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Childers, Hugh Culling Eardley (1827–1896)

by H. L. Hall

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

Hugh Culling Eardley Childers (1827-1896), by unknown photographer

Hugh Culling Eardley Childers (1827-1896), by unknown photographer

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1677

Hugh Culling Eardley Childers (1827-1896), politician, was born on 25 June 1827 in London, son of Rev. Eardley Childers and his wife Maria Charlotte, née Smith, both descendants of Sampson Gideon (1699-1762) whose financial services to the government in the wars with France had been rewarded by a baronetcy to his son. In 1836-43 Hugh was educated at Cheam School under Rev. Charles Mayo, a disciple of Pestalozzi. In 1845 he went to Wadham College, Oxford, but in 1847 migrated to Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1850; M.A., 1857), where he won distinction in mathematics and was said to have learnt by heart Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations.

With his wife Emily Walker, whom he had married on 28 May 1850, and a letter of introduction from Earl Grey who was a distant relation, Childers arrived in Melbourne on 26 October. They were soon accepted in the best society, she for her beauty, he for his family connexions, intellectual ability and as 'a sort of living lexicon in respect of reference'. He was appointed inspector of Denominational schools in January 1851 and immigration agent and commissioner of National schools in September; he wrote to his sister in October: 'I am quite an official personage'. In 1852 he became a director of the Melbourne, Mount Alexander and Murray River Railway Co. and in October was appointed auditor-general at a salary of £1200 and nominated to the Legislative Council. There he took a leading part, notably in the select committee which drafted the constitution bill in 1853. In December he also joined the Executive Council when he was appointed collector of customs at a salary of £2000. With Sir William Denison he was active in negotiating a tariff convention for trade and transport on the River Murray in 1855, although the border customs problem was not finally solved until Federation.

As auditor-general Childers had introduced procedural reforms in 1852; although praised by Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe, they were blamed by the Legislative Council for the government deficit that contributed to the economic crisis in 1854. In 1855 the new governor, Sir Charles Hotham, doubting Childers' competence, appointed a committee to inquire into the Customs Department and then requested the Colonial Office to dismiss him. In protest Childers enlisted the help of his friends in England and in due course Hotham was censured for his behaviour. When responsible government was introduced in 1856, Childers won the Portland seat in the Legislative Assembly and joined the Haines ministry as commissioner of trade and customs. In 1857 he sat in a select committee on federal union, a subject in which he had a lifelong interest. In March he went to England as agent-general for Victoria but although the bill to establish this office had been passed in the Legislative Assembly, it was allowed to lapse. He returned to Melbourne in 1858, partly on behalf of the Barings who were hoping to float a railways loan. For a few months he wondered about re-entering politics but decided that the imperial parliament offered better prospects. He left again for England in July with a pension of £867 13s. 4d. to which he was entitled while not holding any office under the Crown, and which finally yielded a total of £20,325. In 1859 he applied unsuccessfully for appointment as a governor and was admitted to Lincoln's Inn.

Childers represented Pontefract in the House of Commons in 1860-85 and Edinburgh South in 1886-92. Among his many government offices he was financial secretary to the Treasury in 1865-66, first lord of the Admiralty in 1868-71 (he lost his second son in the Captain disaster in September 1870), chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1872-73, secretary of state for war in 1880-82, chancellor of the exchequer in 1882-85 and Home Secretary in 1886. He remained very faithful to Victoria; for example, in his maiden speech in 1860 he campaigned for the adoption of the 'Australian ballot' and in 1862 he drew the attention of parliament to the Burke and Wills expedition. In 1861 as chairman of the select committee on transportation he showed that the costs of maintaining a convict were greater at Swan River than at Pentonville and vehemently defended the disputed Victorian Influx of Criminals Prevention Act (18 Vic. no. 3). In cabinet he often spoke up for the Australian colonies, notably on the annexation crises in New Guinea and New Hebrides. Always ready to be consulted on colonial affairs, he helped Sir George Verdon to persuade the British government to give Victoria a warship in 1866, served twice as honorary agent-general for the colony and in 1873 represented it as a commissioner at the London International Exhibition.

The most notable contribution of Childers to Victoria was in the field of education. He drafted a plan for general education in 1851 and contributed a chapter, 'England from 1818 to 1851', to George Rusden's National Education (Melbourne, 1853), although he was savagely attacked by Rusden long after they had quarrelled in 1856. From the beginning Childers was convinced that education should not be controlled by separate Denominational and National Boards, and that the Denominational system was not satisfactory in rural areas. He proposed the creation of a board of education to supervise all assisted schools, with power to give or withhold grants and the right to veto the appointment of any teacher by a local school committee. He hammered at these points in evidence to a select committee in 1852 and again when education bills were unsuccessfully introduced in 1853 and 1854.

Childers had much to do with founding the University of Melbourne. In 1852 his first budget provided £10,000 for it. He drafted the necessary bill with the attorney-general William Stawell, and piloted it through the Legislative Council in January 1853. He was its first vice-chancellor, serving until he went to England in 1857. In 1858 he sought the advice of Sir James Paget on the foundation of a faculty of medicine, and continued to assist the university in many other ways. Childers also helped to found the Melbourne Public Library. In January 1854 in the Legislative Council he proposed the provision of £3000 for its establishment and became one of its first trustees. Later in England he bought books and exhibits for the library and arranged their dispatch. He was also first to propose a Normal School in Melbourne.

In London he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1858 and of the Royal Society in 1873, and an early member of the Colonial Society (later Royal Colonial Institute). His wife died in 1875; they had four sons and two daughters. In 1879 he married Katherine Ann, née Gilbert, widow of Colonel Gilbert Elliott and daughter of the bishop of Chichester; she died in 1895. Childers died in London on 29 January 1896.

A bust subscribed for by some Victorians was cast in England and sent to the University of Melbourne in 1893. A portrait by his daughter Milly is also in that university.

Select Bibliography

  • C. G. Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres, vol 2 (Lond, 1898)
  • E. S. E. Childers, The Life and Correspondence of the Right Hon. Hugh C. E. Childers, 1827-1896, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1901)
  • C. D. Allin, A History of the Tariff Relations of the Australian Colonies (Minneapolis, 1918)
  • E. Sweetman, The Educational Activities in Victoria of the Rt. Hon. H. C. E. Childers (Melb, 1940)
  • G. Blainey, A Centenary History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1957)
  • A. G. Austin, George William Rusden and National Education in Australia, 1849-1862 (Melb, 1958)
  • B. A. Knox, ‘Colonial Influence on Imperial Policy, 1858-1866: Victoria and the Colonial Naval Defence Act, 1865’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 11, no 41, Nov 1963, pp 61-79
  • Australasian, 17 Feb 1893
  • Age (Melbourne), 31 Jan 1896
  • Argus (Melbourne), 31 Jan 1896
  • B. R. Atkins, The Problem of the Representation of Australia in England (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1960).

Citation details

H. L. Hall, 'Childers, Hugh Culling Eardley (1827–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/childers-hugh-culling-eardley-3202/text4813, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 June 2017.

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

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