HOVELL, William Hilton (1786-1875)

HOVELL, William Hilton (1786-1875)
was born at Yarmouth, England, on 26 April 1786, went to sea at an early age, and in 1808 was in command of a vessel trading with South America. In October 1813 he came to Sydney, and, getting in touch with Simeon Lord (q.v.), he became master of a vessel and made several trading voyages along the coast and to New Zealand. In 1819 he settled on the land near Sydney and did some exploring in a southerly direction; he discovered the Burragorang valley in 1823. About this time Governor Brisbane (q.v.) was anxious to obtain more information about any rivers that might run south in the direction of Spencer's Gulf. He got into touch with Hamilton Hume (q.v.), who was known to be a good bushman, and also with Hovell, and suggested that an expedition should be made to settle this question. His idea was that it should start either from the head of Port Phillip or Western Port and go northerly to Lake George. Hume suggested that it should go in the reverse direction. Brisbane seemed disposed to agree to this, when difficulties arose about the financing of the expedition, and the two explorers decided to make the journey practically at their own expense. All that the government did was to provide some pack-saddles, clothes, blankets and arms, from the government stores. The explorers left on 3 October 1824 with six men. They reached Hume's station 10 days later, and on 17 October began the journey proper with five bullocks, three horses and two carts. On 22 October they found that the only way to pass the Murrumbidgee, then in flood, was to convert one of the carts into a kind of boat by passing a tarpaulin under it, the men, horses, and bullocks swam over, and everything was successfully got across. A day or two later, in broken hilly country full of water-courses, they had great difficulty in finding a road for the loaded carts, and on 27 October they decided to abandon them. Until 16 November their course lay through difficult mountainous country. On that day they came to a large river which Hovell called Hume's River "he being the first that saw it". This was an upper reach of the Murray River so named by Sturt (q.v.) a few years later. It was impossible to cross here, but after a few days a better place was found, and constructing the rough frame of a boat, they managed to get across. By 3 December they had reached the Goulburn River and were able to cross it without a boat. During the next 10 days much difficult country was traversed but they then came to more level and open land, and on 16 December they sighted Port Phillip in the distance. Presently they skirted its shores south-westerly and came to what is now Corio Bay near Geelong. Here Hovell made a mistake of one degree in calculating his longitude, and they came to the conclusion that they were on Western Port. The party returned on 18 December and wisely keeping more to the west had an easier journey. On 8 January 1825 they came to the end of their provisions, and for a few days subsisted on fish and a kangaroo they were able to shoot. On 16 January they reached the carts they had left behind them, and two days later came to Lake George.
On 25 March 1825 Governor Brisbane mentioned the discoveries of Hovell and Hume in a dispatch and said that he intended to send a vessel to Western Port to have it explored. However, nothing was done until his successor, Governor Darling (q.v.), towards the end of 1826, sent an expedition under Captain Wright to Western Port. Hovell was attached to this expedition, and when it arrived the error he had previously made in his longitude was soon discovered. Hovell explored and reported on the land surrounding Western Port and to the north of it, and near the coast to the east at Cape Paterson he discovered "great quantities of very fine coal". (H.R. of A., ser. III, vol. V, p. 855). This was the first discovery of coal in Victoria. Hovell was away five months on this expedition and henceforth did no more exploring. He made various efforts during the next 10 years to obtain some special recognition from the government in addition to the grants of 1200 acres for the journey with Hume, and 1280 acres for the journey to Western Port, "subject to restrictions and encumbrances so depreciatory of its value, as to render it a very inadequate remuneration". (H.R. of A., ser. I, vol. XIV, pp. 725-9.) He appears to have had no success, but must have prospered on his run at Goulburn, where he lived for the rest of his life. He died on 9 November 1875, and in 1877 his widow left £6000 to the university of Sydney as a memorial of him, which was used to found the William Hilton Hovell lectureship on geology and physical geography.
It was unfortunate that in 1854 ill-feeling arose between Hume and Hovell which led to a war of pamphlets between them. In December 1853 Hovell was entertained at a public dinner in Geelong, his speech was inadequately reported in some of the newspapers, and Hume considered that Hovell had endeavoured to claim all the credit for their joint expedition. The fullest report of Hovell's speech available does not justify Hume's contention. Though unable to take an observation Hume was the better bushman of the two, and more of a natural leader. But Hovell was a well-educated man of amiable character, and during their joint expedition they seem to have worked well together. Between them they were responsible for an excellent and important piece of exploration. Hovell's later discovery of coal during his visit to Western Port was also important; it is remarkable that the discovery was overlooked for a long period.
A. W. Jose, Builders and Pioneers of Australia; Sir Ernest Scott, Journal and Proceedings Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. VII, p. 289, and in same issue "Hovell's Journal", p. 307; Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, vols XI to XV, ser. III, vol. V; The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 November 1875; Calendar, the University of Sydney, 1938.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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