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Joseph Underwood (1779–1833)

by D. R. Hainsworth

This article was published:

Joseph Underwood (1779-1833), merchant and sealing master, arrived in New South Wales in the Sydney Cove in June 1807. He bore a letter of introduction from the Secretary of State to the governor and was accompanied by his wife and a 'large yet infant family'. In March 1810 he told Governor Lachlan Macquarie that his knowledge of 'mechanics' had caught the attention of 'prominent Englishmen', that he had invested large sums in various building projects in Sydney, and that he was engaged in mercantile speculations. During the next fifteen years Underwood conducted a series of importing enterprises from India and London; unlike other Sydney merchants, he preferred to supervise the voyages personally. Of one ship in 1821 he was not only owner but master as well. In 1810 he sailed for Calcutta in the Marian, chartered her to the Bengal government, and returned to Sydney in the Campbell Macquarie in March 1811 with a valuable cargo including spirits. She was probably Underwood's property, but was mortgaged to her nominal owners, Alexander & Co., as part security for her cargo and also to evade the monopoly of the East India Co. This ship brought another Indian cargo for Underwood in January 1812. Underwood then sought to persuade Macquarie that it would be legal to ship New South Wales produce to the Cape of Good Hope in his vessel and exchange it there for Cape wine for the Australian market; when Macquarie disagreed Underwood sent the ship to Macquarie Island on a sealing expedition. There she was wrecked and totally destroyed in June 1812.

Underwood came to the New South Wales sealing industry after its best days were over, but seems to have made a success of sea-elephant hunting in which the object was oil rather than skins. In December 1811 he bought the 186-ton King George, built by his brother James, and employed her in sealing, whaling and bringing pork from Tahiti in 1815, 1817 and 1819. In addition he bought the locally-built 86-ton schooner Elizabeth and Mary, and for fifteen years employed her in sealing and in carrying cedar and coal from the Hunter River. In September 1813 he made another voyage to Asia, sailing to China with his wife in the Archduke Charles with a consignment of sealskins, sold them well, probably invested in Chinese merchandise, and sailed for Bengal, where he acquired a new Campbell Macquarie and brought her to Sydney with a valuable cargo of teas, china ware, rice and spirits. On the way to Sydney he came across the half-derelict Seringapatam, which her skeleton crew claimed to have recaptured from an American cruiser which had taken her; he escorted her to Sydney and acted as the crew's agent in salvage claims. The Campbell Macquarie made three round trips to Calcutta and Batavia in 1816-17 and it seems likely that Underwood accompanied her as supercargo. In 1818 he was involved in an abortive Indian speculation with Samuel Terry, Robert Campbell junior, and Thomas Winder, but this did not take him out of the country. He went to England in 1819, arriving back in Sydney early in 1821 in his new ship Midas; though she later sailed to Mauritius, Underwood appears to have abandoned overseas voyages after 1821. Before going to England he had bought Ashfield Park from Robert Campbell senior; in August 1821 he was granted 1500 acres (607 ha) and took up land near Newcastle in 1822. In 1828 he still was a merchant operating from George Street, but owned 3758 acres (1521 ha), with 480 (194 ha) cleared, and more than 1000 head of cattle; in 1829 he claimed that during the past eighteen years he had provided employment for an average of between 150 and 200 men annually on various enterprises. He was a subscriber to charities and church building and prominent on committees of various kinds during the 1820s.

Underwood died at Ashfield Park on 30 August 1833, aged 54. His first wife Charlotte had died in February 1818, and he married Mrs Elizabeth Lang, the daughter of the emancipist John Harris, at Dover on his arrival there from Australia in the Surry in 1819. For some reason they went through a second marriage ceremony at Parramatta in 1829. Underwood had several children by his first wife, including at least two sons, Richard and Thomas, born in England and still living with him in 1828, and at least five others born in the colony, only two of whom seem to have survived infancy. By his second marriage he had four daughters and two sons. The elder, Frederick, was born in 1820 in England, and died at Bathurst in 1904.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 2, 8-10, 13
  • manuscript catalogue under Joseph Underwood (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Supreme Court records (State Records New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

D. R. Hainsworth, 'Underwood, Joseph (1779–1833)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 20 June 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]


12 July, 1779
London, Middlesex, England


30 August, 1833 (aged 54)
Ashfield, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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