Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Jacob Pitman (1810–1890)

by Bruce Muirden

This article was published:

Jacob Pitman (1810-1890), builder and architect, was born on 28 November 1810 at Trowbridge, Wiltshire, England, eldest son of Samuel Pitman, clothier, and his wife Maria, née Davis; a younger brother became Sir Isaac, the inventor of phonography. Jacob was apprenticed for seven years to a local builder and then worked in London for a building firm. After four months in the London training school of the British and Foreign Bible Society, he taught for a time at North Nibley, Gloucestershire, where on 31 December 1833 he married Emma Hooper.

Jacob applied for free passages to South Australia in November 1837 and sailed with his wife and two infants in the Trusty. On arrival at Holdfast Bay in May 1838 Pitman soon put his skills to good use and found early prosperity. He wrote to his parents: 'I toil no harder than at Nibley and am 10 times better paid'. Established as a builder and architect in Rundle Street East, he could afford much investment in suburban and rural land. When depression hit the province in 1840 he stopped building and began to surrender his leased acres. With debts of £268 he was declared insolvent in October 1843. His discharge certificate was issued in March 1846 and by the 1850s he was busy building or supervising the construction of several bridges across the Torrens and the span across the Onkaparinga at Echunga.

Outside the building trade Pitman's achievements were to last longer. In the Trusty he had befriended William Holden who became a notable journalist in the colony and shared with him a deep commitment to religion. Pitman founded the first society of the New (Swedenborgian) Church in the southern hemisphere in Adelaide on 7 July 1844 and officiated as the society's minister until 1859. He was also responsible for introducing the 'stenographic sound-hand' system of his brother Isaac into South Australia. In the Trusty James had brought the first hundred copies of his brother's first manual of 'phonography' (called shorthand from 1841) which he circulated among the colony's leaders. He continued his interest in this system and began teaching it in Adelaide in 1846 and later in Victoria and New South Wales. He claimed to have 'sown the first seed of phonography in the Australian colonies'. His friend Holden had shared his deep attachment to the New Church and was one of the first journalists to use phonography.

Pitman left South Australia about 1870 but returned briefly to become superintendent of public works at Mount Gambier. His wife died in Adelaide on 4 June 1881. At the New Church, Melbourne, on 1 January 1883 he married Catherine Mary Yates, widow of Paul Hayden. Pitman died in Camperdown, New South Wales, on 12 March 1890, survived by his second wife and by five of the nine children of his first marriage. He was buried in Rookwood cemetery, where above his grave is an epitaph in Isaac Pitman's reformed spelling, describing Jacob as an 'arkitekt' who 'introduist fonetik shorthand'.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Baker, The Life of Isaac Pitman (Lond, 1919)
  • D. Packham (ed), The Australians of a Branch of the Pitman Family (Lond, 1954)
  • D. Pike, Paradise of Dissent (Melb, 1957)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Council, South Australia), 1855-56 (21)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 11 June 1859, 15, 22 Mar 1890
  • Register (Adelaide), 12, 16 Oct 1897
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 June 1882
  • P. J. Jones, The History of Commercial Education in South Australia (M.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1967)
  • Pitman letters (privately held).

Citation details

Bruce Muirden, 'Pitman, Jacob (1810–1890)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


28 November, 1810
Trowbridge, Wiltshire, England


12 March, 1890 (aged 79)
Camperdown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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