Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Twizell Wawn (1837–1901)

by Peter Corris

This article was published:

William Twizell Wawn (1837-1901), mariner, cartographer, artist and author, was born on 6 January 1837 at Boldon, County Durham, England, eldest son of John Twizell Wawn, banker and M.P., and his wife Mary, née Matterson, of York. After a sound education he entered a York architect's office which suited his talents with a pencil but not his wider vision, and he abandoned the drafting board for the deck probably before he was 20.

As a young man he served in sailing ships trading between India and England. He became a second mate in 1861, a first mate next year and in 1863 he shipped aboard the New Great Britain from London to New Zealand. In November or December he left the ship at Twofold Bay, New South Wales, to begin his long association with Australia and the Pacific islands. He visited England in 1865 to get his master's certificate.

In 1867 Wawn gathered bêche-de-mer off Queensland, and next year he made his first visit to the islands, probably to Samoa. In 1870 he took command of the Mary Ira and began five years trading, salvaging and beach-combing among the islands of the western Pacific. He returned to Sydney in January 1875 and later that year made his first voyage in the island labour trade in which, off and on, he spent the next twenty years. Wawn met all the typical troubles of a labour trade skipper. He was also shipwrecked and accidentally shot a recruit; his vessel's government agent was murdered. He recruited for Queensland and for Fiji, under sail and under steam. Something of a misanthropist, Wawn was intensely critical of his fellow Europeans, and never concealed his disapproval of the manners of the Pacific islands people but he did not deny their intelligence and resourcefulness. His book, The South Sea Islanders and the Queensland Labour Trade (London, 1893), is a valuable, sensitive and subtle account of the nature of the trade.

Wawn made his last recruiting voyage in 1894 and in 1895-1900 mined, commanded a vessel trading between Sydney and the Gilbert Islands and managed a copra hulk in Levuka Harbour. In 1901 he retired to Sydney with 'a fair competence'. He frequented the National Art Gallery and probably painted and drew. Collections of his drawings of islanders and fish are preserved in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, and some are still owned by the Wawn family in Durham, England.

Late in June he was knocked down by a cab and blood poisoning set in. He died on 5 July and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. There is a sketched self-portrait of Wawn in his manuscript, 'Amongst the Pacific Islands' (Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand), and a photograph of him taken in his thirties is in the Fiji Museum, Suva.

Select Bibliography

  • W. T. Wawn, The South Sea Islanders and the Queensland Labour Trade, P. Corris ed (Canb, 1973)
  • Wawn private logs, 1888-1900 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Peter Corris, 'Wawn, William Twizell (1837–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 26 May 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

Life Summary [details]


6 January, 1837
Boldon, Durham, England


5 July, 1901 (aged 64)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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