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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Chapman, Thomas Daniel (1815–1884)

by F. C. Green

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

Thomas Daniel Chapman (1815-1884), merchant and politician, was born at Bedford, England. At 14 he entered the service of the East India Co. and made several voyages to the Orient. In 1837 he settled in London and soon became a partner in the firm of John and Stephen Kennard, general merchants. In 1841 on their behalf he took emigrants and stores to Circular Head for the Van Diemen's Land Co. and then moved to Hobart Town to act as agent for the Kennards. In 1843 he married Katherine, daughter of John Swan, a Hobart shopkeeper. In 1847 he established at Hobart his own independent firm, T. D. Chapman & Co., importers and exporters; the main exports were wool, whale oil and timber, while the imports were groceries, hardware and clothing from England, sugar and corks from Mauritius and tea from Ceylon.

He began his political career as president of the Hobart branch of the militant Anti-Transportation League, and in 1851 was elected to the new part-elective Legislative Council. There he was prominent in the move for responsible government. The partisan approach to all matters before the council led to increasing attacks on the nominee system and reached a stage where Chapman moved successfully for the appointment of a select committee to draft a new constitution for the colony. The ten members of the committee were chosen by ballot. When they reported to the council in September 1853, Chapman immediately gave notice of motions embodying the principles necessary for a parliament of two elected Houses and complete self-rule for the colony, with a franchise in accordance with the wishes of the people. After a debate of historical importance Chapman's motions were carried by eleven votes to nine. In the long recess which followed, the controversy aroused by Chapman's proposals was kept alive by the press. When the council met again the bill, based on his recommendations, was passed; it was forwarded to the Colonial Office, confirmed by Order in Council and proclaimed in the colony in 1856. Chapman was elected to the first House of Assembly; his Hobart constituents, in appreciation of his successful move for self-rule, presented him with an address and £400 for the purchase of plate.

In 1856-57 Chapman was treasurer in the first ministry led by W. T. N. Champ. As premier in 1861-63 his government was faced with falling revenue, a problem which he met by abolishing many revenue tariffs on necessities and adding duties to other items. As this meant cheaper groceries for householders, he was nicknamed 'Tea and Sugar Tommy', which name remained even when he later had to advocate tariff duties on those commodities.

When Chapman first entered the House of Assembly he was in personal financial difficulties; as economic conditions deteriorated he became bankrupt in 1864 and resigned. This step was generally regarded as a calamity because of his devotion to public duty, and the press referred to the unhappy position of such a valuable citizen; arrangements were later made with his creditors. Re-elected to the assembly in 1866, he held office as treasurer in three successive ministries in 1866-72 and, in spite of opposition to financial reform, kept the colony solvent and obtained loans for development. Because of intercolonial tariff rivalry he advocated a commercial union as a step towards Federation. He resigned from the assembly in 1873 and was elected to the Legislative Council. There in 1877 he moved for the publication of all the official papers on Louisa Hunt, whose conviction in 1873 in the Supreme Court on a charge of arson with intent to defraud an insurance company had led to public protests and much questioning of the governor's powers to interfere with the administration of the law. In a petition to Governor (Sir) Frederick Weld in June 1877 three indignant members of the Executive Council, who wanted the Hunt case 'buried in oblivion', charged Chapman with personal and political animosity towards themselves and claimed that he had 'been several times accused in the public press of fraud and dishonesty'. Weld appealed to the Colonial Office and was told to use his own judgment. In 1879 the Hunt papers were published and Chapman was completely vindicated. In 1882 he became president of the council. A day after attending the races, he died from bronchitis on 17 February 1884, survived by his wife, six sons and four daughters.

One of the ablest politicians in the colony's history, he was probably the best authority in his day on the Tasmanian Constitution. According to the Mercury, he was 'by no means an orator, but a vigorous speaker and a man of strong will and perseverance—a typical John Bull'. Lamenting that one of the political lights in Tasmania had gone out, the Sydney Bulletin, 1 March 1884, called him 'the Robertson or the Parkes of the Tasmanian legislature … His views were not always on the popular side, as he was imbued with a good share of conservatism, but no one ever doubted his honest wish to do the best for the little colony he so often steered'.

Portraits of Chapman and his wife by Conway Hart are in the Art Gallery in the Tasmanian Museum at Hobart.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Fenton, A History of Tasmania (Hob, 1884)
  • W. A. Townsley, The Struggle for Self-Government in Tasmania 1842-1856 (Hob, 1951)
  • F. C. Green (ed), A Century of Responsible Government 1856-1956 (Hob, 1956)
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 19 Sept 1874
  • Mercury (Hobart), 18 Feb 1884
  • Sydney Mail, 23 Feb 1884
  • manuscript catalogue under T. D. Chapman (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

F. C. Green, 'Chapman, Thomas Daniel (1815–1884)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 20 September 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 3

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