John Septimus Roe was born at Newbury, Berkshire, England. He always wanted to be a teacher but his family couldn’t afford the tuition so his father secured for him a place at Christ’s Hospital, London, where he became a pupil of the mathematical school. Early letters written by Roe to his parents showed he was determined and desperate not to fail.
Roe was appointed a midshipman in the navy on 27 May 1813 and sailed in the Rippon which was employed in the blockade of the French coast. Roe spent many hours studying log-books, charts and sketches of places he visited and began drawing maps. In 1817 he passed examinations in mathematics and navigation and was posted as master’s mate to the surveying service in New South Wales.
Roe arrived in Sydney in September 1817 and by December he sailed on the first of three coastal surveys. On this voyage of 5000 miles (8047 km) the Mermaid circumnavigated Australia and surveys were made of sections of the coastline, chiefly north of Exmouth Gulf. In December 1818 the Mermaid was used in a brief survey of the Derwent River, and on 8 May 1819 Roe again sailed in her on a survey voyage to the northernmost part of Australia expected to last eight months. Roe wrote that this voyage was to make a proper survey of the coast which had never been explored since Captain James Cook‘s superficial examination. The report of this voyage contained much information about the waters of the Great Barrier Reef and the coast westwards from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Bonaparte Archipelago on the west coast.
In May 1821, Roe left to survey the coast of Western Australia, as far as Roebuck Bay, Cape Leeuwin and Cape Levêque. In 1823 he was appointed as a lieutenant and returned to England.
The next year he returned to Australia and explored northern Australia including Melville Island. Following this, Roe again left Australia, saw action in the War against Burma, and prepared three charts of portions of the Arabian and African coasts. He continued to sketch and survey these areas which he handed to the Admiralty on his return to England late in 1827. He was appointed to the Hydrographic Office to work on sailing directions for publication in The Australia Directory (London, 1830).
In 1829, Roe was offered the post of surveyor-general at the new settlement to be established at Swan River. He arrived on the Parmelia in June 1829 and immediately set about surveying the sea approaches to the Swan River and the sites of Fremantle and Perth where he was responsible for drawing up most of the land regulations. As surveyor-general he became a member of the Executive and Legislative Councils.
He was active in founding the Swan River Mechanics’ Institute and was its president for many years. This became Perth’s first cultural centre. His collection of botanical specimens won him membership of the Linnean Society; later he extended his collection to include zoology and mineralogy and thus laid the foundations of what became the Perth Museum. Roe noted as early as 31 December 1830 that ‘the neighbourhood of Mt Eliza [King’s Park] should be reserved for public purposes’;
Roe left records of sixteen journeys of exploration. The first eight, between 1830 and 1835 were comparatively short trips to the south and the south-west. In 1836 he went east of Perth for about 180 miles (290 km) and then north for 100 miles (161 km). His final expedition in 1848-49 occupied five months and took him to Russell Range east of Esperance.
Historians have called Roe ‘the father of Australian explorers’. This title takes into account not only the survey work he did on the Australian coast and his inland expeditions but the inspiration he gave to such younger explorers as John and Alexander Forrest, who were with him as surveyors, and the Gregory brothers, who also worked with him.
In January 1829 Roe married Matilda Bennett shortly before their departure to Western Australia. They had thirteen children. The Society has pattern drawing books completed by Sophie, one of Roe’s daughters in their collection.
Roe died on 28 May 1878.
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