OXLEY, John Joseph William Molesworth (1783-1828)

OXLEY, John Joseph William Molesworth (1783-1828)
he used only his first Christian name
was the eldest son of John and Isabella Oxley. His father was of landed stock, his mother was a daughter of Viscount Molesworth. He was born at Kirkham Abbey near Westow, Yorkshire, in 1783, and entered the navy when he was 16. He arrived in Sydney in October 1802 as master's mate of the Buffalo, and was promoted to second lieutenant in 1805. He returned to England in 1807, was appointed first lieutenant of the Porpoise, and rejoined her in 1808. Two years later he was again in England and on 1 January 1812 was appointed surveyor-general of lands in New South Wales. In April 1815 he was with Macquarie (q.v.) when Bathurst was founded, and in March 1817 he was instructed to take charge of an expedition to ascertain the course of the Lachlan River. He left on 6 April with G. W. Evans (q.v.) as second in command, and Allan Cunningham (q.v.) as botanist. Bathurst was reached on the fourteenth, but they were detained there by bad weather for five days. The Macquarie River was reached on 25 April and its course was followed for several days, part of the stores being conveyed in boats. Much of the country was found to be swampy, and on 9 May the way was barred by a huge marsh. Retracing their steps for some distance they then proceeded in a south-westerly direction, and on 20 May found themselves in very dry country. Hardly any water was available and what was found had to be boiled twice before it was drinkable. For the next five weeks dense scrubby country was constantly encountered and there was a great shortage of water. One of the horses died and another had to be shot. It rained several times but this gave them little water; Oxley says in his journal that the soil absorbed all the rain that fell like a sponge. On 23 June the Lachlan was reached and found to be about 30 feet broad and running freely. The course of the river was followed for a fortnight, much marshy country was crossed, and on 7 July Oxley was "forced to come to the conclusion that the interior of this vast country is a marsh and uninhabitable". After resting for two days a turn to the east was made and Bathurst was eventually reached on 29 August.
The results of Oxley's first expedition were disappointing, but he was hopeful of having better success by following up the Macquarie River. At the end of May 1818 he led a second expedition from Bathurst and again had the assistance of Evans. After following the river for about five weeks it was found that it was running into an ocean of reeds, so a halt was called and Evans went to the north-east to test the country in that direction. He returned on 18 July and reported that he had found a new river, which was named the Castlereagh. Their way lay alternately through scrub and marsh and progress was slow. Early in August they found good pastoral country, the Liverpool Plains, and the journey became easier. On 2 September on climbing a mountain they saw the sea, and finding a river, which was named the Hastings, they made their way to Port Macquarie. Turning south down the coast a difficult journey was made to Port Stephens, where they arrived on 1 November 1818. Oxley published in 1820 his Journals of Two Expeditions into the Interior of New South Wales, a translation of which in Dutch appeared in the following year.
After two or three pieces of minor exploration work Oxley left Sydney in October 1823 instructed to examine and report on the suitability of Port Curtis, Moreton Bay, and Port Bowen, as sites for convict settlements. He arrived at Port Curtis on 5 November and after carefully examining it reported against it. He then turned to the south, entered Moreton Bay on 29 November, and three days later discovered the Brisbane River. He was helped in doing this by two white men who had been wrecked on the coast some months before and were kindly treated by the aborigines. Oxley went some 50 miles up the river, and was much impressed by the country which included the site of Brisbane. As a result of his recommendations a settlement was begun there shortly afterwards. In March 1823 he received an increase in his salary of £91 5s. a year in consideration of his increased duties, and in January 1824 he was appointed a member of the newly formed legislative council. In the following year a dispatch from Earl Bathurst requested that Brisbane would convey to Oxley his "approbation of the zeal and intelligence with which he appears to have performed the important duties confided to him". This had special reference to his last expedition. In October 1826 the new governor, Darling, mentioned that he had sent W. H. Hovell (q.v.) to report on Western Port because Oxley could not be spared from his duties in Sydney. His health became impaired about this time, and in March 1828 Major, afterwards Sir, Thomas L. Mitchell (q.v.) had to be placed in charge of his department. He died at his country house near Sydney on 26 May 1828. He married a Miss Norton who survived him with two sons.
Oxley was an excellent public servant and explorer. He was not afraid to take risks, but he knew how to husband the strength of both his horses and the members of his party. He never lost a man, though his own health suffered. He was unable to solve the riddle of the rivers, which appeared to lose themselves in marshes, but he added much valuable land to the known territory of his time.
Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, vols. V to XIV; E. C. Rowland, Journal and Proceedings Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. XXVIII, pp. 249-72; E. Favenc, The Explorers of Australia; J. H. Heaton, Australian Dictionary of Dates.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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