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John Joseph Oxley (1784–1828)

by E. W. Dunlop

This article was published:

John Joseph William Molesworth Oxley (1784?-1828), surveyor-general and explorer, was born at Kirkham Abbey near Westow, Yorkshire, England, and baptised at Bulmer on 6 July 1784, the eldest son of John Oxley and his wife Isabella, who was related to the Irish Viscount Molesworth. He joined the navy in 1799 as a midshipman in the Venerable, and transferred in November 1801 to the Buffalo, in which as master's mate he sailed to Australia. Arriving there in October 1802 he engaged in coastal survey work including an expedition to Western Port in 1804-05. In 1805 Governor Philip Gidley King appointed him acting lieutenant in charge of the Buffalo, and in 1806 he commanded the Estramina on a trip to Van Diemen's Land. Next year he returned to England where on 25 November he was commissioned lieutenant. He came back to Sydney in November 1808 to take up an appointment as first lieutenant in H.M.S. Porpoise, having sailed out as agent for the Transport Board in the convict ship Speke, in which he shipped goods worth £800 as an investment. He had obtained an order from the Colonial Office for a grant of 600 acres (243 ha) near the Nepean River, but Lieutenant-Governor William Paterson granted him 1000 acres (405 ha). Oxley had to surrender these in 1810, but Governor Lachlan Macquarie granted him 600 acres (243 ha) near Camden which he increased in 1815 to 1000 acres (405 ha) again. This he called Kirkham.

When Paterson allowed the deposed Governor William Bligh to leave Sydney in the Porpoise in March 1809 Oxley was aboard and sailed with Bligh to the Derwent. Next year he wrote a lengthy report on the settlements in Van Diemen's Land before sailing for England in the Porpoise in May. In London he applied for the post of Naval Officer in Sydney, and then, after paying Charles Grimes to resign, according to John Macarthur, he twice sought that of surveyor-general. Oxley denied that he had been a partisan of Macarthur when Bligh was deposed, but his letters show that he was on very intimate terms with the rebel leader. In 1812 he became engaged to Elizabeth Macarthur; this was broken off when her father discovered the extent of Oxley's debts. By that time, through the influence of Macarthur's friend Walter Davidson, Oxley's second application for the surveyor-generalship had been successful. In 1811 he had retired from the navy, and in May 1812 sailed for Sydney in the Minstrel to take up his new duties.

During Governor Macquarie's administration Oxley was as much occupied with exploring as surveying. In 1815 his assistant, George Evans, discovered the Lachlan River and reported good country south-west of Bathurst. In March 1817 Macquarie appointed Oxley to lead an expedition to explore this region and if possible 'to ascertain the real course … of the Lachlan … and whether it falls into the sea, or into some inland lake'. Leaving Bathurst on 28 April the explorers followed the Lachlan for more than two months until in July impassable marshes prevented further progress. Oxley then struck northward to the Macquarie River, which he traced back to Bathurst, where he arrived on 29 August. Macquarie highly praised Oxley's 'Zealous, Indefatigable and Intelligent Exertions' and recommended that he be given £200 for his 'Meritorious Services', which the secretary of state approved.

On 28 May 1818 Oxley led another expedition from Bathurst and followed the Macquarie River until it too disappeared into 'an ocean of reeds' (Macquarie marshes). From 6 July Oxley's party proceeded north-east until they discovered the Castlereagh River, then turning east they found the rich Liverpool Plains, reached and named the Peel River, crossed the southern part of the New England Range near Walcha, found the Hastings River and followed it to its estuary which was named Port Macquarie. A hazardous journey down the coast ended at Newcastle in November, some six months after the party's departure from Bathurst. The rich pastoral lands of the Liverpool Plains were quickly taken up by pastoralists, but Oxley failed in his primary object of tracing the Macquarie and Lachlan Rivers and formulated the mistaken theory of an inland sea. 'I feel confident', he wrote, 'we were in the immediate vicinity of an inland sea, most probably a shoal one … being filled up by immense depositions from the waters flowing into it from the higher lands'. Nevertheless his reports aroused great interest, and not only did his Journals of Two Expeditions Into the Interior of New South Wales (London, 1820) give the first detailed description of the Australian inland, despite his grave doubts of the value of the lands he had traversed, but his discoveries paved the way for the later work of Charles Sturt and Sir Thomas Mitchell.

Oxley's naval experience fitted him better for coastal survey work than for inland exploration. In September-December 1819 he made a trip by sea to Jervis Bay, where he thought the country did not offer 'the smallest inducement for the foundation of a Settlement on its shores, being … for the most part Barren and generally deficient in Water'. Earlier that year in the Lady Nelson, assisted by Phillip Parker King in the Mermaid, he had charted Port Macquarie, on which he reported favourably. In December 1820 he made a second survey of the district and reported in favour of establishing a new penal settlement there. In October 1823 he sailed north as far as Port Curtis, and on his return explored Moreton Bay and the Brisbane River, up which he sailed about fifty miles (80 km). His favourable report was again quickly followed by the formation of a penal settlement.

In 1820 Oxley had made several suggestions to Commissioner John Thomas Bigge about the sale of land in New South Wales. Bigge accepted these and, when Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane received his report, Oxley drafted in July 1824 specific regulations for sales at 5s an acre, to be paid over three years; in 1825 and again in 1826 he drew up further regulations on land grants in accordance with the fluctuating orders of the Colonial Office. In 1825 he was appointed one of the three commissioners to carry out the thorough survey of the colony and its division into counties, shires and parishes which had been ordered from London; but this work was not easily accomplished. The duties of the survey office became very extensive as settlement expanded and Oxley was always handicapped by the lack of a sufficiently numerous trained staff. Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling thought him 'very clever' but a man who would 'never submit to the Drudgery of carrying on the details of his Department'. He constantly sought increases in fees, salary and staff, but though both Macquarie and Brisbane supported his requests, the secretary of state was reluctant to incur the extra expenditure. In 1823 his salary was increased from 15s. to £1 a day; his fees had been increased in 1818 and between 1823 and 1828 brought him an average of nearly £1500 a year.

Oxley also had business interests. After he arrived in New South Wales in 1812 he acted as agent for Maude & Robinson of the Cape and Thomas & William Ward of London. He acted for the creditors of Garnham Blaxcell and Robert Campbell and of the firm of Lord, Kable & Underwood. He kept in touch with Walter Davidson at Canton, and acted for Jeffery Hart Bent with Alexander & Co. of Calcutta. In addition to these mercantile activities he was developing his properties and entered into partnership with Commissary David Allan in raising cattle for the stores. Near his property, Kirkham, he received further grants of 820 acres (332 ha) at Minto in 1816 and 630 acres (255 ha) at Appin in 1817. After 1816 he sent cattle into the Bowral district and in June 1823 was granted 2300 acres (931 ha) there registered as Weston (probably a mistake for Westow). As a sheep breeder he took prizes at the shows of the Agricultural Society which he helped to found in 1822, though in 1824 John Macarthur criticized his 4000 crossbred sheep which, he said, Oxley sold as pure merinos to strangers; but Oxley and Macarthur were then on very bad terms. For a time Oxley was a director of the Bank of New South Wales, but in 1826 he was one of the founders and first directors of its 'exclusivist' rival, the Bank of Australia. He was a shareholder of the Australian Agricultural Co., which appears to have paid him for advice and assistance.

Oxley was keenly interested in the public and cultural life of the colony. He was one of the first officers of the Bible Society when it was founded in 1817. In September 1819 he was appointed to the committee of the Female Orphan Institution, the Male Orphan Institution and the Public School Institution. In 1821 he became a foundation member of the Philosophical Society, and that December Governor Brisbane made him a magistrate. He subscribed to both St James's Church and to Scots Church where he was one of the congregation which in 1824 petitioned for government assistance for its minister. He was selected as one of the five members of the original Legislative Council in 1824, but was not reappointed when the council was reconstituted next year. He had always been a strong exclusive. Macquarie criticized him as 'factious and dissatisfied'. In 1812 John Macarthur wrote warmly of Oxley's 'good nature'; later he spoke in a very different vein after 'his unprincipled conduct made it necessary to drop his acquaintance'. Whatever his character his financial incapacity is clear, and this made him, in Macarthur's opinion, 'no more fit to make his way in the midst of the sharks among whom it will be his fate to live than he is qualified to be a Lord Chancellor'. Despite his investments, his fees and his land grants, when he died at Kirkham on 26 May 1828, he was so 'much embarrassed in his pecuniary circumstances' that the Executive Council felt compelled to recommend special assistance to his widow and children. The British government refused to sanction a pension but agreed to permit a grant of 5000 acres (2024 ha) to Oxley's sons in recognition of their father's services.

On 31 October 1821 Oxley married Emma Norton (1798-1885) at St Philip's Church. They had two sons, John (b.1824) and Henry (b.1826), but earlier Oxley had had two daughters by Charlotte Thorpe and one by Elizabeth Marnon. He kept a substantial town house in Sydney, opposite St James's Church, and he built a fine country seat at Kirkham. He was aged only 42 when he died, but his constitution had 'been materially injured by the privations which he suffered during the Several Expeditions on which he was employed in exploring the Interior'. He was buried in the Devonshire Street cemetery in Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 6-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 5-15
  • E. W. Dunlop, John Oxley (Melb, 1960)
  • E. C. Rowland, ‘The Life and Work of John Oxley’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 28, part 4, 1942, pp 249-72
  • John Oxley, field notebooks and reports (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

E. W. Dunlop, 'Oxley, John Joseph (1784–1828)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 14 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

John Oxley, n.d.

John Oxley, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 10806

Life Summary [details]


Kirkham Abbey, Yorkshire, England


26 May, 1828 (aged ~ 44)
Camden, New South Wales, Australia

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