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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Graves, John Woodcock (1795–1886)

by A. W. Campbell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

John Woodcock Graves (1795-1886), by unknown photographer

John Woodcock Graves (1795-1886), by unknown photographer

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125645390

John Woodcock Graves (1795-1886), composer, was born on 9 February 1795 at Wigton, Cumberland, England, son of Joseph Graves, plumber, glazier and ironmonger, and his wife Ann, née Matthews. His father died in 1803 leaving nothing but debts, and John had little schooling. At 14 in Cockermouth he was apprenticed to his uncle George, painter of coach signs. John learned to use brush and pen but attributed his best education to an old bachelor, Joseph Falder: 'He fixed in me a love of truth and bent my purpose to pursue it'. Fond of drawing and painting, Graves at one time hoped to study art; later he painted several portraits in oils. About 1815 he completed his apprenticeship, left Cockermouth and acquired interests in a carding mill at Caldbeck. Later he became interested in coal-mining in West Scotland and neglected the woollen mill. His connexion with it ended in blows and a lawsuit which he lost. At Caldbeck he had met the farmer, horse-dealer and huntsman, John Peel (1776-1854), with whom he spent much time. One evening in 1824 Graves wrote impromptu the five verses 'D'ye ken John Peel?' and sang them to the old Cumberland rant of 'Bonnie Annie'. The song quickly became famous and as its author Graves is best remembered. After Peel's death he wrote 'Monody on John Peel' and 'At the Grave of John Peel'.

In 1834 Graves left for Van Diemen's Land in the Strathfieldsay with his wife and six children as assisted immigrants and some £10 in cash. He tried various occupations, was granted 640 acres (259 ha) on Bruny Island and in September 1835 applied for the post of keeper of the proposed lighthouse on South Bruny. In May 1836 he advertised himself as willing to repair, paint and varnish carriages, paint portraits and heraldic devices and undertake japanning, plumbing and glazing. In 1837 he sought an official appointment to report on coal-mines at Port Arthur; in May he asked the lieutenant-governor for help in opening a slate quarry at Davey River and in June for employment as a lithographer. In 1842, after detention at the government asylum in New Norfolk for apparent insanity, he went to New Zealand where he studied flax-growing, invented a machine to improve the preparation of flax and attempted to evolve a better weaving loom. He returned to Hobart Town about 1845. Erratic and eccentric, he lived on Satellite Island with his son Joseph, with whom he carried on 'a very fierce war'. In 1856 he was described as 'a most violent and dangerous person and certainly unfitted to be at large'.

Graves married twice. His first wife, Jane Atkinson of Rosley, Cumberland, died within a year of marriage. Four years later he married Abigail Porthouse. Of their eight children, the eldest, John Woodcock, became a successful lawyer in Tasmania, and Joseph owned large timber mills at Southport. For some years Graves lived with John at Caldew in Cavell Street, West Hobart, but Joseph was his mainstay in later life. Graves died at Hobart on 17 August 1886 and was buried in the Queenborough cemetery. In 1958 a memorial was erected in St David's Park.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Machell, John Peel (Lond, 1926)
  • Hobart Town Courier, 30 Jan 1835, 20, 27 May 1836
  • correspondence file under Graves (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

A. W. Campbell, 'Graves, John Woodcock (1795–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 15 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

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