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Dawson, Richard (Dicky) (1800–1865)

by Harry Irwin

Richard Dawson, n.d.

Richard Dawson, n.d.

Richard (Dicky) Dawson, ironmaster and engineer (1800-1865) was born at Westbury-on-Severn, Gloucestershire, England, son of Captain David Dawson, master mariner, and Mary Gainey. Little is known of his early life or how he acquired marine engineering and iron founding skills. From 1826-1829 he was master of two ships built at the Hilhouse shipyard in Bristol.

With his wife Sarah House and daughter Sarah Maria, Richard Dawson arrived in Sydney on the Enchantress in late April 1833 and immediately went into business at Sydney Cove as a ship smith. From January 1834 Dawson was in partnership with Henry Augustus Castle in a business styled as Castle and Dawson, ship and anchor smiths. While selling imported chain, anchors and winches, the firm established an iron foundry that first produced cast iron stoves and grates from imported pig iron and then, after building a steam engine to power expansion, moved also into marine engineering that included ship work and the manufacture of buoys and lighthouse equipment. The partnership prospered but was dissolved from January 1837 when Castle returned to London. Although Richard Dawson entered into other short-term partnerships for purposes such as ship ownership and island trading he operated the Australian Iron Foundry as a sole trader from 1837 until his death.

Dawson’s Foundry, as it was commonly known, was located on almost 7000 square metres of leased land with frontages both to George Street and to a shallow waterfront (later reclaimed land with a frontage to Pitt Street) at Sydney Cove where 'the stream of the tanks' (Tank Stream) flowed into the cove. Dawson took advantage of the location of his foundry in the colony’s first industrial area (stretching westward from Sydney Cove to Darling Harbour) to build his business into the most important foundry in the country in the 1840s and into the 1850s, when competitors overtook it in size and output. Dawson lived on the site, where he employed a workforce numbering up to 70.

In 1841, Richard Dawson, with Captain Owen Poole and Dr. John Foulis, bought out the original settlers of Lord Howe Island, installed their own workers, and established a trading station to supply visiting whaling vessels with fresh fruit and vegetables, live animals, and supplies brought from Sydney on Dawson’s tender ship, the Rover’s Bride. This island venture was abandoned in 1846 after Dawson and his partners failed to obtain a lease over the land. Dawson, alone or in partnership, owned a dozen ships at various times to ensure he had reliable supplies of quality foundry coal from Newcastle, in island trading, and for charter assignments. He also often acted as a shipping agent, and occasionally as a shipbroker.

In the 1843 recession Dawson became insolvent with liabilities exceeding assets by over £9000. He was quickly back in business at his foundry doing ship work and casting, among other items, 100 to 1500 gallon boiling down pots for farmers, also victims of the recession, who were forced to convert sheep and cattle into tallow. That he carried a sense of humour in this time of difficulty was shown when, in insolvency papers submitted to the Supreme Court, he identified among his assets a ship he was having built on the Manning River as the Insolvent.

From the mid-1840s much of Dawson’s engineering work involved maintenance of, and repairs to, visiting sail and steam ships. His most notable and widely publicised success in this regard involved repairs to the new 2500-ton iron steamer Croesus that arrived in Sydney in 1854 with serious hull damage that threatened its safe return to England. With no floating dock in the colony, Dawson built a caisson around the ship’s hull to allow access and then, over a four-month period, oversaw a team of his men carry out the necessary ironwork repairs to a very high standard.

Dawson became involved in the 1850s and 1860s with the manufacture and repair of gold mining machinery. His quartz-crushing or stamping machines, and the steam engines that powered them, along with machinery he imported, found its way onto the goldfields of New South Wales and Queensland. Mining machinery worked hard and generated a constant flow of repair work orders to the foundry.

Toward the end of his life, Richard Dawson’s enthusiasm for being involved in innovation and finding engineering solutions to difficult challenges saw him take an active part in the development of early refrigeration engineering. In 1861, Dawson and the French engineer Eugene Dominique Nicolle, were granted a patent for an ice-making machine. In 1862, Nicolle, Dawson and the Wilkinson Brothers bought the Sydney Ice Company.

Richard Dawson, an ‘old and much respected colonist’, died on 8 June 1865 at "Hebe", his country home at Riverstone, west of Sydney. His estate was sworn at £8000. His daughter Sarah Maria died in 1843 and his first wife, Sarah House, died in 1847. Rhoda Dodd, his second wife, died in 1849 following childbirth and his son, Thomas Richard Dawson died just before his first birthday in 1850. Dawson married Louisa Bliss, widow of Captain Andrew Bliss, in 1850 and she inherited all assets when her husband died. The business, now styled as Dawson and Co. continued and was managed for her by Louisa’s son Frederick Bliss before being sold to Thomas Sutcliffe Mort early in 1872.

Original publication

  • unpublished, 2012

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Harry Irwin, 'Dawson, Richard (Dicky) (1800–1865)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/dawson-richard-dicky-14382/text25455, accessed 19 June 2019.

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