James Phillips Webber
[Tocal], [Emral], [Guygallon]
James Phillips Webber (photo courtesy of a descendant and Alberto Sega of La Maddalena).
James Phillips Webber was among the first of a new wave of immigrants to take up land in the lower Hunter from 1822 following the decision to close the convict penal station at Newcastle and open the Hunter Valley for settlement (see overview of settlement from 1822).
James Webber was born in Wales in 1797. His Anglo-Irish father Edward was a Lieutenant-General in the British army and his Dutch-American mother Charlotte was the daughter of the once immensely wealthy Frederick Philipse III of New York, a British loyalist who fled to England at the end of the American war of independence.
In 1821, at the age of 23, James Phillips Webber applied to Lord Bathurst at the Colonial Office in London for a grant of land in New South Wales, declaring he had £3,000 in cash and credit at this disposal to develop his grant. This equates to over $500,000 in equivalent purchasing power in today's dollars. Bathurst granted Webber's request within 24 hours of receiving it, and Webber set sail, arriving in New South Wales on the Minstrel on 11 January 1822.
He immediately began to arrange for his grant of land. On 21 January 1822 Webber and another new arrival, William Dun, were permitted to travel by government ship to the Newcastle penal settlement. Newcastle was still a closed port and shipping movements there were strictly controlled by government. It was almost certainly on this trip that Webber and Dun selected their land. Evidently the two men travelled together to Newcastle and then onwards to inspect land on the Paterson River at Patersons Plains. Webber's land was immediately across the river from Dun's.
Tocal is on the west bank of Paterson River. See full map.
On 1 March 1822 Dangar was instructed to survey the lower Hunter prior to large scale settlement and to accommodate James Webber and William Dun who had already picked out their land. Webber occupied his grant from March 1822 and it was set at 1,500 acres on the condition he maintain 15 convicts off the government stores. Within months he amended his request to 2,000 acres and undertook to support 20 convicts.
At right: the magnificent stone barn built by James Webber and his convicts in 1830, still standing at Tocal.
Webber initially named his land 'Markham' and later reverted to using its Aboriginal name, 'Tocal', which means 'plenty' or 'bountiful'. In 1825 he purchased adjoining land to the west, bringing his Tocal estate to 3,300 acres. In 1830 with support from his first cousin Lord Strangford who was a high-ranking British diplomat, Webber was granted a further 2,560 acres of land on the upper Paterson River, which he named 'Emral'.
In July 1822 James Webber and William Dun became foundation members of the Agricultural Society of New South Wales, their names appearing on the first membership role alongside high-profile colonials such as Piper, Wollstonecraft, Blaxland and Oxley.
In January 1825, at the age of 27, James Webber was appointed Justice of the Peace (Honorary Magistrate) at Patersons Plains, the first to undertake the role there. His principal duty as magistrate was to preside on the Patersons Plains Bench to hear charges brought against convicts by their masters and overseers and to dispense summary justice, usually in the form of a flogging, to those found guilty. A scourger (flogger) was also appointed to Patersons Plains in 1825 so settlers could now have their convicts sentenced and flogged locally.
By 1828 there were 34 convicts assigned to Webber at Tocal and only two free workers, so his estate was developed and operated with a nearly all-convict workforce. Webber and his convicts ran sheep and cattle and grew large quantities of tobacco along with wheat and other crops. He was also a pioneer of the wine industry in the colony. In 1833 Webber purchased 1,380 acres of land in the upper Hunter between present-day Cassilis and Merriwa, and he named this land 'Munmurra Station'.
In 1833 James Webber became embroiled in a public and bitter conflict with the Governor of New South Wales, Richard Bourke. Writing under the pseudonym of 'OPQ', Webber launched a stinging attack on Bourke's administration of the convict system in the inaugural issue of the New South Wales Magazine in August 1833. Webber was later exposed as the feisty and notorious OPQ by the Sydney Gazette and Australian newspapers.
Webber fuelled the conflict by leading a colonial petition against Bourke in 1833 and when that had little effect he marshalled the support of fellow Hunter Valley settlers and magistrates to directly petition the King of England to repeal Bourke's controversial 1832 Summary Jurisdiction Act which, much to Webber's disgust, had reduced the power of magistrates to flog convicts and send them to iron gangs.
The petition became widely known in the colonial newspapers as the Hole-and-Corner Petition because its protagonists, according to their opponents, secretly drew up the document and crept about like rats in the dark rather than invite public scrutiny of the document. Webber was branded as one of the 'exclusives' by those who championed the emancipist cause and sought improved rights for convicts and ex-convicts. Bourke and the emancipists soon became Webber's nemesis.
Webber advises his intention to leave the colony (Sydney Herald 29 October 1835 p.1).
Webber and his alter ego OPQ were frequently criticised and sometimes lampooned by the Sydney Gazette and the Australian. By mid 1834 Webber had endured enough. In August he sold his magnificent Tocal estate to Sydney merchants Caleb and Felix Wilson and left the colony in late 1835 after selling all his other land holdings including Munmurra Station and Emral.
In 1845 James Webber again became a landholder in New South Wales when his brother John died suddenly of smallpox in London and ownership of John's 10,270 acre property 'Guygallon' on the upper Paterson River passed to James. James owned Guygallon until his death in 1877 even though, to the best of our knowledge, he never returned to Australia and did not set foot on it while he owned it.
Little is known of Webber's movements after he left NSW in November 1835 except that he became an international merchant and probably lived on the continent, with a secondary residence in London. For the first year after his return to London he toured Europe. He arrived back in London in mid 1837 and departed for New York two months later.
About 1850 he arrived on the isolated island of La Maddalena off the north coast of Sardinia and over the next few years began to purchase land there. About this time he adopted an Italian son, Luigi Russo, who became Luigi Russo Webber.
Villa Webber on the Island of La Maddalena, Sardinia (photo: Cameron Archer).
In 1855 James Webber constructed a magnificent villa on La Maddalena, and Villa Webber gained the reputation as one of the finest in Sardinia. Webber was an acqaintance and neighbour of Giuseppe Garibaldi who lived on the nearby island of Caprera and later became an Italian national hero.
James Webber served as British Vice-Consul for northern Sardinia from November 1857 to September 1858 and controversy dogged him there just as it had hounded him in Australia. He argued bitterly with the British Consul for Sardinia over Webber's handling of support for a British ship's captain who had been imprisoned because of a customs incident. Webber resigned his post in protest against the Consul's criticisms.
James Phillips Webber died in Pisa, Italy, in 1877 at the age of 80.
Above and below: Villa Webber on La Maddalena, Sardinia, in 2013 (photos: Gigi Peis. See his Villa Webber album).
1. In 1833 James Webber was named as one of the four pioneers of viticulture in the colony along with Sir John Jamison at Nepean, MacArthur at Camden and Shepherd at Sydney. New South Wales Magazine, vol. 1, no. 2, September 1833, p.96.
Sega, Alberto. L'uomo di Padule—La Storia di James Webber e della sua Villa a La Maddalena. Sassari, 2002.
Sotgiu, Giovanna and Alberto Sega. Inglesi nell'Arcipelago da Nelson alla Fine dell'Ottocento. La Maddalena, 2005.
Walsh, Brian. Tocal's First European Settler, James Phillips Webber. Paterson, 1999.
Walsh, Brian. "Assigned Convicts at Tocal: Ne'er-do-wells or Exceptional Workers?". Journal of Australian Colonial History, vol. 8, 2006, pp.67-90.
Walsh, Brian. "Heartbreak and Hope, Deference and Defiance on the Yimmang: Tocal's Convicts 1822-1840". PhD thesis, University of Newcastle, 2007 (on-line).
Walsh, Brian. Voices from Tocal: Convict Life on a Rural Estate. Paterson, 2008.
Walsh, Brian. James Phillips Webber: The Man and the Mystery. Paterson, 2008.
Walsh, Brian. "The politics of convict control in colonial New South Wales: The 'Notorious OPQ' and the clandestine press". Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 96, part 2 (2010):149-167 (on-line).
- Index to the NSW Colonial Secretary's papers. There are several papers listed for James Phillips Webber.
- James Phillips Webber's pages on the Tocal website.
- Tocal history on the Tocal website.
- An overview of settlement at Patersons Plains from 1822.
- Mitchell, Cecily. Hunter's River. Newcastle, 1973.
- White, Judy. Tocal: The Changing Moods of a Rural Estate. Scone, 1986.
Further research needed
- where was James Webber educated? How did he come to speak several European languages as a young man?
- where was James Webber's principal residence between 1836 and about 1850 (possibly in Italy)?
- what are the details of Webber's activities as an international merchant between 1836 and about 1850 (and did it involve trade in hats)?
- where in Ireland was his father born and what are the details of his father's family history? Sketchy information is provided in James Phillips Webber: The Man and the Mystery.
- where exactly is James Webber's grave in Pisa?
If you can help with any of these questions please contact me (Brian Walsh).