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William Cox (1764–1837)

by Edna Hickson

This article was published:

William Cox, by  Charles Rodius, 1830

William Cox, by Charles Rodius, 1830

State Library of New South Wales, 1379

William Cox (1764-1837), military officer, roadmaker and builder, was born at Wimborne, Dorset, England, and educated at the local grammar school. He later moved to Devizes, Wiltshire, where he married Rebecca Upjohn of Bristol. He joined the army in 1797 and was commissioned a lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps; next year he was appointed paymaster. In 1799, accompanied by his wife and four of his six small sons, he sailed for New South Wales in the Minerva by way of Cork, where the ship picked up a consignment of Irish convicts who had taken part in the rebellion the previous year. He was put in charge of them as well as his detachment of the corps. Also on board were four political exiles, among them the redoubtable 'General' Joseph Holt, with whom Cox became very closely associated until Holt was sent to Norfolk Island for his suspected part in the convict rebellion in 1804.

Soon after he arrived in the colony on 11 January 1800, Cox acquired Brush Farm at Dundas from John Macarthur whom he had succeeded as paymaster, several adjoining farms and much stock. He overstrained his credit and in 1803 facing a deficiency of £7900 in his regimental accounts he was suspended from office. The sum of £2000 was secured, and to pay the remainder his estate was assigned to trustees and sold for the benefit of his creditors, including the army agents. By 1806 they had been paid in full, but by then Cox had been ordered to England under arrest 'to answer such charges as may be brought against him'. He sailed in February 1807 but appears never to have been brought to trial. In 1809 he resigned his commission and devoted the rest of his life to civilian pursuits. Through this enforced absence he was away from the colony during the William Bligh rebellion, and was never called upon to reveal where his sympathies lay; however, his wife and son signed an address of loyalty to Bligh organized by the settlers on the Hawkesbury, where Cox had gone to live after the sale of Brush Farm, and during the King period had been strongly criticized by Macarthur and the corps.

When Cox returned in 1810 Governor Lachlan Macquarie made him a magistrate at the Hawkesbury, much to the satisfaction of the local residents. There he earned the reputation of being more humane both as an employer and as a magistrate than many of his contemporaries. His freely issued leave passes, known as 'Captain Cox's Liberties' later incensed Commissioner John Thomas Bigge. Cox took government contracts for erecting gaols, schools and other buildings in the Windsor district, several of which still stand in good repair, the best known being the court-house built in 1820 to the plans of Francis Greenway. After the successful crossing of the Blue Mountains, Macquarie commissioned Cox in July 1814 to supervise the making of a road, following as far as possible the route surveyed by George Evans. The thirty convicts in his working party were chosen because they looked capable of hard work, and their reward was to be their freedom. They made 101 miles (163 km) of road through rugged mountain country, building over a dozen bridges and splitting hundreds of posts and rails in six months without serious accident or loss of life. Macquarie, after travelling over the road, praised Cox highly and named the steep descent down Mount York and the river at its foot after him. In 1888 the journal Cox kept while making the road to the interior was published in Sydney under the title of A Narrative of Proceedings of William Cox, Esq., of Clarendon … in the Years 1814 & 1815.

Cox received the first grant of land west of the mountains, 2000 acres (809 ha) across the river from Bathurst which he called Hereford. Although neither he nor his sons made it their home, they ran sheep there for some time. About 1810 they had taken up land in the Mulgoa valley where three of his sons lived for many years. Later in the Mudgee district his sons and grandsons formed studs from William's flocks which became famous for the fine quality of their wool. His large estate at Clarendon near Windsor had all the appearance of a self-contained village. Over fifty convict servants acted as smiths, tanners, harness makers, wool sorters, weavers, butchers, tailors and herdsmen. Cox had steadily improved his flocks, which Commissioner Bigge described in 1820 as among the six best in the colony. He explored the source of the Lachlan River and organized provisions for John Oxley's expedition.

In 1819 his first wife died, and three years later he married again. There were three sons and a daughter by this marriage. He was the first president of the Windsor Benevolent Society, chairman of the local Macquarie Memorial fund, and a vice-president of the Agricultural Society. Politically he was always a radical, signing many petitions for such reforms as representative government, repeal of taxes, and trial by jury, being 'firmly of the opinion' that 'Respectable Emancipists' would be worthy jurors. In 1824 Brisbane submitted his name for the proposed new Legislative Council, but he was not appointed. He died on 15 March 1837, and was buried, with his first wife, at St Matthew's, Windsor. A window to his memory was erected in St Andrew's Cathedral by the sons of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 4, 6 7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 3-16
  • T. Crofton (ed), Memoirs of Joseph Holt, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1838)
  • J. T. Bigge, Report … into the State of the Colony of NSW, Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons, Great Britain), 1822 (448)
  • W. Cox memoirs (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/118-63.

Citation details

Edna Hickson, 'Cox, William (1764–1837)', 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

William Cox, by  Charles Rodius, 1830

William Cox, by Charles Rodius, 1830

State Library of New South Wales, 1379

Life Summary [details]


Wimborne, Dorset, England


15 March, 1837 (aged ~ 73)
New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

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