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John Pascoe Fawkner (1792–1869)

by Hugh Anderson

This article was published:

John Pascoe Fawkner (1792-1869), by William Strutt

John Pascoe Fawkner (1792-1869), by William Strutt

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2268302

John Pascoe Fawkner (1792-1869), pioneer, was born on 20 October 1792 at Cripplegate, London, the son of John Fawkner, a metal refiner, and Hannah, née Pascoe. His father was convicted of receiving stolen goods and in 1801 was sentenced to fourteen years transportation. With his mother and younger sister, Elizabeth, John accompanied his father to the new settlement to be formed in Bass Strait. They joined H.M.S. Calcutta at Portsmouth and sailed on 29 April 1803 in company with the Ocean, carrying a number of free settlers and stores.

After Port Phillip was abandoned and the convicts and settlers were moved to Van Diemen's Land, the Fawkners lived in a primitive hut at the new settlement on Sullivan's Cove, suffering great hardship and continuing shortages of food. During one period when scurvy was rife, young Fawkner lost the use of his right leg for some months.

However, by 1806 the family held a 50-acre (20 ha) land grant some seven miles (11 km) from Hobart Town, and John, as the shepherd boy, often lived alone for weeks at a time in a sod hut while his sister kept house for their father in the town. In August of that year Hannah Fawkner sailed for England to claim a legacy and did not return to Hobart until June 1809. Nevertheless the family prospered. The father was recorded as owning several cows and sheep, and within a year had two acres (0.8 ha) under wheat. From 5 acres (2 ha) of land, the Fawkners reaped 150 bushels of wheat in 1808, and their livestock soon increased to 66 sheep and 72 goats. When Governor Lachlan Macquarie visited the island in 1811, John was granted 50 acres (20 ha) adjoining his father's farm.

The year 1814 was a turning point in Fawkner's career. Some time before, he had taken charge of the shop and house of his father in Macquarie Street and become a baker. Among his associates were several convicts and with them he devised a plan to escape, supposedly to South America. Fawkner supplied a whale-boat and tools to build a sea-going vessel, and entrusted a blacksmith with the task of making the nails and ironwork. Eight men, including Fawkner, stole away to Recherche Bay and began felling trees and sawing them into planks. When the lugger was completed and ready for sea, Fawkner was put ashore to make his way secretly to his farm.

The Van Diemen's Land Gazette, 21 May 1814, listed John Fawkner as aiding and abetting the escape of seven prisoners. At the same time the lugger returned to Hobart because of leaks in the wooden water tanks, was sighted near the entrance to the Derwent by the government schooner, and because of her 'singular appearance' was taken in charge. Fawkner and Santos, who was apparently the convicts' leader, were tried before three magistrates in August and each sentenced to 500 lashes and three years labour. Fawkner was later sent to Newcastle by Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Davey as one who had been 'committing some atrocious Robberies and Depredations'. He sailed from Port Dalrymple in the Kangaroo on 26 January 1815, and worked at cedar cutting on the Hunter River.

After he was freed in 1816 Fawkner returned to Hobart and took up the bakery again. He also sold liquor without the benefit of licence and carried firewood and sawn timber. He claimed to have made £1000 within seventeen months of his return to Tasmania. In 1817, however, Fawkner began another period of personal and financial difficulty that culminated in his moving north to Launceston. First, he was fined for selling shortweight loaves of bread and using illegal weights. Next he lost £160 on a contract to supply soldiers with bread by using his own wheat and accepting Commissary Patrick Hogan's store receipts for the cost. Hogan was court-martialled for misapplication of public funds. In July 1819, for robbing His Majesty's store, Fawkner's father and four others received 200 lashes apiece and three years at Newcastle, while the son was bound over for his part in the robbery.

In the company of Eliza Cobb, Fawkner moved to Launceston to begin afresh as a builder and sawyer. They were married on 5 December 1822. Although he claimed in later years that he had chosen his wife from an immigrant ship, Eliza actually arrived late in 1818, aged 17, as a convict whose crime was stealing a baby. Beside building, Fawkner also followed his old trade of baker. In 1824 he built a two-storied brick house of thirteen rooms at a total cost of £2500 and attempted to open this as an hotel. A licence was refused on the first application as his wife was still a Crown prisoner, but it was granted a few months later. It was not long before the Cornwall Hotel, as he named his premises, enabled Fawkner to improve his financial position and clear the debts incurred, particularly those to Maria Lord. However, renewal of the licence was refused in 1829 because Fawkner was considered 'not a proper person to keep an hotel', although many of the leading settlers and merchants testified to the orderliness of the house. The licence was restored in September 1830.

Fawkner possessed, as James Bonwick stated, 'a native energy that made him rise superior to all assaults, endure all sneers, quail at no difficulty, and that thrust him ever foremost in the strife, happy in the war of words and the clash of tongues'. He had engaged in a strenuous programme of self-education and to his many activities he added that of 'bush lawyer' appearing in the lower courts for a minimum fee of 6s. He also managed a horticultural nursery and conducted a coaching service, independent in both name and nature, between Launceston and Longford. In 1828 he started the Launceston Advertiser, acting as editor for two years, and using the paper as 'the active and avowed friend of the emancipist class in Van Diemen's Land, dealing heavy and repeated blows upon officialdom and the reputed respectable class in the island'. He attacked capital punishment in a colony that valued 'a man's life at less than a sheep', and made forceful remarks on cruelty to assigned servants.

Fawkner was interested in the reports of the southern coast of the mainland made by sealers, whalers, and bark cutters. In April 1835 he sought a vessel to take an expedition to Western Port. Although a 55-ton schooner was acquired and renamed Enterprise, several contracted voyages had to be completed before it changed hands. The day Rebecca, hired by John Batman, anchored off Indented Head, Fawkner was bound over to appear at the next General Sessions for having assaulted William Bransgrove, and was thus prevented from leaving the colony for two months.

Despairing of receiving the Enterprise, Fawkner engaged the Dolphin and stores were loaded by 13 July. Years later, George Evans, one of the party, remembered the Hentys' refusal to allow their chartered ship to deviate from its course for Portland Bay as the reason why the members of Fawkner's party were ordered to quit the Dolphin. Two days later Enterprise tied up at Launceston wharf, and after two more days of hurried loading slipped its moorings for George Town. Early next morning the vessel was boarded by the sheriff's representative to present a restraining order on Fawkner because of debt. Fawkner returned to Launceston to make an adjustment of claims, but was told he must pay in full or remain. As he had some horses he wished to see loaded, Fawkner entered into a bond to return to the town on completing this business, but did not confide in his captain, John Lancey, until the Enterprise was at sea, while still within sight of George Town. After a long argument it was decided that Fawkner should return to port pleading violent sea sickness to deceive the remainder of the expedition.

Having visited Western Port, the expedition agreed to try Port Phillip Bay, and the Enterprise anchored in the southern part of the bay on Sunday, 16 August 1835. A search was made along the southern shore to the north until, four days later, well-grassed land was discovered some distance up the eastern branch of the Freshwater River. 'Here we made up our minds to settle and share the land in the most satisfactory manner to all parties', wrote John Lancey. A camp was made at the place where the Yarra River flowed over a low rock ledge.

Fawkner himself landed at Hobson's Bay in October 1835 and at once began to lay the foundations of a fortune that grew to £20,000 in his first four years on the mainland. In January 1838 he added to his trade of hotel-keeping that of newspaper proprietor. His Melbourne Advertiser was handwritten on four pages of foolscap for nine numbers until a press and type arrived from Tasmania, and it was then printed weekly until suppressed because Fawkner had no licence. In February 1839, with a licence, he began the Port Phillip Patriot and Melbourne Advertiser; this later became a daily, and he ran it in conjunction with a bookselling and stationery business. In 1839 Fawkner also added to his already considerable land holdings a 780-acre (316 ha) property known as Pascoe Vale.

Because of a complex of causes, including land and livestock speculation, a crazy financial structure with bank loans on little security, and a three-year drought, prices plummeted and land revenue fell by three-quarters in 1842. Although not a speculator himself, Fawkner was forced to sell many of his properties in an attempt to weather the worst of the depression. A fortunate and substantial settlement in favour of his wife enabled him to retain a large portion of the Pascoe Vale estate, and by signing over the Patriot to his father he kept control of the newspaper. His financial affairs were further complicated by his part in guaranteeing a bond of W. Rucker to the Union Bank for £10,000. Fawkner was declared insolvent and filed his schedule in March 1845, listing liabilities of £8898 and assets of £3184. He claimed at the time to have been stripped of £12,000 in cash and ten houses, but such was his soundness that within a year he had not only paid his debts in full but had £1000 to his bank credit.

As a man of property and influence, Fawkner took an active and leading part in the political and social struggles of the time. First, as one of seven market commissioners and, when this work was taken over by the municipality, as a councillor, Fawkner held office for many years. He represented Talbot in the first Legislative Council in 1851, and on the introduction of responsible government was returned for the Central Province of Victoria holding the seat until his death. During his eighteen years in the Legislative Council Fawkner spoke regularly and often (one member said he made the same speech for fifteen years) on all matters before the House, but was best known for his 'monomania' on squatters and the disposal of land. Markedly liberal in his views, Fawkner considered that squatters had obtained their rights by a system of robbery and that parliament enacted class legislation aimed at protecting the 700 privileged sheep-farmers in Victoria and grinding 'the bulk of the people to the very dust'. Fawkner was referred to as 'the tribune of the people' and was perhaps the best, and certainly the most out-spoken, advocate of a strong class of yeomen farmers. One of his published pamphlets, printed in 1854, was Squatting Orders … Orders in Council … Locking Up the Lands of the Colony in the Hands of a Small Minority, Giving Them, Without Any Real Reason, the Right to Buy the Whole or Any Part of the Sixty Million Acres of This Fine Colony, at Their Own Price …

After the opening of the goldfields of Victoria in 1851, Fawkner devoted much of his time to the legislative aspects of gold-mining problems. He sat on some ninety-six select committees between 1852 and 1869, the most far-reaching in its effect being the Commission of Inquiry into the goldfields in 1854-55. He was alarmed by the Chinese and American immigrants, and saw both groups as potential sources of disorder. The presence of the Chinese might lead to civil war, he considered; he would have liked to expel them all. In September 1855 he wrote of 'wild Americans—who know no law but the Bowie Knife, the Rifle or Lynch practice'.

With advancing years Fawkner's health declined but he continued to attend every session, wearing always a velvet smoking cap and wrapped in an old-fashioned cloak. He had grown to be regarded as an institution, and became more conservative in his views. In his last parliamentary sessions he opposed manhood suffrage, the secret ballot, and payment for members, yet retained very advanced notions on the rights of married women and deserted wives, and the divorce laws. He disliked sectarian rivalry and was bitterly critical of Roman Catholic leaders such as (Sir) John O'Shanassy, yet at the same time he opposed moves for Anglican supremacy. Asthma made his voice weak and husky, and he admitted at the end that age and infirmity weighed heavily upon him, but while there was work to be done, he wanted to share in it. Though cantankerous and dogmatic, he was a selfless patriot, honest and, in his way, idealistic. His last words to parliament declared his faith: 'I believe the Colony requires new blood, and that, unless we get more working men here, the work of improvement must stand still, if it does not retrograde'.

In his middle years he had been spoken of as 'half-froth, half-venom', and in many ways was not a very pleasant character, but behind his almost violent aggressiveness lay the pursuit of worthy motives, and a freedom from immorality and corruption that was sufficiently rare in that generation to inspire the confidence of his less fortunate fellows. His triumph over heredity and early experiences and his struggles with autocracy, convictism and corruption, demonstrated the strength of his purpose, and his rehabilitation and later career were remarkable. Fawkner died on 4 September 1869 at his home in Smith Street, Collingwood, the grand old man of contemporary Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Anderson, Out of the Shadow: The Career of John Pascoe Fawkner (Melb, 1962)
  • Fawkner papers (State Library of Victoria and State Library of New South Wales and National Library of Australia and Archives Office of Tasmania).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Hugh Anderson, 'Fawkner, John Pascoe (1792–1869)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 16 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

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