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John Septimus Roe (1797–1878)

by Malcolm Uren

This article was published:

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John Septimus Roe (1797-1878), by unknown photographer

John Septimus Roe (1797-1878), by unknown photographer

State Library of Western Australia, 007093D

John Septimus Roe (1797-1878), naval officer, surveyor and explorer, was born on 8 May 1797 at Newbury, Berkshire, England, the seventh son of Rev. James Roe, rector of Newbury, and his wife Sophia, née Brookes. His boyhood wish to become a teacher was frustrated by lack of money for his education, but his father secured for him a place at Christ's Hospital, London, where he became a pupil of the mathematical school. At school Roe formed the habit of writing to his parents lengthy letters about his doings and his thoughts and he continued to be a devoted diarist throughout his life. The earliest letters show the struggle his parents had to keep him at school and the boy's determination not to fail them.

Roe was appointed a midshipman in the navy on 27 May 1813 and sailed in the Rippon which was employed in the blockade of the French coast. Adventure came immediately, with the capture of a Spanish galleon, and soon young Roe came under notice for a carefully drawn chart of Brest Harbour. When the Rippon paid off in August 1814 Roe spent several months in the Horatio. On uncomfortable convoys relieved by short periods of surveying, he found satisfaction with his log-book, charts and sketches of places visited. After brief service surveying in the Channel Islands the Horatio sailed for the China Station in July 1815 and did not return to England until January 1817. Places visited by his ship were recorded in Roe's log-book, and as often as he could he wrote to his parents recording such incidents as the chase of Portuguese ships, riding out gales, a brush with Malays and the prostration of the ship's company by tropical heat.

Soon after the Horatio paid off at Deptford in 1817 Roe passed examinations in mathematics and navigation and was posted as master's mate to the surveying service in New South Wales then under the command of Phillip Parker King. In his letters Roe referred to his task as the completion of the work done by Matthew Flinders, the interruption of whose exploring, Roe wrote, 'had left in much, and indeed almost total geographical uncertainty, the whole of the western, north-western and northern coasts of Australia, comprised between Cape Leeuwin and the Gulf of Carpentaria, with much of the north-eastern coastline from Torres Strait to Breaksea Spit, a knowledge of the whole of which could not but prove highly beneficial both to a rising colony and its parent state'.

Roe sailed for Sydney in the Dick in February 1817 and arrived in September. No ship was immediately available for the survey work, and for a short time he had the unusual experience of moving socially in Government House circles. His letters home at this period are a quaint mixture of awed respect for the quality and restrained enjoyment. To fill the wide gaps noted by Roe the Mermaid, 85 tons, was commissioned in Sydney by King and on 21 December 1817 Roe sailed in her on the first of three coastal surveys. On this voyage of 5000 miles (8047 km) the Mermaid circumnavigated Australia and surveys were made of sections of the coastline, chiefly north of Exmouth Gulf. In December 1818 the Mermaid was used in a brief survey of the Derwent River, and on 8 May 1819 Roe again sailed in her on a survey voyage to the northernmost part of Australia expected to last eight months. Roe wrote that this voyage was to make a proper survey of the coast which had never been explored since Captain James Cook's superficial examination. The report of this voyage contained much information about the waters of the Great Barrier Reef and the coast westwards from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Bonaparte Archipelago on the west coast. Roe's third voyage in the Mermaid was nearly the last for the ship's company. The little teak ship leaked badly. She met heavy weather and, after a hazardous and uncomfortable voyage along the northern coastline, limped back to Sydney, where she was laid up for extensive repairs.

Roe transferred to the brig Bathurst, 170 tons, whose mission was to continue the survey of the west coast of Australia. She left Sydney in May 1821, and on 30 June Roe fell from the masthead fifty feet (15 m) to the deck, receiving bruises and a very deep wound over the right temple; to this fall Roe later attributed the loss of sight of his right eye. Those in the Bathurst surveyed along the west coast of Australia as far as Roebuck Bay and, having replenished stores at Mauritius, returned to survey the coast between Cape Leeuwin and Cape Levêque. The Bathurst returned to England on 10 May 1823, and Roe sought from the Admiralty an appointment as lieutenant, a rank in which he had acted in the Bathurst on the instruction of King. This appointment was made on 1 June 1823, and his pay as a lieutenant was backdated to 25 April 1822.

Roe was afloat again in February 1824 as lieutenant in the Tamar bound for Sydney. Under Captain (Sir) James Bremer the Tamar sailed from Sydney to Port Essington and there on 20 September 1824 established a settlement and took possession of the northern coast of Australia. Roe read the proclamation when this ceremony was repeated at Melville Island. Later the Tamar sailed for the India Station, where the ship's company saw action in the war against Burma and Roe was awarded the Burma medal. He prepared three charts of portions of the Arabian and African coasts where the Tamar cruised on convoy duty, and made scores of sketches and swift surveys in his own log-books. He handed these surveys to the Admiralty on his return to England late in 1827 and was delighted to be appointed to the Hydrographic Office to work on sailing directions for publication in The Australia Directory (London, 1830).

Roe's service on the India Station had affected his health. He was recuperating from a severe illness when he was offered the post of surveyor-general at the new settlement to be established at Swan River. To enable him to accept the position the Admiralty gave him two years leave, later extended for over forty years. From the time he arrived in the transport Parmelia in June 1829 until his death, Roe was influential in the development of Western Australia. He made surveys of the sea approaches to the Swan River, surveyed the sites of Fremantle and Perth, and 'with one sickly assistant' superintended the marking of the town lots and land taken up by the pioneer settlers. He was responsible for drawing up most of the land regulations. As surveyor-general he became a member of the Executive and Legislative Councils. He was interested in civic development and was the sponsor of many early moves in the progress of Perth. Additional duties, such as that of registrar of brands, he accepted with reluctance but dutifully carried out.

He was active in founding the Swan River Mechanics' Institute and was its president for many years. This became Perth's first cultural centre. His collection of botanical specimens won him membership of the Linnean Society; later he extended his collection to include zoology and mineralogy and thus laid the foundations of what became the Perth Museum. The claim has been made that Roe was responsible for setting aside for public use King's Park, a reserve in which Perth takes particular pride. Roe certainly noted as early as 31 December 1830 that 'the neighbourhood of Mt Eliza [King's Park] is reserved for public purposes'; but others, notably Governor (Sir) Frederick Weld, Sir John Forrest and Sir Malcolm Fraser, were more closely associated with the moves that created the reserve in perpetuity.

Roe left records of sixteen journeys of exploration. The first eight, between 1830 and 1835 were comparatively short trips to the south and the south-west. In 1836 he went east of Perth for about 180 miles (290 km) and then north for 100 miles (161 km). Three years later he led a party north to succour men from Captain George Grey's expedition. His final expedition in 1848-49 occupied five months and took him to Russell Range east of Esperance. The privations he suffered in this arid region and the fatigues of the journey caused him to note that he was past the age for such work.

Historians have called Roe 'the father of Australian explorers'. This title takes into account not only the survey work he did on the Australian coast and his inland expeditions but the inspiration he gave to such younger explorers as John and Alexander Forrest, who were with him as surveyors, and the Gregory brothers, who also worked with him. Roe's capacity for work, his ability to apply himself, his careful keeping of records, and his will to succeed earned the respect of all who were closely associated with him. His was not a warm character but one that commanded respect and admiration.

In 1860 Roe revisited England but did not remain long. While there he applied for promotion to commander, but three years passed before the rank was granted, 'with no extra emoluments'. He retired in August 1870. One of the last entries in his diary read: 'I have not been an idle man in my generation'.

In January 1829 by special arrangement Roe had married Matilda Bennett, of the Isle of Man, a few weeks before he sailed from Portsmouth in the Parmelia. His letters at that time display an unsuspected tenderness: he wooed his Matilda with importunate ardour and pestered officials so that they could marry in the short time between his appointment and the departure of the Parmelia. The first of their thirteen children was born on Christmas Day 1829 and was among the first born at Swan River. Several of their sons were prominent in public life in Western Australia. Roe's name is perpetuated in several places in Western Australia, such as Roebourne in the Pilbara, Roe Street in Perth and Roe Highway, a major thoroughfare in Perth’s south and east. A granite memorial erected in 1956 in Kings Park overlooks the Swan River, and a bronze statue of Roe, commissioned in 1990, stands at the corner of Adelaide Terrace and Victoria Avenue in the city centre.

Roe died on 28 May 1878. His wife had predeceased him by a few years. According to his obituary in the Perth Inquirer and Commercial News, 'His hands were clean: he never used the privileges of his post unduly to his own advantage or the advancement of his numerous family'. In public tributes to his long service to the colony regret was expressed that he had not received all the honours he deserved.

Select Bibliography

  • P. P. King, Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1827)
  • F. R. Mercer, Amazing Career: The Story of Western Australia's First Surveyor-General (Perth, 1962)
  • West Australian, 31 May 1878
  • P. U. Henn, genealogical notes (State Library of Western Australia)
  • John Roe papers (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

Malcolm Uren, 'Roe, John Septimus (1797–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 20 May 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 Septimus Roe (1797-1878), by unknown photographer

John Septimus Roe (1797-1878), by unknown photographer

State Library of Western Australia, 007093D

Life Summary [details]


8 May, 1797
Newbury, Berkshire, England


28 May, 1878 (aged 81)
Western Australia, Australia

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