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Champ, William Thomas Napier (1808–1892)

by John V. Barry

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

William Thomas Napier Champ (1808-1892), by J. W. Beattie

William Thomas Napier Champ (1808-1892), by J. W. Beattie

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125647354

William Thomas Napier Champ (1808-1892), soldier, public servant and premier, was born on 15 April 1808 at Maldon, Essex, England, son of Captain Thomas Champ of the 43rd Regiment, and his wife Mary Ann, née Blackaller. He was educated at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and on 16 November 1826 was gazetted ensign in the 63rd Regiment. As a lieutenant he arrived at Sydney in November 1828 in the convict transport Eliza. The regiment went to Van Diemen's Land in January 1829 and Champ was stationed as a member of the military garrison at the Macquarie Harbour penal settlement, where he acted also as assistant engineer. In 1830 he took part in Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur's abortive attempt to round up the Tasmanian Aboriginals. Desiring to settle in Van Diemen's Land, he sold his lieutenancy, but as his discharge had not reached Hobart Town he had to accompany his regiment when it left for India. There he learned of his discharge from the army and from his small capital had to purchase an ensign's commission. On 5 April 1832 he was appointed lieutenant in the 39th Regiment and on 18 May transferred back to the 63rd. He left the army and in 1834 returned to Van Diemen's Land where he began farming. In January 1836 he began his long career as a public servant: he was made a justice of the peace and became assistant police magistrate at Hobart as well as muster master.

In March 1837 Champ married Helen Abigail, daughter of his neighbour, Major James Gibson, formerly of the 15th Hussars; between 1839 and 1851 they had three sons and five daughters. In December 1838 he became chairman of the Caveat Board, concerned with land grants, and successfully reorganized that department. He was appointed commandant of the Port Arthur penal settlement in January 1844, succeeding Captain O'Hara Booth. He was comptroller-general of convicts for a short time before John Hampton took up his duties in October 1846. At Port Arthur he was a firm, just and humane commandant, but he clashed with Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison over criticism of the system, which Champ regarded as a reflection on him personally. When the position of commandant was abolished, he was granted a pension of £160. Denison recommended that Champ be made colonial secretary and registrar of records, and in November 1852 he was appointed to those offices, an appointment made permanent in 1853. In 1855 he was made a commissioner in lunacy and in November 1856 he became a member of the Executive Council: in that year he was also chairman of an intercolonial commission on lighthouses. When responsible government was introduced he received a grant of £6000 as compensation for loss of office. Elected one of the members for Launceston in the new House of Assembly, on 1 November 1856 he became the first premier of Tasmania. He had no liking for politics, however, and was at variance with the majority of the assembly over a resolution to reduce the governor's salary, which he unsuccessfully opposed. On 26 February 1857 his ministry ceased to hold office.

When John Price was murdered at Williamstown in March 1857 Champ was recommended to the government of Victoria by Denison to succeed Price as inspector-general of penal establishments in Victoria, a position he held until his resignation on 31 December 1868. He was largely responsible for the building of Pentridge gaol, and his administration was strikingly successful; according to a penal officer who served under him for eleven years, 'no board of enquiry was ever appointed to investigate charges against any of the officials, the management of the department was never questioned, nor did any comment appear in the public press unless in praise of his public career' (H. A. White, Crime and Criminals, Ballarat, 1890, p. 130). While inspector-general he formed the Pentridge Rifles, and was a lieutenant-colonel and later colonel in the Victorian Military Forces. Fond of farming and pastoral pursuits, he developed an attractive grazing and farming property, Darra, from unpromising land near Meredith. He lived there after retirement, and helped to raise funds for the local rifle club by publishing in Melbourne a lecture, The Animal Called Man. In March 1871 he was elected to represent East Bourke Boroughs in the Legislative Assembly, but his distaste for politics led to his resignation before the parliamentary session ended in March 1874. He died at East Melbourne on 25 August 1892. In a letter to Denison, 22 May 1852, Bishop Robert Willson wrote of Champ's 'universally acknowledged talents, his zeal, energy and unflinching integrity, [and] his character for justice, even among the worst description of the convict class'. This assessment of Champ appears appropriate for his career both in Tasmania and Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • F. C. Green (ed), A Century of Responsible Government 1856-1956 (Hob, 1956)
  • J. Fenton, A History of Tasmania (Hob, 1884)
  • J. V. Barry, The Life and Death of John Price (Melb, 1964)
  • Votes and Proceedings (House of Assembly, Tasmania), 1856, 2 (21)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27 Aug 1892
  • Champ file (State Library of Victoria)
  • correspondence file under Champ (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

John V. Barry, 'Champ, William Thomas Napier (1808–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/champ-william-thomas-napier-3191/text4789, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 22 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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