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William Effingham Lawrence (1781–1841)

by Bruce Wall

This article was published:

William Effingham Lawrence (1781-1841), landowner, was the eldest son of Captain Effingham Lawrence, merchant and one of the corporation of the elder brethren of Trinity House, London, and his wife Catherine, née Farmer. With his brother Edward Billopp, Lawrence continued his father's business, mainly in shipping, with houses in London, Liverpool and New York. He was highly educated and deeply interested in scientific and constitutional developments. He was an intimate friend of Jeremy Bentham; when Lawrence, because of ill health and for economic reasons, decided to emigrate, Bentham wrote to Buenos Aires, 'Our excellent friend on his way to Australia is not without thoughts of touching at Rio de Janeiro: a worthier man, a more benevolent cosmopolite, never left any country; and very few better informed or more intelligent'.

Having arranged satisfactory terms with the British government for an Australian land grant in lieu of a Treasury payment in compensation for the loss of a ship, Lawrence bought the cutter Lord Liverpool (71 tons) and sailed for Australia in May 1822. Putting in at Rio de Janeiro for provisions and water, Lawrence found a political situation most attractive to his intellectual pursuits. Under the regent, Dom Pedro, Brazil was struggling for its independence from Portugal. Instead of remaining a few days Lawrence stayed for months and became a confidant of the chief minister, the distinguished Paulista, José Bonifacio Andrada, who wanted him to settle permanently in Rio. However, Lawrence sailed in November 1822 and arrived at George Town, Van Diemen's Land, next February. He carried instructions to Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane that 2000 acres (809 ha) be granted to him and a similar area to his brother. Their lands were to adjoin, with provision for a reserve of 4000 acres (1619 ha) to be given within five years upon cultivation and improvement of the original grant. Lieutenant-Governor William Sorell authorized the grants and stipulated that they were to contain 8000 acres (3238 ha) exclusive of waste land. Through this stipulation and the negligence of the deputy surveyor general, Lawrence's grant amounted to 12,000 acres (4856 ha), independent of a further 2000 acres (809 ha) reserved for his son. In 1824 Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur questioned his right to acquire so much land and relations between them were strained until Arthur's recall.

Lawrence's grant, known as Formosa, was on the Lake River. He owned much land in and around Launceston including a town residence, Vermont (310 acres) (125 ha), an area known as Lawrence's Paddock (164 acres) (66 ha) through which Lawrence Vale Road now runs, the Punchbowl (924 acres) (374 ha) and Penquite (1832 acres) (741 ha). Later he bought more properties: Billopp (2000 acres) (809 ha) near Formosa, Point Effingham (9651 acres) (3906 ha) and Danbury Park (3500 acres) (1416 ha) on the Tamar River. At his death he was one of the colony's largest and wealthiest landowners.

With his varied interests Lawrence was a prime mover in many schemes that benefited the north of Tasmania. In 1824 he and Thomas and Joseph Archer were granted land on the marsh at Launceston on the condition that they drained, embanked and improved it. They abandoned their project and withdrew their claim to the marsh, after some citizens protested to the lieutenant-governor. By 1826 when many landowners had surplus stock for sale, a market was instituted at Ross Bridge, with Lawrence as chairman, for the disposal of stock and grain; it was similar to the fairs in English country towns. From this small beginning developed the Midland Agricultural Association.

Lawrence was also prominent in the field of education. In June 1826 he drafted a plan for establishing the Cornwall Collegiate Institution for the liberal and scientific education of youth, first in the school and later by lectures and physical experiments; the plan also included a botanical garden, chemical laboratory and a valuable and extensive library with a reading room for adults. Arthur granted fifty acres (20 ha) at Norfolk Plains and the institution was opened on 1 March 1828. Unfortunately it was not a success and soon became a private grammar school, but Lawrence did not lose interest in higher education. In 1838 he formed a committee, with William and James Henty and Peter Mulgrave, to establish in Launceston a school based on the principles of the Church of England and under its supervision. He did not live to see this plan culminate in the opening of the Launceston Church of England Grammar School in 1846.

Lawrence played an important part in 1828 as a foundation director of the Cornwall Bank. In 1836 when the Bank of Australasia took over its affairs he became a director of the new bank, and remained on the board until his death. In 1832 he was a founder of the Tamar Steam Navigation Co., which bought the steam tug Tamar for sailing vessels on the Tamar River, and the Steam Packet (formerly Governor Arthur) for passengers and cargo between Launceston and George Town. Later they acquired the river steamer Gipsy. Until 1846 these ships were important in developing the Tamar valley.

Official recognition of Lawrence's merits was long in coming. However, Sir John Franklin quickly appreciated Lawrence's high character, great worth and commanding talent. Ronald Gunn considered him the cleverest and richest gentleman in the colony. In 1837 Lawrence was appointed a justice of the peace and next year a member of the Legislative Council. He retained his seat until his death at Launceston on 18 April 1841. According to his obituary, 'Mr Lawrence in his seat in the Council was foremost in advocating popular rights. He had a mind which soared above all petty notions of party politics or political manoeuvres. The colonists have lost a valuable friend, an able advocate, a disinterested patriot, by whom, through the constant and consistent exercise of independent principles—by pursuing an honest and honourable course of public life, aided by the possession of superior talents and abilities—he had rendered himself greatly prized and esteemed'.

In 1826 Lawrence had married a widow, Mary Ann George, née Smither, and he was survived by five sons and four daughters. His eldest son Robert William (d.1833) was Tasmania's first distinguished botanist. Three sons continued in pastoral activities at Formosa, Billopp and Point Effingham; another held a commission in the 7th Dragoon Guards, and the youngest entered the medical profession, practised in Melbourne and was closely associated with the Melbourne Hospital from 1868 to 1878.

Select Bibliography

  • correspondence file under Lawrence (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Bruce Wall, 'Lawrence, William Effingham (1781–1841)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 24 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

Life Summary [details]




18 April, 1841 (aged ~ 60)
Launceston, Tasmania, Australia

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