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Foster Fyans (1790–1870)

by P. L. Brown

This article was published:

Foster Fyans (1790-1870), by unknown artist

Foster Fyans (1790-1870), by unknown artist

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 26605

Foster Fyans (1790-1870), army captain, son of John and Margaret Fyans, was baptized on 5 September 1790 as an Irish Anglican at Clontarf, Dublin. Arms crown his silver and tombstone, but their origin is obscure. He attended school in County Louth, apparently lived with an uncle, and in 1811 marched into Portsmouth barracks as a raw ensign of the 67th Regiment. He joined the 2nd Battalion in beleaguered Cadiz, and had returned to England by May 1817, after hard service throughout the Peninsular war.

On 3 February 1818 Fyans left for the 1st Battalion in India. Campaigning until 1820, he then saw cholera take 500 soldiers, all the women and children, and nineteen officers, within six weeks, while he remained perfectly well. During the next few years he indulged a taste for sport and sociability, but his unit was ordered home. Of 1000 men at its first embarkation, only 130 survived to ground their arms in the Royal Square, Calcutta. All would have served on locally. 'One, a fine soldier, Patrick Stanton, wished much to remain. He actually cried, looked at his musket, saying: “I have carried you for the last twenty-six years. I received you in this square, and here I leave you. She never cost me a rupee, and she never was in the regimental armourer's hands” '. So noted Fyans, a sympathetic but strictly practical officer, who now grasped the first chance to buy his captaincy, but soon found that he also had no roots in Britain. In April 1827, four months after his arrival, he transferred to the 20th Regiment, 'for if a man is a soldier, go where he will, he meets friendship', and thus returned to India.

Early in 1833 Fyans joined the 4th Regiment at Sydney, from Mauritius, and was posted to Norfolk Island as captain of the guard. During his two years there, he took charge in a crisis, and handled a murderous mutiny which he had cause to believe was led by John Knatchbull. He thus became commandant at Moreton Bay. There he found tractable material, successfully balanced discipline and humanity, and was rewarded by the faultless behaviour of fourteen prisoners sent 400 miles (644 km) by sea to rescue a woman from the blacks. He blamed himself for saving Knatchbull's neck by accepting his depositions, but in 1857 declared: 'I am a great advocate for convicts … I say do the men every justice … but you must be strict with them'.

When the 4th Regiment was ordered to India, Fyans sold out, and in September 1837 sailed for Port Phillip as first police magistrate of Geelong, accompanied by his former batman as district constable, two subordinate constables, a clerk, and twelve convict retainers. After tramping from Melbourne, he established himself on the Moorabool River, at Fyansford, and at once, tackled the problem of siting a town. He persuaded both Robert Hoddle and Governor Sir George Gipps against Sir Richard Bourke's choice, Point Henry, and obtained machinery and prison labour from Sydney to make the present site possible by means of the Barwon breakwater. From being a largely self-regulating local watchdog, judging absconders and others, planning a jetty, suppressing the sly-grog traffic, he was ordered to Portland in 1839 to investigate reports that proved false, and thus with a few companions made the first recognized land journey from Geelong. This difficult tour through the bush, among hostile natives, was the prelude to his appointment in 1840 as commissioner of crown lands for the Portland Bay pastoral district, half the size of England. Supported by sixteen troopers, originally all transported for desertion in America, and later by the native police, Fyans acted firmly and fairly, seldom unwisely, over a great range of duty, regardless of risk and effort, while rival settlers spread everywhere, most dispossessing the blacks. He made the required returns of licensed runs and their occupants, whom he controlled, and duly completed the printed official Itinerary showing his daily employment, 3000 miles (4828 km) normally covered each half year, and from 36 to 260 squatting schedules handled in his office, summer and winter.

In January 1843 Rev. Andrew Love, Geelong's Presbyterian minister (there was no Anglican clergyman), married Fyans to Elizabeth Alice Cane. About this time, Fyans ran cattle of his own west of Lake Colac, and had troopers near Pirron Yallock, towards Lake Corangamite. But he sold his FF herd to William Robertson, formerly one of the Port Phillip Association, and in 1845 bought 158 acres (64 ha) at Geelong. On them, in 1846, beside the Barwon, he built a stone homestead, Bell-Bird Balyang. In 1849 he was reappointed police magistrate, and nominated mayor for the inauguration of the Geelong Town Council. The gold dislocation unsettled him. In 1853 he retired, and next January offered his estate for sale, 'being about to return to Europe'. Instead of selling, however, he became deputy-sheriff, and began 500 pages of instructive and entertaining recollections that were given to the State Library of Victoria by his New Zealand descendants in 1962.

His wife died in March 1858, aged 42, and in February 1859, died Peter, a pensioner horse, whose association with Fyans was probably longer. 'This horse travelled with me in the district by Itinerary 35,000 miles (56,327 km), never flunking in his duty, though often poorly fed, and out in all weathers'. Fyans's complementary staunchness was to him but the spirit sustaining a rearguard action. He died at Balyang on 23 May 1870, no longer the 'man upon whose iron frame years for a long time seemed to make no change', nor even the skilled wood-worker of his maturity, but universally respected. He left an unmarried sister, Letitia, his first Geelong housekeeper, who died in 1886, two daughters (Gertrude, who was Mrs P. C. Neill, and Florence, who became Mrs W. R. Cortis), and a son, Foster, who married and had at least one daughter. A sundial beside the approach to Prince's Bridge, Geelong, marks the approximate site of Bell-Bird Balyang house.

'A pretty place, but odd people', wrote a feminine caller in 1854. Fyans, older and more experienced than most of the Port Phillip settlers, could afford to be slightly eccentric. His surviving correspondence and relics show that he was well connected. There are stories of Balyang balls, of turbaned servants, of a habit of hiding gems in home-made furniture: it is at least certain that about seventy-five years after Fyans's death a desk from a lumber-room at Wooloomanata homestead, near Geelong, was sold for £7 and yielded unset diamonds then worth some £4000. Nevertheless, in spite of freaks of fancy, Fyans, perhaps even more than Dr Alexander Thomson, was 'Nature's soft nurse' to Geelong, although with the reputation of a martinet. Some of his remarks about the convict stations help to define his attitude: 'Five hundred convicts on this establishment [Moreton Bay] were well and usefully employed; there was none of that lurking feeling in the men, and I may add that the settlement appeared to me not unlike a free overgrown establishment … I was always of opinion that mitigation to the deserving tended to good, and feel not sorry to acknowledge that I was instrumental to mitigating to a great extent seventy convicts, and well pleased often I have been in meeting some of these men doing well in the world as respectable citizens, and only in one solitary instance I failed in my hope'.

In the matter of Knatchbull, Fyans felt there must be reproach 'for so gross an act, in setting this monster loose on society'. At Norfolk Island, 'which to the latest hour was a disgrace to England, … the true discipline of the penal settlement subverted', he had to replace slackness by strict control. But a model of a man-o'-war, which still exists, is thought to have been made for him by prisoners there. If not, it was made by convicts at Moreton Bay.

In the matter of his one disappointment, Fyans's amusing account of how Ben Cross, his servant from Norfolk Island, absconded from Geelong to Adelaide, played the gentleman, and finally disappeared, foreshadowed Boldrewood's Starlight.

Select Bibliography

  • T. F. Bride (ed), Letters from Victorian Pioneers (Melb, 1898)
  • P. L. Brown (ed), The Narrative of George Russell (Lond, 1935)
  • P. L. Brown (ed), Clyde Company Papers, vols 2-5 (Lond, 1952-63)
  • W. R. Brownhill, The History of Geelong and Corio Bay (Melb, 1955)
  • Select Committee on Penal Establishments, Report, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria) 1856-57
  • 'Our Illustrations', Illustrated Australian Magazine, vol 1, 1850, pp 290-93
  • 'The Residence of Captain Fyans: With an Illustration', Illustrated Australian Magazine, vol 2, 1851, pp 194-95
  • P. L. Brown, 'The Young James Riley', Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 31, no 4, May 1961, pp 171-88
  • Geelong Advertiser, 7 Jan 1854, 16 Mar, 13, 14 May 1858, 24, 26 May 1870, 15 Feb 1886
  • F. Fyans, Autobiography to 1843 (State Library of Victoria)
  • Fyans papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

P. L. Brown, 'Fyans, Foster (1790–1870)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 20 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

Foster Fyans (1790-1870), by unknown artist

Foster Fyans (1790-1870), by unknown artist

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 26605

Life Summary [details]




23 May, 1870 (aged ~ 80)
Geelong, Victoria, Australia

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