William Dawes (1762 - 1836)

Officer of marines, scientist and administrator. Dawes volunteered for service with the First Fleet to New South Wales as he was known as a competent astronomer, he was recommended by Rev. Dr Nevil Maskelyne, the astronomer royal. The Board of Longitude supplied instruments and books for an observatory at Sydney Cove and asked Dawes to watch especially for a comet expected in 1788.

From March 1788 he was employed ashore as engineer and surveyor, and by early July had been discharged from the Sirius.He had already begun to build an observatory on what is now Dawes Point . As engineer and surveyor he constructed batteries on the points at the entrance to Sydney Cove, laid out the government farm and the first streets and allotments in Sydney and Parramatta and in December 1789, with the governor’s approval, led a party into the mountains across the Nepean River, penetrating only fifteen miles (24 km) in three days because of precipitous ravines. With Watkin Tench he explored the upper Nepean, opened the way to the Cowpastures and joined many other expeditions, on which his training and skill were invaluable in computing distances and in map making.

In October 1788 he applied for a further three years service in the colony and until late in 1791 he contemplated settling if a position could be found for him. Approval for his appointment as engineer was received in October 1791 but, since the marines had been ordered home, Governor Arthur Phillip offered with it only an ensigncy in the New South Wales Corps, and imposed the condition that Dawes apologize for his conduct on two matters. The first was his purchase from a convict of flour which Phillip asserted formed part of the man’s rations, in which trade was forbidden, though Dawes maintained it was the man’s earned property. The second was much more serious and involved Dawes’s principles. In December 1790 Dawes had refused to do duty on a punitive expedition ordered by Phillip because his convict gamekeeper had been fatally wounded by an Aborigine. He reconciled his conscience to accompanying the party only after discussion with Rev. Richard Johnson, and later incensed Phillip by stating publicly that he ‘was sorry he had been persuaded to comply with the order’. He refused to retract on either matter and sailed with the marines in December 1791, but before reaching England he wrote to Maskelyne that he still hoped to return to New South Wales ‘whenever a Chief Man may be appointed who is sincerely a lover and protector of scientific pursuits’.

In 1794 he told William Wilberforce that he would like to settle in the colony and was recommended for appointment as superintendent of schools. Nothing came of this suggestion or of John Hunter’s request for him as engineer in 1798.

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