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John Oxley

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

John Joseph William Molesworth Oxley (1784 – 25 May 1828) was an explorer and surveyor of Australia in the early period of British colonisation. He served as Surveyor General of New South Wales and is perhaps best known for his two expeditions into the interior of New South Wales and his exploration of the Tweed River and the Brisbane River in what is now the state of Queensland.

John Oxley was born at Kirkham Abbey near Westow in Yorkshire, Great Britain. He was baptised at Bulmer on 6 July 1784, his parents recorded as John and Arabella Oxley.

In 1799 (aged 15), he entered the Royal Navy as a midshipman on the Venerable(1784).

He travelled to Australia in October 1802 as master's mate of the naval vessel Buffalo, which carried out coastal surveying (including the survey of Western Port), and this first stay in the Colonies would last for five years. In 1805, Oxley became acting lieutenant of the Buffalo and traveled to Van Diemen's Land the following year in charge of the Estramina.

He returned to England in 1807 and from there he was appointed first lieutenant of HMS Porpoise, a British sloop of war that was stationed at NSW. To take up this appointment he sailed out again to NSW on the Speke as part of the Transport Board. He arrived in November 1808 with £800 of freight transport. In 1809 Porpoise visited Van Diemen's Land, carrying as a passenger Governor William Bligh, who had been deposed in the Rum Rebellion. When Bligh was deposed, Oxley denied he supported Macarthur but his letters showed that he was close to him. In 1810. He retired from the Navy in 1811 and was appointed as Surveyor-General for the NSW colony, thereafter. He headed several expeditions including exploration of the Lachlan, Macquarie and Tweed Rivers.

In 1823, Governor Brisbane sent Oxley north by boat in search of a site for an alternative penal settlement for the most difficult convicts. Accompanying John Oxley on the government vessel Mermaid captained by Charles Penson was Lieut. Robert Stirling of the 3rd Regiment who had arrived on the Shipley in 1822 and John Fitzgerald Uniacke who arrived in the colony in September 1823 as well as a corporal and privates of the 3rd Regiment. On this journey, he visited the Tweed River and valley and was deeply impressed, recording his impressions as follows: "A deep rich valley clothed with magnificent trees, the beautiful uniformity of which was only interrupted by the turns and windings of the river, which here and there appeared like small lakes. The background was Mt. Warning. The view was altogether beautiful beyond description. The scenery here exceeded anything I have previously seen in Australia." As Surveyor General, Oxley made a close examination of the Tweed River and Port Curtis, and sources connected that investigation, principally the manuscript journal kept by Oxley, and the published Narrative of John Uniackie, who accompanied Oxley.

An original lithograph from the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia published in 1886 by Andrew Garran Volume 2, p.316.

Oxley sailed northwards from the Tweed Area in the Mermaid. Rounding Moreton Island, he came across Thomas Pamphlett and John Finnegan, timber-getters who had been shipwrecked on Moreton island months earlier and who had been living with the indigenous people there.

A complete transcript narrative of Thomas Pamphlett - by John Uniacke is available to download at the following link:

Finnegan showed Oxley and his party the river. However, he led them to the wrong river. When Oxley realised it wasn’t the Brisbane River, he named it “Deception River”, but “North Pine” river eventually stuck because of all of the Hoop Pines that grew along the river’s banks.

Together with Lieutenant Stirling they took the whaleboat and provisions for four days to explore the river they were looking for. It was Stirling who mapped the river (Oxley mostly gets the credit for it). They sailed about fifty miles (80 km) up the river and reached, what Oxley named, Termination Hill (now Wolston at Wacol). He mentioned the rich soil and the good timber along the river. They reported fresh river water up to around 18 miles (29km) from the mouth of the river. At 30 miles (48km) the river meandered through ‘magnificent flat country’. Afterwards Oxley named it, Brisbane River, in honour of the Governor of NSW Thomas Brisbane.

Oxley has realised the potential of the river being an excellent opportunity for settlement, and his report read:

“The Brisbane River presents so many superior situations that, although a port at Red Cliff Point may in the first instance be indispensable, yet the country on the west side of the river at the termination of the Sea Reach, appears to me a much better site for a permanent establishment. The river is not fresh there, but there is plenty of fresh water; the country is open and no obstacles exist from swamps or hills to prevent a ready communication with the interior, either by the banks of the river, or at a distance from it. The water is deeper closer to the shore and vessels of considerable burthen could load or unload close to the bank. From a hill near this last station, the entrance of the bay can be seen; and by clearing a few trees, communication by signal may be held with Red Cliff Point”.

John Oxley did not suggest a settlement along the river but reported that the best place for the penal settlement was ‘Red Cliff Point’, at the cliffs off Scarborough point, the latter was named by Matthew Flinders during his 1799 voyage.

On Saturday the 6th of December, the party left Moreton Bay and went back to Sydney. Pamphlett and Finnegan were also on board.

He recommended this place for the site of the convict settlement. which became Moreton Bay, and later the city of Brisbane. He then travelled further north to explore Port Curtis (the site of Gladstone) and continued to explore the region, which is now known as South East Queensland.


John Oxley returned to Moreton Bay in a second expedition on the 12th of September 1824,

anchoring 1.2 km off the Redcliffe shore. Aboard the Amity were Oxley, Lieutenant Henry Miller – the newly appointed Commandant of Moreton Bay Settlement, 21 soldiers who brought their wives and families, and 29 convicts whose labour was required to build the new settlement.

Also on this expedition was botanist Allan Cunningham, surveyor Robert Hoddle.

A detailed history of the original 1824/25 convict settlement can be found at the following link:

Governor Brisbane also gave Oxley detailed instruction regarding a survey of the river and its shores and possible establishing its source.

Later that month Oxley and Cunningham surveyed for two weeks the river on board the Amity. They met an Aboriginal group at the mouth of a creek approx. 9 kms from the mouth of the river. After they had breakfast at the site a minor conflict with the aboriginals arose after one of them grabbed Oxley’s hat. Oxley named it Breakfast Creek in remembrance of the incident.

They explored what is now called Western Creek at Milton and noted that this could be a potential area for the settlement. They continued to Termination Hill and from here on they continued and named the Bremer River, they did not explore it.

The Amity with Oxley and Cunningham on board left Moreton Bay for Sydney on the 17th of October.

This time Oxley left Moreton Bay via the South Passage and became the first European sailor known to do so. This also became a game changer for the potential of a settlement on the river as the discovery of the South Passage made the trip to the river much faster.


On November 9th 1825, the Amity left Sydney again bound for Moreton Bay. This time with Governor Brisbane, Oxley and other officials keen to visit the new settlement. Accompanied by John Oxley he also cruised the river to a site 9 to 10 miles from the mouth of the river (to Breakfast Creek). Oxley suggested to move the settlement at Red Cliff to this spot, the Governor agreed with that. At the time the Red Cliff settlement was established there was not enough information about the river. This had only become clear after Oxley and Cunningham two week long trip over the river in October. Also at that time the southern entrance to the Bay was unknown. The party with the Governor stayed overnight on the river before turning back.

An interesting footnote is that during this trip, having left a message in a bottle for Richard Parsons on Bribie Island in 1824, Oxley returned during this voyage and rescued the third ship wrecked timber-getter nine months later in May 1825 at Bribie Island.


Personal life:

Governor Lachlan Macquarie granted Oxley 600 acres (240 ha) near Camden in 1810, which he increased to 1,000 acres (400 ha) in 1815. He named this property Kirkham and raised and bred sheep there. He was also briefly a director of the Bank of New South Wales. He was one of five members of the original 1824 New South Wales Legislative Council, but was not reappointed when the Council was reconstituted in 1825.

Oxley had three daughters out of wedlock with two women, before he married a third woman. Two of these daughters were with Charlotte Thorpe and born before his inland expeditions: Jeanette b. 1813 (never married) who died in 1875[19] and is buried in the historic cemetery at South Head, and Frances b. 1815 who married William Waugh and is buried in Tenterfield. He had another daughter, Louisa b. 1821, with Elizabeth Marmon. This child drowned (aged 3) in early December 1824 in a well opposite Oxley's house in Macquarie Street, Sydney.The newspaper report was as follows:

"An Inquest was held on Saturday last, on the body of Louisa Oxley, a lovely infant of four years old, that fell into a well 100 feet deep, close under the Hyde Park Barrack wall, and was drowned before aid could be afforded; to which effect a Verdict was returned. The criminality of suffering a well to be so publicly exposed, calls forth appropriate indignation."

In October 1821, Oxley married Emma Norton (1798–1885), the youngest sister of the solicitor James Norton. Emma had followed her brother out to New South Wales from Sussex after he had established himself as an attorney in the colony.

Oxley and Emma Norton had a daughter and two sons. The elder, John Norton Oxley became a Member of the Legislative Assembly, representing the Western Division of Camden, in the first Parliament after the establishment of responsible government in 1856. He sponsored the Broad Gauge Act which encouraged the use of wagons with broad wheels instead of narrow-tired drays in order to cause less wear on public roads; this measure made him unpopular with the farmers and carriers in his electorate and he lost his seat. The younger son, Henry Oxley, also became a Member of the Legislative Assembly, representing the Electoral district of Camden between 1859 and 1860.

Oxley suffered with illness throughout his service, caused by the difficulties of his expeditions. He finally succumbed to his illness and died on 25 May 1828 at his Kirkham property outside Camden, NSW aged 44.


John Oxley is listed on the wall of the Redcliffe Wall of Fame:

A collection of portrait and information honouring the achievements of individuals who have influenced and shaped Redcliffe. The collection is in the Jetty Arcade at 139-141 Redcliffe Parade.

For a complete list of people who appear on the wall click on the following blog post:

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