Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Rowntree, Thomas Stephenson (1818–1902)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Thomas Stephenson Rowntree (1818-1902), by unknown photographer

Thomas Stephenson Rowntree (1818-1902), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 12949

Thomas Stephenson Rowntree (1818-1902), master mariner and shipbuilder, was born on 7 July 1818 at Sunderland, County Durham, England, son of William Rowntree, marine captain, and his wife Mary, née Dodds. Apprenticed at 14 to a shipwright he went to sea at 20 as a ship's carpenter. In 1842-52 he commanded vessels in the English, Baltic and Mediterranean trades. With John Webber he commissioned the building of the 206-ton Lizzie Webber for the Australian coastal trade, sailed from Sunderland with his family and other passengers on 1 August 1852, and reached Melbourne on 4 December. His trading was affected by new port regulations and he settled at Balmain, New South Wales.

In 1853 Rowntree sold his ship to lay down a patent slip. With Thomas Mort and J. S. Mitchell, as Rowntree & Co., he acquired more land at Balmain and formed the Waterview Dry Dock Co. The dock was opened in 1855 and Rowntree, with eighteen sixty-fourths of the stock, leased it for shipwrighting until the Peninsular and Oriental Co. took it over in 1858, leaving him as sub-lessee. An official undertaking that the proposed new Fitzroy Dock would not be available for private use was not kept and Rowntree's business slackened. In 1860 he petitioned Governor Denison for relief against 'ruinous competition'. Rowntree withdrew from the company in 1861, did not renew his sub-lease and it was taken over by John Cuthbert.

In 1855-57 he testified at parliamentary select committees on marine and related matters. He built several steamships at Waterview Bay and in 1864 took sixteen men and a sawmill in his boat Caroline to New Zealand. From the Hokianga district he exported timber including kauri to Sydney. He returned with his family in 1869 and resumed building and repairing ships at Balmain. In 1872, with financial assistance from Robert Towns and (Sir) Alexander Stuart, he bought the floating dock at Darling Harbour but sold it in 1880 and restarted business at Balmain.

Popular and community-spirited, Rowntree was closely identified with the progress of his district: he was an alderman and mayor of Balmain, helped found the local School of Arts in 1850 and was a magistrate and electoral returning officer for many years. He was a member of the Marine Board of New South Wales. A founder of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, he revived the Anniversary Day Regatta and in 1858-64 enjoyed racing, winning seven trophies with his boats Annie Ogle, Lenan and Leisure Hour.

Rowntree lived in Northumberland House, Darling Street, Balmain, and died there on 17 December 1902; he was buried in the Anglican section of Balmain cemetery. Probate of his estate was sworn at £9126. He was survived by three daughters of his first wife Elizabeth, née Potts, whom he had married in Sunderland in 1839, and by his second wife Annie, née Ogle, whom he had married in Sunderland in 1847, and by their two sons and two daughters. His younger son Cameron Sutcliffe opened a large and successful general store at Quirindi, New South Wales, and his daughter Adelaide married Felix Randle, chairman of the Sydney Stock Exchange. There is a monument to Rowntree at Balmain.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Digby (ed), Australian Men of Mark, vol 1 (Syd, 1889)
  • A Barnard, Visions and Profits (Melb, 1961)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1855, 3, 235
  • Select Committee on the Hunter River, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1856-57, 3, p 32 of report
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 31 Aug 1872
  • Town and Country Journal, 24 Dec 1902.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Rowntree, Thomas Stephenson (1818–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 2 December 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Thomas Stephenson Rowntree (1818-1902), by unknown photographer

Thomas Stephenson Rowntree (1818-1902), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 12949