Alexander Berry

30 Nov 1781
30 Nov 1873
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Alexander Berry (30 November 1781 – 30 November 1873) was a Scottish-born surgeon, merchant and explorer who in 1822 was given a land grant of 10,000 acres (40 km2) and 100 convicts to establish the first European settlement on the south coast of New South Wales, Australia.

This settlement became known as the Coolangatta Estate and later developed into what is now the town of Berry, named in honour of Alexander and his brother David.

Berry was born, to parents James Berry and Isabel Tod, at Hilltarvit Mains farmhouse, near Cupar in Fife, Scotland where his father was a tenant, during a blinding snowstorm on the evening of 30 November 1781 (St Andrew’s Day) and baptised on 6 December. He was one of nine siblings.

He was educated at Cupar grammar school, where he was a contemporary of the artist Sir David Wilkie, and studied medicine at St Andrews University and the University of Edinburgh. His youthful intentions were to join the navy, but he was dissuaded from doing so by his father, and he became a surgeon’s mate for the East India Company.

Ship’s surgeons were permitted to take a substantial amount of cargo, so his responsibilities were both medical and mercantile. He travelled first to China and then to India, aboard the Lord Hawkesbury. The second voyage was profitable for Berry.

He decided to quit the medical profession, as he hated the whippings he was obliged to attend, and he was attracted to the commercial possibilities of shipping.

His third voyage was to the Cape of Good Hope in 1806. On arrival, he heard that New South Wales needed provisions. He purchased a ship, City of Edinburgh, with medical student Francis Shortt, to take provisions to the colony. While travelling as supercargo, he encountered storms which damaged his ship, so he stopped at Port Dalrymple, close to modern day Launceston.

He sold half his provisions there and the remainder in Hobart. He then continued to Sydney, where he arrived on 13 January 1808 with only spirits remaining to sell.

There was no cargo available to take from Sydney back to the Cape, so Berry accepted a government job to evacuate settlers from Norfolk Island to Hobart. The timber he was promised in payment was unavailable, so he decided to go to Fiji to load a cargo of sandalwood. He also visited New Zealand, to drop off a Māori who was returning from a visit to England.

In 1809, while the vessel was loading cargo at the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, news came through of the massacre of the crew and passengers of the ship Boyd by local Māori. The City of Edinburgh, with Berry, set sail for Whangaroa where he rescued four survivors and the ship’s papers by holding two chiefs hostage.

He wrote in a letter to Governor Macquarie that he released the chiefs because “there was no opportunity of sending the chiefs to Port Jackson”.

He wrote in the Edinburgh Magazine that he had released them on condition that they lose their rank with their people, although he never expected that to happen.

Berry sailed eastwards from New Zealand with his cargo to the Cape of Good Hope, however a broken rudder forced him to make repairs in Valparaiso, and then travel to Lima. He found a buyer for his cargo, and secured another cargo from Guayaquil for Cadiz and began the journey in 1811.

After calling in at Rio de Janeiro Berry was forced to abandon the City of Edinburgh during storms near the Azores. He made his way to Lisbon, Portugal. It was on the trip from Lisbon to Cádiz that he met Edward Wollstonecraft.

Wollstonecraft proceeded to London as Berry’s agent, and Berry remained for a time in Cádiz before also proceeding to London.

Berry was a member of the Philosophical Society in 1821 and a councillor on the Australian Philosophical Society. He was interested in aborigines and geology, publishing a paper “On the Geology of Part of the Coast of New South Wales”.

Berry’s memoirs were published in 1912, entitled ‘Reminiscences’. They chiefly describe his experiences at sea, both with the East India company and his private travels, with only a short section covering his life in New South Wales. In particular he describes in detail his relationships with the indigenous people of New Zealand and Fiji, and his experiences during the rescue at the scene of the Boyd massacre.

Alexander Berry died on 30 November 1873 at Crows Nest House. He was buried in family vault in St. Thomas’ cemetery with his wife and Edward Wollstonecraft. The cemetery is now known as St Thomas Rest Park, and the graves are still present.

The probate value of the estate he created was £1,252,975 sterling; an enormous sum in that day. The estate passed to his brother David, 14 years his junior.

He had no children. Charles Nicholson wrote in a letter to The Times in 1889 that Berry had prepared a will to bequeath the greater part of his estate to the University of St Andrews, but died a few hours before the time appointed to sign it.

David Berry in his will fulfilled Alexander’s desire by making a bequeath to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland of £100,000. In 1889 St Andrews used the £100,000 legacy to establish the Berry Chair of English Literature, which still continues today.

Berry was possibly Australia’s first millionaire, and founder of the dairy industry in New South Wales.

The New South Wales South Coast town of Berry was named after the brothers after their death.

Berry Island, near the present day suburb of Wollstonecraft, and originally part of the Wollstonecraft estate was named after Alexander Berry. Berry Street in North Sydney and Alexander Street in Crows Nest are both named after him.

Berry’s Canal, the small canal that was constructed under direction of Alexander Berry at the Coolangatta Estate to link the Shoalhaven River and the Crookhaven River now forms the main Shoalhaven River estuary, with the former entrance to the Shoalhaven River at Shoalhaven Heads usually closed to the ocean, except during floods.

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