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Robert Towns (1794–1873)

by D. Shineberg

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Robert Towns (1794-1873), merchant and entrepreneur, was born on 10 November 1794 in Long Horsley, Northumberland, England, son of Edward Towns and his wife Ann, née Pyle (Ryle). He had little formal education and was apprenticed to the master of a collier out of North Shields. Determined to improve his position in life, he studied navigation at night when his ship was in port. At 17 he became a mate and within two years had command of a brig in the Mediterranean trade. In 1827 he arrived in Sydney in the Bona Vista with a general cargo and in 1832 he brought out his own ship, the Brothers; in 1839 he bought the Royal Saxon. In 1832-42 he made a voyage to Sydney almost every year, each time staying briefly to seek profitable investments and buy property. On 28 December 1833 at St Phillip's church, Sydney Towns married Sophia, the 17-year-old half-sister of William Charles Wentworth, who had arrived in the Brothers that year.

On 9 March 1843 Towns arrived in the Seahorse via Launceston to settle in Sydney; his wife and son followed in the Royal Saxon in June 1844. He was authorized to represent Robert Brooks & Co., London, in the colony and soon established himself as a mercantile agent. He told Brooks, 'I am thinking of investing any means I have in small vessels for the Colonial Trade', and in 1844 he bought the Elizabeth. He sent her to the New Hebrides for sandalwood and she arrived in China with a full cargo to profit by a rise in prices. That year he bought 'Jones's wharf' and moved to Miller's Point; he worked every day from 6 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. — 'as regular as the platipus', he said — for the next twenty years, supervising multifarious enterprises, and sending explosive letters to his captains, agents and business associates all over the world.

Towns's ships went to New Caledonia, the Loyalty Islands and the New Hebrides for sandalwood and trepang; by 1850 he had established a depot at the Isle of Pines near New Caledonia, where it was collected, prepared for the market and stored for transport to China. Anxious to reduce competition, from 1856 he combined with Captain James Paddon in a relationship of mutual respect and dislike; they also supplied the new French colony of New Caledonia and brought in settlers. In the 1850s Towns added to his stations in Melanesia and worked the Gilbert and Marshall islands for the collection of coconut-oil and turtle-shell. The high risks prevented insurance of his ships in Sydney and the market was unpredictable at the China ports; but he made his first substantial profits in the island trade and was able to invest them in more certain enterprises. By 1856 he employed ten whalers, though the industry had suffered much from the labour shortage of 'this infernal gold discovery'. He brought out labourers from England, Germany, India and China, and later Asians for other employers; he claimed that he had 'saved Moreton Bay from ruin' with Chinese.

Associated with the reorganization of the Bank of New South Wales, Towns was a director in 1850-55 and 1861-67 and its president in 1853-55 and 1866-67. By the 1850s he was a large landholder and his shipping business extended to Europe, the East and India. Agreeing that he had 'too many irons in the fire', by early 1855 he had taken (Sir) Alexander Stuart as a partner under the style of R. Towns & Co. He was a committee-man of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce for many years and president in 1856-57, 1863 and 1865. He was also a director of the Sydney Gold Escort Co. in the 1850s. A magistrate and member of the Pilot Board, he gave evidence to several parliamentary select committees on marine matters and in the 1860s sat on the committee of the Sydney Bethel Union.

About 1856 Towns began a feud with W. C. Wentworth over his wife's share of the D'Arcy Wentworth patrimony. In 1858 the Privy Council upheld the Supreme Court's decision that her brother John's estate went to Wentworth, who refused to pay John's debts to Towns out of the disputed estate as Towns had put him to much legal expense. Towns filed a suit in chancery in 1860 on Sophia's original share of D'Arcy's estate.

In 1856 he had been one of the first (quinquennial) appointments to the Legislative Council. Towns defended the mercantile interest and was opposed to 'democracy'. On 10 May 1861 he resigned in support of the president Sir William Burton. In 1858-60 he visited England, and in 1859 served on a London committee to help E. C. Merewether negotiate a steam postal service between Sydney and England. He was reappointed to the council in 1863.

Towns dismayed Stuart with his expansion of interests, especially in Queensland. One of the subscribers to George Dalrymple's 1859 expedition in the far north, in the 1860s Towns took up land on the Darling Downs, along the Brisbane and Logan rivers and then vast areas in north Queensland. He foreclosed on pastoralists, often retaining them as managers, and leased properties in 'unsettled districts'. By 1867 he held 42 runs, amounting to almost 2000 sq. miles (5180 km²) in the North and South Kennedy districts alone; 94 runs in partnership with Stuart, including over 1200 sq. miles (3108 km²) in the Burke District, and 60 with Stuart and (Sir) Charles Cowper, including nearly 400 sq. miles (1036 km²) in the Warrego District.

In England Towns had discussed the prospects of growing cotton. On his return he undertook a project on 1280 acres (518 ha) on the Logan, but believed it would never pay 'with labour at the rate of Colonial Wages'. In May 1861 he gave (Sir) Henry Parkes letters of introduction to English cotton interests, hoping to attract immigrants. In May 1863 Towns sent the schooner Don Juan to get Melanesian labourers; the captain had a letter seeking the co-operation of missionaries. The first shipload of seventy-three islanders arrived in August; many of them had already worked for him in the islands. He had provided contracts for them for up to twelve months, with wages of 10s. a month with food and housing, and a provision that they should be repatriated if they wished.  A 133 ton schooner owned by Towns, the Melanie, was also employed in pearling in northern Western Australia waters in 1869, a time when Aboriginal labourers were often forcibly impressed to do the diving work involved.  The vessel is thought to have reached the pearling grounds by way of the Kimberley coast, where kidnapping of Aboriginal people had been reported.

Towns failed in his bid to get the support of 'the Exeter Hall Mob', but continued to import Melanesians despite an outburst in the press; he printed his instructions to the master of the Don Juan and his letter to the missionaries in his South Sea Island Immigration for Cotton Culture (Sydney, 1863). He failed to form a colony of islanders on his plantations as he could never induce married men to bring their wives. The Queensland Polynesian Labourers Act, 1868, convinced Towns that bureaucratic control had made islanders more expensive to employ than Europeans, although he was not opposed to proper safeguards. In evidence to the royal commission into the alleged kidnapping of natives of the Loyalty Islands in 1869, he advised that recruiting ships should be licensed, with 'a proper official … duly accredited by the Government to prevent any abuses'; his suggestion was incorporated in regulations next year, and proved the most effective of the rules. Towns did not expect immediate gains from the cotton crop, but he hoped to do well by the bounty of £10 per bale payable in Queensland land orders. However, the cotton never made a profit and the bounty only saved the enterprise from ruin. In 1868 the Logan plantation showed a deficit of £5744.

At 70 Towns was urged to retire by Stuart, Brooks and other friends. But new enterprises were the stuff of life to him: in 1863 he had justified to Brooks a branch in Dunedin, New Zealand, as 'self-defence … but you will I fear say I am past warning'. In partnership with J. M. Black he took up land on Cleveland Bay, Queensland, in 1865; by mid-year they had a woolstore, wharf and boiling-down works there and owned the adjoining land. Towns soon reported that the 'Government have paid me the compliment to call the town “Townsville”'. Disillusioned with cotton, he now concentrated on Townsville and his Queensland stations, envisaging his own ships carrying his own wool out of his own harbour.

With J. G. Macdonald and (Sir) John Robertson Towns also took up and stocked stations on the Gulf of Carpentaria. They founded Burketown on the Albert River in 1865, dreaming of a flourishing port closer to the world markets than those of the older colonies. That year Towns & Co. dispatched the first vessel from Sydney to the Albert, the Jacmel Packet, with a strange cargo of pigs, dogs, fowls, horses, building materials, drays, rations and rum for the founders of Burketown.

By mid-1865 Towns had conceded a little to his friends by moving to Cranbrook, Rose Bay, bought from Robert Tooth: he grumbled that 'I suppose I shall [settle] down to it but it is a monster effort'. That year he was elected a member of the Union Club; an early member of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, he owned the Nautilus, the first steam yacht on Sydney Harbour. He continued working his old ships, against the advice of Stuart, who in 1871 grimly reported to Brooks that the firm was 'steadily working down the debt … but it is grinding work'.

Towns suffered a stroke in 1870, but recovered and continued in active business. Soon after another stroke he died at Cranbrook on 11 April 1873 and was buried in the Balmain cemetery with Anglican rites, survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters. Leaving personal estate valued for probate at £74,000 he stipulated that his son Robert should be disinherited unless he conducted himself over the next five years 'in a sober reputable proper and becoming manner'. Daughter Sarah was also to lose her inheritance if either she or her children left the Church of England.

Towns was the incarnation of the puritan virtues of thrift, sobriety, industry and 'perseverance'. Bluff and peppery, with simple habits, he was respected by all for his honesty, reliability and especially for his energy and his 'never ending speculative spirit'. By many of his employees he was known as a cheese-parer, full of furious criticism for failure but few words of praise for success. 'A hard but a just master' was about the most flattering comment to come from an employee; it was one that would have pleased him. In the 21st century, a statue of Towns in Townsville’s main street attracted attention from descendants of Melanesian labourers wishing to draw attention to 19th century ‘blackbirding’.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Commission on Alleged Kidnapping of Natives of the Loyalty Islands (Syd, 1869. Microfilm under Misc. Documents ML, and G1819 Roy Navy Aust Station NL)
  • D. Shineberg, They Came for Sandalwood (Melb, 1967)
  • Select Committees on Asiatic Labour and the Proposed Nautical School, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1854, 2, 1855, 2, 1079
  • R. Brooks and Co. papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • R. Towns papers, and R. Towns & Co. papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • uncatalogued MS 307 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript and printed catalogues (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

D. Shineberg, 'Towns, Robert (1794–1873)', 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

Robert Towns (1794-1873), by unknown artist

Robert Towns (1794-1873), by unknown artist

Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society, P10\P10613

Life Summary [details]


10 November, 1794
Long Horsley, Northumberland, England


11 April, 1873 (aged 78)
Rose Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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