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William Paterson (1755–1810)

by David S. Macmillan

This article was published:

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William Paterson (1755-1810), by unknown artist

William Paterson (1755-1810), by unknown artist

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 04136

William Paterson (1755-1810), soldier, explorer and lieutenant-governor, was born on 17 August 1755 in Scotland. As a boy he became keenly interested in botany and in 1777, through the patronage of Lady Strathmore, he was enabled to visit South Africa. He made four journeys into the interior; after he returned in 1780 he prepared an account of his experiences, entitled Narrative of Four Journeys into the Country of the Hottentots and Caffraria, which he published and dedicated to Sir Joseph Banks in 1789.

In 1781 Paterson became an ensign in the 98th Regiment. He served in India and next year wrote to Banks about specimens from the island of Johanna and his hopes of further finds on the Malabar coast. In 1783 he took part in the siege of Carour (Karur) and was promoted lieutenant. After the regiment was disbanded in 1785, he returned to England and in 1787 was transferred to the 73rd Regiment. In June 1789 he was gazetted captain in the New South Wales Corps, probably owing his appointment to Banks. After spending some months recruiting he sailed for Sydney and arrived in October 1791. He was immediately given command of the detachment on Norfolk Island, where he served from November 1791 until March 1793.

While there he collected and sent home botanical, geological and insect specimens for Banks, and in 1794 discussed with him the publication of his memoranda on the natural history of Norfolk Island. Meanwhile in September 1793 he had led an expedition to find a route through the Blue Mountains; he failed, but named the Grose River and discovered several plants new to Europeans. He became second-in-command of the New South Wales Corps at the same time, and when Major Francis Grose left the colony in December 1794 Paterson acted as administrator until Governor John Hunter arrived nine months later. During this term he granted 4965 acres (2009 ha) of land and made no attempt, either then or after Hunter assumed office, to check or to control the trading and farming activities of his officers or the propensity of the troops under his command to take the law into their hands when they felt aggrieved. In 1795 he was promoted major and next year went home on sick leave. While in England he advised Banks on plants and trees for the colony and in 1798 was gazetted lieutenant-colonel and elected a fellow of the Royal Society. In March 1799 he was ordered to return to Sydney, with specific instructions to investigate the officers' trading in spirits, to check this practice and so to restore the 'sullied' credit of the British officer.

He reached Sydney in November 1799 and became extremely critical of the last phase of Hunter's administration. He complained to Banks of the excessive importation of spirits, the high prices of commodities, and the threat of armed insurrection by the Irish convicts. When Governor Philip Gidley King succeeded Hunter he appointed Paterson lieutenant-governor. In July 1801, in the controversies over the trial of Lieutenant James Marshall, R.N., Paterson supported John Macarthur and his officers, but disagreed with Macarthur's suggestion that the officers should break off social relations with the governor. A quarrel developed between Paterson and Macarthur, in which the lieutenant-governor alleged that Macarthur had disclosed information contained in a private letter written by Mrs Paterson to Mrs Elizabeth Macarthur, and in September Paterson challenged Macarthur to a duel. Paterson was wounded in the shoulder, and Macarthur was sent to England under arrest. King complained that though Paterson was critical of Macarthur, and 'whenever he acts from his own sentiments he does what is justly right and honourable', he would not strongly oppose the officers of the regiment; as a result relations between the two deteriorated and, though they preserved an outward appearance of friendship for the sake of the government, they found renewed causes of friction in the behaviour of the officers towards Nicolas Baudin and in the publication of 'pipes' allegedly libelling the governor. At first Paterson had kept up his scientific interests, collecting plants from the Hawkesbury in 1799, seeking coal there in 1800 and exploring the Hunter River in 1801 with Lieutenant James Grant, but his health steadily deteriorated and during the first half of 1803 he had to be relieved of his duties.

In May 1804 instructions were received from London that a new settlement should be founded at Port Dalrymple in Van Diemen's Land and that Paterson should be put in charge of it. After an attempt made abortive by bad weather, Paterson sailed from Sydney on 15 October with a detachment of soldiers and seventy-five convicts to found this outpost. He first selected a site at Western Arm, which he named York Town; in 1806 he formed a new settlement on the present site of Launceston but, though frequently there, he kept his headquarters at York Town. Paterson and his party experienced many difficulties, including shortage of supplies, and the hardships told on Paterson's health, but the commandant showed a keen eye for the natural resources of the island, as usual sent specimens to Banks, and noted the great outcrop of iron ore near Port Dalrymple, which he reported to King. 'If I had carts', he wrote, 'I could load the whole navy of Great Britain'. He believed that the new settlement, with its iron deposits, could become a special punishment colony for unruly convicts, 'by working them in irons, like they do in the mines in many parts of the world'. For lack of mining and quarrying tools nothing came of Paterson's suggestion, and he was not able to explore the outcrop further.

In February 1808 he received news from Major George Johnston, the officer commanding in Sydney, that Governor William Bligh had been arrested. Paterson ordered H.M.S. Porpoise to proceed to Port Dalrymple so that he could sail for Sydney, but he was reluctant to become involved in the doings of the provisional government. Though he insisted on his right to office as lieutenant-governor, he used the excuses of his poor health, and the possible arrival of a successor from England, to postpone his departure for Sydney despite repeated and urgent requests from Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Foveaux that he should take command. He finally left Port Dalrymple on 1 January 1809 and assumed office in Sydney nine days later. He refused to reinstate Bligh when pressed by him to do so, but he insisted that Bligh and Johnston should return to England. In poor health and drinking heavily, Paterson was a weak ruler. He spent most of the year at Parramatta as an invalid, and the clique which had overthrown Bligh had the real control of affairs. As Governor Lachlan Macquarie reported later, Paterson was 'such an easy, good-natured, thoughtless man, that he latterly granted Lands to almost every person who asked them, without regard to their Merits or pretensions'. In this way 67,000 acres (27,114 ha) were disposed of, more than Governor King had granted in six years. Paterson was quite unsuitable for such a position in so difficult a time. After Macquarie arrived, Paterson sailed with the New South Wales Corps in the Dromedary on 12 May 1810, but died at sea off Cape Horn on 21 June.

Science was Paterson's chief interest. He maintained contact with Banks and other scholars in England, and sent specimens to them from India, New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land. As a member of the Royal Society, he met many of the leading scientists of the day during his sojourns in England, and his botanical collections are preserved in the Natural History Museum at South Kensington. He introduced several fruits into the colony, including a peach which did very well, and as early as 1794 he started a six-acre (2.4 ha) garden. Later he experimented with imported plants and trees on his 100-acre (40 ha) estate at Petersham, now a Sydney suburb. Unlike most of his colleagues Paterson neither participated in trading nor enriched himself while serving in the settlement, and he died a poor man.

About 1787 he had married Elizabeth Driver (1760?-1839), and she accompanied him to New South Wales in 1791. She took a prominent part in the life of the colony, helped to found the Orphans' School in 1800 and served on the committee of the Female Orphans' Institution in 1803. In 1809, according to John Oxley, she did her best to restore unanimity in the settlement after the arrest of Governor Bligh. While her husband was in poor health Elizabeth looked after him with great care. She was a devoted and conscientious wife, described by Ralph Clark in 1791 as 'a good, cosy, Scotch lass, and fit for a soldier's wife'. Foveaux granted her 2000 acres (809 ha) in Van Diemen's Land in 1808, and this was confirmed by Macquarie in 1810. However, when her husband died she was refused a pension and was ordered to repay some £200 that he had paid in public salaries without authority. In March 1814 she married Grose and took up residence at Bath, but her husband died in May. She remained a close friend of the Macarthurs, lived quietly in retirement and died on 14 May 1839 at Liverpool, England.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-7, series 3, vol 1
  • M. Bassett, The Governor's Lady, Mrs. Philip Gidley King (Melb, 1961)
  • manuscript catalogue under W. Paterson (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David S. Macmillan, 'Paterson, William (1755–1810)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 24 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

William Paterson (1755-1810), by unknown artist

William Paterson (1755-1810), by unknown artist

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 04136

Life Summary [details]


17 August, 1755


21 June, 1810 (aged 54)
at sea

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