Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Dunn (1790–1861)

by P. H. Wessing

This article was published:

John Dunn (1790-1861), merchant and banker, was born in Scotland, the son of William Dunn, a weaver. At 16 he was apprenticed to a 'manufacturer of cottons and linens', and in 1811 his articles were endorsed. He spent some years in Hamburg before sailing in 1821 for Van Diemen's Land in Peter Degraves's ship, Hope, with his wife Catherine, née Colville, and their son John. After the Hope was nearly wrecked on the Goodwin Sands and condemned as 'unseaworthy and overloaded', the stranded passengers were transferred to the Heroine; they were joined by Dunn's wealthy mother-in-law and arrived at Hobart Town on 10 September 1822. With recommendations from the Colonial Office and goods worth £2296, Dunn was granted land on the South Esk River, which he soon sold. He opened a small shop on the corner of Elizabeth and Bathurst Streets in Hobart, and was reputed to issue 'small promissory notes on wretched paper which soon wore out, whereon he would refuse to honour them'.

In 1823 Dunn entered the field of banking, first as an original shareholder in the Bank of Van Diemen's Land and then in June 1828 as a foundation director of the Derwent Bank, which was largely backed by civil officers and created for their benefit. He caused some consternation when he withdrew after six months and sold his shares, condemning the bank for its unsound policy. Soon afterwards he abandoned his shop, and opened his own Commercial Bank in June 1829 on the site of Joseph Gellibrand's old Tasmanian Bank. Dunn ceased to be sole proprietor in 1832 when the Commercial Bank became a joint stock company to obtain a share of the colonial government's funds, but as its managing director and majority shareholder he held office until his retirement in 1857 through failing eyesight. Despite official disapproval of 'private' banks and hostile rumours about his sources of capital, he was very successful, especially in opening a network of branches throughout the colony. Although early scorned for his grasping methods, he became one of the wealthiest, most far-sighted and respected colonists of his generation. He died at Hobart on 20 January 1861. Originally Presbyterian, he had become Wesleyan in middle life and was buried at St George's Church of England, Battery Point, with the chief justice, Sir Valentine Fleming, as a pallbearer. He had acquired considerable city and rural property, and his estate was sworn at £116,000.

Of his sons, John (d.1860) became a member of the House of Commons, and James Alfred served as a member of the Tasmanian House of Assembly in 1856-61, the Legislative Council in 1867-73, and the Executive Council in 1869-72, until he resigned to follow his father as manager of the Commercial Bank. Three of Dunn's daughters married sons of Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Eardley-Wilmot.

Select Bibliography

  • correspondence file under Dunn (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

P. H. Wessing, 'Dunn, John (1790–1861)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 22 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]




20 January, 1861 (aged ~ 71)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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