Captain John Piper – Prince of Australia

Captain John Piper loved to dance. A leading figure in the early colony, he created an elegant and luxuriant lifestyle with music and dancing at its heart and became known as the Prince of Australia.1

It is 200 years since Captain John Piper moved into his spectacular new home, Henrietta Villa, the  grandest building in early Sydney.  The beautiful mansion was named in honour of the Governor’s wife, Elizabeth Henrietta Macquarie, who was a close friend of the Pipers.  It boasted a grand ballroom, gracious gardens, and expansive views of the harbour.  During the peak of Captain Piper’s career, quadrilles were danced  every afternoon on the verandah and a ball was held every evening.

The grand ballroom in Henrietta Villa was in the shape of a St Andrew’s Cross. Painting attributed to Frederick Garling. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

John Piper hailed from the small town of Maybole, Ayrshire in the southwest of Scotland.  His parents kept the King’s Arms Hotel in the High Street and it was here that he was born on 8 August 1774.  As a stagecoach inn, it was a popular destination for travellers journeying between Glasgow and Ireland, as well as a favourite meeting place for locals.  John was twelve years old when the famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns spent a merry evening at the inn, and he remembered fondly that Burns called his older brother, Thomas, “Spunkie Tammie”2.  Throughout his life he remained proud of his Scottish heritage and was a devoted admirer of Burns.

The violin of dancing master, William Gregg.
William Gregg taught the famous poet Robert Burns to dance.  It is likely that the young John Piper also learned to dance from Gregg who, as a dancing master, travelled throughout Ayrshire teaching dancing and holding dances. The fiddle can be seen in the Burns Birthplace Museum.

In 1791, when John was sixteen, his uncle bought him a commission as an ensign in the newly formed New South Wales Corps.  When John arrived in London to enter the service, his uncle, with the consent of the regimental major, arranged for the young man to attend an academy “to learn geography, to speak French, to learn arithmetic and fencing … and likewise the opportunity to see the dancing.”  In an early glimpse of John’s character, he wrote to his sister, “But my uncle told the Academian that I was the best dancer in London.”3

…my uncle told the Academian that I was the best dancer in London.” 1791

Piper arrived with his regiment in Sydney Town in 1792 when the fledgling colony had only been in existence for four years.  He immediately became part of the social life which centred around Government House, his charming and easy going nature ensuring his popularity.  Within three years he was promoted to Lieutenant, rising to the rank of Captain in 1806.

Captain Piper Piper was Commandant on Norfolk island for six years, and was known as a benevolent leader.
The Irish rebel convict, Joseph Holt, declared, “the new Governor had the good will and respect of everyone, for he had always conducted himself as a Christian and a gentleman.”4
Image of Captain John Piper, ca. 1815 – watercolour on ivory miniature. State Library of New South Wales.

Piper saw two periods of service on Norfolk Island where he was the acting Commandant from 1804 to 1810. It was here that he met Mary Ann Shears, daughter of two First Fleet convicts, and together they formed a life-long devotion, eventually marrying in 1816.  Remarkably, despite Mary Ann’s convict background, she became widely accepted as one of the elite of colonial society. Perhaps this was due to Piper’s extraordinarily gregarious and charming nature— he was prepared to welcome nearly everyone into his flamboyant social life.

Mary Ann Piper (née Sheers), a daughter of convicts, rose from the humblest of beginnings to become a leading figure in colonial society. She became the mistress of Henrietta Villa and hostess of many balls and dinners for hundreds of guests. This painting by Augustus Earle shows Mary with four of her fourteen children. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Piper’s place in society was elevated enormously in 1814 when he became the Naval Officer of the Port of Sydney, a position that made him one of the most highly paid men in the colony.  Piper was already a leading socialite in the colony and his new wealth enabled him to expand his hospitality even further.  As the Harbour Master he was the first person (apart from the pilot) to board incoming ships, taking fresh supplies, welcoming the captains and  passengers, and bestowing invitations to his entertainments. 

Given his new wealth, Piper decided it was time to move from the humble timber house which was the official residence of the Naval Office, and take advantage of the land granted to him as former army officer.  Inspired by the beautiful villas he had seen around Regent’s Park in London, he engaged the convict architect, Frances Greenway, to design a magnificent mansion where he could host his grand diversions with style.  The villa incorporated a splendid  ballroom created in the shape of a St Andrew’s Cross and with a domed ceiling. For the Captain, dancing was of paramount importance, as was his Scottish heritage.

He was inspired by the ‘grandiose suburban visions’ of Regency London, and passionate about creating an enchanting and elegant social life, with himself its gregarious host. 5

Elizabeth Heneretta [i.e. Henrietta] Villa … the seat of John Piper Esqr. Naval Officer etc. etc. of Port Jackson New South Wales, March 1820 / drawn by R. Read, Junior. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Henrietta Villa became the centre of social life in Sydney and it seems nearly every event  included dancing — picnics, dinners, and balls, and delightful entertainments that lasted for three days.  Piper’s hospitality in his glorious home became legendary. 

Not everyone approved of Piper’s lifestyle, probably due to Ann Piper’s convict connection and lowly origins. John Macarthur, who had once been Piper’s close friend, and George Boyes, an official in the commissary, both objected to the inclusion of ‘non-exclusives’ at Piper’s gatherings.  Boyes wrote to his wife that he had dined at Government House and come to know “everyone in the colony worth knowing, but disliked them all”, and he refused a dinner invitation from Piper since “there was no honour in dining with him”.6

Music

Music was dear to Piper’s heart and accounts state that his musicians were always present.  In recognition of his Scottish heritage, Piper regularly employed a Highland piper, and his band played Scottish tunes as well as the fashionable dance music of the day.

His house was approached by boat, a Scotch piper in full Highland dress was on board to play all the time for the guests.  It was usual for him to have the piper in attendance.7

As one of the elite of colonial society, Piper was allowed a large number of convict workers (nearly 100) and these were employed in all the positions necessary for maintaining a stately home: gardeners, domestic servants, footmen, coachmen, etc.  In addition he cultivated a band of musicians and may have used his position as Harbour Master to give him first choice in selecting convicts with musical talents to join this band.

Piper ferried his guests to the point in a barge, where they were welcomed by liveried servants playing gaily on musical instruments. 8

“He keeps a band of music and they have quadrilles every evening under the spacious verandah” wrote Deputy Assistant Commisary General George Thomas Blaney Boyes.9

There is little detailed information about the members of the band, however, it seems to have included assigned convicts and other servants, with supplementary regimental musicians hired for specific events. The only musicians known to have played in Piper’s band are the black American musician William James Dines (convict), James Cockburn (convict), Alfred Leonard (free settler), Private William Webb (48th Regiment), and possibly William Blizzard (Master of the Band of the 48th Regiment).

“Piper’s house was a beacon of promise: it proved that the environment of New South Wales could be made elegant, polite and opulent.”10

The band played for entertainments at Henrietta Villa and was also made available for other civil and private functions.  A ball given by Sir John Jamison was one such occasion:

The Ball and Supper, given by Sir JOHN JAMISON on the evening of Thursday last, was of the most fascinating and splendid description. The ball-room was fancifully fitted-up for the occasion. The Company flocked in from 8 to 9: the carriages were rolling rapidly down our streets between those hours. Captain PIPER, with his usual zeal in these cases, had his own Band in attendance upon the noble Host. Dancing, consisting of country dances, quadrilles, and Spanish waltzes, presently commenced, and was maintained with the utmost animation…11

In 1826,  Piper’s band provided the music for a special celebration at the grand home of William Cox.   Piper’s cousin Elizabeth had married William Cox (junior), a member of an elite local family, and the two families often gave entertainments for the colonial gentry.

Clarendon, near Windsor, the hospitable mansion of Captain Cox, has been the scene of gaiety and festivity, during the past week; three of the infant grandchildren of the worthy proprietor were to be admitted within the pale of the church of England; and a numerous party were congregated together on the occasion. Captain Piper’s Scottish band arrived from Sydney in order to enliven the scene, and add another species of harmony to the other hilarities of the scene.12

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Related stories: William Cox arrived on the Minerva in 1799, and was probably at Government House where the Minuet was danced.
The Cox family held the first event in the colony where the quadrille was reported.

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On occasion, Captain Piper employed regimental bands for his own events.  In 1816 when he lay the foundation stone for his villa, the full band of the 46th Regiment played “agreeable and appropriate airs” including Pleyel’s “German Hymn”, “The Hallelujah Hymn” and “God Save The King” and in 1819 he gave an elegant fête champêtre (garden party) at Point Piper:

The day proved favourable; and the scene of boats in the water, accompanied by the Band of the 48th Regiment, had a delightful effect. About one hundred Ladies and Gentlemen sat down to dinner; after which, the “merry dance” commenced, which was kept up with great spirit…13

Over the years, many ballrooms in the Sydney area were graced by the music of Piper’s own band and the resident regimental band.  At the Turf Club Ball in 1825,

The Dancing commenced at 9 o’clock; after Supper at 12; after which Dancing was resumed, and kept up till day-light. The band of the 40th, assisted by Captain PIPER’s Band, played most enchantingly during the evening.14

Music in the family

Amongst the cherished items belonging to the Piper family, was a cello presented to them as a gift when Governor and Mrs Macquarie left the colony.   A letter of farewell accompanied the cello:

Dear Mrs Piper,

My state of health prevents me being able to call on my acquaintances in this Colony to take my leave.

 I therefore take only the means in my power of assuring you of my good wishes for a long continuance of health, and prosperity to you, Captain Piper and all your family.

I have to request your & Captain Pipers acceptance of a Violoncello, which I hope will be found to sound well in your house at Point Piper.

I am Dear Mrs. Piper
with much regard
Yours sincerely
E.H. Macquarie

Elizabeth Macquarie’s Cello courtesy of the Museum of Sydney. Read more…

It’s uncertain who in the Piper family played Mrs Macquarie’s cello, but it is known that the Piper children learnt to play the piano and guitar.  A music box belonging to Mary Ann is held in the State Library of New South Wales.

Disaster

Captain Piper’s  career ended when the new governor, Sir Ralph Darling, arrived and ordered an inquiry into the state of the Naval Office.  It was found Piper had seriously mismanaged the collection of custom duties— not dishonestly, but simply through  leniency and carelessness. He had allowed his friends to remove their goods from the warehouse without paying the customs. It was well known that Piper was more inclined to entertain his debtors to lunch at the Villa rather than harass them for payment. 

A deficiency of £12,000 was discovered and Piper, faced with financial disaster, was so overwhelmed, that he attempted suicide. Remarkably, even in this dire situation, he arranged for music to be on hand.

‘the gay cavalier’, ‘the Prince of Australia’, decided to go out with a flourish. He summoned his boatmen and his private piper. As the boatmen rowed him out into the middle of Sydney harbour, his piper played a lament at the stern and John stood at the prow in full dress uniform with his sword held high. When they reached the middle, he ordered the oarsman to stop and with a last farewell he stepped overboard. His servants loved him dearly and fished him out immediately. Having made his eccentric gesture, John returned to his position at the bow of the boat and to the strains of a rousing strathspey he was rowed back to the shore.15

A glimpse of Piper’s loyal boat crew who saved him from drowning.
Detail from R. Read’s watercolour of Henrietta Villa. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Fortunately, Piper managed to pay his debt to government in full and his other creditors were satisfied. However, he had lost his beautiful Henrietta Villa, as well as his properties at Vaucluse, Woollahra, Rose Bay, Petersham, Neutral Bay, Botany Bay, Bathurst, and in Van Diemen’s Land

Bathurst

With his riches gone, Piper took his family live in his remaining property, Alloway Bank, situated four miles from Bathurst. As they left Sydney and travelled over the Blue Mountains, their passage was again accompanied by music:

CAPTAIN PIPER, the promoter of harmony and good fellowship whereever he goes, is at last firmly fixed on his estate at Bathurst. His bugles, which accompanied the last waggon of furniture, struck up as they were passing the Blue Mountains, the lively tune of “Over the hills and far away,” to the great delight of the drivers of all the carts and drays they met with on the road.16

Bathurst had been settled a little over ten years earlier and now was home to several respectable families who formed the local landed gentry. Many of these were ex-army officers who had been granted large estates of two thousand acres and were already well known to the Pipers.  The Captain and his family were immediately welcomed by their neighbours and friends, and entered a new version of their genteel social life. 

The Piper’s ‘elegant mansion’ overlooked grassy pastures leading down to the Macquarie River, and beyond to the settlement at Bathurst.

Piper’s home in Scotland was near the village of Alloway. It is famous as the birthplace of Robert Burns, and a popular Scottish tune was Alloway House.  Unsurprisingly, Piper named his new house Alloway Bank.

But, Bathurst! Thy groves and thy hills, and thy vales
         With the sounds of his glees are now ringing;
Thy Alloway crowns him her bountiful laird,
          While shepherds his welcome are singing. 23

Music for the Scottish tune Alloway House from The Caledonian Pocket Companion by James Oswald (1745)

Despite the change in circumstances, Piper continued to keep a band of music. This was noted with pleasure by the Scottish born clergyman, Dr John Dunmore Lang:

I spent an afternoon at Captain Piper’s during my visit to Bathurst …. when we were just about taking leave, … a musical band, consisting entirely of a few of the farm-servants, who had each learned to play on some musical instrument, struck up a lively Scottish air under the verandah, which, I confess, was, on my own part at least, equally unexpected and animating.18

Dancing remained a favourite pastime.  As Piper’s daughter Ann noted in her diary, “whenever there were visitors, there was music for dancing”.  With a regiment stationed at Bathurst, there were frequent invitations to dances and balls.  In 1828, a ball and supper in honour of Dr John Harris was held at Government House, Bathurst with music supplied by Piper’s band.

On the following Tuesday government-house was in a bustle, from the vast preparations a going on therein for a ball and supper, “a propos” to welcome the venerable Doctor. On that evening all the “beauty and fashion” of the county of Roxburgh graced the mansion, and the enlivening band of the worthy Captain Piper kept them on the light fantastic toe, till the morning sun had nearly fired the eastern plains . . .

We are sorry to announce, that the lady of a noted cheese vender put out her ankle while tripping it down a country dance.19

An account from 1832, describes the social scene of the time, with a wedding celebration taking place over four days.  Dancing was a significant feature with Captain Piper’s band providing the music.

Ever since Monday, Bathurst has been gay. On Tuesday Captain Piper entertained a very large party to dinner – in the evening dancing. The bridegroom and bride elect (Mr. and Mrs. W. H. Mackenzie), were present.

Wednesday was the wedding-day, and a procession of eight carriages set out from Blackdown to the church. At 11 o’clock the ceremony took place, and the carriages returned in the same order to Blackdown. On the road side, near the Parsonage, Captain Piper’s musicians began a merry air, with colours flying, drums beating and greeting the bride and bridegroom with a salute of nine guns, as they drove past. At 5 o’clock, a party of thirty-six sat down to an elegant dinner, under the Captain’s tent, placed near to the house at Blackdown, about 8 o’clock dancing commenced, and was kept up until a late hour.

Thursday the party dined at Milbank, and Friday at Dochain, thirty-eight in number, and danced until a late, or rather an early hour. All the beauty and fashion for 40 miles round were there.”20

As well as loving to dance, Captain Piper delighted in horse racing and was involved in the earliest races in Sydney. When he moved to Bathurst, he constructed a splendid racecourse on his property at Alloway Bank. Balls were commonly given in the evening of race days. Joseph Fowles illustration of a Race Horse and Jockey. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

It was not uncommon for dancing to go on throughout the night, as an account of the subscription ball given at the Bathurst Races demonstrates:

… a subscription ball took place at Mr. Dillon’s Inn, given by the gentlemen of Bathurst and its vicinity, at which all the elite of the district were present; quadrilles commenced at nine o’clock, the rooms were elegantly decorated; Captain Piper’s band was in attendance, and surpassed even its accustomed good style of performance. At one o’clock the company retired to partake of a splendid supper, which was elegantly laid out, and consisted of all the delicacies of the season. After supper, dancing was resumed with great spirit, and kept up until the dawn of day, when the company separated, highly delighted with the evening’s amusements.21

In 1838, after again experiencing financial difficulties, Piper sold Alloway Bank and the family moved to Westbourne, a modest farmhouse overlooking the Macquarie River.  Captain Piper died in 1851, and Mary Anne in 1878, and were laid to rest in the Bathurst cemetery.

Legacy

Captain John Piper at the height of his career,
dressed in his Naval Office uniform with Henrietta Villa in the background.
Painting by Augustus Earle, ca. 1826. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Captain Piper was fondly remembered as “one of Nature’s gentlemen…a genial Scotchman whose “failings mostly leaned to Virtue’s side.” 22. His popularity extended across social barriers, and his generosity amongst all classes of Sydney society was long remembered.

A man of a thousand, for frolic and fun,
        And merry old England’s gaiety.
A friend to the poor, as well as the rich,
           To the clergy, as well as the laiety. 23

Nothing remains of his beautiful villa which was demolished in the 1850s, however, Point Piper retains the glamour of the gallant Captain and is still regarded as Australia’s most expensive suburb.

The Piper’s daughter carried on her father’s love of dance: “When the polka first became fashionable, it was a little short jog, to “Pop goes the Weasle.” Miss Piper … first introduced it in Bathurst, where she taught the young officers stationed there . . . ” 24

Merry Lads of Ayr – a dance

A dance popular in Captain Piper’s day was The Merry Lads of Ayr. As was usually the case when writing about balls and dances at the time, although country dances were noted as being danced, the names of the actual dances were rarely mentioned. Given Captain Piper’s birthplace and his enthusiasm for Scottish heritage it is likely The Merry Lads of Ayr was danced in his grand ballroom.

The Merry Lads of Ayr performed by Roland Clarke, musical director of Phillip’s Dog.

There are a number of versions of this dance, with the first listing of the tune in 1757. The dance remained current in Scotland throughout the nineteenth century, and in 1924, it was included in the first publication of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society. In Australia, the tune is noted in the music manuscript of the Scottish/Tasmanian convict, Alexander Laing.

 

Merry Lads of Ayr

This version of the dance is from book 1 of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society which gives The Ballroom, 1827 as its source.

Country dance: 3 couple longways set (danced in a 4 couple set), originally a triple minor longways.

A1 1-8 1st couple turn right hand, cast 1 place (2s step up), 1st couple turn left and cast to 3rd place (3s step up)
A2 1-8 1st couple lead down the middle (3s step down) and back to face 1st corners
B1 1-8 1st couple set to and turn 1st corners, set to and turn 2nd corners ending in 2nd place on opposite sides
B2 1-6 1st couple dance reels of 3 on opposite sides giving left shoulder to 1st corners to begin
  7-8 1st couple cross by the right hand to own sides

References

Thanks to Graeme Skinner at Australharmony for the comprehensive listing of Captain Piper’s life.
Recommended reading: Jessica North’s novel Mary Ann & Captain Piper (2022)

1. Eldershaw M. B. (1973). The life and times of Captain John Piper. Ure Smith in association with the National Trust of Australia (N.S.W.).

2. Andrew M. Boyle. Maybole’s Prince Of Australia. Excerpt from Ayrshire Heritage. Alloway Publishing, Ayr.  https://www.maybole.org/notables/johnpiper.htm

3. C.H. Bertie. Pioneer Families Of Australia (1 August 1932). In The Home : an Australian quarterly. 13 (8), https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-383388758

4.Marjorie Barnard. Piper, John (1773–1851), Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/piper-john-2552/text3449, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 15 August 2022

5. Grace Karskens. The Colony.  A History of Early Sydney.  Allen & Unwin, Sydney 2006, p. 210

6. Margriet Roe. Boyes, George Thomas (1787–1853), Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/boyes-george-thomas-1817/text2079, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 12 September 2022.

7. Lysbeth Cohen. Elizabeth Macquarie her life and times. Wentworth Books, Sydney 1979.

8. Grace Karskens. The Colony.  A History of Early Sydney, p 210.

9. George Thomas Boyes quoted in Eldershaw M. B. (1973). The life and times of Captain John Piper, p.130.

10. Grace Karskens. The Colony.  A History of Early Sydney, p 210.

11. BALL AND SUPPER. (1827, September 24). The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), p. 2. Retrieved September 12, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2189018.

12. “DOMESTIC INTELLIGENCE”, The Monitor (8 September 1826), 2 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article31757820

13.The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (4 December 1819), 2 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2179117

14. “TURF CLUB BALL”, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (3 October 1825), 3 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2184481

15 Andrew M. Boyle. Maybole’s Prince Of Australia. Excerpt from Ayrshire Heritage. Alloway Publishing, Ayr.  https://www.maybole.org/notables/johnpiper.htm

16. The Monitor (4 October 1827), 8 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article31758980

17. Entering Port Jackson. From the scrap-book of John Newcome, Esq. (1 December 1833). In The New South Wales Magazine. (5) https://trove.nla.gov.au/work/234555025

18. John Dunmore Lang, An historical and statistical account of New South Wales . . . volume 1 (London: A. J. Valpy, 1837), 123.  https://books.google.com.au/books?id=HAE6AQAAIAAJ&pg=RA1-PA123

19. The Australian (18 April 1828), 3 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article37071363

20. The Sydney Monitor (9 May 1832), 3 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article32077558

21. The Sydney Herald (13 April 1841), 2 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article12868635

22. “Captain John Piper (By E. J. M.)”, National Advocate [Bathurst, NSW] (24 February 1911), 2 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article157787440 

23. Entering Port Jackson. From the scrap-book of John Newcome, Esq. (1 December 1833). In The New South Wales Magazine. (5) https://trove.nla.gov.au/work/234555025

24. “L.W.: Fifty Years a Dancing Teacher in Sydney”, Australian Town and Country Journal (12 July 1905), 29  http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article71532175

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