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The Robertsons of Alvie in Van Diemen’s Land

In the conclusion of a two-part study, Dr David Taylor traces the continuing rise of the Robertson siblings, who escaped their humble roots in early-19th-century Badenoch to become fabulously wealthy farmers and businessmen in the fledging colony of Van Diemen’s Land, modern Tasmania

Part 2

William Robertson in later life

By 1829, four of the Robertson brothers from Dunachton, John, William, James and Daniel, along with their youngest sister Christiana, had settled in Van Diemen’s Land. While John and William’s initial success had come through land and farming, the sale of their original farms in 1827 suggests some new venture was in the offing. When Daniel and Christiana had sailed for Van Diemen’s Land in 1829 they were joined on board by their older brother John, who had been in London on business. Later that year, John and William launched their new venture, a ‘new and commodious Warehouse [in Hobart] with an extensive and elegant assortment of Merchandise’. Hence the trip to London: ‘J.

Robertson… himself selected the above… in the British market, in order to recommend their qualities’, and, ‘having paid ready money’, they were able to sell ‘upon the most reasonable and liberal terms’. It was another bold but shrewd move, for the lack of colonial industry meant British manufactures were in constant demand. The goods included huge quantities of cloth, clothing, haberdashery, ironmongery and domestic items. Much of it was clearly targeted at the expanding middle class: government officials, army officers and the increasingly wealthy settlers, particularly wives – no doubt followers of media features like ‘London Fashions for May’ – with items such as a ‘superior assortment of silks and ribbons of all colours and the most fashionable patterns for ladies’ dresses’.

Regular cargoes from London followed, with satins, silks and velvet again indicating the luxury market, but John and William were also expanding into consumables, offering ‘tea by the chest, sugar by the bag or ton, tobacco by the basket’. James and Daniel followed suit in 1831 with their own ‘splendid Store’ in the colony’s second town, Launceston, thereby stimulating ‘a spirit of competition among the shopkeepers’. The new branch soon diversified into agricultural supplies and ‘good old port, pale sherry, and pale ale’. Though the colony’s retail trade in general was thriving, the Robertson mantra of personal selection with cash up front had clearly established a winning – and highly lucrative – formula.

‘He is a Scotchman which is in itself a sort of passport to fortune’

Daniel’s homecoming

Daniel returned to Britain with his family in 1837 to act as London buyer, perhaps with some judicious fashion advice from his wife Sarah. That Tasmanian ladies could be wearing the latest London fashions within six months of their release was no small part of that shrewd eye for business, making the settler class feel ‘at home’ by echoing the society they had left. The air of affluence was noticed by a British visitor in Hobart in 1838: ‘elegant houses, many of them of stone, that would do honour to the most splendid cities of Europe… everything wears an aspect of comfort and opulence’.

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About History Scotland

The March/April issue of History Scotland is packed full of the latest research news and in-depth reads from experts in the fields of Scottish history, heritage and archaeology. Highlights include: 'The Stewart Queens of Scotland: Margaret of Denmark. New research on the life of Margaret, who reigned alongside James III of Scots Scottish coastal history: a wide-ranging overview of Scotland’s coastline over the centuries A guide to Agricola’s campaign in Scotland Curator review of the new Ancient Egypt Rediscovered gallery at National Museum of Scotland Underwater archaeology at Loch Tay New excavations at the prison of Mary Queen of Scots in Sheffield Castle Plus: Family history advice, archaeology dig reports and finds analysis, history of art series and lots more…​