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Jonathan Griffiths (1773–1839)

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Jonathan Griffiths (1773-1839), shipowner and builder, was born in England in 1773, son of Thomas Griffiths and his wife Sarah, née Withers. At 15 he was convicted of grand larceny at the Gloucester Assizes on 16 July 1788 and sentenced to be transported for seven years. He arrived at Port Jackson in the Scarborough in June 1790, and in August was transferred to Norfolk Island, where he became associated with Eleanor McDonald, who had been convicted at Dublin in 1790 and sentenced to transportation for seven years. He returned to Sydney in 1795 and next year was joined by Eleanor. In the muster of 1806 they were credited with 100 acres (40 ha) at Richmond and seven children.

An unlikely family legend has Griffiths as a commissioned officer in the Victory at Trafalgar, but by 1804 he was building boats and his Speedy, 17 tons, had carried two cargoes of grain from the Hawkesbury to Sydney and one from Newcastle with coals. In 1810 he completed the Elizabeth and Mary, 80 tons, and in 1812 sold her to Joseph Underwood for sealing at Macquarie Island. In 1816 he launched the Nancy, 14 tons, for the Hawkesbury-Sydney trade. In September a military detachment was sent in his brig Rosetta, 92 tons, in pursuit of the brig Trial which had been seized by 'a banditti of villains' at Port Jackson. For this successful service his reward was £200 and a written authority from Governor Lachlan Macquarie to apprehend runaway convicts. In 1818 Griffiths sent the whale-boat of the Rosetta to recapture the government cutter which had been taken by convicts at Port Dalrymple, and as a reward was allowed remission of duty on a cask of spirits. On return to Sydney the Rosetta was bought for £1200 by the government for the service of settlements in Van Diemen's Land and renamed the Prince Leopold. Griffiths continued his boatbuilding and in the season sent his sealing crews as far afield as Kangaroo Island and New Zealand. On 12 June 1824 at Sydney he heard that John Lawrie had 'borrowed' a small boat and sailed with it in the Fame for Newcastle with other runaway debtors and £5000 in forged Treasury bills. Next day Griffiths sailed for Port Dalrymple in the Glory, found the Fame at Twofold Bay, took off Lawrie and his passengers and cargo, and towed the boat to Launceston where she was handed over to the government. Lawrie was sent to Sydney and sentenced to transportation for seven years, but he sued Griffiths in the Tasmanian Supreme Court for trespass and false imprisonment and won a verdict of £740. After long and costly attempts to have an appeal heard in Sydney, Griffiths petitioned Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur, who recommended him to the Colonial Office for relief.

In 1822 Griffiths took two of his sons to Launceston, where he had paid £690 to a builder, James Lightfoot, for 150 acres (61 ha) in three town lots and a promise of 1500 acres (607 ha) when the barracks and hospital were completed. Griffiths and his sons camped on one of these town lots, cleared and ploughed a few acres and planted a crop. They had been promised a 200-acre (81 ha) grant by Governor Macquarie and located it at Norfolk Plains. Here by 1825 the sons had built a house and cultivated sixty-five acres (26 ha) , but claimed to have insufficient pasturage for their 800 sheep, and were granted an additional 150 acres (61 ha). When these grants came to be measured, surveyors found no room for them; the house and farm buildings were auctioned and the sheep were left to run wild. In 1827 Griffiths received the land at Green Point on the Tamar he had been promised by Lightfoot and by 1830 he had acquired some 7000 acres (2833 ha) around near-by Freshwater Point. Soon afterwards he began to build the first bridge over the North Esk at Launceston; it was finished in three years and lasted until 1899. With his sons he also built a new wharf at Launceston, using timber from Freshwater Point.

After Eleanor's death, aged 61, at Richmond and burial 'by the Catholics' in the Anglican cemetery at Windsor on 1 March 1831, Griffiths married Ann Grant, the widow of John Smith, at St John's Church of England, Launceston, on 3 August 1834. Within six months she eloped from his house 'without the slightest provocation'. Griffiths's title to Lightfoot's land was invalidated in 1839 and he went to Port Fairy where he died in November. He had at least nine children.

His second son, John Griffiths (1801-1881), shipowner and builder, was born on 23 August 1801 at Richmond. He shared in his father's enterprises and in his zest for work. In 1819 John built the Glory and, after sealing and kangaroo shooting on the islands of Bass Strait, took 1000 skins to Launceston. By 1823 he had begun to cut and draw timber for a house, wharf and store on the swampy waterfront at Launceston. In 1827 he built the Resolution for the Port Dalrymple-Sydney trade, and the Henry for sealing. In 1830 he picked up his first whaling stores in Sydney, and took them to Twofold Bay. After returning to Sydney with whale oil he made a sealing voyage. Next year he dropped William Dutton with a gang at Portland Bay, went to Sydney in the Henry for a complete set of whaling gear, sent her to the west coast of Tasmania for whales, and then collected oil and skins from his gangs at Portland, Kangaroo Island, Twofold Bay and other places. In the off-seasons he helped his father and also launched the Elizabeth, 51 tons, and laid the keel of a 200-ton brig intended to carry local produce to London. In 1835 he launched the William, 150 tons, and began to build warehouses on the new wharf. As Launceston grew in importance he added a steam flour-mill and opened a shipping agency in conjunction with Michael Connolly. Griffiths continued his trading, visited his sealers and whalers each season and in 1833 set up whaling works at Portland under Dutton. In 1835 Griffiths moved his fishery to Port Fairy, where in partnership with Connolly he imported sheep and cattle, added to his fleet and sent his ships far afield in search of seals and whales. In 1839 his father helped him to build The Brothers which was sent to Melbourne under Captain Paddy Grant, who sold her for £90 and levanted with the proceeds.

In 1842 Griffiths was reputed to have lost £70,000. He moved with his family to Port Fairy and had to sell 10,000 sheep, 2500 cattle, the whaling station and most of his ships at depression prices, but he soon recovered. By April 1843 he was building a flour-mill at Port Fairy. In 1844 he took over the liabilities of Archer, Gilles & Co. at Launceston, but soon sold his interest to Henry Reed. He then contracted to build for James Atkinson a breakwater at Port Fairy between Griffiths and Rabbit Islands for £5000 and a 50-year lease of the islands. This work was almost finished in 1847 when a storm washed it away. Griffiths suffered heavy loss and returned with his family to Launceston. He reopened his shipyard and in 1850 launched the barque Sydney Griffiths, 400 tons, which carried the first cargo of wool direct from Port Fairy to London. With his son-in-law, John Scott, he built the Tamar brewery in 1851, and later launched the Bitter Beer in which two of his sons lost their lives. In 1863 he moved to Port Sorell where among other ships he built the brigantine Leslie, the ketch Linton and the schooner Rubicon. At Formby on the River Mersey he launched the Eveline, named after his sister, in 1873 and the J. L. Griffiths in 1876. He died in Launceston on 2 January 1881 in his eightieth year. He had married twice and had at least nine children.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 3, vols 2, 6
  • W. Earle, Port Fairy (Port Fairy, 1896)
  • N. F. Learmonth, The Portland Bay Settlement: Being the History of Portland, Victoria from 1800-1851 (Melb, 1934)
  • L. S. Bethell, The Story of Port Dalrymple (Hob, 1957)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27 May 1890
  • CSO 1/259/6138, 1/359/8412, 5/224/5706 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • manuscript catalogue under Jonathan Griffiths (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

'Griffiths, Jonathan (1773–1839)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 23 May 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]


14 March, 1773
Stone, Gloucestershire, England


November, 1839 (aged 66)
Port Fairy, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Passenger Ship
Key Events
Convict Record

Crime: theft
Sentence: 7 years