Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Townson (1759–1835)

by M. Austin

This article was published:

John Townson (1759?-1835), army officer and settler, was probably baptized on 4 November 1759 at Clapham, Yorkshire, England. He was the son of John Townson, merchant, and the elder brother of Robert Townson. He was appointed ensign in the 18th Regiment on 13 October 1779 and promoted lieutenant in July 1780. His regiment suppressed a dangerous mutiny at Guernsey and formed part of the Gibraltar garrison after the siege was lifted in 1783. He transferred to the New South Wales Corps in October 1789 and arrived in the colony in the Scarborough in June 1790.

Most of his military service in the colony was spent on Norfolk Island, where he was stationed for some six years between late 1791 and late 1799. He was a member of the court of inquiry in 1794 which investigated Lieutenant-Governor Philip Gidley King's actions during the mutiny on the island the previous year. In May 1795 he was promoted captain and from September 1796 until November 1799 acted as lieutenant-governor of Norfolk Island while King was absent in England.

Townson's administration of the island was generally efficient and he appears to have had a steadying influence on its inhabitants. One noteworthy achievement was the building in 1798 of the sloop Norfolk, which was used later that year by Matthew Flinders to circumnavigate Van Diemen's Land. Although he enjoyed the esteem of King, Townson and Governor John Hunter each lacked confidence in the other, and Townson's complaints to the Duke of Portland doubtless played their part in Hunter's recall. Although he stipulated that he would remain until King returned, his leave was approved and he departed early in 1800 for England where through illness, he retired by sale of his commission in July 1803.

He returned to the colony in August 1806 armed with a letter stating the intention of the secretary of state to direct Governor William Bligh to grant him 2000 acres (809 ha). Bligh declined to do this until he received specific instructions, although he said he would allow Townson to select, occupy and make use of the land. This Townson refused as he felt it would leave him at the will and pleasure of Bligh, and he was about to leave the colony when his brother Robert arrived in July 1807. In December the secretary of state directed that the grant be made, along with others which, though promised, Bligh had been unwilling to execute without official authority, but the order had not reached Sydney when the rebellion occurred in January 1808. In July Major George Johnston granted Townson 2000 acres (809 ha) in the Bexley and Hurstville districts, and next year he received 250 (101 ha) more from Lieutenant-Governor William Paterson; this was all regranted by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1810 and, because of Townson's severe illness, without the usual restrictions on their alienation. After a brief visit to Van Diemen's Land in the summer of 1811-12, Townson sold his grants and thereafter spent most of his time developing further grants which he had received near Kelso on the River Tamar. He inherited a quarter of his brother Robert's estate in 1827 and died in Sydney on 8 July 1835, leaving an estate sworn at £5000 to his nephew, Captain John Witts, R.M., his nieces and his two sisters.

An efficient, if unspectacular administrator, Townson does not seem to have been engaged in the rum traffic and unlike his younger brother Robert did not take an active part in the 'rum rebellion'. He appears to have been generally well liked by his contemporaries, although his marked deafness and ill health, which no doubt debarred him from taking an active part in public life, earned him in his middle and later years a reputation of being unsettled and querulous.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-9, series 3, vols 2-4
  • Philip Gidley King, letterbook. 1797-1806 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Piper pipers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

M. Austin, 'Townson, John (1759–1835)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 22 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

Life Summary [details]




8 May, 1835 (aged ~ 76)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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