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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Williams, John (1797–1872)

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

John Williams (1797?-1872), trader, coalminer and settler, was born at Wells, Somerset, England, the son of William Williams, plasterer, and his wife Ann, née Edwards. He followed many trades and his later nickname, Butty, was said to derive from his experience as a tributer in a Somerset mine. He was probably the John Williams who in June 1832 arrived at Sydney as a seaman in the convict transport John, hard on the heels of his fiancée, Sarah Davis, who at 34 was convicted in London of receiving stolen goods, sentenced to transportation for seven years and reached Sydney in the female transport Burrill in May. Next year he twice applied for permission to marry Sarah but was refused because she was said to be already married with three children. By 1837 Sarah was assigned to him as a servant.

In October 1841 Williams's Sydney address was 'Sussex Street, two doors from Moon's Wharf' when he applied for permission to take the cutter John, 35 tons, with stores to the penal settlement at Moreton Bay. He was allowed to sail in December and was the first free man to receive a trading licence in Brisbane. At first he squatted on land on the southern bank of the Brisbane River and in the early land sales bought several sections there. In 1842 he was given a three year contract at £45 a year to 'provide a sufficient punt and boat to carry passengers' across the river at Kangaroo Point; his ferry was later known as the Time Killer, perhaps because Williams had too many other interests. His first slab and bark store was soon replaced by a larger building in Russell Street on the main track from Brisbane to Ipswich. This building he called the Captain Piper hotel after he received one of the settlement's first liquor licences; his own house near by was one of the first private residences built in Brisbane.

Williams continued as a trader, sending timber to Sydney, returning with stores and liquor, and carrying passengers each way. He victualled ships, employed timber-getters and built many houses. His John was quickly replaced by the schooner Edward, 80 tons. After the Hunter River Steam Navigation Co. sent the steamer Shamrock from Newcastle to Brisbane in December 1842 Williams began to look for coal. His first shaft at Fairfield was unsuccessful but he soon found a small seam on Oxley Creek. In 1844 on an outcrop at Redbank, sixteen miles (26 km) from Brisbane, he opened his first mine but after four years the workings became flooded and were abandoned. In 1848 he started a more successful mine at Moggill. By 1850 he had also built several barges and was supplying coal to steamers and town consumers, carrying stores to the head of navigation on the Brisbane River at Limestone (Ipswich) and returning with wool and timber. Later he built the Gneering, a stern paddle steamer, for towing his barges, carrying passengers and victualling ships in Moreton Bay. In the mid-1850s he sold the Moggill mine very profitably, but in persistent later searches for coal near Brisbane he lost heavily.

Sarah died on 7 April 1849. On 4 July 1865 Williams married Mary Bailey (1837-1926), a newly-arrived emigrant from Chester, England. When their only son John was born Williams described himself as a plasterer at Fortitude Valley. Soon afterwards he made his home at Bulimba, where he had forty-nine acres (20 ha) and an orchard. There he died, a gentleman, on 18 September 1872 and was buried in the old military cemetery in Brisbane.

Select Bibliography

  • J. H. C. McClurg, 'John Williams: The Early Brisbane Settler', Historical Miscellanea, no 4 (2 pages)
  • J. H. Allsopp, The Coal Industry of Queensland (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1953)
  • Colonial Secretary's in letters, 4/3094-3101 (State Records New South Wales, microfilm copy at State Library of Queensland).

Citation details

'Williams, John (1797–1872)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 21 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

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