John Septimus Roe was born on 8th May 1797 in the elegant Georgian rectory which still stands beside the river Kennet in Newbury, albeit now hemmed in between the back end of a Costa coffee shop and office buildings.
John was the son of the Rev James Roe and his wife Sophia, née Brooks. His parents were prodigious breeders: Sophia was to bear ten children between 1787 and 1803 (two died in 1802). John was, as his name suggests, the seventh son and he was followed by another son and two daughters.
His father had become rector of Newbury’s parish church just a few months before John was born, and was to serve Newbury for 43 years. One of his duties was to celebrate services in the chapel at Sandleford Priory for Elizabeth Montagu, “queen of the blue-stockings” and, after her death, for her heirs. One of John’s happiest childhood memories was of riding the two miles out to Sandleford with his father on a Sunday morning.
This idyll ended abruptly when he was 10 years old, and gained a place at Christ’s Hospital school in London under the Wests’ Gift bequest. His social status and skills in mathematics saw him entered into the Royal Mathematical School, the middle stream (between the Grecians who studied classics with a view to university, and the Writing School whose pupils were destined for the counting house). The Mathematical School prepared boys for entry into the Royal Navy, into which John Roe was apprenticed four years later. He quite probably did not see his parents during his entire time at school; Christ’s Hospital, like Eton and Winchester, forbade pupils “sleeping out”.
The French wars were still in full spate, and John Roe’s early naval experience began with blockades of the French ports. After Waterloo he was posted to a ship tasked with surveying the northern and north-western coasts of Australia. Arriving in 1817, Roe narrowly escaped drowning in Oyster Harbour.
There followed a series of expeditionary voyages around Australasia on various ships, including one incident in which Roe was nearly killed in an Aborigine ambush, and another in which he fell from the masthead and lost the sight of one eye. Having completed several assignments, including a survey of Sydney Harbour in which his boat capsized with the loss of four lives, Lieutenant John Roe returned to England in 1823.
Nine months later he was sent back to help establish settlements, before sailing to the Indian Ocean and taking part in the first Anglo-Burmese War.
In late November 1827 he returned to England, where his parents were still in Newbury. Although barely 30, he was in poor health, and he wanted to leave the navy. He started work at the Hydrographer’s Office at the Admiralty but was soon offered, and accepted, the civilian post of Surveyor-General of Western Australia.
Meanwhile he met and proposed to Matilda Bennett from the Isle of Man. They were married in Newbury on 8th January 1829, and it was reported that they left for Australia the same day, although the couple did not in fact embark upon the Parmelia until 3rd February. It is to be hoped that they had some sort of honeymoon, because the task ahead of them was no light one. In 1831 John wrote at length to his father (the letter was published in the The Reading Mercury) describing the hardships of founding the Swan River Colony on such a remote coastline, rarely visited by passing ships. He wanted emigrants to settle, but made no reference to any indigenous population.
Almost every year Roe took off on months-long inland and coastal expeditions to survey the surrounding territory, and in one instance to rescue three starving men who had survived a different expeditionary disaster. His travels furnished him with a collection of scientific samples and specimens which were later to form the basis of the Western Australian Museum, and his log books, diaries and letters constitute an important collection in the state library. He is regarded as the founding father of both institutions.
Towns, mountains, highways, districts and schools were named after him. He chose the sites for Perth and Fremantle, and laid out the former. Matilda was passionate about gardening, and it is said that a present-day kink in Perth’s otherwise grid layout, between St George’s Terrace and Adelaide Terrace, came about because she wanted to keep her extended garden intact.
In between this seemingly frenetic activity, he fathered 13 children with Matilda.
In 1861, remarkably, John Septimus Roe and Matilda had returned to England, for they appear in the census of that year with two of their sons, George and Augustus, as guests of Hugh Hammersly of the manor house in Pyrton, Oxfordshire.
On his retirement in 1870 Queen Victoria gave Roe 4,000 acres of land beside the Swan river. He named the estate Sandalford (as it is spelt today). This was locally assumed to be his “home town” in England, although Newburians will recognise the name as honouring a more specific childhood memory. At Sandalford John Septimus Roe, as keen a horticulturalist as was Matilda, spent his retirement experimenting with importing South African grapevines, laying the foundations for a winery which flourishes today.
Matilda died in 1871, survived by her husband by seven years. When John Septimus Roe died in 1878 he was given a funeral with full military honours, the grandest seen in the colony.
Not an idle man: biography of John Septimus Roe, by J L Jackson (1982)
The Reading Mercury