Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Gilchrist (1803–1866)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

John Gilchrist (1803-1866), merchant, was born on 26 December 1803 at Falkirk, Scotland, the son of William Gilchrist (d.1814) and his wife Isabella, née Wilson. He arrived in Sydney in the Columbia in 1828 and soon became associated with Archibald Mosman in the whaling trade. In 1835 he began business as a general merchant and mercantile agent in Lower George Street. In October 1838 he was joined by John Alexander who contributed three-sevenths of the capital of the partnership which traded as Gilchrist & Alexander. In the 1840s the firm introduced large numbers of Scottish immigrants into the colony; in 1845 Gilchrist & Alexander loaded more ships on agency to London than any other Sydney firm. In July 1852 his nephew, John Watt, became a partner and the business was known as Gilchrist, Alexander & Co. Alexander retired in 1853 and a new partnership with a capital of £21,000 was entered into on 1 January 1854 when Gilchrist and Watt were joined by a Melbourne businessman, Thomas Andrew; Gilchrist contributed three-sevenths of the capital and the others two-sevenths each. The firm trading as Gilchrist, Watt & Co. later became the large shipping firm of Gilchrist, Watt & Sanderson Pty. Ltd. of O'Connell Street, Sydney.

Gilchrist was one of the most active and prominent businessmen of his day and was associated with the directorship of many public companies, mainly banking, insurance and shipping ventures. He was a director of the Union Bank of Australia in 1843 and later a member of the London board, one of the largest shareholders and a working director of the Bank of Australia, and a founder and member of the first board of directors of the Sydney Exchange Co. in 1851. Unlike many other businessmen of the time, Gilchrist does not appear to have invested directly in land, his interest in pastoral pursuits being mainly confined to advancing money to graziers who, in turn, bought their stores and had their wool shipped through his firm. Because of his knowledge of business and shipping, his opinions were often sought by select committees of the legislature on such matters as immigration.

Apart from being appointed a magistrate in 1844, he took little interest or active part in public affairs, and even refused nomination for the City Council elections because be was too busy with his commercial concerns. He led a quiet, retired life, neither he nor his wife, according to J. B. Watt, 'being at all fond of gaiety'. During most of his life in Sydney he lived at Miller's Point like many others in the shipping trade. In 1846-47 he built the large mansion Greenknowe, Darlinghurst (Potts Point), and lived there until his return to England in 1854.

He visited Britain in 1841-42 and in Edinburgh on 14 June 1842 married Helen Warden Andrew, by whom he had five sons and two daughters. The eldest son, William Oswald (1843-1920), followed his father in the firm and married Clara Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Sir Edward Knox. John Gilchrist died at his residence 48 Porchester Terrace, Bayswater, London, on 14 November 1866; his wife died at Woollahra, Sydney, on 18 December 1873.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 22-24
  • F. Low, City of Sydney Directory for 1844-45 (Syd, 1845)
  • E. A. S. Watt, A Few Records of the Life of John Brown Watt (Syd, no date)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1847, pp 321-22.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Gilchrist, John (1803–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 21 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


26 December, 1803
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland


14 November, 1866 (aged 62)
London, Middlesex, England

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