During his short life, John Carne Bidwill (1815 – 1853) travelled extensively collecting botanical specimens, identifying new Australian species and introducing new plant varieties to the colony of New South Wales. He was a noted author, inaugural director of the Sydney Botanical Gardens and Crown Lands Commissioner of the Wide Bay District. In recognition of his contribution to early settlement, a rural locality and a creek near Maryborough as well as a Sydney suburb now bear his name. Many native Australian and New Zealand plants, most notably the bunya pine (Araucaria Bidwillii) have also been named in his honour.
In November 1848, John Carne Bidwill arrived at the new settlement of Wide Bay Village, which was renamed Maryborough in 1849. He played an important role in the development of the region in his capacity as Crown Lands Commissioner, Police Magistrate, Harbour Master, Government Registrar and Clerk of Petty Sessions, but his real passion was always botany.
Bidwill was born in Exeter, the oldest son of Joseph Green Bidwill, a merchant, and his wife, Charlotte (née Carne). From any early age he showed an interest in botany, undertaking his first trip to Canada aboard the Exmouth at the age of 17. After two years he returned to England, but soon after sailed to Sydney with his sister Elizabeth, intending to set up a branch of the family business. Not long after his arrival, he set about collecting plant seeds which he sent back to London for propagation. In 1839, Bidwill travelled to New Zealand where he established a branch of the family mercantile business in Tauranga and Rotorua, and visited other areas to collect botanical specimens. His book entitled Rambles in New Zealand, published in 1841, gives an account of his New Zealand botanical observations, his interactions with the Maori, and his ascent of the volcanic peak, Mount Ngauruhoe.
Bidwill undertook his first trip to the Moreton Bay region in 1841. Although he was primarily furthering his business interests, he found time to explore the Brisbane Valley and the Glasshouse Mountains, where he collected orchids and water lilies. He also noted the distinctive Bunya pine which, although previously found by Andrew Petrie, was later named in honour of Bidwill. His first visit to the Moreton Bay settlement was brief. He returned to Sydney in late 1841 to work as an assistant in the Sydney Botanical Gardens before sailing to England in 1843. The following year he returned to Sydney with his other sister Mary, bringing with him specimens of bananas, apples, passionfruit and apricots. Shortly after, Bidwill sailed to New Zealand and on to Tahiti to document more orchid species.
He returned to Sydney in 1847 to take up the position of Government Botanist and inaugural Director of the Sydney Botanical Gardens. However, due to an administrative error, Charles Moore had also been appointed by the Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, to the same position. Moore commenced his duties in January 1848. By way of compensation, Governor Charles FitzRoy appointed Bidwill Commissioner of Crown Lands for the Wide Bay Pastoral District on a salary of £500 per annum. He arrived in Wide Bay in November 1848 to take up his position.
Bidwill’s term as Crown Lands Commissioner began poorly. On his arrival, he made a very brief appearance before the villagers to inform them that Governor FitzRoy had named the river running through the town the Mary River in honour of his wife. Bidwill then appeared to abandon the villagers by removing himself from the settlement and establishing a base further along the river at a place he called Tinana. Here he constructed a cottage, stables and barracks for his Border Police force which consisted of four troopers. Next to the cottage he planted an extensive orchard of bananas, guavas, paw paws and mangoes.
Although, as a well-educated and widely-travelled businessman, he had little difficulty fulfilling his many administrative duties, Bidwill’s overall effectiveness as Commissioner was limited by his strained relations with both settlers and Indigenous people. Due to the remote location of his residence, his gardens were regularly raided by local Aborigines who also speared cattle and livestock on nearby properties and held up shipments of provisions destined for Gayndah. Bidwill’s response to these attacks was to shoot at the perpetrators.
Bidwill also clashed with local squatters such as John McTaggart of Kilkivan station. Bidwill accused McTaggart of selling sly grog. McTaggart reacted by challenging Bidwill to a duel. Bidwill refused to engage with McTaggart, who then attacked Bidwill with a stock whip. McTaggart was subsequently charged with assault. On a separate occasion, Bidwill witnessed a local storekeeper named George Furber shooting an Aborigine without provocation. Bidwill took no action despite the fact that he was responsible for the administration of justice in the pastoral district. Local residents were left perplexed by Bidwill’s decision and were not surprised when Furber and his son-in-law were later killed by Aborigines in a revenge attack. Bidwill did, however, form a firm friendship with one of Maryborough’s earliest settlers, Edgar Aldridge. Aldridge owned a wool store and had established extensive gardens around his home. He and Bidwill shared a passion for horticulture and plant hybridisation.
During his tenure as Crown Lands Commissioner, Bidwell surveyed the town and toured the district regularly to oversee the orderly settlement of pastoral areas. In 1853, the New South Wales government instructed Bidwill to seek a shorter route between Maryborough and Brisbane to facilitate the transport of prisoners. With a small party of men, Bidwill left Tinana Creek and headed south through the area where the town of Gympie is now situated. He is credited with discovering gold there, although he did not officially report the find. After several days, rations ran low and Bidwill, with one companion, set out to acquire provisions from Durundur station near Woodford. Unfortunately Bidwill had forgotten his compass and the pair became lost in dense scrub. Their rations soon ran out and by the time they were rescued by local Aborigines, they were exhausted and emaciated and had to recuperate at Durundur before heading to Brisbane for medical treatment. Bidwill later returned to Maryborough but his health had deteriorated. He died on 16 March 1853 aged 38 years and was buried on his property near Cran Road, Tinana, at the junction of the Mary River and Tinana Creek. A memorial to Bidwill was later erected by the local council in Queens’s Park, Maryborough.
John Bidwill does not figure as prominently in the historical record as other Crown Lands Commissioners such as Stephen Simpson and Maurice O’Connell. He is more widely remembered for his work in the development of the Sydney Botanical Gardens and for his contribution to the collection and hybridisation of native and exotic plant species.
Margaret Shield, ‘John Carne Bidwill (1815 – 1853)’, Harry Gentle Resource Centre, Griffith University, 2017, https://harrygentle.griffith.edu.au/life-stories/john-bidwill/.
Compiled by M. Hewitt, M. Flynn, T.J. Strong, Maryborough, Qld: Maryborough, Wide Bay and Burnett Historical Society, 1964.
Looseleaf file, typescript compiled by W. J. E. Watson.
John Carne Bidwell [sic],
Rambles in New Zealand.
Christchurch, New Zealand: Capper (reprint), 1974. Originally published London, England: Orr, 1841.
Colonial Secretary's Office, New South Wales Government Gazette, 12 Nov 1847, Issue 98, p. 1239.
Assize intelligence, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 May 1850, p. 2.
New Commission of the Peace, Empire (Sydney), 27 Oct 1851, p. 3.
Ecclesiastical jurisdiction, New South Wales Government Gazette, 6 Jan 1854, Issue No. 2, p. 45.
Gypmie Creek gold fields, The Queenslander, 9 Nov 1867, p. 6.
The Botanical Gardens, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Mar 1901, p. 4.
Fifty years ago, Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser, 10 Mar 1903, p. 2.
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