BACKHOUSE, James (1794-1869)


BACKHOUSE, James (1794-1869)
missionary
the fourth child of James and Mary Backhouse of Darlington, Yorkshire, England, was born on 8 July 1794. His father died when he was a child and his mother brought him up in a religious atmosphere. He began work in a grocery, drug and chemical business, but his health was not good and he decided to adopt an outdoor life. An uncle helped him in the study of botany, and in 1815, with his brother Thomas, he purchased the nursery business of J. and G. Telford at York. In 1822 he married Deborah Lowe, and in 1824 he was admitted as a minister in the Society of Friends. In December 1827 his wife died leaving him with a son and a daughter. In September 1831, with G. W. Walker (q.v.), he sailed for Australia on a mission to the convicts and settlers. They arrived at Hobart in February 1832, and the next six years were spent in missionary journeys all over the then settled districts of Tasmania, New South Wales, and as far north as the site of Brisbane. Port Phillip was visited in 1837, and South and Western Australia just before they left.
A Narrative of a Visit to the Australian Colonies by James Backhouse, published in 1843, tells the story of their travels and has much of interest relating to the aborigines, the convicts, the social conditions of the time, and the botany of Australia. The two missioners then went to Mauritius and South Africa and continued their work, preaching whenever a few could be gathered together to hear them. Backhouse even succeeded in learning enough Dutch to be able to preach in that language. He returned to England and arrived at London on 15 February 1841. An account of his African experiences will be found in A Narrative of a Visit to the Mauritius and South Africa, published in 1844. He took up the nursery again, and when his brother died in 1845, brought his own son James into the business. He kept up his religious work for the whole of his life, travelling and preaching much in England, Scotland and Ireland. He died at York on 20 January 1869. In addition to the works already mentioned Backhouse wrote or edited A Memoir of Deborah Backhouse (1828), Memoirs of Francis Howgill (1828), Extracts from the Letters of James Backhouse (1838-41), The Life and Correspondence of William and Alice Ellis (1849), A Short Record of the Life and Experiences of Thomas Bulman (1851), and numerous sermons, addresses and tracts. With Charles Tylor he wrote The Life and Labours of George Washington Walker (1862). His son, James Backhouse, was the author of A Handbook of European Birds (1890) and other publications.
The views of Backhouse on religion and the conduct of life seem narrow after the lapse of 100 years. But he was absolutely sincere and disinterested, and this was fully recognized by the convicts, the settlers and the ruling officials. He was untiring in his advocacy of temperance, and his opinions on the treatment of convicts were sound and wise. The report on the state of prisoners in Tasmania made by Backhouse and Walker to Governor Arthur (q.v.) is printed as an appendix to A Narrative of a Visit to the Australian Colonies. The botanical work of Backhouse was also excellent. Sir J. D. Hooker in his "Introductory Essay" to his Flora Tasmaniae says of Backhouse: "The results of his journey have proved extremely valuable in a scientific point of view and added much to our familiarity with Australian vegetation".
S. Backhouse, Memoir of James Backhouse; The Journal of Botany, vol. VII; Backhouse's own publications.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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