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Braddon, Sir Edward Nicholas Coventry (1829–1904)

by Scott Bennett

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Edward Nicholas Coventry Braddon (1829-1904), by J. W. Beattie

Edward Nicholas Coventry Braddon (1829-1904), by J. W. Beattie

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125880757

Sir Edward Nicholas Coventry Braddon (1829-1904), civil servant and politician, was born on 11 June 1829 at St Kew, Cornwall, England, son of Henry Braddon, solicitor, and his wife Fanny, née White. A sister Mary Elizabeth became a popular novelist. Braddon was educated at a preparatory school in the Fulham Road, London, and later at a private school at Greenwich. He may have taken commercial subjects at University College. His parents' marriage was a 'loveless' one which led to an 'amiable' separation. Unlike his two sisters, Braddon was permitted to visit his father, and he did so while he remained in England.

In 1847 he went to India to work in a cousin's merchant firm in Calcutta. He found the life of a clerk, imprisoned behind a counting-desk, hard to bear and in 1850 or 1851 he eagerly left the city for the rural districts, to manage a number of indigo factories near Krishnagar. Braddon worked there for about five years, displaying the usual planter arrogance towards the Indians. A European deputy magistrate once actually found him guilty of 'aggravated and unprovoked assault', a decision that was later reversed. In July 1855 his work was interrupted by skirmishes and cleaning-up operations against the Santal people who had revolted briefly. The opportunity for martial activity pleased him, and he later spoke of it as 'a splendid substitute for the tiger-shooting which came not to my hand'. Two years later he was able to enlist under (Sir) George Yule in a volunteer force which saw Indian Mutiny service in Purnea.

The Santal insurrection stimulated a change in the organization of government in the area. A new, non-regulation province, the Santal Parganas, was created, with Yule as its first commissioner. His assistant commissioner of Deoghar division, from October 1857, was Braddon who soon found that the arduous life of a district officer suited him admirably. It required a wide range of administrative skills and occasionally caused him to chafe at the need for routine, but he was relatively free from the interference of superiors and could spend about half of each year travelling about his domain. The early administration of the Santal Parganas seems to have been a great success, and he is referred to as having played his part creditably.

Braddon was promoted to Lucknow where in 1862-76 he was superintendent of excise and stamps for the recently annexed province of Oudh; he also served in other administrative posts. As in Deoghar, much of his time was spent in the saddle, and he claimed to have covered 3000 miles (4828 km) a year on tour. Despite his obvious competence, Braddon was eventually forced into a premature retirement upon the amalgamation of Oudh and the North-West provinces. His post disappeared, and he was offered no other—apparently to his chagrin.

Braddon had married twice in India: on 24 October 1857 to Amy Georgina Palmer (d.1864), by whom he had two sons and three daughters; and on 16 October 1876 to Alice Harriet Smith, by whom he had one daughter. One son was (Sir) Henry Yule. At an age when many Anglo-Indians retired home, he set sail in March 1878 for Tasmania and a new life. He settled on a small, run-down property at Leith on the north-west coast, and worked extremely hard to make it a worthwhile enterprise. Few people then lived in that part of the colony, and Braddon undoubtedly stood out as a man of experience and proven ability. He was soon asked to join community committees, and accepted nomination for the seat of West Devon, an election he won in July 1879 — as he won all that he contested thereafter.

Braddon soon proved himself a sharp debater and accomplished strategist. The Agnew government, third of the so-called 'continuous ministry', began to show signs of confusion and indecision in mid-1886, and an Opposition caucus began to form about Braddon. The immediate reason given for the group's appearance was the need to publicly denounce 'jobbery', most obvious in the appointments of (Sir) John Dodds and E. D. Dobbie as puisne judge and solicitor-general. When, in early 1887, a determined campaign blocked the re-election of Agnew's appointee to the attorney-generalship, the duty of the premier was made clear, and he advised that Braddon be called to form an administration, which he did. But, for reasons that remain unclear, P. O. Fysh became premier, with Braddon as minister for lands and works, and A. Inglis Clark as attorney-general.

Braddon had been in office for eighteen months when he was appointed agent-general in London. There is a suggestion that he saw this post, accepted when he was 59, as the culmination of his career, and entered it with his usual zest. He performed a valuable service in attracting money to Tasmania, especially in the flotation of a number of companies, including the Mt Lyell Mining and Emu Bay railway companies. In 1891 he was appointed K.C.M.G. He retained his post until September 1893, when he returned to the colony to active politics and the leadership of the Opposition.

The unsettled nature of Tasmanian politics soon saw Braddon immersed in intrigues designed to destroy the government of Henry Dobson: in April 1894 Dobson was defeated in the House over his land tax bill, and from 14 April Braddon became premier of an administration which was not expected to last long; it survived the 1897 general election and was not defeated until 12 October 1899.

The Braddon ministry did much to restore Tasmania's finances. There was a determined and successful effort to reduce unnecessary expenditure, while industry was given every encouragement to establish, and expand, by a premier who believed that a prosperous business community meant a prosperous colony. At the same time, the government vigorously constructed roads, railways, harbours and waterworks. He licensed his friend George Adams to conduct Tattersall's lotteries from which the State profited.

Braddon was the first Tasmanian premier to have been a professional public servant before taking office, and he was noted as a conscientious yet ruthless administrator. As premier he was bound to the policies of retrenchment and efficiency, and he attacked both with vigour. His administrative skills had been hard learned in India, and his performance in Tasmania shocked many: public servants long remembered the savagery of 'Braddon's axe'. The need for a devious diplomacy in the Indian setting also prepared him well for Tasmania, where the fate of governments and individual careers depended so much on ability to understand the parliamentary game.

Braddon's government introduced proportional representation and challenged the obstruction of the Legislative Council by an appeal to the Privy Council to define its powers, which was refused. He survived a crisis late in 1897 over a conflict between the Emu Bay and Great Western railway companies, although Clark resigned on the issue. At the Colonial Conference in London that year, Braddon was appointed a privy councillor. As premier, he drew no salary.

Braddon was a convinced Federalist. He was a member of the Federal Council of Australasia in 1888 and in 1895-99, being president in 1895. He hosted the 1895 premiers' conference at which the Federal cause was revived, and was elected top of the poll for Tasmanian delegates to the convention of 1897-98. His conservative voice had as its main refrain the protection of colonial rights. He was particularly concerned with the likely effect of Federation upon colonial finances, and his successful introduction of what became section 87 (quickly dubbed Braddon's 'Blot'), whereby three-quarters of the revenue from customs and excise was to be returned to the States for ten years, was one of the essential steps which ensured acceptance of the Constitution by the smaller colonies. In the referendum battles he participated fully in the 'Yes' campaign, and Tasmania's overwhelming acceptance was due in part to his personal convictions and effort. Deakin described him as 'the most distinguished-looking delegate of the Convention … slight, erect, stiff, with the walk of a horseman and the carriage of a soldier, he had the manner of a diplomat … An iron-grey lock fell artistically forward upon his forehead, bright grey eyes gleamed from under rather bushy eyebrows, a straight nose leading to a heavy moustache and a Vandyke beard … He was a most amiable cynic, an accomplished strategist and an expert administrator … he introduced into the Convention an element of manners'.

Braddon headed the Tasmanian election for the first Commonwealth parliament with a resounding 26 per cent of the vote. As (Sir) George Reid's deputy, he sometimes acted as leader of the Opposition. At the 1951 jubilee celebrations, he was the Founding Father honoured by Tasmania.

In private life Braddon was scornful of physical danger, domineering with his children (though probably not his wives), fully prepared to participate in the social events of the neighbourhood, and a sartorial disaster. He shared his sister's skill with the pen, writing a number of journal articles, as well as Life in India (London, 1872) and Thirty Years of Shikar (Edinburgh, 1895).

'Ned' Braddon died at Leith on 2 February 1904 and was buried in the Pioneers' cemetery, Forth; there is a memorial to him at Braddon's Lookout, within view of his small property. His estate was valued for probate at £8720 in Tasmania and £679 in New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of Tasmania (Hob, 1900)
  • F. C. Green (ed), A Century of Responsible Government 1856-1956 (Melb, 1956)
  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story, J. A. La Nauze ed (Melb, 1963)
  • J. A. La Nauze, The Making of the Australian Constitution (Melb, 1972)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 3 Feb 1904.

Citation details

Scott Bennett, 'Braddon, Sir Edward Nicholas Coventry (1829–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/braddon-sir-edward-nicholas-coventry-5330/text9007, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 19 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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