Richard ‘Dicky’ Dawson was an entrepreneur whose early iron foundry located down at Circular Quay was a landmark business that transformed Sydney.
The foundry operated from 1833 to 1872 – a critical period in Sydney’s history that saw the town emerge as an antipodean metropolis.
At its peak, the foundry employed about 50 men and boys and it was Sydney’s most important foundry. Dawson had a variety of business partners over the years, and the foundry was variously known as Castle and Dawson, Australian Iron and Brass Foundry, the Australian Foundry, Dawson & Co and Dawson’s Foundry.
Shipping, engineering and steam engines were the mainstay of the business. Dawson’s foundry did repairs for ships and also repaired imported machinery, an important support for economic and business development of the town.
Dawson was a canny businessman and was always on the lookout for new opportunities and business improvements. In the early years he ran his own coal ships up to Newcastle to ensure a ready supply of coal for his furnaces.
As well as repairing ships, Dawson became a shipping agent. His maritime connections saw his business and home become a regular stop for ships’ captains. Hospitality and gossip fostered ongoing business relationships.
Dawson endured the depression of the 1840s and rode the waves of the gold rushes through the 1850s. The foundry provisioned larger mine operations, manufacturing quartz crushing machines and stampers. Indeed over a period of nearly 40 years the foundry ended up manufacturing everything from architectural columns and ornamental railings, to windlasses, deck and mast winches, to tallow pots (used not only for whaling and sealing, but also for boiling down bones to make soap). Next time you’re in the city, why not pop into the Pitt Street Uniting Church to admire the fluted cast iron columns that were cast at Dawson’s foundry in 1845.
The factory also made seamarks that included iron buoys and lighting apparatus, such as the floating light at the Sow and Pigs Shoal near the entrance to Sydney Harbour. This floating light was installed after the wreck of the Edward Lombe, which Mark talked about a couple of weeks ago.
The Australian Foundry was not just a business – it was a landmark in early Sydney. Located between George and Pitt streets, right down near Sydney Cove, the foundry’s furnaces and steam engine emitted heat, smoke and noise. The foundry often worked through the night, with the glow of the furnaces lighting the streets. On more than one occasion the fire brigade was called to the scene, on a mistaken alarm that a fire was spreading through the town.
Appropriately, a cast iron gothic-style altar tomb marks the grave of Richard Dawson in Camperdown Cemetery. The unusual vault was erected by Dawson to his first wife Rhoda Dainton (d.1849), and Dawson himself was buried there in 1865. An urn and the inscription plaque have since disappeared from the tomb, leaving the dramatic ironwork as an anonymous testament to Dawson’s ingenuity and accomplishments.
You can find out more about the entrepreneurial ‘Dicky’ Dawson in Emeritus Professor Harry Irwin’s evocative article ‘Richard Dawson and the Australian Foundry’ on the Dictionary of Sydney here: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/richard_dawsons_australian_foundry
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa, for ten years of unstinting support of the Dictionary! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio