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Matthew Curling Friend (1792–1871)

by Phillip K. Cowie

This article was published:

Matthew Curling Friend (1792-1871), port officer, was born on 21 January 1792, a son of John Friend, of Ramsgate, England, and Mary, second daughter of William Curling, of the Isle of Thanet, where both families had lived for generations. Friend entered the navy in July 1806 as a first-class volunteer, and served on various ships on the African coast, in the West Indies, off Boulogne and Cherbourg, and in the East Indian and China waters. He was promoted lieutenant in February 1815. Next June he was appointed to the Bucephalus which escorted Napoleon to St Helena. In August 1816 he left the navy on half-pay. In 1851 he was transferred to the reserved list of lieutenants, and in 1861 to the list of retired commanders.

After the Napoleonic wars he turned to scientific interests, and in 1817 constructed a meridian line in the Clock House of Ramsgate harbour. On 16 March 1820, certified as 'a gentleman of great acquirements, particularly in nautical and practical astronomy' he was elected F.R.S. In 1822 he entered Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge; in 1827 he received the gold medal of the Medico-Botanical Society of London, and later, a diploma from the Royal Statistical Society of France.

In April 1830, as master of the Wanstead, he arrived in Hobart Town with his wife and his brothers Daniel, Charles and George. He decided to stay and applied for a grant of land, but having no sanction from the Admiralty to settle, he left for England in May. Daniel and George remained, perhaps as a form of surety, for the Land Board had recommended him for a maximum grant provided he returned by December 1831. By his belated return in July 1832 as master of the Norval with his wife and her mother, he almost forfeited his grant. In September 1832 he became port officer at Launceston, where he had built Newnham on a beautiful 250-acre (101 ha) block.

The appointment marked the beginning of a long feud with William Goodwin, his rival for the position. Friend's first duties were to restore the Windmill Hill flagstaff and to build a 'sea-mark or lighthouse' at the entrance of the Tamar. In 1834, after the wreck of the Duke of Kent in the Tamar, a public meeting discussed the condition of the river. Friend showed a lively interest but remained uncommitted when pressed for a statement on government policy. The outcome was Friend's appointment to George Town as landing waiter, police magistrate and port officer. Soon after this move, Friend's work of installing a line of semaphore from George Town (Mount George) to Launceston (Windmill Hill) was completed. However, his enemies still charged him with incompetence. In 1838, after the loss of the Honduras in the Tamar, the attacks became more persistent, for Goodwin was now editor and proprietor of the Cornwall Chronicle. So bitter was his attack of 6 January 1838 that Sir John Franklin, whose friendship Friend had won, ordered an inquiry into Goodwin's charges that Friend was inefficient, made private use of government boats and crews, and showed ignorance and laxity of conduct. Friend decided to bring a libel action against Goodwin and persuaded Franklin to postpone the inquiry until after the hearing. The Chronicle became more insistent, declaring Friend responsible for the Honduras wreck. The Launceston Advertiser and householders (with one unnamed exception) in the George Town and neighbouring districts rallied to Friend's defence.

In April 1838 the first stage of the libel action was heard. Goodwin was found guilty by the jury but proceedings were deferred until October. In June the official inquiry recommended the separation of Friend's positions. Although the affair was sub judice, Goodwin now assailed Friend's family. The mental strain of the unrelenting attack on Friend hastened his wife's death at George Town on 27 September 1838. From his pulpit at St John's, Launceston, Rev. Dr William Browne accused Goodwin of murder and so whipped up public excitement that, when the trial reopened on 11 October, the proceedings had to be postponed. Although pledged to temporary silence towards Friend, Goodwin turned his full blast on Browne. The trial was concluded in April 1839, Friend winning £400 damages against Goodwin.

In 1838, encouraged by Lady Jane Franklin, Friend planned a regatta, the first of many on the Tamar. But his varied interests extended beyond his sphere of duty. Soon after settling in Launceston he was elected vice-president of the Cornwall Auxiliary Bible Society, and later chairman of the Launceston Sunday school several times. Though an Anglican and active in building a church and rectory at George Town, he helped Rev. Charles Price and his Independent church, and signed a petition for a Presbyterian church in the West Tamar, later erected at Sidmouth. He opposed transportation and was keenly interested in George Augustus Robinson's work with the Aboriginals. He was an original member of the Launceston Horticultural Society in 1838 and in 1840 he became a shareholder and member of the local committee of the Hobart Town, Launceston and Port Phillip Steam Ship Co. However, it was for his public lectures on astronomy in the 1830s in the Launceston Court House and in the 1840s at the newly-formed Mechanics' Institute that he was best remembered and still praised after fifty years.

Ill health and oncoming blindness forced him to resign. He returned to England in 1852, farewelled by merchants and citizens appreciative of his unfailing public duty. Although forced to spend his last years in seclusion, he still retained his devotion to nautical science. He was the inventor of the 'Pelorus', an instrument for measuring the local magnetism in iron ships, and of the 'indicator Compass'. He died at Clevedon, Somerset, on 21 October 1871.

He married first, in 1826, Mary Anne, daughter of John Ford, of Hampstead, and second, at Kelso, West Tamar, in 1840, Helen Sarah Burrington, second daughter of William Carter of Essex, and widow of Lieutenant Thomas Cooke Dyball, R.N.

Select Bibliography

  • W. R. O'Byrne, A Naval Biographical Dictionary (Lond, 1849)
  • H. Button, Flotsam and Jetsam (Launceston, 1909)
  • Independent (Launceston), 22 June 1833
  • Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston), 14 Oct 1837, 6 Jan, 24, 31 Mar, 30 June, 6 Oct 1838, 20 Apr 1839, 28 Jan, 24 Mar 1852
  • Launceston Advertiser, 1 Feb, 1, 8, 22 Mar 1838
  • Examiner (Launceston), 5 Apr 1856.

Citation details

Phillip K. Cowie, 'Friend, Matthew Curling (1792–1871)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 16 April 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]


21 January, 1792


21 October, 1871 (aged 79)
Clevedon, Somerset, England

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