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William Dawes (1762–1836)

by Phyllis Mander-Jones

This article was published:

William Dawes (1762-1836), officer of marines, scientist and administrator, was the eldest son of Benjamin Dawes, clerk of works in the Ordnance Office at Portsmouth, England. He was gazetted second lieutenant in the marines on 2 September 1779 and in September 1781 was wounded in the action against the French off Chesapeake Bay. He volunteered for service with the First Fleet to New South Wales. He was known as a competent astronomer and on the recommendation of the astronomer royal, Rev. Dr Nevil Maskelyne, the Board of Longitude supplied instruments and books for an observatory and asked Dawes to watch especially for a comet expected in 1788. His application for a shore appointment was refused, but he was promised the first vacancy, and meanwhile attached to the marines in the Sirius. From March 1788 he was employed ashore as engineer and surveyor, and by early July had been discharged from the Sirius. He had already begun to build an observatory on what is now Dawes Point, though at his request Hunter called it Point Maskelyne. He devoted as much time as possible to observations but the expected comet did not appear. As engineer and surveyor he constructed batteries on the points at the entrance to Sydney Cove, laid out the government farm and the first streets and allotments in Sydney and Parramatta and in December 1789, with the governor's approval, led a party into the mountains across the Nepean River, penetrating only fifteen miles (24 km) in three days because of precipitous ravines. With Watkin Tench he explored the upper Nepean, opened the way to the Cowpastures and joined many other expeditions, on which his training and skill were invaluable in computing distances and in map making.

In October 1788 he applied for a further three years service in the colony and until late in 1791 he contemplated settling if a position could be found for him. He was interested in scientific studies and in the Aborigines, on whose language he became an authority, and he hoped to support himself in part by farming. Approval for his appointment as engineer was received in October 1791 but, since the marines had been ordered home, Governor Arthur Phillip offered with it only an ensigncy in the New South Wales Corps, and imposed the condition that Dawes apologize for his conduct on two matters. The first was his purchase from a convict of flour which Phillip asserted formed part of the man's rations, in which trade was forbidden, though Dawes maintained it was the man's earned property. The second was much more serious and involved Dawes's principles. In December 1790 Dawes had refused to do duty on a punitive expedition ordered by Phillip because his convict gamekeeper had been fatally wounded by an Aborigine. Phillip was in general so humane in his treatment of the Aborigines that it is surprising that Dawes could not agree with him that this particular attack was unprovoked and that harsh measures were justified, but he seems to have had reason to suspect the victim. He reconciled his conscience to accompanying the party only after discussion with Rev. Richard Johnson, and later incensed Phillip by stating publicly that he 'was sorry he had been persuaded to comply with the order'. He refused to retract on either matter and sailed with the marines in December 1791, but before reaching England he wrote to Maskelyne that he still hoped to return to New South Wales 'whenever a Chief Man may be appointed who is sincerely a lover and protector of scientific pursuits'. In 1794 he told William Wilberforce that he would like to settle in the colony and was recommended for appointment as superintendent of schools. Nothing came of this suggestion or of John Hunter's request for him as engineer in 1798.

Soon after Dawes arrived in England in 1792 he went to Sierra Leone as councillor to the governor, whom he succeeded in December. He was three times governor for the Sierra Leone Co. from December 1792 to March 1794, from January 1795 to March 1796 and from early 1801 to February 1803. When Sierra Leone became a crown colony in 1808 he was one of the commissioners of inquiry appointed by the British government and made several valuable reports.

On 18 April 1793 he was promoted first lieutenant and placed on half-pay on 13 December 1794. From 25 January 1799 to 7 November 1800 he was mathematics master at Christ's Hospital and was thus available in June 1799 to give evidence before a committee of the House of Lords considering a bill to limit the slave trade. During his third term in Sierra Leone he was offered the governorship of the Seychelles but was unable to accept. While in England from the summer of 1804 to 1808 he lived first at South Lambeth and later at Bledlow in Buckinghamshire, where he helped to train missionaries for the Church Missionary Society. About 1812 Wilberforce suggested that he might work for the anti-slavery cause in Antigua and in 1813 he took his only daughter to that island. There he was a correspondent of the Church Missionary Society and established schools for the children of slaves. His work seems to have been unpaid, but it was very successful and despite 'rheumatic affections' he travelled to Dominica and St Vincent. In 1826 through his friend Zachary Macaulay, Dawes, 'in circumstances of great pecuniary embarrassment', petitioned for extra remuneration for services as engineer and surveyor in New South Wales. Tench supported his petition but the Colonial Office refused to consider the belated claim.

Dawes died in Antigua in 1836. He had married first Miss Rutter, who died about 1800. They had a daughter, Judith, who married in Antigua, and two sons: William Rutter, who became an eminent astronomer, and Macaulay, who died in infancy. In Antigua Dawes married Grace Gilbert, who survived him.

Dawes was outstanding in ability and character. His contemporaries united in his praise, even Phillip's censure being qualified by acknowledgment of his usefulness. In New South Wales he was the friend of the more cultured members of the small community. Zachary Macaulay described him as 'one of the excellent of the earth', who 'with great sweetness of disposition and self command … possesses the merit of unbending principles'. The Sierra Leone Co. thankfully accepted his offers to return as governor at times when a strong hand was required. He was of the company of the humane and deeply religious reformers of his day. Many of his papers were destroyed after the death of one his grandsons and others were lost in the hurricane of 1871.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 1-2
  • R. M. Martin, History of the British Possessions in the Indian & Atlantic Oceans (Lond, 1837)
  • V. L. Oliver, The History of the Island of Antigua, vols 1-3 (Lond, 1894-99)
  • M. J. Holland (Viscountess Knutsford), Life and Letters of Zachary Macaulay (Lond, 1900)
  • A. Currer-Jones, William Dawes R.M. 1762-1836 (Torquay, 1930)
  • W. Tench, Sydney's First Four Years: Being a Reprint of a Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay and a Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, ed L. F. Fitzhardinge (Syd, 1961)
  • C. H. Fyfe, A History of Sierra Leone (Lond, 1962)
  • Proceedings of the Church Missionary Society for Africa and the East, vols 1-26 (Lond, 1801-26)
  • G. A. Wood, ‘Lieutenant William Dawes and Captain Watkin Tench’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 10, part 1, 1924, pp 1-24
  • ‘The Memorial of Lieutenant William Dawes, 1826’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 12, part 4, 1926, pp 227-30
  • H. Wright, ‘Further Note on Lieutenant William Dawes’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 13, part 1, 1927, pp 63-64
  • Board of Longitude papers (Greenwich Observatory)
  • P. S. Laurie, Essay on Dawes (Greenwich Observatory)
  • Dawes papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Christ's Hospital to P. Mander-Jones, 8 July 1963 (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Phyllis Mander-Jones, 'Dawes, William (1762–1836)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 15 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]


Portsmouth, Hampshire, England


1836 (aged ~ 74)
Antigua, Antigua and Barbuda

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