Tag Archives: Robert Townson

Chemistry in the colonies

Watkin Tench reports, in his Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, that in December 1791 he visited a number of farms at Rose Hill and nearby districts. Near the Governor’s house he saw eight thousand grape vines in cultivation. In another place Mr. Scheffer, one of the local  inhabitants, had an acre of vines and tobacco as well as twelve acres of maize and one of wheat on his grant of 140 acres. He was a Hessian by birth, and had helped his father in their vineyard beside the Rhine.

In the same area was the farm of James Ruse, who had received the first land grant in Australia, ‘A lot of thirty acres, to be called Experiment Farm.’ Tench comments: ‘He means to cultivate little besides maize; wheat is so much less productive. Of the culture of vineyards and tobacco he is ignorant; and, with great good sense, he declared that he would not quit the path he knew, for an uncertainty.’

It is clear that from the earliest years of settlement the cultivation of vineyards formed part of European efforts to tame the landscape of the Sydney area, but that at the same time there were doubts as to whether grape-growing would necessarily be successful. As it turned out, other regions of Australia proved more productive.

In 1824 James Busby, born in Edinburgh, arrived in the colony with his parents. Still in his early twenties, he was deeply interested in the technical aspects of viticulture, and managed to gain the support of a number of subscribers to help fund publication of his Treatise on the Culture of the Vine, and the Art of Making Wine, which appeared in 1825. It was largely a derivative work but sought to provide suitable guidance and encouragement for local grape-growers and winemakers.

Although it seems to have created less interest than Busby was hoping for, it was a significant publication in more ways than one. In particular, it embraced the scientific approach of the French chemist Jean-Antoine Chaptal. Chaptal is famous for his influence in demonstrating ways in which chemical knowledge can revolutionise industrial and agricultural practices.

In this respect the colony of New South Wales was founded at a critical moment. In the European sphere, the industrialisation of societies and economies was increasingly taking hold. We now know that the eventual outcomes have involved a dangerous over-exploitation of resources, but the principle of scientific understanding remains and its popularisation was exciting in an age when there was a growing awareness of the limitations of traditional methods.

Robert Townson was one of the subscribers to James Busby’s Treatise. He himself had a copy of Chaptal’s Chemistry among his books. He was one person in the colony who definitely shared James Busby’s enthusiasm for applying scientific principles to achieve agricultural and technological improvement.

Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, originally published London, 1793, chapter XVI. James Busby, A Treatise on the Culture of the Vine, and the Art of Making Wine: Compiled from the Works of Chaptal and other French Writers; and from the Notes of the Compiler during a Residence in Some of the Wine Provinces of France, [Sydney], Howe, 1825. Jean-Antoine Chaptal, Elements of Chemistry, trans. William Nicholson, London, 1791, and subsequent editions; Chemistry Applied to Arts and Manufacture, 4 vols., London, 1807.

Scheffer: his name is variously spelled Philip (or Phillip) Schaeffer, Scheffer or Schaffer; cf. ‘Schaffer, Philip ( – 1828?)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 2, 1967, p. 420, and online; he is mentioned in a number of articles in the Dictionary of Sydney.

Dr. Townson’s library

We know something of the contents of Robert Townson’s library from details given when his books were advertised for sale after his death in 1827. Mr. Paul, who had auction rooms in George Street, Sydney, placed a number of notices advertising the sale of miscellaneous property and effects of Dr. Townson, including ‘a valuable Collection of Books, by the most esteemed Authors, in French, English, and other Languages.’

The list of books begins with three large works that had their origins in eighteenth-century efforts to achieve a comprehensive presentation of general and particular knowledge: Chamber’s Encyclopaedia, Bingham’s Works, and Blackstone’s Commentaries.

Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopedia (to give it its proper title) is described in its sub-title as An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. First published in 1728, by Dr. Townson’s time it had passed through a number of editions and had been revised by Abraham Rees.

‘Bingham’s Works’ were The Works of the Learned Joseph Bingham, M.A. late rector of Havant, and sometime Fellow of University-College in Oxford, which had been originally published in ten volumes, the first appearing in 1708 and the last in 1722. The collection contained Origines ecclesiasticæ: or, The Antiquities of the Christian Church, a systematic survey of early church history and practices, and three shorter historical and apologetic works.

Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England were originally published in four volumes between 1765 and 1769. They were outstandingly successful in organising a vast range of legal information and presenting it in a way that was readable, interesting and authoritative, thus not only collecting but influencing the common law and generating respect for it.

Other works specified in the advertisements were Chaptal’s Chemistry; Parker’s Ecclesiastical Histories; the works of Molière, Montesquieu and Racine; Nicholson’s Chemistry; Thornbery’s Travels; the Domestic Encyclopaedia; Gordon’s Tacitus; Hoole’s Tasso; Townson’s own Physiology; systematic works on minerals, insects and plants; and two works of Linnaeus; along with ‘numerous other Scientific Works’ and ‘a large Collection of the best German Authors.’

Also mentioned are wines, wearing apparel and ‘a strong-built Gig.’ Did the gig end up in the possession of the salesman after being used to transport other items? Or was it included as a conveyance that would appeal to the well-heeled book-loving public?

Advertisements listing the books: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser Friday 2 November 1827, p. 1; The Australian Friday 2 November 1827, p. 2.

Chamber’s Cyclopedia: the University of Wisconsin has an online version of the first edition. Blackstone’s Commentaries: there is an online version of the first edition on the Yale University website.

Like a gardener retiring

The scholarly Robert Townson was not an irreligious man, if we can judge from the appreciation of his life by an anonymous correspondent which appeared in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser on Monday 2 July 1827. His recent passing was judged a great loss to the literary community, to his friends and to the colony.

The writer praises Dr. Townson for his scientific work, which added to the incremental advance of knowledge without being altogether outstanding, and singles out for special comment his Philosophy of Mineralogy, Travels in Hungary and Tracts and Observations in Natural History and Physiology.

Dr. Townson had lived in the colony for twenty years and was known as a person of spotless but singular character. Some people disliked his peculiarities, largely because they did not know the principles on which he acted. He acted in ordinary life as he acted in science, with exact reasoning and seeking the most beneficial outcome. Through his desire for improvement he became wealthy without being a lover of riches. He was economical but not unjust. He was kind to servants, they loved him despite his peculiarities, and would not have wanted a master who was ostensibly more liberal.

He was devoted to books and his garden, preferred solitude, and was impatient with lesser minds and unnecessary intrusions. Le lived and died a philosopher. ‘Like a gardener retiring, as himself expressed it, he deposited his implements in order before his departure; and, in the spirit of an admirer of nature, he wished those he loved rather to deck themselves, when he died, with the fading hues of autumnal foliage, than to attire themselves in the melancholy of sable weeds.’

His piety was evident in some words he composed for writing in a book to be presented to the infant daughter of a friend. The book was Dr. Watts’ psalms and hymns. He urged the child to excellence and the avoidance of ambition. Happiness derives from benevolent affections. Live wisely so that you need not feel in the end that all is vanity. Be grateful to the Giver of Life and acknowledge that ‘the ways of the Lord are pleasant.’ Respect the Deity as a father and religion as his fatherly precepts. Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before him.

This attitude was not enough for the editor of the Sydney Gazette, who added a note to the obituary: ‘We should like to have seen the Doctor’s life and death tinctured a little more with the principles of Christianity.’

‘Doctor Townson’, Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser Monday 2 July 1827, p. 2.

Varro in the suburbs

One of the more surprising characters of early Sydney was Robert Townson (1762? – 1827), a scholarly eccentric from Surrey. A capable linguist and an enthusiast for natural history, he had written on scientific subjects and was a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He visited various centres of learning on the Continent as a gentleman scholar and wrote up observations both general and scientific. His book on his travels in Hungary, for example, includes an entomological appendix and descriptions of plants.

Robert’s elder brother John had arrived in Sydney in 1790, on a ship of the Second Fleet, as an army officer with the New South Wales Corps. He became acting Commandant and then lieutenant Governor of Norfolk Island. After returning to England in 1800 he came out once more to the colony six years later as a settler.

Robert followed in 1807. He and John received a number of land grants. For a while Robert lived on land by the George’s River, but its suitability for farming was limited. He then established a house and farm in an area which he referred to as Bunbury Curran, in the Minto district.  In keeping with his literary interests he named his property ‘Varro Farm’ (later ‘Varro Ville’), after the Roman scholar whose works include a treatise on agriculture. He found  circumstances in the colony very trying and was involved in the rebellion against Governor William Bligh. He went through a period of isolation but eventually took a more active part in colonial affairs.

In 1810 Governor Lachlan Macquarie visited Robert’s farm while doing a tour to view farms around Minto and west of the George’s River. His journal records his favourable impression of the soil, pasturage and grounds of ‘Dr. Townson’s Farm’, which was ‘bounded by a large Creek of Brackish Water called Bunbury Curran.’

The name of Robert’s house and farm survives today in the suburb name Varroville. The heritage house Varro Ville was built after his time. Much of the farmland of the area is now densely settled and suffers from problems of urbanisation. According to the Macarthur Chronicle, ‘Bunbury Curran Creek has been labelled one of the city’s filthiest waterways, with shopping trolleys, mattresses and prams dumped along its banks’ (‘Dumping clogs Bunbury Curran Creek again’, 10 May 2010).

In response to such a deterioration in the quality of land management, the sensitive gentleman scholar, who no doubt sought to maintain his farm on scientific principles and in accordance with the wisdom imparted by Varro, would surely have wanted to offer, along with expressions of regret, some incisive and practical comment.

Cf. V.W.E. Goodin, ‘Townson, Robert (1762? – 1827)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 2, 1967, pp. 537-538; also online.

There is a view from Bunbury Curran Hill on the website of the Scenic Hills Association.