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John Garrett Bussell (1803–1875)

by Freda Vines Carmody

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John Garrett Bussell (1803-1875), settler, was born on 16 August 1803 at Portsea, Hampshire, England, the eldest of nine children of Rev. William Marchant Bussell, an Anglican clergyman, and his wife Frances, née Yates. The death of his father in 1820 entailed family sacrifices to continue the boy's education. John Bussell, intended for the church, was educated at Winchester, winning two exhibitions to Trinity College, Oxford (B.A., 1829). While he awaited ordination, the family heard glowing reports of Swan River. Migration appeared as a perfect solution to their difficulties. William, the second son, remained in England, to become a doctor, and John, Charles, Vernon and Alfred sailed in 1829 for Western Australia in the Warrior.

In May 1830 John was encouraged by Governor (Sir) James Stirling to take up land near Cape Leeuwin, at Augusta, where a military post was stationed. With his brothers, he built a cottage and planted a garden, but found the heavy karri forest too hard to clear. Twelve miles (19 km) up the near-by Blackwood River he found better land where he took up another grant, Adelphi, and started again in December 1831. Next year they were threatened with starvation and lived on grass and fish. Their wheat crop failed, their livestock strayed, and they were worn out with hard toil and spare living when their sisters, Fanny and Bessie arrived with their brother Lenox in 1833. Soon afterwards the new house at the Adelphi was burnt down, a severe setback even though the piano, books, guns and most utensils were saved. Next year their mother and sister Mary arrived at Swan River with £1000 of new equipment; they reached Augusta to learn that all these goods were lost in the wreck of the coaster Cumberland.

In spite of these four ruinous years, John decided to start afresh sixty miles (97 km) to the north at the Vasse River where he had taken 3500 acres (1416 ha) in 1832. The brothers and their old nurse sailed for the Vasse in April 1834 and were met by an overland party from Augusta. They landed their goods on the beach and began to cut through the bush to the river a track that became the main street of Busselton. Farther up the river they put up a store hut and soon had other buildings under construction. In September a cow, Yulika, strayed from Augusta, arrived with a calf to provide the new property with its name, Cattle Chosen. Months of sawing, building and clearing made it possible for their mother and sisters to join them. At first their only imports were pork, flour, spirits and wine; all else was makeshift. With much to be done all at once, the hard drudgery continued and nothing was finished. John gloried in his self-reliance and had a hand in everything: he created wheels for a truck, dosed sick Aboriginals, hunted kangaroos, tanned leather, read philosophy, managed everyone and wrote Latin verse. Inspired by his example, the girls made a picnic of their housework, dairying and poultry keeping. First crops did not always succeed, boots and clothes frayed into rags, fleas were everywhere, but each evening under crude slush lamps they found respite in books and music, and writing lively letters to friends and relatives in England. Before long they shipped to Perth their first surplus: sixty-two pounds (28 kg) of butter and half a ton of potatoes. Cheese was soon added to their produce. Their livestock multiplied, wheat growing succeeded and a horse-driven flour-mill was brought from England.

In 1837 John Bussell sailed for England to marry Sophie Hayward, an heiress whom he had known since childhood. The romance foundered on his suspicion that her friends thought him a fortune hunter and on his insistence that his mother remain in charge of domestic affairs. His health broke down; in convalescence he met Charlotte Cookworthy, née Spicer, a widow who, after the death of her husband, had become a member of the Plymouth Brethren. She was excommunicated for marrying John Bussell at Plymouth on 22 August 1838, and her three children had to be kidnapped to join them in the Montreal for the voyage to Australia. Meanwhile relations had deteriorated between the Aboriginals and the Vasse settlers, as cultivated fields replaced the ancient tribal hunting grounds. The spearing of a neighbour, George Layman, by the chief, Gaywal, in 1841 brought a serious clash between settlers and natives, resulting in the death of the murderer and arrest of his sons, and finally bringing peace.

The difficult years persisted and the Bussells, like many other settlers, made little more than a modest livelihood. John remained at Cattle Chosen as the family dispersed through marriage and through the brothers taking their own farms; the departures also grieved him because division of property brought some dissension. He left Busselton to visit South Australia, and in 1864 to teach classics at Hale School, Perth, being described by its founder as 'a real good fellow' and competent teacher. As a justice of the peace he gave years of magisterial service in the Vasse district, and in 1870 he was elected to the colony's first Legislative Council under representative government. He died at Cattle Chosen on 21 September 1875 and was buried at St Mary's, Busselton, which he helped to build and where he had conducted services in the absence of a resident clergyman.

Four daughters were born of his marriage to Charlotte, whose strong character made her an ideal pioneer wife: Capel (Mrs E. Brockman), Emily (Mrs F. Vines), Caroline, and Josephine (Mrs H. C. Prinsep). A portrait of the family in water-colour, and a pencil sketch of John Bussell are in the possession of his family.

Sense of duty to his family made John Bussell a pioneer, but scholarship remained his first love, and almost to the end he retained his dream of taking holy orders. He was short and slight, brown-haired and blue-eyed, gentle and pleasant, but with a stubborn core that led him to strong stands on family rights and wrongs, real and imagined.

Select Bibliography

  • E. O. G. Shann, Cattle Chosen: The Story of the First Group Settlement in Western Australia, 1829-1841 (Lond, 1926)
  • A. Burton, Hale School, Perth: The Story of its Foundation and Early Years, 1858-1900 (Perth, 1939)
  • A. Hasluck, Portrait with Background, a Life of Georgiana Molloy (Melb, 1955)
  • Bussell papers, 1828-78 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • P. U. Henn, Genealogical notes (State Library of Western Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Freda Vines Carmody, 'Bussell, John Garrett (1803–1875)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 25 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

John Bussell, 1840s

John Bussell, 1840s

State Library of Western Australia, 50378101

Life Summary [details]


16 August, 1803
Portsmouth, Hampshire, England


21 September, 1875 (aged 72)
Busselton, Western Australia, Australia

Cause of Death

lung congestion

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