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Robert (Bobby) Knopwood (1763–1838)

by Linda Monks

This article was published:

Robert Knopwood (1763-1838), by unknown artist

Robert Knopwood (1763-1838), by unknown artist

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H22167

Robert Knopwood (1763-1838), cleric and diarist, was born on 2 June 1763, the third child and only surviving son of Robert Knopwood and his wife Elizabeth, née Barton of Threxton, Norfolk, England. He was 8 when his father died leaving debts of £10,000; part of the considerable family estate was sold to cover them, but Threxton itself remained and was worth £18,000 when Robert inherited it at 23. He was educated at Wymondham, Bury St Edmunds, and Newport, Essex; in June 1781 he was admitted a pensioner to Caius College, Cambridge, to study for the ministry. He graduated in 1786, but by this time had been borrowing substantially and was said to have become associated with the hunting and shooting set of the young Viscount Clermont. He was ordained deacon at Norwich in December 1788 and priest a year later. By this time he was so deeply in debt that he had to sell half of Threxton to Clermont; but he continued his heavy borrowing and in October 1795 was forced to sell the remainder of it. It is likely that he became chaplain to Clermont and later to Earl Spencer, through whose influence he was appointed chaplain in H.M.S. Resolution in 1801. He served in the West Indies and elsewhere until in 1803 he joined David Collins's expedition to Port Phillip.

From that date he began his famous diary and continued it until his death. At what is now Sorrento he conducted the first religious service in Victoria in October 1803 and, after Collins decided to abandon that settlement, the first service in Tasmania at Hobart Town in February 1804. In March 1805 he moved from his tent to Cottage Green, the house he had built at Battery Point, 'having been sixteen months three weeks and five days exposed to the inclemency of all weathers and continual robberies by convicts and servants'.

In addition to his 400-acre (162 ha) glebe at Clarence Plains (Rokeby), Governor Philip Gidley King granted him 100 acres (40 ha) there and thirty acres (12 ha) in Hobart, Governor Lachlan Macquarie granted him another 500 acres (202 ha) in 1815, and he also had a grant on the South Esk. But despite all this his ineptitude in money matters led to difficulties. By 1816 he was forced to accept an offer of £2000 for the Cottage Green property, though this fell through and in 1824 Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Arthur acquired it for £800. He served as a magistrate from March 1804 until 1828 and despite a reputation for kindliness showed no apparent concern at the severity of the sentences he felt called on to impose. He toured his huge parish on horseback, travelling as far as Port Dalrymple until Rev. John Youl took up appointment there in 1819.

The near-illiteracy of his diary in the Royal Society of Tasmania, Hobart, is not borne out by his correspondence, and his letters show a man of finer qualities than those of the generally accepted sporting parson. The diary reveals that for many years he had a painful complaint, though his frequent indisposition was always ascribed to intemperance; but his liquor bills provide plenty of evidence of his conviviality. He entertained generously; Collins was a frequent visitor, and Knopwood often dined at Government House. The diary is a daily record of his own doings and those of the settlement; its value lies largely in the fact that often there is no other source for the period, and one wishes that he had devoted less space to the weather; he writes of his pride in his garden, and of his affection for Betty Mack, whom he had adopted as an infant when her mother was deserted by a marine. Henry Savery, meeting Knopwood at Government House, saw him as 'an elderly parson in a straight-cut single breasted coat with an upright collar, a clergyman of the old school, remarkably mild and placid countenance, manner easy and gentlemanly in the extreme, conversation lively and agreeable—a choice spirit'. However, he was no favourite of Macquarie, who frequently criticized his behaviour.

Knopwood's last years were saddened by sickness and poverty. In 1817 his salary of £182 was increased to £260; but in 1823 when he retired through ill health his pension was only £100, though he had his land at Rokeby. He ministered unofficially to his neighbours there until in 1826 he was appointed rector of the parish. He held this position until his death on 18 September 1838, harassed from time to time by his creditors. His grave was unmarked until Betty Mack's daughter, Mrs Stanfield, who had inherited his estate in Chancery, erected the present monument.

Select Bibliography

  • R. and T. Rienits, ‘Some Notes on the Ancestry and Life of the Rev. Robert Knopwood’, Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), vol 12, no 4, Apr 1965, pp 114-18
  • correspondence file under Robert Knopwood (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Linda Monks, 'Knopwood, Robert (Bobby) (1763–1838)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 20 June 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

Robert Knopwood (1763-1838), by unknown artist

Robert Knopwood (1763-1838), by unknown artist

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H22167

Life Summary [details]


2 June, 1763


18 September, 1838 (aged 75)
Tasmania, 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.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.