James Dawson – (b. 5 Jul 1806 – d. 19 Apr 1900)

James Dawson was born on the 5th July 1806 in Bonnytoun, Linlithgow, Scotland.  He arrived in Hobsons Bay, Port Phillip, Australia on the 2nd May 1840 with his wife Joan Anderson Park, the niece of the African explorer, Mungo Park.

” . . . BORN in Northumberland, George William Selby arrived at the new settlement of Port Phillip in May, 1840, after a journey in the China, lasting nearly six months.  On the China, a lifelong friendship was formed between the Selby and the Dawson families.  James Dawson, a Scot, had made in London a portable house, 24 feet by 10 feet.  This house Dawson and Selby, on arrival, bolted together, and it was placed just south of a lagoon across the Yarra, behind the site where Edwards’s boatshed was built later. . . “

Source:  Excerpt – The Australasian – Article “Pastoral Pioneers – Selby & Dawson” – published 13th November 1937

James Edwards’ business was once located at Princes Bridge in Melbourne, between a swamp and the Yarra River . . .

” . . . There the two families lived under the one roof for a time.  They subsequently acquired an establishment on the Yarra at Anderson’s Crossing, Warrandyte, from Captain Charles Scott, of the Royal Marines.  The new venture was named Bonnytown . . . ” 

” . . . More commodious residences were built at Anderson’s Crossing, where Isabella, the famous daughter of Dawson, was born.  She became a notable authority on aboriginal languages, being able to get into the confidence of the blacks around the station of Bonnytown as no mere man possibly could . . . “

Source:  Excerpts – The Australasian – Article “Pastoral Pioneers – Selby & Dawson” – published 13th November 1937

James Dawson and his daughter, Isabella Park Taylor (b. 1843 – d. 1929), shared a deep interest in the Aboriginal civilisation and language.  They studied the indigenous way of life, and vigorously defended the indigenous peoples, as well as fought for the environment, fearing the worst as the land was radically, irrevocably and irresponsibly cleared for agriculture.  They believed that Aborigines were entitled to government support without obligation as a result of being forced off their land; and, that it was totally unfair to restrict their movements and to impress unpalatable employment and religion upon them.  James and Isabella Dawson wrote to newspapers on many, many occasions regarding various matters relating to Aboriginal people, as well as for the plight of the destruction of the natural environment.

One example of Dawson’s commitment to the environment was the destruction of the natural landscape of the extinct volcanic crater, Tower Hill, situate between Port Fairy and Warrnambool in Victoria.  As Dawson watched the land clearing and the draining of swamps he felt it prudent to obtain a record of what was, for future generations.  He therefore commissioned Eugene Von Guerard to paint Tower Hill as it was in 1855.  Von Guerard produced an intricate and beautiful panoramic which was so detailed that it was used in later years to rehabilitate the area – one could even identify particular species of trees which had once clad the sides of Tower Hill.

Tower Hill by Eugene von Guergard c 1855


Sadly, Dawson’s numerous correspondences with the constabulary and governance fell on deaf ears as Europeans continued to take the land of the Aborigine.  The Aboriginal population declined to but a few → the lands cleared, raped and monopolised to form almost barren landscapes . . .

” . . . By the demise of Mr. James Dawson, which occurred in Camperdown on Thursday night at the advanced age of 94, Victoria loses one of her oldest residents and the Western district one of the earliest pioneers.  The venerable citizen who has just passed away, gifted with a constitution which rendered his life proof to the ills to which humanity is heir, was hale and hearty up to within a few months ago, when he became invalided, and his end came peacefully, undisturbed by the qualms of pain.  Crowded into the life of nearly 100 years were events which, both in the new world and the old, are looked upon by the present generation as historical.  Notwithstanding his years, Mr.  Dawson was able to recount the many stirring episodes which he had either taken part in or seen enacted in bygone days, and the listener could not feel other than interested.  James Dawson was a native of Linlithgow, Scotland, where he was born in 1806.  His father occupied the position of Provost of the town for a number of years.  Mrs. Dawson, whose maiden name was Johanna Park, was a niece of the African explorer, Mungo Park.  Seized with a desire to visit Australia, Mr. Dawson sailed, in the year 1840 for Victoria, arriving in May.  Naturally inclined for pastoral pursuits, he purchased an estate on the Upper Yarra.  Knowing the difficulty which was likely to be met with in a new country in the matter of building houses, Mr.  Dawson brought from Scotland with him on the ship, a house—not intact, but in pieces, which were put together, and served as a comfortable dwelling.  Kangatong Estate, near Port Fairy, was secured, and Mr. Dawson interested himself in the welfare of the district.  He made strenuous efforts to obtain the use of Crown reserves for the settlers, and had the gratification of seeing his labours rewarded with the success they deserved.  It was principally through his instrumentality that Mount Rouse was secured at a public reserve.  Kangatong Estate was sold to the Messrs. Baird Bros., and for a time Mr. Dawson’s career as a pastoralist ceased.  Upon the sale of Kangatong, he resided at Keilor, the home of Mr. Edward Wilson, one of the Melbourne “Argus” proprietors, with whom Mr.  Dawson was very intimate.  After a sojourn of a few years at Keilor, Mr.Dawson removed to Camperdown, and for a time leased Mr. O. Shaw’s Wurrong  Estate.  Subsequently he lived in Camperdown, his daughter marrying Mr. W.A. Taylor, of Renny Hill.  In 1884 he paid a visit to Scotland, and after a sojourn of two years there, returned to Camperdown.  The appointment of Protector of Aboriginals was conferred upon Mr. Dawson, and a better friend to the natives it would have been impossible to find.  The blankets allowed periodically by the Government were always forthcoming at the expected time, and the expectant blacks were seldom disappointed.  Their guardian lost no opportunity in suggesting alterations and improvements in the lot of the aboriginals, and his kindnesses were always appreciated.  In 1880 Mrs. Dawson succumbed, after a short illness, and her remains were interred in the Camperdown cemetery.  Mr. Dawson identified himself with the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, occupying the position of honorary superintendent.  He spared no pains to make the society one of usefulness which it was intended by the originators it should be, and discharged his office faithfully.  He was a taxidermist of no mean ability, the excellence of his work testifying to that fact.  From his early youth his leaning towards sport with the gun manifested itself, and many a happy hour was spent in quest of game.  Animals which fell to his aim, and considered of sufficient importance to keep, were carefully preserved, and these have found a place in the Museum attached to the Mechanics Institute.  The large collection which the Museum contains—all his own handiwork—had been presented by Mr. Dawson to Camperdown, and forms a presentation which is a feature of local institutions.  Associated with some of the  lifelike occupants of the cases are stories which their captor has oft reiterated.  Mr. Dawson never, tired in relating the history of their capture; of the lengthy excursions made to their haunts; of the care exercised in approaching the game; of the joy which the sportsman experiences at success.  Mr. Dawson was a man of great force of character—ready, when occasion arose, to  throw heart and soul in with any movement having for its aim the good of the people; but refraining from taking a  prominent part in political and public affairs.  His support was always willingly given for charitable and deserving objects.              

Source:  Excerpt – Camperdown Chronicle – Article “The Passing of the Pioneers – Death of Mr. James Dawson” – published 21st April 1900

Dawson continued his letter writing campaigns until he was well into his 90’s.

He published a book “Australian Aborigines – The Languages and Customs of several Tribes of Aborigines in the Western District of Victoria, Australia” in 1881.  A second edition was published in 1900.

Dawson Oblique to Aborigines - CamperdownIn 1882, upon his return from a trip home to Scotland, Dawson was confronted with the death of the last remaining survivor of the Djargurd Wurrung, Wombeetch Puyuun.  His death marked the rapid decline of the Aborigine who had been ravaged by the diseases of the European, indiscriminately murdered and chased off their lands.  The indigenous peoples, who had occupied the land for some 40,000+ years, had been so quickly eradicated from the area – in just over forty years . . .

To add salt to injury, Wombeetch Puyuun’s remains had been buried in the boggy ground outside the Camperdown cemetery.

Dawson appealed for public support to finance a Memorial to be built within the cemetery in honour of the Aborigines now lost forever.  He achieved very little support.  True to his word, he, himself, paid for a 20 m granite Obelisk to be erected within the cemetery, to which he carried his old friend’s remains in his arms, to be reburied at the foot of the Memorial.

Thankfully, the Memorial has survived the test of time and can be viewed at the cemetery to this very day.  The Obelisk carries two dates, 1840 and 1883, which marks the mere 43 years it took for white settlement to displace the Djargurd wurrung, after countless millennia, from the Camperdown area forevermore . . .

James Dawson died on Thursday, the 19th April 1900.


View other important events in South Western Victoria’s History . . .

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