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John Piper (1774–1851)

by Marjorie Barnard

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John Piper (1773-1851), by Augustus Earle

John Piper (1773-1851), by Augustus Earle

State Library of New South Wales, Original : ML 6

John Piper (1774-1851), military officer, public servant and landowner, was born on 8 August 1774 at Maybole, Ayrshire, Scotland, the son of Hugh Piper, a vintner. Through the influence of his uncle, Captain John Piper, young John received a commission as ensign in the newly formed New South Wales Corps in April 1791, as his younger brother Hugh was to do in 1799. John sailed in the Pitt and arrived in Sydney in February 1792 when the infant settlement was still fighting for its life in the face of starvation. Piper was an immediate social success and became a close family friend of John Macarthur.

In 1793 at his own request he was sent on duty to the even more primitive settlement at Norfolk Island, possibly because of an entanglement from which his more discreet friends were anxious to rescue him. While he was away they looked after his interests and secured him a land grant of 110 acres (45 ha) at Parramatta. On the island he received a liberal education in those savage military quarrels which beset the early days of the colony.

In 1795 Piper was promoted lieutenant and returned to the mainland. From 1797 to 1799 he was away on leave. In 1800 he was given the local rank of captain. In the struggle between the corps and Governor Philip Gidley King, of which Macarthur was the ringleader, Piper stood with his friend, and in September 1801 acted as his second in a duel with Colonel William Paterson, his commanding officer. King arrested both Macarthur and Piper, but decided that Piper could be dealt with locally. At his court martial in 1802 he apologized and was acquitted, much to King's disgust.

In 1804 he was again detailed for duty on Norfolk Island. It was fortunate for Piper that he spent the next six years on the island and so was thrown clear of the troubles on the mainland, notably the Rum Rebellion. In September 1804 Lieutenant-Governor Joseph Foveaux left on prolonged sick leave and Piper became acting commandant, with the inadequate extra allowance of 5s. a day. His rule was mild. As one of his charges, Joseph Holt, declared, 'the new Governor had the good will and respect of everyone, for he had always conducted himself as a Christian and a gentleman'. He was promoted to the full rank of captain in November 1806.

By this time Norfolk Island had become an expense rather than an asset, and the British government was planning to close down the settlement and transfer its inhabitants to the mainland or Van Diemen's Land. The duty of beginning to carry out the frequently altered instructions fell to Piper and in it he appears to have exhibited both tact and organizing ability.

In 1810 he returned to Sydney. On Norfolk Island he met Mary Ann Sheers, the 15-year-old daughter of a convict, and formed an attachment to her that lasted throughout his life. When he sailed for Britain on leave in September 1811 he took her with him, as well as their two little boys, and Sarah, the child of an earlier liaison. He faced a problem connected with both his family and his career, but he preferred Mary Ann and New South Wales to his regiment. Whereas his brother Hugh, now a captain, left the colony with his regiment to continue his army career, John resigned his commission and decided to seek civilian employment in the colony. In 1813 he was appointed Naval Officer in Sydney and arrived back in February 1814. On 10 February 1816 he married Mary Ann, by special licence. She had borne him two more sons while they were away and in due course they had ten more children.

His duties included the collection of customs duties, excise on spirits and harbour dues, control of lighthouses and work which is now the province of the water police. The post was very much to Piper's taste and proved very remunerative: with a percentage on all monies collected, his income from it rose to more than £4000 a year. He bought the property now known as Vaucluse House. In 1816 he was granted 190 acres (77 ha) of land on Eliza Point, now Point Piper, for the site of his official residence. Here he built Henrietta Villa (also called the Naval Pavilion) at the cost of £10,000 and furnished it in the most luxurious style. It was completed in 1822 and became the scene of many sumptuous entertainments.

Piper was a close friend of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who in 1819 made him a magistrate. In 1825 he was chairman of directors of the Bank of New South Wales. He sat on the local committee of the Australian Agricultural Co., was president of the Scots Church committee and took part in many social and sporting activities. He owned much property, acquired by grant or purchase. Besides Point Piper he had 475 acres (192 ha) at Vaucluse, 1130 (457 ha) at Woollahra and Rose Bay, a farm of 295 acres (119 ha) at Petersham, 700 (283 ha) at Neutral Bay, 80 (32 ha) at Botany Bay, 2000 (809 ha) at Bathurst, 300 (121 ha) in Van Diemen's Land with various smaller farms, and an acre (0.4 ha) of city land in George Street. He was, however, not as solvent as he appeared and in 1826 he raised a mortgage of £20,000. When Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling ordered an inquiry into the affairs of the Bank of New South Wales, confusion and favouritism came to light, and in January 1827 Piper resigned from the chairmanship. The previous October Darling had also ordered an inquiry into Piper's administration as Naval Officer. The following April he was suspended from his official position, when a deficiency of £12,000 was discovered. There was no question of peculation, but the collection of customs had been gravely mismanaged. Piper tried to drown himself but was rescued. Most of his property had to be sold. Values were low owing to the general depression, and the Point Piper estate, the land at Vaucluse, the city allotments, various farms and a parcel of shares brought only £5170 11s. However, his debt to government was paid in full and his other creditors were satisfied.

Piper retired with his family to the Bathurst property, Alloway Bank. Here he made cheeses, ran cattle and later sheep, and became an important figure in the town. He was a magistrate, worked for the Presbyterian Church, for the improvement of transport, patronized horse-racing and entertained many guests including Governors Darling and (Sir) Richard Bourke. But Alloway Bank did not thrive. By 1832 Piper was selling the remnants of his land in Sydney. In the drought of 1838 he mortgaged the property. Further impoverished by the depression, he was forced to sell it for only a few hundred pounds. Friends, notably William Charles Wentworth, re-established the family on a 500-acre (202 ha) property, Westbourne, beside the Macquarie River, and tied it up for Mrs Piper and her numerous children. There John Piper died on 8 June 1851, and there Mrs Piper lived until her death twenty years later.

John Piper was a man of his times. He personified the colonial dream. In his sixty years in the colony he adapted himself to its development. During the military regime he was an officer; when Macquarie created a civil state he became a civil servant; when the race was to the pioneer he became one. He was honourable, generous, gay and so well loved that he was forgiven things which would have wrecked a stronger man. He was no business man, completely lacking the shrewdness which enriched so many of his brother officers. He was a master of the bright allusion.

A portrait in oils is in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 2-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-13, 16
  • M. Barnard Eldershaw, The Life and Times of Captain John Piper (Syd, 1939), and for bibliography
  • John Piper papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Marjorie Barnard, 'Piper, John (1774–1851)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 13 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 Piper (1773-1851), by Augustus Earle

John Piper (1773-1851), by Augustus Earle

State Library of New South Wales, Original : ML 6

Life Summary [details]


8 August, 1774
Maybole, Ayrshire, Scotland


8 June, 1851 (aged 76)
Westbourne, Macquarie River district, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.