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Samuel White Sweet (1825–1886)

by Allan Sierp

This article was published:

Samuel White Sweet (1825-1886), by unknown photographer

Samuel White Sweet (1825-1886), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 5959

Samuel White Sweet (1825-1886), sea captain, surveyor and photographer, was born on 1 May 1825 at Portsea, Hampshire, England. He probably joined the navy in 1844, served on the China Station for five years and had several voyages to India. In 1858-62 as commander of the Pizarro he kept the meteorological log for the Board of Trade, and in 1861 he surveyed Peña Blanca harbour, South America. He had spent six years working for N. J. Myers Son & Co. of Liverpool as a master, his last ship being the Sarah Neumann. About 1863 he spent two years in Queensland, hoping to grow cotton; in 1867 he moved to Rundle Street, Adelaide, and worked as a photographer.

In January 1869 Sweet took command of the two-masted schooner Gulnare, which was later bought by the South Australian government for the Northern Territory survey expedition. He sailed from Adelaide on 12 February, returning in June, and again in February 1870 to collect more supplies. He also visited Timor and returned to Palmerston (Darwin) on 15 September with eighteen buffaloes, ponies, monkeys, fruit and vegetables. In September in Darwin he photographed the official party at the ceremonial planting of the first pole of the overland telegraph; he also took pictures of the township, the men at work and forest scenery. In November he sailed to the Roper River and took part in the survey there before sailing to Normanton, Queensland, for more supplies, returning in March 1871. In October on his way back to the Roper from Darwin the Gulnare grounded on a reef near the Vernon Islands and by 1872 was condemned.

In January Sweet, a disciplinarian, was piloting the Bengal and other ships, surveying and navigating the Roper, but by the end of April he was back in Adelaide. He spent the next three years as master mariner in the Black Diamond Line of colliers but on 11 May 1875 his ship the Wallaroo, with his wife aboard, ran aground in a gale on Office Beach, Wallaroo. An inquiry attributed it to Sweet's error of judgment, and he was censured. He retired from the sea, opened a photographic studio in Adelaide and concentrated on landscapes. With his horse-drawn dark room he travelled through South Australia taking hundreds of skilful pictures of the outback, stations and homesteads. The colony's foremost documentary photographer of the 1870s, in the early 1880s he was one of the first to use the new dry-plate process. A large collection of his photographs is held by the South Australian Archives.

Before migrating to Australia Sweet had married Elizabeth Tilly. They had four daughters and five sons. He died suddenly of sunstroke on 4 January 1886 at Halldale near Riverton. His estate was sworn for probate at £440.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Cato, The Story of the Camera in Australia (Melb, 1955)
  • M. G. Kerr, The Surveyors (Adel, 1971)
  • R. Parsons, ‘Ships of the overland telegraph’, Australasian Shipping Record, 30 Sept 1972
  • Register (Adelaide), 29 Nov 1871, 13, 17 May, 12 Aug
  • 1875
  • S. W. Sweet papers and photographs (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Allan Sierp, 'Sweet, Samuel White (1825–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Samuel White Sweet (1825-1886), by unknown photographer

Samuel White Sweet (1825-1886), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 5959

Life Summary [details]


1 May, 1825
Portsmouth, Hampshire, England


4 January, 1886 (aged 60)
Riverton, South Australia, Australia

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.