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William Paterson

portrait of William Paterson 1799

Lieutenant-Colonel William Paterson in 1799 (after William Owen, State Library NSW).

William Paterson was born on 10 August and baptised on 22 August 1755 in Kinnettles, a locality near the town of Forfar in county Angus, Scotland. He was the second of three children — his sisters Amelia and Anne were born at Kinnettles in 1753 and 1757 respectively.

William's father, David, was a gardener for Mr Douglas of Brigton (or Bridgetown). Brigton is still a rural estate between Kinnettles and the village of Douglastown. David's position at Brigton House imbued young William with a love of plants and botany.

Like many Scots, Paterson went to England, in his case to work for William Forsyth at Chelsea Physic Garden in London, probably as an apprentice gardener. Forsyth mentored young Paterson and they became lifelong friends and colleagues.

Among those drawn to Chelsea was a wealthy young countess, Mary Eleanor Bowes, who had a passion for botany and a yearning for exotic plants. In 1777 William Paterson departed for southern Africa on a mission to fill Mary's glasshouses and botanical collection with specimens from a continent as yet little explored by Britain. Paterson's African adventure had the approval of Sir Joseph Banks who became Paterson's patron, and later his colleague.

Between 1777 and 1779 Paterson made four journeys into the interior of southern africa, covering 9,000 kilometres in just over two years. Later, in 1789, he published a book titled A Narrative of Four Journeys. It was the first comprehensive account in English of travels into the interior of the Cape. His book recorded the ceremony of the naming of the Orange River, the first discovery of fossils in the region, and the first journey along the diamond coast. In addition to two English editions it was published in French, Dutch and German. Eight French editions were produced between 1790 and 1842.

In 1781 Paterson returned to the Cape as a civilian advisor to a British invasion force that intended to take the Cape from the Dutch during the Anglo-Dutch war. When they found the Cape well defended by French forces the British diverted their ships and troops to fight the French in India. Enroute for India Paterson became an officer in the British army when he obtained a commission as an ensign with an independent company of foot. Unofficially he was attached to Colonel Fullarton's 98th Regiment. By the time the fleet reached India Paterson had been promoted to lieutenant in the 102nd Regiment but remained on secondment to the 98th. In mid 1783 Paterson was officially transferred to the 98th. He served on British warships along India's Coromandel Coast and saw action in several bloody sea battles. He then took part in battles on land, including the siege of Caroor in 1783.

Doody plant illustration

Dianella intermedia from Flora of Norfolk Island drawn for Paterson by convict artist John Doody (SLNSW).

After hostilities ceased, Paterson returned to Britain in 1785 on half-pay when his regiment was disbanded. In 1787 he was restored to full pay as a lieutenant in the 73rd Highland Regiment and saw active service in India during peacetime until again returning to Britain at the end of 1788. He pursued his interests in natural history, particularly botany, whenever official duties and his health would allow. By now he was a member of the Society for Promoting Natural History, and also the Asiatic Society (founded in Calcutta in 1784).

In June 1789 William Paterson was promoted to Captain in the NSW Corps which was newly-raised to serve in New South Wales — to guard convicts and assist the running of the penal colony formed there in 1788.

In September 1789 he married Elizabeth Driver at Saint Martin in the Fields, Westminster, London. She was 19 and he was 34. In March 1791 they sailed from England and arrived in Sydney, Australia, in October before sailing to Norfolk Island where Captain Paterson was stationed with his Company. At that time the island was an outpost of the NSW penal colony.

The Patersons spent two years on Norfolk Island, during which William Paterson's convict servant and artist, John Doody, made drawings of 48 species of plants found on the Island, which Paterson annotated. These are now in the State Libary, NSW (view online).

After returning to Sydney in 1793 Paterson explored the Blue Mountains, naming the Grose River and becoming the first European to travel up it.

Paterson's Sydney house

The Patersons' Sydney house. Today the site is in the CBD near Wynyard Station, on the western side of George Street between Jamison and Grosvenor Streets.

In December 1794 Captain William Paterson became acting governor of New South Wales, after the unscheduled departure of both Governor Philip and lieutenant-governor Major Francis Grose due to illness. Paterson continued Grose's policies that encouraged private agriculture and permitted officers to import and wholesale goods for profit, including rum. Paterson himself participated in trading activities but it is unclear what proportion of imports he retained for personal use and how much he sold for profit (the Australian Dictionary of Biography's claim that he did not trade is wrong).

William Paterson was promoted to major in November 1795 and left Sydney for Britain in September 1796, on sick-leave with a severe eye-inflammation. At Cape Town he brokered the shipment of the first Merino sheep to Australia, and arrived back in England in June 1797.

In December 1797 William Paterson was admitted to membership of the Linnean Society of London, England's leading natural history society. In January 1798 he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel, effectively becoming the commanding officer of the NSW Corps. In May 1798 he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS), Britain's peak body for the advancement of science, in recognition of his achievements in natural history. Paterson was Australia's first FRS. In March 1799 he was ordered to return to his command in New South Wales and to stop his officers from trading in rum. He and Elizabeth arrived back in Sydney in November 1799.

In mid 1801 Paterson explored the lower Hunter Valley of New South Wales as part of an expedition to survey and chart the Coal Harbour (Newcastle) and its rivers. They explored upstream past present-day Maitland and collected many animal and plant specimens. In modern terms, Paterson walked from Hinton to Woodville, and today's Paterson River was named in his honour.

In September 1801, back in Sydney, Paterson was shot in a duel with John Macarthur and nearly died. He had challenged Macarthur after a series of breaches of confidence, slur and inuendo that threatened Paterson's honour and reputation as a gentleman. He eventually recovered although a ball remained lodged in his shoulder. Macarthur demanded a court martial to clear his name and was sent back to England for a trial which lapsed when the key witness disappeared at sea.

In October 1804 William Paterson sailed for northern Van Diemens Land (Tasmania) to form a British settlement at Port Dalrymple. It was part of Britain's policy to secure its whaling and sealing interests in Australian waters, thwart French territorial plans and reduce the Norfolk Island settlement by transferring it residents elsewhere. Paterson's fleet comprised four ships and about 205 people, including officers and troops of the NSW Corps, male and female convicts, one free settler and a few livestock. On 11 November 1804 Paterson formally declared northern Tasmania a British possession.

Paterson established a temporary settlement at Outer Cove (now George Town), then he explored and named the North and South Esk rivers before establishing a more permanent settlement at York Town on the western side of the Tamar River. In March 1805 he was joined by Elizabeth Paterson and their adopted daughter Elizabeth Mackellar. By mid 1805 there were just over 300 people living at York Town, along with over 600 cattle recently arrived from India. At the end of 1805 Paterson had the cattle moved to pasture on the North Esk river and this area became today's city of Launceston. At the end of 1808 the Patersons and their daughter returned to Sydney where William took over as rebel governor following Governor Bligh's removal by Paterson's officers in a military coup.

painting of Thylacine commissioned by Paterson

Painting of a thylacine commissioned by William Paterson (JW Lewin, 1809, Linnean Society, London). Paterson introduced the giraffe, koala and thylacine to British science.

Although William Paterson was the official lieutenant-governor of New South Wales, he governed illegally throughout 1809 while the legitimate governor, William Bligh, remained in the colony. During this time Paterson was critically ill and left most civic and military duties to Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Foveaux who was effectively the real rebel governor for the period. There is no credible evidence that heavy drinking caused Paterson's ill health despite allegations by two of Bligh's ardent supporters who were Paterson's enemies. The rebel regime ended on 1 January 1810 when Lachlan Macquarie took over as governor of New South Wales.

In May 1810 William and Elizabeth Paterson and their adopted daughter sailed for England but he died at sea near Cape Horn on 21 June and was committed to the deep with a 13 gun salute. Today William Paterson's contribution to natural history is commemorated by the Patersonia plant genus and more than 20 species named in his honour. He was a friendly, outgoing man who was much loved in private life despite his weakness as an administrator and his lack of political skill.


All information on this page is from the following publication with contains extensive documentation of primary sources and a detailed bibliography:

Walsh, Brian. William and Elizabeth Paterson — the Edge of Empire, 2018. It is available for sale from Paterson Historical Society from 20 May 2018.

See also

Elizabeth Paterson.