Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Yabsley (1812–1880)

by Louise T. Daley

This article was published:

William Yabsley (1812-1880), shipwright, ship-owner and pastoralist, was born on 2 February 1812 at Plympton, St Maurice, Plymouth, Devonshire, England, eldest son of John Yabsley, an agricultural worker, and his wife Agnes, née Elliott. William was probably apprenticed to a farmer in his youth. In 1833 he enlisted as a shipwright at the Royal Dockyard, Devonport. In the same year he married Magdalen, daughter of John and Bridget Ryder. He entered the navy on 16 February 1837 as carpenter's mate in the Beagle and sailed on 4 July for Australia under Captain J. C. Wickham. On 31 August 1838, after the Beagle had arrived in Sydney, he ran from the ship.

To escape from the Sydney police Yabsley sailed in the John for the Clarence River in search of a job as cedar-getter or shipwright. When his wife joined him in 1840 he started to build his first ship, the Providence, but sold it before he moved with his bullocks to the Richmond River in 1843. At Ballina he built the Pelican, launched in 1848 and wrecked in June 1852 at Terrigal.

In 1850, as the timber trade increased, Yabsley took over the lease of Brook station and built a dealer's store and timber-yard at Coraki. Here he built the 80-ton Coraki in 1858, followed by the 160-ton Schoolboy, launched in August 1864. In the 1860s as the number of workers at Coraki increased, he turned to farming, taking up selections for his four sons and helping his employees to do the same by advancing them the first deposit. He bought cattle and in 1865 built a slaughter-house and store, followed by a training yard for the bullocks. He enlisted many young boys as apprentices.

When Yabsley's largest ship, the 265-ton Examiner, was launched at Coraki on 25 July 1870 he was well known to shipping interests in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. The Examiner was the pride of the river; when she ran aground on 1 May 1872 at the entrance of the Clarence River, few people thought she could be saved but she was lifted a mile (1.6 km) across the sand and launched into the river again—significant proof of Yabsley's skill and determination.

On 1 May 1874 the steam tug, Index, was launched to assist the Schoolboy and Examiner on the long trip from Ballina to Coraki. Under Captain Lachlan McKinnon she also earned good money towing sailing ships up and down the river and served as a general carrier. Yabsley's last vessel, the Beagle, was launched at Coraki on 16 December 1876, fitted with a new type of engine. He was drowned on 21 January 1880 when returning from Casino in the river steamer Vesta and was buried with Anglican rites in Coraki cemetery. He was survived by his wife, three sons and four daughters. His personalty was valued for probate at £9000.

Select Bibliography

  • L. T. Daley, Men and a River (Melb, 1966)
  • R. Parsons, Australian Shipowners and their Fleets, vol 2 (Lobethal, 1973)
  • C. Yabsley Reminiscences, Northern Star (Lismore), 1926-27
  • Yabsley family records (University of New England, and Richmond River Historical Society)
  • HMS Beagle, Adm 54/24, reel 1610
  • Adm 38-7618 (National Archives of the United Kingdom)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Louise T. Daley, 'Yabsley, William (1812–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 15 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

Life Summary [details]


2 February, 1812
Plymouth, Devon, England


21 January, 1880 (aged 67)
at sea

Cause of Death

shipping accident

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Passenger Ship