Joseph Docker

From the establishment of the grand 'Bontharambo' estate to the development of the Melbourne suburbs of Richmond and Clifton Hill, Joseph Docker had a profound impact on the state of Victoria. 

He migrated from England to Sydney in 1828, where he took up a colonial chaplaincy. In 1838, after reading Major Thomas Mitchell’s account of Australia Felix, he decided to relocate his family to the Port Phillip district.

Docker left Sydney with his wife and five children, servants, a flock of sheep, some cattle and even a boat. They travelled through Goulburn and Yass and crossed the Murray River at Albury, or the Crossing-Place as it was known. He followed 'Mitchell’s Line' through the Port Phillip district:

We then commenced journeying with nothing but what was then called ‘the Major’s track’ to guide us. This, in many places, was only a single bullock dray track for miles and miles of country, with here and there a few marked trees. Usually a man on horseback was sent on in front to make certain of following it.

- Joseph Docker

Joseph Docker 1845 in McMillan, J M 1994, The Two Lives of Joseph Docker, Spectrum Publications, Richmond, Vic.

He had heard about the abandoned Bontharambo run on the Ovens River near Wangarratta. George Faithful had previously held the squatting rights there but had left when the local Indigenous people had killed his shepherds.

On his arrival at Bontharambo, Docker obtained the squatting rights and took possession of the hut. He was well known in the Port Phillip district and was said to have had a much better relationship with the Indigenous people in the area. Corroborees continued to be held on the island in the lagoon that was now the Bontharambo run.

The Bontharambo run was particularly productive and besides sheep and cattle grazing, the Dockers also established vineyards and a winery, as well as olive groves and oil pressing facilities. They also attempted silkworm farming and the growing of tobacco. Tobacco was consumed powdered (snorted as 'snuff') and smoked in pipes but it was also used to staunch blood as Docker's letter reveals to his friend:

My dear William, I have deferred writing to you so long that I have but just time enough to save the Post. I have engaged a sheep doctor to take all trouble from my own hands, and on this account I require different medicine from that which I at first intended to use. Among other things I want (2,000) two thousand pounds of tobacco stems, i.e., the fibres of the tobacco leaf, not the stalks, & as I think you will get them cheaper in Sydney than I could in Melbourne I should wish you to purchase that quantity, & forward it to Mr Gregory by the very first opportunity, as I have already begun to shear & no time must be lost...

- Joseph Docker

Letter from Joseph Docker. From the State Library of Victoria's Manuscripts collection. MS 10437

In 1839 Docker saw land for sale in an area near the Yarra village known as Richmond. He was quite taken with the blocks on the hill that overlooked Melbourne and he bought 50 acres (200,000 square metres) for £975.

Later in the 1850s Docker and his nephew, William Workman subdivided and developed both Richmond and Clifton Hill, building numerous houses in both areas. They were seeking to take advantage of the dramatic increase in people who arrived in Victoria after the discovery of gold. It was a profitable exercise and by 1857 Docker owned 57 houses in the Richmond area alone.

Only a couple of houses from the 1850s are still standing in Richmond. Joseph Docker was a successful and enterprising pastoralist. He was well known in the Wangaratta district as both just and kind. Bontharambo remains in the possession of the Docker family.

Photograph of Bontharambo estate, near Wangaratta.
Licence received by Joseph Docker to take up the Bontharambo run.
Letter from Joseph Docker to his brother about farm issues.
Plan showing land purchases made by Joseph Docker.