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Bicheno, James Ebenezer (1785–1851)

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

James Ebenezer Bicheno (1785-1851), attributed to Thomas Bock, 1851?

James Ebenezer Bicheno (1785-1851), attributed to Thomas Bock, 1851?

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001124071051

James Ebenezer Bicheno (1785-1851), author and colonial secretary, was born on 25 January 1785 at Newbury, Berkshire, England, the son of Rev. James Bicheno and Ann, his wife. His father (d.1831) was a Baptist minister, schoolmaster and author of numerous books and pamphlets on biblical prophecy, Nonconformity, papal tyranny and restoration of the Jews. Bicheno grew up at Newbury and there wrote An Inquiry into the Nature of Benevolence, Chiefly With a View to Elucidate the Principles of the Poor Laws, and to Show Their Unmoral Tendency (London, 1817). This attack on administration was expanded and republished in 1824 as An Inquiry into the Poor Laws. In Observations on the Philosophy of Criminal Jurisprudence … With Remarks on Penitentiary Prisons (London, 1819) he argued that punishments were too severe and protested against burdening the colonies 'with the refuse from prisons'. In 1821 he married but his wife died in childbirth within a year. He was called to the Bar of the Middle Temple on 17 May 1822, and joined the Oxford circuit, but did little legal work and continued his economic and scientific studies.

In April 1812 Bicheno had been elected a fellow of the Linnean Society. His papers, 'Observations on the Orchis militaris of Linnaeus' and 'Observations on the Linnean Genus Juncus' were printed in the society's Transactions in 1818, and another, 'On Systems and Methods in Natural History' in 1827. His address at the anniversary meeting of the Zoological Club of the Linnean Society was published as a pamphlet in 1826 and his paper on 'The Plant intended by the Shamrock of Ireland', appeared in the Royal Institution's Journal in 1831. With several others he assisted Sir William Jardine in preparing the two volumes of Illustrations of Ornithology (Edinburgh, 1830). In 1825 he was elected secretary of the Linnean Society in succession to Alexander McLeay. In July 1831 he acknowledged a present of fourteen birds of New Holland sent to the society by Sir Edward Deas Thomson and in February 1832 had the pleasant duty of informing Allan Cunningham that the society's council was remitting the fees payable on his election as a fellow because of the 'important services he had rendered to Natural Science', especially in botany, during his long residence in New South Wales. In May 1827 Bicheno was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

He resigned as secretary of the Linnean Society in 1832 and went to live at Tymaen, near Pyle, Glamorganshire, where with money from his wife's estate he became a partner in some iron-works. They proved an unsuccessful investment and he sought profitable employment elsewhere. In 1829 he had toured Ireland, and then published Ireland and its Economy (London, 1830), in which he examined, among other questions, the applicability of the Poor Laws to Ireland. As an outcome he was appointed to Archbishop Whateley's commission into conditions of the Irish poor; he disagreed with the other commissioners and wrote a separate report.

In September 1842 Bicheno was appointed colonial secretary of Van Diemen's Land at a salary of £1200. In London he was told that Sir John Franklin was about to be recalled, and this news was dragged from him by Lady Jane Franklin soon after his arrival next April at Hobart Town in the John Renwick. Bicheno quickly acquired a grasp of his official duties and was wise enough to treat them with detachment. Of all the early colonial secretaries in Van Diemen's Land, his personal views were least reflected in the official records of his department. The colony was in deep depression and he had to refuse employment to several medical officers and clerks unwanted in New South Wales since that colony had ceased to receive convicts from Britain. At the same time Van Diemen's Land had to receive prisoners sentenced in New South Wales to transportation, although pleas to permit conditionally pardoned convicts to seek work on the mainland were rejected. Nothing seemed to disturb Bicheno's affable calm. His quiet efficiency and punctual method were comfortably masked by a portly figure, jocular manner and homely speech. He worked well with Franklin and Sir John Eardley-Wilmot, and particularly with Sir William Thomas Denison whose personal relationships were seldom peaceful. When the lieutenant-governors were criticized Bicheno was quick to defend their integrity. He was shocked when the Patriotic Six walked out of the Legislative Council, and even more disgusted by the scandals surrounding Wilmot. In March 1846, with other government officials, he wrote to the editor of the Naval and Military Gazette demanding retraction of false statements about the lieutenant-governor. Nevertheless Bicheno seemed too much on the government side to please the colonists and they nicknamed him 'The Old Hen'. In turn he blandly declared that their demands for no taxation without representation were wildly revolutionary, and that their claims for control of the Queen's revenue were monstrous. One newspaper described him as a debater with useful powers conveniently adapted to the convictions of the legislators, but his report on the colonial press, requested by Earl Grey in 1847, was much more perceptive than the superficial jibes of his critics.

In private life Bicheno found great satisfaction in art, music and good living. In 1844 he became president of the committee that planned the first public exhibition of paintings in Australia. In spite of scornful sceptics he assured its success by giving a series of 'artistical parties', inviting the gentry to his home to see his own pictures and regaling them with delicacies and champagne. He also pursued his interest in botany. For some years he lived in a stone house on the banks of the New Town Rivulet, where on his small farm he spent much time and money experimenting with plants. In 1849 as vice-president of the Mechanics' Institute he lectured on 'The Philosophy of Botany', entertaining his hearers with poetic excerpts from the Psalms to Dr Johnson, proclaimed that 'gardening advances civilization by combining the innocent, useful and beautiful' and urged them on their wintry homeward way to 'look at the patterns of bright gold in the moonlit sky'. More seriously he read to the Royal Society, of which he was an early vice-president, papers 'On a specimen of Pristus cirrhatus', and 'On the potato as an article of national diet, and the potato disease in connexion with distress in Ireland', both being published in the society's Transactions in 1851.

After a short illness Bicheno died in Hobart on 25 February 1851. His estate of less than £1600 was left to his relations and to the one remaining servant of the five he had brought with him from England. His herbarium was bequeathed to the public museum at Swansea, Wales, and his library of 2500 books to the first Tasmanian Public Library, on condition that the colonists subscribed £300 to his estate. His portrait is in the rooms of the Linnean Society, London.

Select Bibliography

  • J. West, The History of Tasmania, vol 1 (Launceston, 1852), p 242
  • K. Fitzpatrick, Sir John Franklin in Tasmania 1837-1843 (Melb, 1949)
  • P. L. Brown (ed), Clyde Company Papers, vol 3 (Lond, 1958)
  • A. Cunningham, letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Deas Thomson papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • correspondence file under Bicheno (Archives Office of Tasmania).

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Citation details

'Bicheno, James Ebenezer (1785–1851)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bicheno-james-ebenezer-1777/text1995, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 20 January 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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