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William Redfern (1774–1833)

by Edward Ford

This article was published:

William Redfern, photographic copy made by the Government Printing Office of a painting by George Marshall Mather, painted in 1832

William Redfern, photographic copy made by the Government Printing Office of a painting by George Marshall Mather, painted in 1832

State Library of New South Wales, 110108463

William Redfern (1774?-1833), surgeon, was born probably in Canada, and brought up at Trowbridge, Wiltshire, England, where his brother lived later. His letters show a command of English and acquaintance with the classics which suggest that he was well educated. In June 1797 after passing the examination of the London Company of Surgeons, the predecessor of the Royal College of Surgeons, he was commissioned surgeon's mate in the navy. He joined H.M.S. Standard, whose crew a few months later took part in the mutiny of the fleet at the Nore, which followed the success of the mutiny of the Channel Fleet at Spithead. In the course of the trouble Redfern advised the men 'to be more united among themselves', so he was included among the leaders to be tried by court martial. On 27 August a scrupulously fair court sentenced him to death, but because of his youth he was reprieved. He was kept in prison for four years until sent to New South Wales in the Minorca, on whose indent his name is bracketed with thirteen others as 'Mutineers'. On board he helped the surgeon and reached Sydney on 14 December 1801.

In May 1802 he commenced duty as assistant surgeon at Norfolk Island. He attracted the attention of Lieutenant-Governor Joseph Foveaux and soon received a conditional pardon; on 19 June 1803 he was given a free pardon by Governor Philip Gidley King. For five years he worked hard there and gained a good medical reputation; when he returned to Sydney in 1808, Foveaux, then in command at headquarters, appointed him assistant surgeon, owing to 'the distress'd State of the Colony for medical aid' since 'his skill and ability in his profession are unquestionable, and his conduct has been such as to deserve particular approbation'. As he had no documentary evidence of his professional qualifications Surgeons Thomas Jamison, John Harris and William Bohan examined him in 'Medicine, Surgery and other necessary collateral Branches of Medical Literature'. They found him 'qualified to exercise the Profession of a Surgeon etc.'; the examination set a precedent followed for many years for testing anyone who wished to practise medicine in the colony. During 1809 Redfern attended John Macarthur's daughter and earned her father's deep gratitude for 'the skill he … manifested in discovering and applying an efficacious remedy to her extraordinary disease'. Macarthur promised to use his influence in Redfern's favour 'whenever Mr. Bligh's affair is settled', but by that time Governor Lachlan Macquarie had recommended the confirmation of Redfern's appointment, and to this the secretary of state agreed.

Since 1808 Redfern had been working in the old and dilapidated hospital at Dawes Point. The building of an urgently needed replacement was one of the first tasks Macquarie put in hand. When it was completed in 1816 Redfern took charge of it, and D'Arcy Wentworth, the principal surgeon, only occasionally visited the wards as a consultant. Redfern was assisted by his apprentice, Henry, son of Rev. William Cowper, who after three years training was appointed assistant at the hospital. After two years in this post Redfern regarded him as a particularly well-trained practitioner. Cowper, as Redfern's apprentice, had succeeded James Shears who, commencing in 1813, was the first Australian medical student, but had died a year later. Occupation of the new hospital did not end the appalling conditions which had existed in the old place; there remained inadequacies of diet and sanitation, and the nursing care provided by the unreliable and often disorderly staff of convict attendants and nurses was very rough. Stealing was so rife that Redfern, having no trustworthy person on his staff—even Cowper was in trouble for supplying medicines, stockings and other items from the store to his friends—had perforce to issue all stores and supervise the making of medicines to check the theft of drugs.

In addition to his work in the hospital wards, Redfern conducted a daily out-patient clinic for men from the convict gangs. He also had the most extensive private practice in the colony, for he was the most popular doctor in the settlement and his services were widely sought. He was the family doctor to the Macarthurs and the Macquaries and attended the birth of Governor Macquarie's son. His professional skill was highly regarded by his colleagues and he had the reputation of being the best obstetrician in the colony.

Since Redfern was concerned with convict health it was natural that he should have been asked to investigate the heavy mortality suffered on the calamitous voyages of the convict transports Surry, General Hewitt and Three Bees in 1814. His report is one of the major Australian contributions to public health. His recommendations on the ventilation, cleanliness and fumigation of the ships, on the diet and clothing of the prisoners and the need for permitting them on deck were all important, but even more noteworthy was his insistence on the need for 'approved and skilful' surgeons in each ship and for defining clearly their powers vis-à-vis the ships' masters. To provide men for this service he recommended naval surgeons, 'Men of Abilities, who have been Accustomed to Sea practice, who know what is due to themselves as Men, and as Officers with full power to exercise their Judgment, without being liable to the Controul of the Masters of the Transports'. This advice was followed, and the appointment of surgeon-superintendents of convict, and later emigrant, ships put an end to most of the abuses of the past.

When D'Arcy Wentworth resigned as principal surgeon in 1818 Redfern expected to succeed him; but despite his previous promises to Redfern and a very strong recommendation from Macquarie, Bathurst appointed a naval surgeon, James Bowman, probably because of his dislike of employing former convicts. Redfern thereupon resigned as assistant surgeon. On 14 October 1819 he left the government medical service, to which, declared Macquarie in a General Order, he had been 'so great and valuable an acquisition' thanks to 'his superior professional skill, steady attention and active zealous performance of the numerous important duties entrusted to him'. As a solace next month Macquarie appointed Redfern a magistrate, despite the warnings of Commissioner John Thomas Bigge against doing so; next year Bathurst, expressing his disapproval of 'nominations of Convicts to the Magistracy', ordered his removal from the bench. Unfortunately Redfern had become a provocative symbol of the governor's emancipist policy.

Redfern always took an active part in the life of New South Wales. He was an honorary medical officer of the Benevolent Society, a member of its committee and that of the Aborigines' Institution. He was one of the first directors of the Bank of New South Wales. He and his wife had an estate of 100 acres (40 ha) which gave the name of Redfern to the Sydney suburb which later developed about it. In 1818 he was granted 1300 acres (526 ha) in the Airds district. This he called Campbell Fields in honour of Mrs Macquarie, and it was praised by Bigge as one of the best developed properties in the colony.

In 1817 the status of emancipists was shaken by a ruling of the King's Bench that persons freed by the governor's pardon, unlike those under pardons issued under the Great Seal in London, could not maintain personal action at law or acquire, retain or transmit property, and Judge Barron Field followed this in a decision in Sydney in 1820. At a meeting held in January 1821 it was decided to send Redfern and Edward Eagar to present a petition appealing against this to the King. Redfern sailed for England on 27 October. The delegation was successful and the position was rectified by the New South Wales Act of 1823. While in England Redfern prepared an indictment against Bigge and a book criticizing his methods of inquiry, but did not publish it. After a sojourn in Madeira for his health he returned to New South Wales in the Alfred in July 1824, received a further grant at Campbell Fields and acquired land near Bathurst and Cowra. He lived at Campbell Fields and devoted more time to his farming activities, which included cultivating the vine as well as fine wool and cattle; he gradually withdrew from his medical practice, which he entirely gave up in September 1826. Two years later he took his son William to Edinburgh to be educated. Though he intended to return, he died there in July 1833. He left 23,190 acres (9385 ha) in New South Wales, including 6296 (2548 ha) at Airds and 11,362 (4598 ha) at Bathurst.

When Redfern came from England in 1801 he was single. When he returned from Norfolk Island in 1808 in the schooner Estramina, according to the passenger list he was accompanied by his wife, but no other record of his marriage is known. On 4 April 1811 he married Sarah Wills of Sydney, and had two sons, William Lachlan Macquarie (b.1819), who later lived in Edinburgh, and Joseph Foveaux (1823-30). In June 1834 Sarah married James Alexander of Glasgow and later returned with him to Sydney.

Redfern had great forcefulness and independence of character; Bigge, who found in him a proud and inflexible opponent, said he was the only person in the colony to resist his authority. He had kindliness and integrity, attributes that gained for him the support and enduring friendship of Macquarie, which was steadfastly maintained in the face of often bitter opposition from those who detested the rise of ex-convicts. He lacked a gracious bedside manner, but on his retirement the Sydney Gazette, 6 September 1826, commented, 'his experience and skill made ample amends for any apparent absence of over-flowing politeness'. Disdained by many as an emancipist, Redfern was always ready to reply brusquely to men like Bigge and Bowman who were offensive to him. In 1827 he horsewhipped Robert Howe for attacking him in the Gazette, and was fined 30s. He was one of the greatest of the early medical practitioners of the colony, the first to receive an Australian qualification, the first teacher of Australian medical students, and the author of important reforms in the convict transports. Nevertheless, as a result of his youthful actions at the Nore, which, however justified, were naturally resented by the government, his later important services in New South Wales were ill requited.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 6-10
  • E. Ford, The Life and Work of William Redfern (Syd, 1953)
  • N. J. Dunlop, ‘William Redfern, the First Australian Medical Graduate, and His Times’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 14, part 2, 1928, pp 57-105
  • E. Ford, ‘Medical Practice in Early Sydney: With Special Reference to the Work and Influence of John White, William Redfern and William Bland’, Medical Journal of Australia, 9 July 1955, pp 41-54
  • Australian, 23 Jan 1828
  • Bigge Report, evidence, Bonwick transcripts (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Edward Ford, 'Redfern, William (1774–1833)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 20 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 Redfern, photographic copy made by the Government Printing Office of a painting by George Marshall Mather, painted in 1832

William Redfern, photographic copy made by the Government Printing Office of a painting by George Marshall Mather, painted in 1832

State Library of New South Wales, 110108463

Life Summary [details]




July, 1833 (aged ~ 59)
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland

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
Key Organisations
Convict Record

Crime: court martial
Sentence: life
Court: Neptune (ship)
Trial Date: 27 August 1797


Left the colony: Yes