Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

John Coverdale (1814–1896)

by G. F. Sorell

This article was published:

John Coverdale (1814-1896), medical practitioner, was born on 4 August 1814 at Kedgeree, Bengal, the only son of John Coverdale, head of the Bengal Postal Department, and his wife Julia, daughter of Captain Samuel Speak of the Bombay Marines. After his father's death, he was sent to his guardian, Peter Colquhuon of Glasgow. He was educated at the Blue Coat School and at Glasgow University (M.D., C.B., 1835). Meanwhile his mother had married Captain William Eatwell of the Bombay Marines and had a large family.

Coverdale made two trips to India as a surgeon in charge of troops, and then sailed from Leith in the Perthshire to settle in Australia. On 10 July 1837 he arrived at Hobart Town where he practised for a time. On 27 December 1838 at St David's Church he married Anne, youngest daughter of Edward Harbroe of Ripley, Surrey. Next year he visited South Australia. In March 1840 he was appointed district surgeon at Richmond at £54 a year. A malignant fever was then raging and Coverdale caught it, narrowly escaping with his life. Soon afterwards he was appointed a justice of the peace. In August 1841 the coroner at Richmond reported to Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin that Coverdale had refused to attend a man run over by a cart and falsely certified the cause of the victim's death. After inquiry, the chief medical officer and colonial secretary, John Montagu, claimed that Coverdale had not justified himself and he was dismissed. When Coverdale's letters of protest and requests for a fair trial had no effect, the householders of Richmond petitioned the government in his favour. Montagu scorned the petition, but Franklin thought 'the prerogatives of mercy should be exercised'. The lieutenant-governor and his colonial secretary fell out, but Coverdale was reinstated. In November 1844 he was transferred from the Medical Department to the Police Department with the title of 'medical officer, special duties at the gaol' and his salary reduced to £30. The change did not save him from another charge of professional neglect in 1847, but Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison was satisfied by his explanation and refused an official inquiry.

In January 1846 Coverdale offered to act as deputy-registrar of births, deaths and marriages for the district of Richmond. He was appointed in May after the boundaries of the district, which then included Maria Island, had been defined. With his private practice and duties as registrar, medical officer, coroner and magistrate, he still found time to chair public meetings. In 1859 when the city hospital and invalid stations at Port Arthur were overcrowded, he recommended that 'infirm' patients should be sent to Richmond, a healthy district with ample accommodation. When Richmond became a rural municipality, he was elected in August 1861 as its warden and in 1863 he was appointed to the Board of Medical Examiners.

On 1 January 1865 Coverdale became superintendent of the Queen's Asylum for Orphans at New Town, with a salary of £450 and free quarters. The asylum's history had been very troubled and the place was poorly organized, but he brought it to proper order and greatly reduced its costs. After eight years the government changed its policy for destitute children. Coverdale was complimented for his 'unremitting economy' and on 1 January 1874 transferred to Port Arthur. Here he stayed as civil commandant until the settlement was abandoned in 1877. Next year he took charge of the Hospital for the Insane at the Cascades, near Hobart. He had constant paper warfare with the staff of the adjoining Boys' Training School over noise and pasture for his cows. In 1887, when notified that he had to retire, he appealed to the premier to be kept on as he was not legally eligible for a pension. For his exceptional services he was given an annuity of £150. In 1889 he left the Cascades and made his home at Ivadene, Moonah. By his first wife he had three sons and four daughters, but no issue by his second wife, Edith Jones, whom he married on 22 May 1886. He died at Ivadene on 23 June 1896, survived by his widow, four children, twenty grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren.

At his death Coverdale was the oldest medical practitioner in Tasmania, and the second oldest justice of the peace. He was held in affectionate memory at Richmond, and respected in his profession. In politics he was seldom active in local affairs, but as a Conservative of the old school he condemned the advanced Liberals in England, especially Gladstone, whom he thought was anything but a blessing to the British empire.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Fitzpatrick, Sir John Franklin in Tasmania 1837-1843 (Melb. 1949)
  • correspondence file under John Coverdale (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

G. F. Sorell, 'Coverdale, John (1814–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 29 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]


4 August, 1814


23 June, 1896 (aged 81)
Moonah, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Passenger Ship
Key Places