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Watson, George John (1829–1906)

by Jill Eastwood

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

George John Watson (1829-1906), by unknown photographer, 1877

George John Watson (1829-1906), by unknown photographer, 1877

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S24/11/77/141

George John Watson (1829-1906), racing entrepreneur, was born at Ballydarton, County Carlow, Ireland, son of John Watson, gentleman, justice of the peace and master of foxhounds. George was schooled at Kilkenny College and brought up amongst hounds and horses. Although intended for the army, he decided to make his way in Australia and arrived in Melbourne in March 1850. On 20 August at St James's Church, Melbourne, he married Sarah Jane Townsend.

In 1851 Watson became lessee of Kirk's Bazaar, the leading colonial horse sale-yard; his gentlemanly demeanour, business skill and honesty made it a lucrative concern and a headquarters for sportsmen. In November 1857, with Cyrus Hewitt, he won the mail contracts between Melbourne and Sandhurst (Bendigo) and Melbourne and Ballarat, and bought the two operating Cobb & Co. coachlines. In December they won the Beechworth mail contract which had a £10,000 government subsidy; their purchase of the Beechworth coachline was financed by the sale of their other lines. For some six months their manager on the run was J. Rutherford who, with his American drivers, kept the tight contract schedule of 200 miles (322 km) in 26 hours.

On forfeiting the Beechworth contract in 1860, Watson and Hewitt sold the line and repurchased the Sandhurst line in June, only to lose its contract and sell the line to (A. W.) Robertson and Britton next year. Watson's partnership with Hewitt was dissolved in October 1862. In the 1860s and 1870s Watson retained an interest in the coaching business and was a partner until July 1880 in A. W. Robertson's firm of Robertson & Co.; in 1868 he made news by driving one of the Beechworth coaches all the way from Wangaratta to Melbourne in fifteen hours, including a 'far from hasty dinner' at Avenel. He also bred, trained and spelled horses on a large scale on Riverina properties, which he leased with Hewitt until 1862, and at I.Y.U., near Pakenham. He owned 4779 acres (1934 ha) of I.Y.U. in 1872-84.

Watson was a member of the first committee of the Victoria Racing Club in March 1864 and was an owner, committee-man and starter into his old age. His main interest was steeplechasing in which he was an outstanding amateur rider and successful owner. His colours of cerise and black won on the flat also; his horse Flying Colours took out the Derby in 1860 and he won the first Oaks Stakes at Flemington in 1861 with Palestine. His great skill, harsh discipline and forceful language as starter brought him world fame and the nickname 'Prince of Starters'; once, after the splendid start of a large Melbourne Cup field, the enormous crowd cheered him again and again. His superb horsemanship, ability and integrity made him one of the most respected men in Victorian racing.

Watson had brought several couples from the famous Carlow pack to Melbourne and when in 1853 he bought the pick of local hounds, he founded the Melbourne Hunt Club and developed the fastest and best pack in the colony. In the 1850s they chased kangaroo and emu and later red deer imported by Thomas Chirnside. He hunted until 1895 when his son Godfrey became deputy-master. Watson carried the traditions of an old Irish hunting family to Australia. His face, 'well-cut and clean-shaven', often reminded people of pictures of Wellington; his courage, judgment and straightforward dealing made him one of the best known and most popular men of his time. He died, aged 80, at his home in St Kilda on 11 July 1906 and was buried in the St Kilda cemetery. He was survived by six sons and a daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Humphreys (ed), Men of the Time in Australia: Victorian series, 1st ed (Melb, 1878)
  • T. W. H. Leavitt and W. D. Lilburn (eds), The Jubilee History of Victoria and Melbourne (Melb, 1888)
  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • K. A. Austin, The Lights of Cobb and Co. (Adel, 1967)
  • H. B. Ronald, Hounds are Running (Kilmore, 1970)
  • Australasian Sketcher, 24 Nov 1877
  • Australasian, 31 Oct 1891, 27 May 1899
  • Argus (Melbourne), 11 July 1906
  • Australian Sporting Celebrities, 9 (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Jill Eastwood, 'Watson, George John (1829–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/watson-george-john-4810/text8019, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 20 November 2019.

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

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