Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Moffitt (1802–1874)

by L. F. Fitzhardinge

This article was published:

William Moffitt (1802-1874), stationer, bookseller and engraver, was born at Liverpool, England, where he served his apprenticeship as a bookbinder. Sentenced to seven years transportation in 1823 for stealing tea, he arrived at Sydney in the Guildford on 25 July 1827 and was assigned to the Engineer's Department. On 24 December 1829 he married Mary Anne Galliott, a free immigrant aged 16. Of their six children, three daughters married: Elizabeth Preston (b.1834) to John Marks of Jamberoo; Mary Anne (b.1836) to Robert Thorne of Sydney; and Sarah Jane (b.1842) to James Marks of Jamberoo. Henry, aged 10, and Sophia Jane, 16 months, died of scarlatina in 1841, and another son died in infancy in 1832.

When his sentence expired Moffitt set up in business as a bookbinder, stationer, engraver and copperplate printer at 8 King Street, and in August 1833 moved to 23 Pitt Street. In 1831 he had two assigned servants, and five in 1832. The business prospered, and in March 1842 he made a trip to England with his wife and two daughters after selling thirty-two acres (13 ha) of 'rich forest land', with two cottages and an orchard, six miles (9.6 km) from Sydney. On his departure he was presented with a silver snuff box of colonial workmanship by the Australian Lodge of the Independent Order of Oddfellows, which he and two others had founded in 1836. He was later for a time a director of the Australian Joint Stock Bank, and as early as 1846 supported a movement for the early closing of shops. In 1844 he stood unsuccessfully for the City Council but in general he avoided public life, devoting himself to his business and to unobtrusive acts of private benevolence.

Moffitt published an Australian Sheet Almanack in 1834, 1835 and 1838, an Australian Diary and Almanack from 1837 to 1846, and the New South Wales Calendar and General Post Office Directory (previously published by Stephens & Stokes in 1832, 1833 and 1835 and by Anne Howe in 1836), for 1837, 1839, 1842 and 1846. Other publications included John Lhotsky's Illustrations of the Present State and Future Prospects of New South Wales (1835-6) and William Burton's The Insolvent Law of New South Wales (1842), though in these cases he may have acted merely as distributor, as he did for the engravings of the Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland. He was active as a bookseller, especially in the supply of school books but also regularly importing general literature such as the Pickwick Papers on its first publication, and at least twice advertising stocks of French and Italian books. His main business was, however, as a wholesale and retail stationer, and he was responsible for hundreds of engraved letter-heads and trade cards which found a market as far afield as Van Diemen's Land and the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, the decorative engravings on which, some from his own hand but many by other craftsmen such as W. Wilson and John Carmichael, comprise a unique record of the business life of the time. In the 1840s Moffitt also 'neatly executed' the first bank-notes for the New Zealand Bank.

Moffitt was very much the city tradesman. Unlike so many of his contemporaries he never felt the lure of squatting or broad country acres, but was content to invest shrewdly in city property. In 1845 his shop was said to be the handsomest in Sydney, and three years later Joseph Fowles noted the 'elegant design' of his row of four houses in Pitt Street. There he lived, near his shop, until his death, and there he could be seen on fine evenings sitting outside his front door chatting with the neighbours. In 1874 he handed over his business to T. R. Yeo, from whom it was purchased in 1886 by W. C. Penfold & Co. He died on 31 July 1874, survived by his three married daughters. He left an estate consisting of city freeholds, bank shares, mortgages and debentures valued at £230,000.

Select Bibliography

  • W. C. Penfold & Co. Ltd, A Century of Progress in Printing (Syd, 1930)
  • J. M. Forde (‘Old Chum’), ‘An Old-time Bookseller’, Truth (Sydney), 3 Jan 1926
  • manuscript catalogue and newspaper indexes under William Moffitt (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

L. F. Fitzhardinge, 'Moffitt, William (1802–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 30 May 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]


Liverpool, Merseyside, England


31 July, 1874 (aged ~ 72)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

general debility

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
Convict Record

Crime: theft
Sentence: 7 years