Australian Dictionary of Biography

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David Burn (c. 1799–1875)

by D. H. Borchardt

This article was published:

David Burn (1799?-1875), settler and author, was born in Scotland, the son of David Burn and his wife, Jacobina, née Hunter (1763-1851). After her husband's death, she sailed from Portsmouth in the Westmoreland and arrived in Hobart Town in May 1821. With help from Governor Lachlan Macquarie she became the first woman to be granted land in Van Diemen's Land, taking it near Hamilton and calling it Ellangowan. In February 1824 she was granted 500 adjoining acres (202 ha) and next year applied for more. By 1829 she had 2000 acres (809 ha) by grant, 1200 (486 ha) by purchase, 2000 sheep, 150 cattle and many other assets, but a further application was refused, because her existing grants had not been improved.

David Burn, after a short career in the navy and much ill health, followed his mother to Hobart, arriving in May 1826 with his daughter, Jemima Frances; an infant son died on the voyage. Burn failed to qualify for a land grant, because he claimed assets that belonged to his mother. He returned to Edinburgh in 1829 where he divorced his wife Frances Maria, née Eldred. Back in Hobart in November 1830, he purchased near New Norfolk 500 acres (202 ha) for £180 from Dr (Sir) Robert Officer. At New Norfolk on 6 November 1832 he married Catherine, third daughter of Michael Fenton of Castle Town, County Sligo.

Burn went with his mother to England in 1836. Early in 1840 he addressed the Colonial Society Club, London, strongly urging the need for representative government in the colony, and contributed a series of 'Sketches of Van Diemen's Land' to the Colonial Magazine (1840-41). In November 1841 he settled on his Rotherwood property on the River Ouse and became active in such local affairs as the newly formed Chamber of Commerce. His aspirations for the colonists were reaffirmed in his pamphlet Vindication of Van Diemen's Land in A Cursory Glance at Her Colonists as They Are, Not as They Have Been Represented To Be (London, 1840). In 1842 Burn accompanied Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin on their expedition to the west coast of Tasmania which he described in his Narrative of the Overland Journey … From Hobart Town to Macquarie Harbour, 1842 (published in Sydney 1955 with notes by G. Mackaness).

In 1844 Burn and his mother became insolvent, and in 1849 Ellangowan was sold to William John Clarke. The protection of his second wife's property by her brother, Michael Fenton, involved Burn in lawsuits in which the legality of the Scottish divorce from his first wife was challenged. In 1845 Burn left Tasmania, lived for a little over a year in New South Wales and in 1847 migrated to Auckland where he edited the Maori Messenger in 1849 and 1855-63 and the New Zealand Herald in 1864-65. He retired in 1865 and died on 14 June 1875 at Auckland, aged 76. Burn's daughter Jemima married Charles James Irvine of Deer Park, County Tyrone, on 22 June 1843. Jacobina Burn died at Clyde Villa, Bothwell, on 10 January 1851.

In his youth Burn associated with some English playwrights and acquired some talent as an actor and a writer. However, his collection of Plays, and Fugitive Pieces in Verse (Hobart Town, 1842) was of little literary quality. His claim to fame is better justified by his writing of the first Australian drama to be performed on the stage: 'The Bushrangers', a three-act play which has remained unpublished except for the epilogue, the full manuscript being in the Mitchell Library. It was performed at the Caledonian Theatre, Edinburgh, on 8 and 10 September 1829.

Burn's account of the Franklins' expedition reveals him as an acute observer of men and countryside, but his ornate language spoils his style. He was at his best in brief journalistic accounts.

Select Bibliography

  • E. M. Miller, Pressmen and Governors (Syd, 1952)
  • Hobart Town Courier, 10 Dec 1841, 25 Feb 25 Nov 1842, 11 Feb 1845
  • CSO 1/296/7180, 8/97/2105 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • Burn papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

D. H. Borchardt, 'Burn, David (c. 1799–1875)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 19 July 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. 1799


14 June, 1875 (aged ~ 76)
Auckland, New Zealand

Cultural Heritage

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