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Phillip Parker King (1791–1856)

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Phillip Parker King (1791-1856), naval officer, hydrographer and company manager, was born on 13 December 1791 at Norfolk Island, the son of Philip Gidley King and his wife Anna Josepha, née Coombe. Young Phillip sailed for England with his parents in October 1796 in the Britannia. When his father left England in November 1799 to become governor of New South Wales, his sister Maria was left in the care of Mrs Samuel Enderby, and Phillip was placed under the tuition of Rev. S. Burford in Essex. In 1802 he was nominated to the Portsmouth Naval Academy. In November 1807 he entered the navy in the Diana. He became a midshipman and served for six years in the North Sea, the Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean, being promoted master's mate in 1810 and lieutenant in February 1814.

There is no record of King's early surveying experience but according to family tradition Matthew Flinders, a friend of the family, interested him in surveying and introduced him to Captain Thomas Hurd (1757-1823), hydrographer to the Admiralty 1808-23, who gave him careful training. In 1817 the British government decided that 'circumstances consequent upon the restoration of Peace … rendered it most important to explore, with as little delay as possible, that part of the coast of New Holland … not surveyed or examined by the late Captain Flinders', and appointed Lieutenant King to do this. Before he departed King married Harriet, daughter of Christopher Lethbridge, of Launceston, Cornwall. He arrived at Port Jackson in September 1817 in the Dick with instructions from the Colonial Office to Governor Lachlan Macquarie that he was to be provided with the most suitable vessel and a carefully chosen crew. The 84-ton cutter Mermaid was bought for £2000 and the expedition sailed from Sydney on 22 December with a complement of nineteen including Allan Cunningham, John Septimus Roe and the Aboriginal Bungaree. By way of King George Sound they reached North West Cape where the survey began.

King had been instructed by the Admiralty to discover whether there was any river 'likely to lead to an interior navigation into this great continent', and by the Colonial Office to collect information about climate, topography, fauna, timber, minerals, and the natives and the prospects of developing trade with them. From February until June 1818 the expedition surveyed the coast as far as Van Diemen's Gulf and had many meetings with Aboriginal people and Malay proas.

King and his party tried to establish amicable relations with the Aboriginal people they encountered. In the Pilbara region of Western Australia, in February 1818, he named two islands near the Burrup Peninsula as a result of the ‘friendly intercourse’ the explorers and Bungaree had enjoyed with the resident Yaburara people, even though these discussions had been ‘mutually unintelligible’.

In June the Mermaid visited Timor and then returned to Sydney the way she had come, arriving on 29 July. Next December and January King surveyed the recently discovered Macquarie Harbour in Van Diemen's Land and sailed in May 1819 for Torres Strait. He took John Oxley as far as the Hastings River, and went on to survey the coast between Cape Wessel and Admiralty Gulf. He returned to Sydney on 12 January 1820.

In Sydney Cove the Mermaid was careened, recoppered and caulked and then immersed for several days to destroy the cockroaches that infested the ship. However, both cockroaches and rats soon reappeared. Only two of the former crew volunteered to sail again and a new crew was formed, this time including a surgeon. The Mermaid sailed north on 14 June 1820. At Bowen she ran aground and suffered much damage. Surveys were made between Admiralty Gulf and Brunswick Sound on the north-west coast, but in September the ship began to leak badly. She was careened and ten days were spent repairing her. King then left the coast and sailed to Port Jackson where, after a narrow escape from wreck off Botany Bay, he arrived on 9 December.

King made his fourth and final survey in northern Australia in the Bathurst, 170 tons, which carried a complement of thirty-three, not counting a girl who had stowed away for love of the bos'n; in place of Bungaree King took another Aboriginal, Bundell. The Bathurst sailed on 26 May 1821 from Sydney by way of Torres Strait to the north-west coast. After a visit to Mauritius for rest and refreshment the Bathurst resumed the survey of the west coast. King arrived back in Sydney in April 1822. On these four voyages he made significant contributions to Australian exploration by establishing the insularity of several islands, by investigating the inner geography of many gulfs, and by giving the first report of Port Darwin.

When King reached Sydney he was ordered to return to England with his ship. On 27 July 1821 he had been promoted commander. In October 1822 he read a paper, 'On the maritime geography of Australia', to the newly formed Philosophical Society of Australia.

In April 1823 King reached England in poor health and thought of retiring to his Australian estates. In 1806 his father had granted him 660 acres (267 ha) on the South Creek, near Rooty Hill. Governor Macquarie had given him another 600 acres (243 ha). He had 850 cattle, 40 horses, 1800 sheep, 100 pigs, and some forty men employed on his property by July 1822 when he sought permission to buy additional land at Rooty Hill. Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane offered him instead a grant of 3000 acres (1214 ha). In 1824 King became a shareholder in the Australian Agricultural Co., newly established with a capital of £1,000,000 and a promise of 1,000,000 acres (404,690 ha) in New South Wales. He was appointed to the Australian Advisory Committee together with John Macarthur, his son James, his son-in-law Dr James Bowman, and his nephew Hannibal, who was King's brother-in-law. According to Francis Forbes this cosy little family group contrived in its first year to defraud the company of more than £11,000, but King could hardly have played an active part, for he did not return to Australia for eight years.

King was now recognized as one of Britain's leading hydrographers and in February 1824 was made a fellow of the Royal Society. In London in 1826 he published his two-volume Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia. Performed Between the Years 1818-1822, partly illustrated by his own sketches. In May 1826 he sailed in command of H.M.S. Adventure, with H.M.S. Beagle in company, to chart the coasts of Peru, Chile and Patagonia. This arduous task lasted until 1830. Among King's subordinates were John Stokes, John Wickham and Owen Stanley. There were narrow escapes from shipwreck and the two commanders were under great strain. In August 1828 the captain of the Beagle shot himself. When the expedition returned to England in October 1830 King, who had been promoted captain, was again in poor health. In 1832 he reached Sydney in the Brothers. In that year he had published Sailing Directions to the Coasts of Eastern and Western Patagonia, and the Straits of Magellan and the Sea-Coast of Tierra del Fuego. His journal of the South American survey is included in Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships, Adventure and Beagle … 3 vols (London, 1839), edited by Captain Robert Fitzroy, who succeeded to the command of the Beagle and in 1831-36 commanded the expedition.

In February 1829 King had been appointed to the New South Wales Legislative Council but, since he was absent from the colony, John Thomas Campbell acted in his place. When Campbell died Hannibal Macarthur was appointed. In September 1832 a vacancy occurred in the council when John Macarthur was declared a lunatic. Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke did not appoint King because his brother-in-law was already on the council. In May 1837 the death of Archibald Bell created another vacancy and Bourke recommended the appointment of Sir John Jamison. King objected and claimed the seat. Bourke reported to London that he had chosen Jamison, a man of 'liberal principles' in preference to one 'well known to be opposed to those measures both in Church and State, which it has been the aim of my administration under the guidance of H.M.'s Government to introduce'. King persisted and wrote to the Colonial Office, but without success. However, in February 1839 Governor Sir George Gipps appointed King to the council and reported that 'though connected by family ties with what is here called the anti-emancipist party', he was 'liberal in his politics, as well as prudent and moderate in his general bearing'. Soon afterwards King was appointed resident commissioner of the Australian Agricultural Co.; he immediately offered to resign from the council but was induced to retain his seat until October when Gipps was advised to accept the resignation.

King was commissioner of the Australian Agricultural Co. for ten eventful years in its history. They saw the transition from mainly convict to mainly free labour, drought and depression in 1838-45, the abandonment of the company's claim to a coal monopoly, and the initiation of a plan to dispose of much of the company's land to small settlers. King took charge on 8 April 1839 at a salary of £1000. The company was then employing about five hundred men, including four hundred convicts, on its pastoral properties and one hundred convicts in the coal-mines, and sold 655 bales of wool and 21,200 tons of coal. The demand for coal was rising but skilled labour was scarce. In 1840 the company imported a hundred Irish labourers, who proved unreliable, and forty Welsh miners, who proved troublesome. Between 1842 and 1845 sales of coal dropped from 35,000 tons to 23,000 tons. King often protested that coal was being mined elsewhere to the detriment of the company's monopoly. In 1845 James Brown was taken to court for opening a coal-mine near Maitland. Brown lost the case, but thereafter private coal-mines were not hindered and in 1850, with the company's consent, a proclamation cancelling the reservation of coal on all grants was issued. In 1842-45 the company, in common with other pastoralists, was in difficulty; King and his officers asked that their salaries be reduced but the directors would not agree. By 1845 the company had obtained power to alienate 500,000 acres (202,345 ha) of its land and by 1847 all the company's properties had been freed from all conditions hitherto imposed and it was enabled to sell land as it wished. In 1849 King went to London in the Hamlet to plan the settlement of farmers on land sold to them by the company, and the establishment of towns and villages. The reduction of the company's holdings led to the abolition of King's post. There was some indignation when it was discovered that the only officer who obtained promotion in the reorganization was King's son, Philip Gidley (1817-1904).

In October 1846 the secretary of state called for annual reports on each observatory in the various colonies. King was appointed to the commission of inquiry and found the instruments and books in good condition at the Parramatta observatory but the buildings very dilapidated. On the commission's advice Governor Sir Charles FitzRoy ordered that the instruments be packed and placed in the ordnance store to preserve them from damage. As pastoralist and manager King kept up his interest in exploration and drawing. In 1837-38 he made an expedition to the Murrumbidgee and recorded his observations. In December 1838 and January 1839 he visited New Zealand and Norfolk Island in the Pelorus. His field books of surveys in the neighbourhoods of Parramatta, Newcastle and elsewhere in 1843-55 occupy eight volumes. In 1843 he made a survey of Port Stephens. He published articles in the Nautical Magazine and the Zoological Journal and printed some of his papers on a small private press. In 1844 Gipps placed King's name eighth in the list of nineteen persons considered eligible for a local order of merit.

King was seriously ill in November 1854. In 1855 he was promoted rear admiral on the retired list. On the evening of 26 February 1856 he dined on board the Juno as the guest of Captain S. G. Fremantle. He was cheerful, but abstemious because of his poor health. He was put ashore and walked to his home in North Sydney, where he collapsed at the gate in an apoplectic fit from which he did not recover. His widow died at Ashfield, Sydney, on 19 December 1874. Of their eight children, the eldest, Philip Gidley, became stock manager of the Australian Agricultural Co. in 1851; the fourth Rev. Robert Lethbridge (1823-1897) was principal of Moore Theological College in 1868-78.

King was the first and for years the only Australian-born to attain eminence in the world outside the Australian colonies. In 1836 Charles Darwin described him as 'my beau ideal of a captain', but later commented that his journal abounded with 'Natural History of a very trashy nature'. G. C. Ingleton has described King as 'the greatest of the early Australian marine surveyors' and has written that his charts 'although not numerous, were of a quality not attained by any previous navigator in the Pacific'.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 9-11, 14, 16, 18-20, 22-26, series 3, vols 2-6, series 4, vol 1
  • J. Gregson, The Australian Agricultural Company 1824-1875 (Syd, 1907)
  • G. C. Ingleton, Charting a Continent (Syd, 1944)
  • P. G. King letter book, 1797-1806 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • King family papers, 1756-1903 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • P. P. King, Narrative Of A Survey Of The Intertropical And Western Coasts Of Australia, Performed Between The Years 1818 And 1822, John Murray, London, 1826, pp. 88-89.

Additional Resources

Citation details

'King, Phillip Parker (1791–1856)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Phillip Parker King, n.d.

Phillip Parker King, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 231077

Life Summary [details]


13 December, 1791
Norfolk Island, Australia


26 February, 1856 (aged 64)
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

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