First barons of our bay

Locations of the early wharves between Millers and Dawes Point, mapped by John Carmichael, 1837.

Long before the 1900 rat plague or the 1918 naming of Walsh Bay, our headland was a new frontier of global commerce for colonial shipping agents who built the first jetties and bond stores here.  They imported food, liquor, clothing, machines and tools from England and tea and spices and cloths from China and India, and sent wheat, wool, seal skins and whale oil back to Britain and east-coast America—and they were traders of opium between India and China.

Names of the bay’s early wharf owners appear on John Carmichael’s 1837 Map of the Town of Sydney. This depicts Walker’s Wharf on the site of today’s Pier One Hotel; Pitman’s Wharf and Lamb’s Wharf at today’s Wharf 4-5 (Sydney Theatre Company) and Aspinal & Brown’s Wharf (correctly spelt Aspinall and Browne) at today’s Pier 8-9. All these wharves operated when Windmill Street was the closest street to the shoreline on the western side of the bay. Hickson Road would not be laid (on reclaimed land) for another 80 years.

Who were these wharf owners? Some merchants, especially T.G. Pitman, have no known biographies or obituaries. William Walker and John Lamb have entries in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB). Others are noted in colonial history books by Keith Binney and Dr Janette Holcomb. Here are summaries of what they revealed so far:

William Walker’s villa in Lower Fort Street, 1820s, artist unknown.

William Walker (1787-1854) was born in Fife, Scotland and first came to Sydney in 1813 to collect debts owed by Robert Campbell (the owner of wharves and warehouses at today’s Campbells Cove) to Walker’s employers, merchants in Calcutta. On this visit, he bought a pastoral property, Clydesdale, through his new local agents Richard Jones and Edward Riley. He migrated to Sydney in 1820 with a large cargo of merchandise to sell and more than £7000 capital, which he used to buy a partnership with Jones and Riley and 260 head of cattle from a deceased estate. He was granted 2000 acres of land by Governors Lachlan Macquarie and Thomas Brisbane, and encouraged a brother, James Walker, and a nephew, Thomas Walker, to also migrate to work with him and to seek their own land grants. In the mid-1820s, Jones retired and Edward Riley committed suicide. William Walker returned to London, where he successfully argued for more land from the Colonial Office and chartered a ship to bring six mechanics and farm workers, 185 sheep and two brood horses back to Sydney. He was elected chair of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce, replacing Richard Jones, and the Jones and Walker partnership continued to grow through whaling operations, wool exporting, opium trading between India and China and importing Chinese tea to Sydney. In 1830, Walker announced a new partnership with his nephew Thomas and his associate, Joseph Moore. They set up premises at Dawes Point, beside a wharf then owned by Richard Jones (although this Jones’ wharf was not shown on early maps). William’s brother, James, focused on developing the pastoral properties and by 1844, all three Walkers owned more than 30 stations around New South Wales. William returned to London in 1831 to set up Walker Bros to maximise the family’s interests there, while leaving some relatives by marriage in charge of the Australian operations. Despite losses in a financial depression in the early 1840s, the Walker family companies continued to fare well under younger generations. William died in London in 1854.

John Lamb, c1820s, artist unknown.

John Lamb (1790-1862) was born in Penrith, England, as a son of a captain of the East India Company. He joined the Royal Navy aged 11 and first visited New South Wales in 1805, with its new Governor, Captain William Bligh. In 1808 he was promoted to lieutenant but left the Navy in 1814 and later commanded the convict transport ship Baring on two voyages to Sydney before 1820. In the late 1820s, he formed Lamb, Buchanan and Company with his cousin Walter Buchanan, then returned to Sydney with his family to set up the business as shipping agents and wool brokers. In 1830 he received a grant of 2560 acres on the South Coast to run sheep. After dissolving the partnership with Buchanan in 1834, Lamb partnered with Frederick Parbury in 1837 and both merchants prospered (Parbury later set up his own wharves and warehouses nearby). Lamb was a member of the NSW Legislative Council and a director of many prominent public companies, including the Sydney Railroad Co and the Commercial Banking Co, and was a founder and first chairman of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce and the Sydney Exchange.

Lamb built a large house, Spencer Lodge, facing Point Balmain from Millers Point, before he returned to Britain to build a house at Clapham Park, near London. In 1857, he returned to Sydney and died at his next home, Larbert Lodge, Darlinghurst, in 1862.

Spencer Lodge at Millers Point, looking east from Balmain Point, by Conrad Martens, 1850 (Caroline Simpson Library).

Richard Aspinall and Warham Jemmet Browne (aka Brown, 1762-1833) arrived in Sydney from Britain in 1822 as directors of London and Liverpool merchants Aspinall Browne and Co. They landed with £14,000 worth of merchandise to sell as the basis of a new agency for the company in Sydney. After arranging two adjoining grants of land to run sheep at Bathurst, Richard returned to London, leaving several younger Aspinalls – Edward, Thomas and Reginald – to run his family’s interests in the wool-broking business. Warham Browne returned to Britain in 1831, two years before his death, leaving William Browne, who had arrived in 1816. The younger Aspinalls and Brownes built extensive landholdings in different parts of NSW and became leaders of the horse-breeding and racing industry. As well as the wharf at Millers Point, they owned city premises at Charlotte Place (near today’s Jamison Street off George Street).. In 1842, Richard Aspinall retired from the firm and the Brownes formed a new partnership with John William Gosling—Gosling Browne and Co. There are no known maps showing the name Gosling on a wharf between Millers and Dawes Points.


—Binney, Keith Robert, 2005, Horsemen of the First Frontier (1788-1900) and The Serpent’s Legacy. Sydney: Volcano Press.

—Holcomb, Janette, 2013, Early Merchant Families of Sydney: Speculation and risk management on the fringes of empire. Sydney: Scholarly Publishing.

—Maclehose, James, 1838, ‘Appendix: List of Merchants, Agents and Brokers, in Sydney’, A Picture of Sydney and The Strangers’ Guide to New South Wales. Sydney: J. Maclehose, 186-87.

—Parsons, Vivienne, 1967, ‘Walker, William (1787-1854)’, ADB, Vol. 2, (accessed 24 May 2020).

—Walsh, G.P., 1967, ‘Lamb, John (1790-1862)’, ADB, Vol. 2, (accessed 24 May 2020).