Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

John Korff (1799–1870)

by George E. England

This article was published:

John Korff (1799-1870), shipbuilder, was born on 9 September 1799 in London, son of John Conrad Korff, a German who migrated from Brunswick and became a haberdasher in Hackney. After sound schooling, he was apprenticed at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Deptford and qualified in shipbuilding and naval architecture. He opened a yard at Lowestoft where he built and repaired ships and prospered until some of his debtors failed and his business went into receivers' hands in 1833. After his affairs were settled he left his wife, three sons and a daughter with his mother and sailed for Sydney. He arrived in December 1835 with a letter of introduction to a leading merchant, Edye Manning.

With Manning, Korff bought the wreck of a small steamer Ceres and with the aid of pontoons and a bullock team worked her ashore where he salvaged the timbers and from them built a 49-ton cutter Rover's Bride; the engines he proposed to install in a 270-ton paddle steamer he was building at the slipway on his farm at Miller's Forest on the Hunter. He was delighted with the long beams he was able to make from the giant flooded-gum trees. His new ship Victoria won great praise for the design which enabled her to cross the shallow Hunter River bar and for her strength and sailing qualities. Manning had financed the work and formed a company with Korff as superintendent. The Victoria carried passengers and cargo between Newcastle and Sydney for several years; she was sold for £16,000 when rivals, with iron ships and more powerful engines, took over the trade. Manning's company went bankrupt and Korff returned to shipbuilding as shipping was in great demand for linking the scattered settlements.

His wife Mary, née Gordon, whom he had married in London in 1820, arrived in 1840 with a thousand sovereigns strapped around her waist, and Korff was able to escape another bankruptcy. With his sons he built the 45-ton schooner Sisters in 1842 and in 1845 the 27-ton ketch Brothers. These two ships traded between Newcastle and Sydney carrying coal and general cargoes for many years. He also built the Currency Lass which ran for fifty-five years and the first clinker-built ketch Kangaroo, and designed the Freak built by the Chownes brothers on the Clarence. He became a marine surveyor to the underwriters of the Lloyds Insurance group and his surveys were often accepted in lawsuits. In 1864 he tried to rescue a ship caught on the Clarence River bar. With his son Frederick he established a ferry service to Balmain and another from Woolloomooloo Bay to Manly where he had acquired a water frontage for wharves. He did not complete his ambitious scheme to establish a shipping line to Auckland but acquired a large water frontage there. Survived by his wife and two sons, he died at his home in Hereford Street, Glebe, on 14 December 1870. Next day the Sydney papers reported that flags on various ships flew at half-mast in respect for his work.

In 1847 John Korff had sought refuge in a gale in a port which he called Korff's Harbour. In 1861 surveyors changed the name to Coff's but according to newspaper and family reports Korff's name continued to be used for many years.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian, 2 Jan, 2 Mar, 4 Nov 1841
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Nov 1844
  • letter from John Korff to his wife, 24 Apr 1840, document 362 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

George E. England, 'Korff, John (1799–1870)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 September, 1799
London, Middlesex, England


14 December, 1870 (aged 71)
Glebe, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.