Launceston Up Close

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Lt Col William Paterson - A Dubious Leader

Posted on 21 October, 2017 at 21:20

The gentleman that led the settlers to eventually establish the spot that became Launceston was one Lieutenant Colonel William Paterson. An army man that probably should not have been in the army!

As the son of a gardener from near Glamis Castle in Scotland, Paterson’s first love was botany. And it was as a botanist he spent several early years in South Africa collecting plants and sending them back to England. He was sponsored by the Countess of Strathmore who had an interest in botany and associated with luminaries, such as Sir Joseph Banks, the president of the Royal Society.

In 1789, Paterson actually published a journal based on his African trip, entitled, ‘Narrative Of Four Journeys into the Country of Hottentots and Caffraria’, and he dedicated this book to Banks rather than his patron, the Countess, as she had lost control of her fortune to a new husband who refused to reimburse Paterson for debts incurred on her behalf in Africa.

Paterson was now broke and professionally embarrassed and instead of a career as a botanist, he joined the army as an ensign and went to India. He continued his correspondence with Sir Joseph Banks and wrote of further specimens he had acquired from the sub-continent region. He was promoted to Lieutenant while there and later in 1789 when he returned to England, he was promoted to Captain in the New South Wales Corps. He sailed to join the Corps in 1891, where he was immediately given command of Norfolk Island.

He continued to collect and send botanic and insect samples to Banks, until he returned to Sydney in 1793. Here he continued his botanic habit and also attempted to cross The Blue Mountains, but like so many others, he was unsuccessful. He also became second in command of the NSW Corps and when his boss, Major Francis Grose left Sydney, Paterson assumed command of the colony in an administrative role until Governor John Hunter arrived 9 months later.

It was during this time that the NSW Corps became an almost evil entity in its own right. 

Paterson was not a strong leader and bowed down to his junior officers. He gave out land grants to all and sundry and did nothing to control the empire building or illegal activities relating to the rum trade of those under his command. When Hunter arrived, the new Governor was unable to repair the damage Paterson had allowed to grow and the NSW Corps continued to fester.

Paterson meanwhile, was promoted to Major and in 1795 returned to England on sick leave. His botanic interested continued in England where he liaised with Banks regarding which trees and plants would do well in the Colony, and in 1798 was promoted once more, to Lieutenant Colonel and elected as a fellow to the Royal Society. In the scientific community, this was almost as good as a knighthood.

But he was still a soldier, and in 1799 was sent back to the colony at Sydney Town with orders to investigate the activities of NSW Corps officers trading in spirits, rum, to control it and repair the good name of the NSW Corps. In retrospect, it seems to some that Paterson was sent back to investigate conditions that had their gestation while Paterson himself was in charge!

He became highly critical of Hunter’s governing, complaining to Sir Joseph Banks of the excessive importation of spirits and the high cost of living. Even the Irish were threatening an armed coup!

Governor Philip Gidley King replaced Governor Hunter and Paterson was appointed Lieutenant Governor but the controversies continued. In 1801 John Macarthur, the man who introduced the Spanish Merino to colonial Australia, also a member of the NSW Corps, had a to-do with Paterson based on letters containing volatile information between the wives of the above gentlemen. Paterson challenged Macarthur to a duel, which resulted in Paterson being wounded and Macarthur being arrested and sent back to England. All very dramatic!

Paterson was still non-confrontational with officers of the NSW Corps, even though his was generally honourable in his activities, which included continuing to collect and catalogue specimens from the Hawkesbury region. His health however was deteriorating and in 1803 was relieved of his duties to convalesce.

Then, in 1804, following instructions from London who were concerned that the French were showing a keen interest in establishing a presence in the region, Paterson was chosen to lead a settling party to Northern Van Dieman’s Land.

In late 1804, 50-year-old Paterson established as beach-head at Georgetown, and then Yorktown, both of which were unsuitable for settling, so in 1806 he moved down to the confluence of the North and South Esk Rivers at Patersonia, which he quickly changed to Launceston.

The weather and rough conditions took their toll on Paterson’s health, but he kept his botanist eye open and collected many more specimens back to Banks, and even found a great outcrop of iron near Port Dalrymple.

The turmoil in Sydney town continued with Governor Bligh being arrested by the NSW Corps. He was called in 1808 to return to Sydney and take over, but ill health and the possible arrival of a new governor were his excuses for not taking up the top job. He eventually left Port Dalrymple in 1809 for Sydney and took command.

He was not a strong leader, with his health keeping him under medical care at Parramatta for most of the time, and the group of officers that had thrown Bligh out were really running the show. When Gov Lachlan Macquarie arrived he described Paterson as ‘such an easy, good natured, thoughtless man, that he latterly granted lands to almost every person who asked’. William Paterson was quite unsuitable for the position in such a precipitous time.

After Macquarie arrived, Patterson left with the NSW Corps for England, but in May1810, he died at sea off Cape Horn.

Paterson was a scientist first and a soldier second and a leader last. He was in contact with leading scholars in England for most of his time and a number of specimens he sent back are still on display at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. He introduced the peach to the colony, and planted a Bonaparte pear tree in the governors garden which is now located in City Park, Launceston. The tree no longer produces fruit, but still stands tall in the park.

Incidentally, his wife Elizabeth was refused a pension after he died and was ordered to repay 200- pounds that he had paid in public salaries without authority!

In March 1814 she married Mr Grose, but he died 2 months later in May. She remained close friends with the Macarthurs and died herself in 1839.

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