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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Birch, Thomas William (1774–1821)

by G. H. Stancombe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Thomas William Birch (1774-1821), surgeon, merchant and shipowner, arrived in Hobart Town in May 1808 as medical officer in the whaler Dubuc and remained as a settler. He was one of three surgeons in the town, but did not practise to any extent in the colony.

Almost at once he was associated with whaling and began to build the schooner Henrietta Packet, 60 tons. He also owned the brig Sophia, 120 tons, built about 1812, and captained by James Kelly for six years. The brig was employed in whaling and sealing and as the only local vessel available, was often chartered by the government, for until the opening of the port in 1815 shipbuilding was severely restricted. Birch employed twenty-six men in the whale fishery, and was the first Tasmanian to enter this field.

As a merchant Birch brought out many cargoes of goods at considerable profit and exported whale oil and sealskins. He and other merchants complained without avail about the heavy duties charged on imported spirits and the charge of £2 a ton on whale oil cleared through Hobart. In 1820 he told John Thomas Bigge that in 1815 he discovered Port Davey, and that Kelly in a boat discovered Macquarie Harbour where he named Sarah Island in honour of Mrs Birch; as a reward Birch was given the sole right for a year to cut Huon pine there, the first to exploit this trade. Kelly's account of the voyage, written in 1821, was slightly different, but when giving evidence to Bigge he had not contradicted Birch.

Birch speculated in both land and building, erecting the stone wall round the Hobart gaol and building for himself the colony's finest brick house, which was leased on occasion to both Lieutenant-Governor William Sorell and Governor Lachlan Macquarie. This house was built in 1816 and boasted a flat roof with battlements where two cannon kept watch over the Derwent, for Birch declared that, if the French should appear, he would give a good account of himself, even if the government did not. He had a grant of land at Richmond and acquired many more acres at Hollow Tree, Jericho, Cambridge and Lovely Banks. He was a regular contractor for meat to the commissariat.

In public life Birch served in 1818 as a member of the Lieutenant-Governor's Court, and was commended for his promptness in provisioning his ship to send it in pursuit of bushrangers. His name is commemorated in Birch's Bay near Woodbridge and Birch's Inlet at Macquarie Harbour. He died suddenly on 1 December 1821 at the age of 47, leaving a complex will that was the subject of dispute until 1854. In 1809 he had married Sarah, the daughter of George Guest, an immigrant from Norfolk Island. They had four sons and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 3, vol 3
  • C. Craig, The Engravers of Van Diemen's Land (Hob, 1961)
  • Hobart Town Gazette, 14 Sept 1816, 1, 8 Dec 1821.

Citation details

G. H. Stancombe, 'Birch, Thomas William (1774–1821)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

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