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William Nairne Clark (1804–1854)

by G. C. Bolton

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William Nairne Clark (1804-1854), lawyer and publicist, was born at Coupar Angus, Perthshire, Scotland, the son of Charles Clark of Princeland and his wife Marjory, née Barclay. He had some education at Dunsinnan House, the seat of his great-uncle, Sir William Nairne, a senator of the College of Justice in Scotland, and after reading law received a commission from the Supreme Court of Scotland making him a notary public for life and a writer of the signet. In 1830 he decided to emigrate to the new colony of Western Australia. He arrived in the Eliza in March 1831, and practised his profession at Fremantle.

In 1832 he involved himself in an acrimonious correspondence with a merchant, George French Johnson (1799-1832), to whom he imputed 'clandestine transactions'. The affair came to a head on 16 August 1832 when Clark accosted Johnson in a Fremantle street, saying: 'You are a scoundrel and a blackguard, and that if was not from motives of prudence, I would give you a sound drubbing'. Challenged to a duel with pistols, Clark met Johnson next morning at Richmond House, near Fremantle, and mortally wounded him. The victor was made to stand his trial for manslaughter, but the jury acquitted him.

Clark's restless temperament expressed itself in many projects during his later residence in the colony. Drawing on previous journalistic experience in Scotland, he turned newspaper proprietor, publishing the Swan River Guardian in 1836-38. An earlier venture in publication, Report of the Late Trial for Libel!!! Clarke versus MacFaul (Fremantle, 1835), is believed to be the first book published in the colony. Clark was also credited with writing a book on Western Australia, but this, if it existed, was never published.

Between 1840 and 1842 Clark made several excursions through the south-west of the colony, between Albany and Kojonup. Jointly with C. Spyers, he had been granted 4600 acres (1862 ha) of land, taken up in the York district and on Rottnest Island. Clark also applied for the contract of pilotage on Rottnest and proposed to lease the island's salt-mines and develop a fish trade, but neither project came to anything.

In December 1848 Clark removed to Tasmania where he applied for permission to practise as a notary public, but as the lieutenant-governor had no power to grant permission, he once more engaged in journalism. He died at Hobart on 15 February 1854, of podagra (gout of the foot). Despite his abilities, none of his speculations left any important mark on the colony, and his main claim to notice is his spirited conduct in the only fatal duel fought in Western Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • P. de Mouncey, ‘The Historic Duel at Fremantle Between George French Johnson, a Merchant, and William Nairne Clark, a Solicitor, in the Year, 1832’, Journal and Proceedings (Western Australian Historical Society), vol 1, part 5, 1929, pp 1-15 and vol 1, part 8, 1930, pp 85-86
  • West Australian, 28 Apr 1854
  • CSO, correspondence and research note, 155 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • CSO 24/125/4087 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Clark, William Nairne (1804–1854)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 21 June 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]


Coupar Angus, Perthshire, Scotland


15 February, 1854 (aged ~ 50)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Cause of Death


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