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Did You Know…

That John Carmichael was the first recorded deaf person to migrate to Australia from United Kingdom as a free settler?

John came to Australia on his own in 1825, and it seems that he may have paid his own way over hoping to make his fortune down under by himself!

Interesting… what else?

John was born James, a son of James Carmichael (a poulterer of Fleshmarket Close, Edinburgh, Scotland) and Janet Black, on 27 December 1803. When John was 9, he was admitted into the recently-opened Edinburgh Institute for the Deaf and Dumb. He was apprenticed to Mr. John Horsburgh, after leaving school, trained to become an engraver. Once John have reached the ‘Journeyman’ status as an engraver, he travelled to the colony of New South Wales in 1825. From the town of Sydney, he was employed as an engraver, artist, printer and teacher by others in the Colony. He was married twice and had eight children before dying on 27 July 1857 at his residence, Prince Street, Sydney.

Okay, so he was deaf, but doesn’t that means he signed as a deaf person?

Yes, there are written records of his signed stories during his time in Edinburgh and printed comments about him being ‘deaf and dumb’ in Sydney. This indicated he was known as a deaf person who doesn’t speak, but can sign, read and write.


1. From the recollections of Alexander Atkinson, a deaf Scot written in 1865 (1):

…named James Carmichael. This youth had, however more shining personal qualities; he was a handsome looking lad, to whose company the girls of the house were more partial than he to theirs. He was a capital “fine chap” with  and for us; he had an enthusiastic fancy for cock-fights, which was constantly fed by the shop and yard of his father, who was a respectable poulterer in the city. Frequenting one of the most noted cock-pits in the city, he was in the habit of fixing our stare on him by gesticulating every incident of the last fight and assuming every air and movement of the combats in all their rounds up to the “Death” with striking fidelity to the “Life”; nay his animation went so far as if he wished himself the Champion Cock. However, he signed with as much pathos over his fallen antagonist.

Carmichael had also a mania for horse-racing, to gratify which he was most cheerfully, since he left school, the first and last of the Edinburgh people, trudging five long miles every day in the race week to and from Musselburgh Races. He then came to us, proud of being again great in our eyes, giving rapid, yet distinct gestural pictures of the different races, horses and their riders, which he had observed with minute attention. He yet omitted nothing else of these periodic gatherings, however trivial.

Carmichael had an excellent turn for drawing, in which he embodied his favourite predilections with a surprising fidelity to truth. He gave away many excellent ink and pen specimens one of which I still keep, representing several race horses with their jockeys on their backs, as they were preparing to start from a winning post, with an ease and skill which at once showed the hand of a master. He was, like Mackechnie, well encouraged in his talent. He was, on leaving school, apprenticed to an engraver in the city.

2. A report was printed in the newspaper named “The Australian“, dated Thursday 25 December 1828, about John’s first publication, making available for the public to purchase based on the series of engravings of Sydney and its surrounding scenery. Excerpt shown:

…the skill and time of the engraver, whom it will take months ere he can complete a work, which, in this country, was never yet equaled, and in few places promises to be excelled. Ingenuity and skill, such as are displayed in this undertaking are certainly well worthy of cultivation, and we would confidently solicit the warm support of the public in behalf of the engraver, who has a further claim upon the patronage of the liberal minded, in his being dumb, and we believe, deaf. Should Mr. Carmichael complete his stupendous work, it will be a credit to the Colony. The two views we have seen deservedly rank him with the best second rate landscape engraver of the day.

3. A police report printed in the “Sydney Gazette & New South Wales Advertiser“, dated Tuesday 29 May 1832:

“DARLING STREET ROBBERY – As Mr. Moss and Mr. Carmichael, of George-street, were passing along York-street, between nine and ten o’clock, on Friday evening, they were met with three villains, who knocked down Mr. M. down and robbed him of his watch and some money. The alarm raised by Mr. C., who, through unable to speak, clapped his hands most lustily, brought some constables to their assistance; they succeeded in apprehending one of the fellows who turns out to be a native named Atkins, of most infamous character.

What prompted John to migrate to the Colony of New South Wales?

It may be due to the ‘call’ for people with skills to help build the colony into a bigger and established country away from England. While there are many convicts with various professions, the government were not keen on using them, or that those may have issues with level of professionalism? Anyhow, there is a need for people with skills in engraving, drafting and printing as the country was new and there were no to limited availability of maps and such. John might have felt that he would gain better employment opportunities in the Colony, rather than in Edinburgh.

So how did he travelled?

He swam over…

Ah ok, John actually sailed on “Triton”, departing from Leith, a port in Scotland on 21 May 1825. The ship stopped at Hobart for a few days, before it went on it’s way to Sydney Cove. From the shipping indent, there is no other recognised passengers accompanied John so we would have to assumed he travelled alone. The ship brought Scottish immigrants and cargo of sundries for both Hobart and Sydney Cove. The ship arrived at Sydney Cove on 28 October 1825, after a 7-days journey from Hobart.

What did John do in the Colony of New South Wales?

Well, he posted an advertisement, declaring his ability as an Engraver, offering services of designing and printing coats of arms, bills and such. This was placed in a newspaper “Sydney Gazette & New South Wales Advertiser” (printed in December 1825 several times) stated:

JOHN CARMICHAEL, lately arrived per Triton (who served his Time with Mr. Horsburgh of Edinburgh), begs to inform the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Colony, that he engraves Coats of Arms and Initials on gold, silver, and ivory; also, Plates for Bills of Exchange, Bills of Lading, Ornamental Cards, Tickets, and Bills of Parcels, &c. on the shortest Notice, in a Style superior to any hitherto attempted to be executed in the Colony. —Orders to be left at the House of Mr. J.M. Wilson, Upper Pitt-street; or  at Mr. Parker’s, 99, George street.

From that point, he was able to obtain plenty of jobs, developed well-regarded reputation as an engraver and artist in the Colony to both the public and government of the time. There is no obvious evidence of him mixing with other deaf people in the Colony, but John may have developed his group of friends to communicate with. John have never returned to Edinburgh to see his family and friends.

Contacts from his family and friends back in Scotland?

Yes – apparently there was a notice in the newspaper informing there is a communication for Mr. John Carmichael, engraver, formerly residing at No. 39, Phillip-street, from his friends in Scotland. One can assume that John would have received letters and such from his family and friends.

The next few postings will concentrate on his works and the last one about his Australian family.


(1) “Memoirs of My Youth: An Autobiography of Alexander Atkinson – 1865”. Published by British Deaf History Society Publications: 2001. Pages 122-123.

  • “John Carmichael: Australian Deaf Pioneer”, B. Carty, 1998. Deaf Studies, Sydney, 1998: Selected papers from the ‘Australian Deaf Studies Research Symposium, Renwick College, NSW. Edited by A. Schembri, J. Napier, R. Beattie and G. Leigh. North Rocks Press, 2000. Pages 9-19.
  • State Library of NSW
  • National Library of Australia – Trove and collections
  • Ancestry.com
  • Family records
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