Bonwick was born Lingfield, Surrey, England, the eldest son of James Bonwick, carpenter, and his second wife Mary Ann née Preston. James Bonwick, the elder, was a man of some mechanical ability, but he suffered from ill health, and his children were brought up in poor circumstances. His eldest son was educated at the Borough Road school, Southwark, and at 17 years of age began teaching at a school at Hemel Hempstead and similar positions followed at Bexley and Liverpool. In April 1840 he married Esther Ann Beddow, the daughter of a Baptist clergyman, and in the following year obtained a position at the Normal School, Hobart, Tasmania.
Career in Australia
Bonwick and his wife arrived at Hobart on 10 October 1841. He was a successful teacher in Hobart for eight years and published the first of his many school books Geography for the Use of Australian Youth in 1845. He went to Adelaide in 1850, and opened a private school. In 1852 made his way to the Victorian gold diggings after finding himself in debt. He did not find much gold, but his health benefited. He then went to Melbourne where he published The Australian Gold-Diggers' Monthly Magazine from October 1852 until its final edition in May 1853. In 1852 he also published "Notes of a gold digger: and gold digger's guide". He then established a successful boarding school at Kew now a suburb of Melbourne. He had already published several school books and pamphlets, when in 1856 he published his Discovery and Settlement of Port Phillip, the first of his historical works. About this time he joined the Victorian government service as an inspector of denominational schools, and in 1857 made a tour of inspection through the western district of Victoria. He then made Ballarat his centre and worked there for about four years. During his journeys he suffered from sunstroke and a coaching accident, and became so ill that he had to retire from the service. He was given 18 months' leave of absence, but was unable to continue this work. His head had been injured in the accident. He was never able to ride a horse again, and he was always liable to have an attack of giddiness. He visited England in 1860 and then returned to Melbourne in July 1862 and opened a school in the suburb of St Kilda, which became very prosperous. He paid another visit to England with his wife, leaving the school in the hands of a son and a friend of his. They, however, mismanaged the school, and Bonwick was compelled to return and put things in order again. He was doing much writing, and in the ensuing years travelled in various parts of Australia, New Zealand and Europe.
Some of Bonwick's more important volumes were John Batman (1867); The Last of the Tasmanians, Daily Life and Origin of the Tasmanians, and Curious Facts of Old Colonial Day s, all of which were published in 1870; Egyptian Belief and Modern Thought (1878), First Twenty Years of Australia (1882), Port Phillip Settlement (1883), Romance of the Wool Trade (1887) and Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions (1894). He had now finally settled down in England and in this year was appointed archivist for the New South Wales government. He traced and copied the information that became the basis of the History of New South Wales, vol. I by G. B. Barton, and vol. II by A. Britton. His materials were afterwards printed as The Historical Records of New South Wales. Though he published other volumes, these records were his principal work until in 1902, at the age of 85, he resigned his position. In 1900 he had celebrated with his wife the sixtieth anniversary of their wedding. She died in 1901 and he felt her loss keenly. He completed and published in 1902 his final volume, an autobiography, An Octogenarian's Reminiscences, and died on 6 October 1906. He was survived by five children.
Bonwick was a religious man, full of nervous energy and passion for his work. History, religion, astronomy, geography, anthropology and trade were among the subjects of his books. Some of the more important have been mentioned, some fifty others are listed in "A Bibliography of James Bonwick" by Dr G. Mackaness (Journal and Proceedings, Royal Australian Historical Society, 1937). An even longer list of his writings is appended to James Bonwick by E. E. Pescott. His school books were of great value at a time when it was difficult to obtain suitable books in Australia, and his historical work was always conscientious, although the discovery of materials not then available may have lessened its value in some cases.
- Serle, Percival (1949). "Bonwick, James". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
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