French in Australia

Discover the history of French in Australia dating from the arrival of the La Perouse expedition at Botany Bay in January 1788.

Early entrepreneurs

The number of French people residing in Australia in the first half of the 19th century has been estimated as less than 600. The French who came out to the Australian colonies tended to be professionals (teachers, qualified tradesmen, merchants, agriculturalists) or people with a high degree of entrepreneurial initiative.

French settlers soon made their mark, whether as landowners or business people. Tending to 'marry out' of their nationality rather than form closely knit ethnic groups, French migrants blended smoothly into the community. Combining the best of the old and new worlds, they seized the opportunities offered in colonial Australia while adding an air of continental glamour to the local scene.

Girl reading on the verandah with her French governess

Public servant: Francis Rossi 

Ownership of land has always been important to the French. When challenged over his rights to hold land in the colony, Francis Rossi (1776 - 1851) sought naturalisation.

Born in Corsica, his father, the Count of Rossi, was dispossessed when the French took over the island in 1796. Francis joined the British army in 1795. In 1824, Earl Bathurst offered him the position of Superintendent of Police in NSW. Rossi arrived in the colony with his wife and two sons in 1825.

Capt. Francis Rossi / of Goulburn [member of the Rossi family, possibly Alexander Philip Rossi, ca. 1845-1855]

Rossi's tenure as Superintendent of Police lasted nine years, during which time he acquired extensive land holdings in the Goulburn district which he named Rossiville. Retiring to his property in 1834, on two occasions his right to own land in the colony was challenged. The NSW Legislative Assembly finally passed an Act to confirm Rossi's ownership rights, thereby securing the land for his heirs.

Francis Rossi died at Rossiville in 1851.

Inventor: Eugène D. Nicolle

After the 1848 revolution, Eugène Dominique Nicolle (1823 - 1909) came to Australia to pursue his career as an engineer. Arriving in Sydney in 1853 with his first wife, Nicolle registered his initial patent for an ice-making machine jointly with Richard Dawson in 1861.

Together with the Wilkinson brothers, they bought the Sydney Ice Company (subsequently renamed the NSW Ice Company) and began making ice with Nicolle's machine in 1863. With his partners, Nicolle designed and built a variety of cooling apparatus for both domestic and industrial use. They demonstrated that it was both possible and safe to freeze food for long periods and then thaw it for human consumption.

Nicolle eventually secured the financial backing of Thomas Sutcliffe Mort for his experiments, which were often conducted at the Nicolle family home in Burwood, NSW. Although Nicolle and Mort were ultimately unsuccessful in their attempts to ship frozen meat overseas, they were awarded a gold medal at the 1874 Metropolitan Exhibition for their refrigerating machines.


Prospectors and speculators

When gold was discovered in NSW in 1851, the ensuing frenzy brought hundreds of thousands of people of all classes and nationalities together on the goldfields.

Contrary to the lifestyle portrayed by images like 'Costume du mineur', published in a French guide book to the Australian goldfields, mining was dirty, backbreaking work. Many prospectors soon gave up digging to set up businesses catering to the needs of other miners and their families. Those with practical, portable skills (such as chefs or tailors) were best placed when seeking their fortunes in far flung lands.

Given his somewhat dishevelled appearance and telltale suntan, J. Baptiste was probably still a part-time prospector when he posed under the billboard which proudly proclaimed the Parisian connections of his 'Hair cutting, shaving and shampooing saloon' at Hill End, NSW.

Guide des emigrants aux mines d'or en Australie / par C. Brout.

Property developers: the French village

The Joubert brothers, Didier (1816-1881) and Jules (1824-1907), were entrepreneurs and property developers who predicted by decades Sydneysiders' penchant for houses with water views. Didier, a wine merchant, came to Sydney in 1837, while Jules finally settled there in about 1853.

Jules Joubert, c. 1875 / photographed by J Hubert Newman

Before the arrival of these French property developers, Hunters Hill was considered to be a rather unrespectable area. Didier and Jules Joubert saw its potential and conceived the idea of subdividing the land into deep narrow blocks, each with water access and views - looking onto either the Lane Cove or Parramatta Rivers - with a road running along the length of the ridge of the peninsula.

The Jouberts also saw the potential of ferries as a fast and efficient way of linking Hunters Hill to Sydney, and established the Lane Cove River ferry service in the 1860s. The convivial atmosphere the Jouberts created encouraged other expatriates to follow them to the suburb which, for a time, became known as the French Village.

French village: Hunters Hill

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, brothers Didier and Julies Joubert bought up much of the land in Hunters Hill, lobbying for the construction of roads and bridges there. They built a dozen sandstone villas including Passy which was, at one time, home to Sydney's French Consul, and later the Manning family.

Property developers in the modern sense of the word, the Joubert brothers chose to live in the suburb they'd developed: Jules Joubert called his house Moocooboolah after the indigenous name for the area. They were deeply concerned with all aspects of the infrastructure and civic life of Hunters Hill. Didier Joubert was the first President of the Hunters Hill Council (1861 - 62), before the title of Mayor was adopted, and Jules became its first Mayor (1867 - 69).