Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Petchy (?–1850)

by W. E. Goodhand

This article was published:

John Petchy (d.1850), merchant, was born at Romford, Essex, England, where, as a labourer, in March 1810 he was found guilty of receiving stolen goods and sentenced to transportation for fourteen years. He arrived in Van Diemen's Land in the Indefatigable on 9 May 1812. His subsequent conduct was evidently good, for from 1816 to 1823 he was keeper in the Hobart Town gaol; though sentenced to be dismissed for neglect of duty in 1819, he remained. While in this position of trust he was granted 400 acres (162 ha) at Hollow Tree on the South Arm peninsula. Though he had frequent disputes with neighbours, the holding apparently prospered; by 1825 he had cultivated 150 acres (61 ha) and had 1000 sheep, 20 cattle, a substantial house, barn, outbuildings, another 1000 acres (405 ha) under lease and ten convict servants.

In June 1824 Petchy sailed for London with a quantity of wattle bark extract in which he hoped to interest the English tanning trade. For this discovery he was awarded a medal by the Society of Arts, Commerce and Manufactures, though later he claimed to have lost £2000 in trying to establish a permanent trade. After his return to Hobart in May 1825 he embarked on a variety of commercial ventures which rapidly made him one of the colony's most prosperous merchants. In the Hobart district he owned a brewery, tavern, store and woodyard, though his most successful enterprise was a licensed victualling and cartage business at Kangaroo Point.

Petchy was best known for his seafaring activities. He owned and operated three of the eight Derwent River ferries plying between Sullivan's Cove and Kangaroo Point; his square rigged barque Sir George Arthur, 389 tons, launched at Kangaroo Point in 1838, was then the largest ship built in the colony. From 1832 to 1839 he was a prominent bay whaler and had three shore stations at Recherche Bay hunting the southern right whale. It was perhaps fitting that Petchy lost his life at sea: in December 1850 he was drowned with six others, when the sailing boat in which they were competing in the Hobart regatta capsized in a squall. Petchy left a widow Elizabeth, née Callaghan, whom he married probably in 1823 when she was assigned to him as a convict servant. However, his estate passed to his daughter by a former marriage, Sarah Ann Russell.

Despite his lowly origins Petchy proved himself a resourceful if not always a scrupulous individual. His colonial life amply illustrates the opportunities which befell many an emancipist, and he himself is typical of the vigorous entrepreneurs who laid the firm economic foundations of Australia's southernmost colony.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, Van Diemen's Land), 1850 (22)
  • Hobart Town Gazette, 4 Dec 1819, 26 Nov 1825
  • Hobart Town Courier, 4 Mar 1839
  • Hobarton Guardian, 2 Dec 1850
  • CSO 1/298/7249, 1/337/7747
  • correspondence file under J. Petchy (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

W. E. Goodhand, 'Petchy, John (?–1850)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 21 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]


December, 1850
at sea

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: receiving stolen goods
Sentence: 14 years
Court: Essex
Trial Date: March 1810


Left the colony: Yes