- History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
In 1805 Piper was appointed to fill the vacant post of Lieutenant-Governor of the small island, and promoted captain. Piper also had the good fortune to be on the island during the rebellion against Governor Bligh and was therefore not implicated in this scandal. During this period he fell in love with Mary Ann Shears, the young daughter of convict parents, and they were to have two children, but in this class-conscious society they did not marry until financially secure some years later. They remained on the island until it was abandoned as a penal settlement in 1810. The following year Piper, with his young family, returned to England with the remaining detachment of the NSW Corps. Garrison life in England had few attractions and Piper was using the influence of all his friends, including the now ascending McArthur family, to gain a position as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land. When this was not forthcoming he was offered and accepted the new position of Naval Officer at Port Jackson at an initial emolument of ₤400 p.a., plus a house and allowances. This being a civil appointment, he had to resign his commission, which he was able to sell.
Salary & Benefits
Piper, decked out in a distinctive blue uniform of his own design and retaining the honorary title of captain, returned to Sydney in February 1814, accompanied by his growing family. His new office was a combination of Customs House, Harbour Trust and Water Police. He collected harbour dues and wharfage duties, taxes on imports, taxes on spirits and tobacco; he also had charge of the Government heaving-down place (for careening ships), lighthouses and the sale of coal. He was paid a commission of 5% of all monies collected. For the first quarter his share was £106, but with increased trade this rose rapidly until he was soon receiving more than £4,000 p.a. (about $A7,000,000 in today’s currency) making him by far the highest paid official in the colony, at about twice the remuneration of the governor.
Captain Piper certainly used his new wealth to the benefit of his family and many friends. He first bought Vaucluse House, a mansion still extant but without the surrounding 475 acres available to the captain. Next he bought 190 acres at Eliza Point (later Point Piper) where he built what was described as a naval pavilion, being the finest mansion in the colony, with the finest views in the world. The residence, called Henrietta Villa (after the wife of his benefactor Governor Macquarie) came with an opulent ballroom with a domed roof, and on the lawns stood a row of brass cannons with which he saluted friends as they sailed out of the harbour. The famous painter Augustus Earle described Henrietta Villa as ‘…a house unrivalled in the colony where at every turn you see splendour and comfort’. The captain maintained a uniformed boat’s crew who doubled as musicians to play at evening entertainments.
In his prime, Piper was an exceedingly rich man. Most of his wealth was held in property with about 3,500 acres in and around Sydney and 300 acres in Van Diemen’s Land. In 1822 he was granted a further 2,000 acres of farmland at Bathurst. He was now a pillar of society, church elder, magistrate and a director of the Bank of New South Wales. However all was not as it seemed: an extravagant lifestyle, interests in horse racing and risky investments forced him to mortgage his property.
The paradise for the Prince of Sydney was to come to an end in 1826 with the arrival of Governor Darling, who set small store with social amenities and was soon in conflict with his Naval Officer. The Governor abolished the position and an investigation held into the affairs of the Naval Officer’s Department and the Bank of New South Wales revealed poor stewardship and dangerous levels of liquidity. Piper was forced to sell his property in a declining market, with the exception of that at Bathurst. Due to the disgrace he attempted suicide by having his boat’s crew take him outside the Heads where he jumped overboard, only to be rescued by his ever faithful crew.
Following the sale of his Sydney properties and settlement of debts the Pipers retired to Bathurst, where he saw out his declining years, finally fading away in 1851 in much humbler circumstances with his land now reduced to 500 acres. Being long forgotten, with his magnificent naval pavilion demolished and most of his contemporaries pre-deceasing him, his death barely caused a ripple in an enlarged new society growing ever confident of making new fortunes through recent gold discoveries. John Piper was for a time a prince amongst men but lacked business sense and the ability to say ‘no’ to those who used his generosity. However he was possibly the most colourful and singular Naval Officer to adorn our shores.
Major John George Nathaniel Gibbes
At this time when a royal marriage is imminent there is an unusual link between a successor of Captain Piper and the vice-regal establishment. In 1834 Major John George Nathaniel Gibbes was appointed to the old Naval Officer position, re-named Collector of Customs. Major Gibbes is believed to have been an illegitimate son of His Royal Highness Frederick Duke of York (second son of King George III and Commander in Chief of the British Army) who after an unsuccessful marriage had separated from his wife and lived with several other ladies. On arrival in the Colony Major Gibbes leased Henrietta Villa but in 1842 – 43 had a new house built at Kirribilli, known as Wotonga. This later became the residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Australia Squadron, re-named Admiralty House. With the demise of the Australia Squadron in 1913 Admiralty House later became the official Sydney residence of the Governor General. The then Colonel Gibbes retired in 1859 after a record-breaking twenty five years in the Collector of Customs position. His final home was the country property Yarralumla, where he died in 1873. Yarralumla later became the official Canberra residence of the Governor General.