The late Mr. John Watson – much respected old colonist, one of the hale and cheery octogenarians for which Tasmania is famous, suddenly passed away on Wednesday afternoon after an active and well-spent life.
Few lives would be more interesting reading to the citizens of Hobart than that of Mr. John Watson’s for he has played a leading part in the actual progress of the town, and throughout a period of half a century, broken in the earlier portions by periods of deep political excitement, he never for a moment lost the general respect which his honest, industrious, just and charitable course of action won for him very early in life. The deceased was born in Southampton at the very dawn of the century, and had, consequently, entered his 87th year.
He arrived in this colony in the year 1831 in the ship Norval, under the command of Lieut. Mattthew Curling Friend, who afterwards became port officer at Launceston. Mr. Watson started ship-building at Degraves yard (which he subsequently purchased in 1849), near where Secheron is now at Battery Point.
When Macquarie Harbour was broken up and Port Arthur established he was engaged by the Government to start ship-building at that settlement about the year 1835. During the two years he remained there the well known Government schooner Eliza and the Wallaby Whaler were built under his directions. He then returned to town and re-commenced business as a ship-builder on what is now known as the Old Wharf, in a spot opposite the Shade’s Tavern, and somewhere in front of the Fisherman’s Dock. In 1839 he removed to Battery Point, taking a yard on the site now occupied by Messrs. Tilly and Williams’ slip where he continued to carry on business until 1852, building a number of large vessels, most of which after active service in the early trades of the colony have gone the way of ships and men. Among them may be enumerated the once celebrated ‘Flying Squadron’, The Flying Squirrel, Flying Fish, Flying Childers, and Flying Fox, also the Sisters, Panama, Fair Tasmania, Free Trader, Swordfish, and Southern Cross (barque). In these days shipbuilding was an important industry in Hobart, and a large number of men were engaged in it. It is worthy to note that Messrs A. McGregor, John McGregor, John Lucas, and James Mckay, four of our most successful master shipbuilders, were apprentices to Mr. Watson.
Another important industry in these comparatively early days was sperm whaling, in which Mr. Watson was engaged with his brother, the late Mr. George Watson, from 1844 to 1851.
The discovery of gold in Victoria, which proved such a drain on our population, seriously affected Mr. Watson, as his apprentices as well as his journeymen left him under the powerful attraction. He then went into business as a timber merchant and ship-owner. He had previously in 1949 established a ship-building yard at Long Bay, near Middleton, which was afterwards engaged in the London trade, under the command of Captain Storie, shipbuilding timber, and endeavoured to introduce the blue gum for that purpose into England, exporting considerable quantities.
In 1854 he was employed by the Marine Department of Hobart to superintend the erection of the King Island Lighthouse. He also in 1850 erected the handsome pile buildings on the corner of Macquarie and Harrington Streets for his son-in-law, the late Mr Canaway, who had established a superior school. Upon the death of Mr. Alfred Garrett, the Derwent and Tamar Insurance Co. appointed the late Mr. H.B. Tonkin manager, and Mr Watson succeeded him as marine surveyor, a position he held up to the time of his death. He was also engaged for many years as engineer and clerk of works to the Hobart Marine Board, in which capacity he has constructed all the wharves and piers erected during the last twenty years, which are a credit to teh port and a monument to his memory.
Thirty odd years ago Mr. Watson took a great interest in political matters, and was a strong supporter of the anti-transportation movement and an early opponent of the policy of Sir William Denison. For the last few years the decay of old age was apparent, though his cheerful spirits and temperate life kept him fit for service to a green age.
On Wednesday he went to Brown’s River with two of his daughters, and while walking on the beach he was suddenly overcome with weakness and expired of heart disease. The deceased was married in England and brought his wife and young family out with him. His wife died several years ago, his sons, Messrs. William and John Watson, occupy responsible commercial appointments in Victoria and his daughters are all married. He has numerous grandchildren among whom Mr. A.P. Canaway, B.A. of Sydney, was one of the Tasmanian scholars of 1875.
extract from The Mercury, 18th March, 1887