person, with a bill for £14,500 for losses and expenses. His departure saved him from criminal investigation, but Robert Bryan was less fortunate. On the evidence of two convicts he was found guilty of cattle stealing and served six years at Port Arthur.

In London, William Bryan found support in a long statement by Jorgen Jorgenson, printed his own vehement memorial in 1835, and attacked the integrity of Arthur and his subordinate establishment in seven fearsome charges. Parliament heard of his wrongs and they contributed to Arthur's recall. In London, however, Arthur had no difficulty in exposing the 'great untruths' of Bryan, whose sanity was by then doubted by the Colonial Office. Bryan appeared before the select committee inquiring into the disposal of colonial waste lands in 1836, and his last letter to Downing Street was written in June 1837. His property in Tasmania was advertised for sale in January 1838.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 3, vols 4-5
  • J. West, The History of Tasmania, vol 1 (Launceston, 1852)
  • M. C. I. Levy, Governor George Arthur (Melb, 1953)
  • M. Bassett, The Hentys: An Australian Colonial Tapestry (Lond, 1954)
  • GO 1/19, 33/15, 18, 21 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • CO 280/76, 92.

Citation details

'Bryan, William (c. 1801–1837)', 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

Life Summary [details]


c. 1801
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


1837 (aged ~ 36)

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