Port Phillip Apostle No.10 J.B. Were

Is the name J. B. Were familiar to you?  It should be. Goldman Sachs JBWere is a large, multinational financial company, and prior to metamorphising into this splendid many-named creation, J B Were was a well-known Melbourne stockbroking firm.  In fact, come to think of it, my cousin worked there.

Although Garryowen places J. B. Were as No. 10 on his list of Twelve Apostles, I’ll start off with him because I have borrowed a book about him and he, of all of the twelve that Garryowen listed, most clearly evokes the term “entrepreneur” for me. The book, called “The House of Were 1839-1954” is an in-house publication.  It has a rather curious note on the title page:

This publication has not been registered as a book and is not available for sale because it has been issued by J. B. Were & Son for the interest and information of its clients, public companies, financial and other institutions with whom the prestige and business interests of the firm are identified.

Recipients of a copy of the publication are requested to regard the contents as for their information alone.  It is desired that no reference should be made to the publication in the Press.

What an odd statement. Well, they don’t say anything about blogs or the internet…..

Jonathan Binns Were was born in Somerset on 25 April 1809, the third of four sons to a landed gentry family.   The House of Were states that according to Burke’s Dictionary of Landed Gentry, the original family name was Giffard and the Weare-Giffard family is documented back to 1411 during the reign of Henry IV.  His father inherited from his father and grandfather three estates in Somerset: Landcox, Osmonds and Penslade.

De Serville, however, is rather equivocal about his social status.  Were is not found in De Serville’s Appendix 1 Gentlemen by Birth (“Gentlemen colonists from titled, landed or armigerous families”), but instead in Appendix III Colonists Claiming Gentle Birth (“A list of colonists whose claims to gentle birth have not been fully established. Those who were members of good society are also listed in Appendix II”).  Under the entry for Were, De Serville writes:

Were, Jonathan Binns. Merchant.  Son of Nicholas Were and his wife Frances Binns.  It is difficult to know whether to place him in Appendix I or III. His family were landowners in Devon and Somerset (especially his great-grandfather). However, after appearing in Burke’s Commoners, the family was dropped from the first and subsequent editions of Burke’s Landed Gentry.  It is hard to escape the conclusion that they were an ascendant family who gained the capricious attention of the Burkes and then lost it.  Were was prominent in the commercial and public life of the colony, where he died in 1885.

After finishing school Were received business training in the house of Collins and Co in the port city of Plymouth. Collins and Co. were involved in trade with the colonies where, no doubt, Were would have heard from colleagues and  clients about the commercial opportunities abroad.  Such contacts would place him in Ville’s third category – i.e. colonial merchants with experience in Britain or the colonies.

His father and older brother broke the entail on the Were estate and Jonathan received 9000 pounds from the sale of the family properties.  With this he purchased goods that netted him 70,000 pounds on resale in Australia.  (The ADB cites lower figures for this). Nonetheless, Entrepreneurial Lesson from J.B. Were #1: use your capital to buy cheap, sell dear.  Or perhaps there should be a lesson before that: have capital.

In fact, when he arrived in Melbourne on the William Medcalfe, most of the cargo in the hold belonged to him, including a demountable house, and a consignment of port wine that he picked up at Oporto en route. He, his Quaker wife, 4 year old daughter and baby son, his brother-in-law and two servants arrived in Melbourne on 15th November 1839 after a journey of 113 days.  Garryowen lists the other first and intermediate class passengers on the ship, including Mrs C. Liardet and five children in the intermediate berths, the wife of Liardet who painted the picture on my blog header.  There were also 230 assisted immigrants on board – I’m not sure whether they were ‘his’ bounty migrants or not, but he was certainly an immigration agent later on.

Entrepreneurial lesson #2 from J. B. Were: get cracking! Six weeks after arrival, Were assembled his house on the south-west corner of Collins and Spring Street (where No. 1 Spring Street is now?) which he purchased for 3 pounds 10 shillings an acre and named the property “Harmony Lodge”.  At about the same time he commenced trading as a general merchant advertising tents for sale on 1 January 1840- a highly sought after product.  By February, he had established himself as a general merchant, shipping and commission agent and advertised 200 rams due to arrive from the Murrumbidgee.  In March he formed Were Bros. and Co with his brother-in-law Robert Stevenson Dunsford (who had journeyed out with them) and his younger brother George Were (who must have made his own way to Melbourne separately).   Forming networks with family members like this, as Ville pointed out, was advantageous in a low-trust environment. By April 1840 he was advertising to buy wool from pastoralists, make advances against it, then ship it to London.  He was involved in the exchange business early- discounting bills for customers and arranging drafts on London, Sydney, Hobart and Launceston businesses.  He became involved in importing prefabricated houses (including a teak house!) and refurbished sailing sailing ships.

Entrepreneurial lesson #3 from J. B. Were: network! He was one of the directors of the Melbourne Auction Company, a successful venture which was ultimately thwarted by legislative red-tape.  He was also a director of the Melbourne Bridge Company which, although it had plans for a splendid iron suspension bridge, settled for a humble wooden bridge across the Yarra because of uncertainty about government plans to build Princes Bridge.  He was Chairman of the Temporary Exchange, a gathering of merchants who met daily at 12.00 noon in the rooms of the Melbourne Auction Company. He was a director of the Union Bank in 1841, a Lloyds Insurance Agent in 1842 and an agent for Alliance Fire and Life Assurance Company in 1843.  He joined the Shipping and Steam Packet Association in 1842 and was one of the five members of the the Steam Navigation Board which licensed and supervised steam ships.

He developed political and cultural networks as well. By May 1840 he was appointed one of the committee of three to draft a Separation memorial, praying for separation from NSW. He was involved in the planning for the Melbourne Hospital, he was on the Botanic Garden’s committee, and involved in the British and Foreign Bible Societies and the Philosophical Society (later the Royal Society).

Entrepreneurial lesson #4 from J. B. Were: position, position, position. Henry Dendy arrived in Port Phillip with a signed and sealed certificate from London allowing him to select 5120 acres at a fixed price of one pound per acre (a definite bargain given that land was selling at 5 to 40 pounds an acre at auction!).  Not unsurprisingly, he found that La Trobe and locally-based settlers resented this method of land sale, and difficulties were placed in his way when he tried to buy land at Williamstown and near Heidelberg.  Dendy approached J. B. Were, who advised him to use his land voucher in what is now Brighton.  It is not known when it happened, but by April 1845 Were was in possession of half the original survey.  He built there “Moorabbin House” with stone walls three feet thick, with huge hidden doors across the front that could be pulled across to provide a barricade should the house be attacked- I assume by aborigines? bushrangers? The house was demolished in 1924.

He later built other houses in Brighton again, Toorak and East St. Kilda.

Entrepreneurial lesson #5 from J. B. Were: be careful helping out your friends. The whole circumstance by which he became one of the “twelve Apostles” was by joining with ten other colleagues to come to the financial aid of William Rucker (Port Phillip Apostle No. 1) when he ran into difficulties as part of the general financial upheaval of the early 1840s.  It seems that he, in particular, sustained huge financial loss from this agreement and even ten years later, there was an instability in his affairs that led to further financial problems in 1854-6.

And what about Were’s relationship with Judge Willis? Garryowen claims that, after initially cordial relations, the two men fell out over Judge Willis’ pursuit of William Lonsdale (another story for another blogpost) and Willis’ emnity turned on Were. The most colourful display of this animosity occurred when Were was sitting as a magistrate alongside Willis on the bench when his name arose during the evidence being tendered to the court.  Willis ordered Were into the witness box where, startled and unprepared as he was, he was rather unforthcoming.  Willis charged him with contempt of court, and when Were asked for a copy of the Judge’s notes, Willis sentenced him to jail, and with every squeak of protest from Were, upped the sentence a month at a time.   Were actually served only one night in jail before being confined to the Rules, and the verdict was overturned once Judge Willis was replaced soon after.  Certainly, J. B. Were appears regularly on the petitions urging Justice Willis’ dismissal.


  • The House of Were 1839-1954: The History of J. B. Were & Son and its founder Jonathan Binns Were, 1954
  • Finn, Edmund The Chronicles of Early Melbourne 1835 to 1852: historical, anecdotal and personal by ‘Garryowen’ Melbourne, Fergusson and Mitchell, 1888
  • de Serville, Paul Port Phillip Gentlemen and Good Society in Melbourne before the Gold Rushes Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1980
  • Ville, Simon ‘Business development in Colonial Australia’ Australian Economic History Review Vol 38 No 1, 1998 , pp. 16-41

3 responses to “Port Phillip Apostle No.10 J.B. Were

  1. Pingback: A day trip to….Brighton | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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  3. Pingback: I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-16 March | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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