Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Davey, Thomas (1758–1823)

by P. R. Eldershaw

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

Thomas Davey (1758-1823), by unknown artist (photographed by J. W. Beattie, 1896)

Thomas Davey (1758-1823), by unknown artist (photographed by J. W. Beattie, 1896)

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125646786

Thomas Davey (1758-1823), lieutenant-governor and royal marine, was the son of John Davey of Tiverton, Devon, England, and his wife, Temperance Wynes. Descended from a family at Crediton, John was a mill-owner and member of the Tiverton corporation and 'by sturdy begging' in 1778 secured a commission for Thomas as a second lieutenant in the marines. Thomas served in America in H.M.S. Vengeance in 1779, and in H.M.S. Preston in the West Indies in 1780. Invalided in July, he was promoted first lieutenant in November and then served under Rodney. In 1787 he was a volunteer guard accompanying Phillip's First Fleet to Port Jackson; according to his wife, Davey was the first to land. Like many of his fellow marines, he quarrelled with Major Robert Ross and at the end of 1792 he returned to England, after unsuccessfully asking his patron, Dudley Ryder, M.P. for Tiverton, later Lord Harrowby, to obtain for him a company in the New South Wales Corps.

Promoted captain in 1795, Davey served on all the European seas and on the coasts of America, distinguished himself at the mutiny of the Nore as captain of marines in the Director by helping to recover a ship from the mutineers, and fought at the battle of Camperdown in 1797. Promoted brevet major in 1808, he was appointed major of the Woolwich Division in 1809 and in 1810 was inspecting field officer of the Royal Marine Corps at Cambridge. When news of Collins's death reached England Davey applied for the vacancy in 1810, and again in 1811. Harrowby, then in the cabinet, apparently exerted himself on Davey's behalf and secured his appointment; his commission united under him the settlements in Van Diemen's Land hitherto separately administered; but it was not until March 1812 that the Colonial Office notified Governor Lachlan Macquarie, to whose government the colony was subordinate, nor until June that Davey sailed with his wife and daughter. He arrived in Sydney in October 1812, but his baggage, in another ship, was captured by an American privateer.

Given the local rank of lieutenant-colonel in December, Davey did not leave for his post at Hobart Town until February 1813, and his stay in Sydney gave Macquarie 'full opportunity of observing an extraordinary degree of frivolity and low buffoonery in his Manners'. This impression was deepened by the extraordinary course taken by the under-secretary of state, Henry Goulburn, in warning Macquarie of Davey's character; Macquarie, in reply, promised to be vigilant in checking Davey's use of public money. The allusion probably was to Davey's debts, contracted while he was a paymaster in the marines; until they were satisfied the British Treasury stopped payment of his salary of £800, so Macquarie took good care to see that Davey was 'tied down by Rules'. His instructions were more restrictive than those of his predecessors: he was forbidden to draw bills on the British Treasury, to charter ships, grant lands or make contracts without the governor's authority.

In 1814 he was promoted brevet lieutenant-colonel and put on half-pay. Macquarie reluctantly admitted that, as lieutenant-governor, Davey had been 'pretty Correct', except for a few instances of granting land; but though honest and well-meaning he was 'so dissipated in his Manners and Morals, so expensive in his habits, so very thoughtless and volatile, and so very easily imposed upon by designing plausible Characters' that Macquarie could only think he was very unfit for his post; should it prove expedient to remove him, he recommended to the British government the appointment of Joseph Foveaux.

From that time Macquarie lost no opportunity to find fault with his lieutenant-governor in dispatches to both the British government and to Davey himself. Davey shortened the name of his settlement to 'Hobart'; Macquarie rebuked him. Davey, lacking a criminal court and so without the means of trying locally any bushrangers that might be captured, declared martial law in April 1815, though advised that it was illegal; Macquarie complained bitterly to Downing Street that Davey had done nothing in the past to deal with lawlessness, criticized his action, and refused to take any responsibility for the results of the imposition of martial law; but he tacitly accepted it by allowing it to continue for six months. Commissioner John Bigge later upheld the expediency of Davey's action, and after the repeal of martial law bushranging certainly increased.

Macquarie continued to dwell on Davey's drinking and depravity to the British authorities, and insisted that he was not only 'dissipated and profligate' but publicly corrupt, in that he condoned the smuggling of spirits. Twice more he recommended his replacement by Foveaux. In fact, though Davey had a local reputation for conviviality and earthy good nature, his regime saw some progress despite pitiable resources. With the labour of the off-scourings of the Sydney convicts a gaol was built and a church commenced, the ports of Hobart and Port Dalrymple were opened to trade, the Hobart Town Gazette began publication, and some police reforms were made. His handicaps included corrupt and incompetent subordinates and an inadequate revenue, but in April 1816 Earl Bathurst accepted Macquarie's criticisms and told him that it had been decided to remove the lieutenant-governor. Yet, because of the loss of his baggage in 1812, and to avoid hurt to 'his Feelings and … those of his Family', he would be asked to resign and given a further grant of land in addition to the 3000 acres (1214 ha) he had been granted at the Coal River in 1813.

When Macquarie informed Davey of William Sorell's appointment Davey replied that the 'pleasing intelligence' gave him 'much satisfaction'; he waited in Hobart until Sorell relieved him and declined the further grant of 2000 acres (809 ha) as inadequate; then he proceeded to Sydney to argue his case for further compensation for his alleged losses of £4500 in 1812. He enlisted the support of his old patron, Harrowby, whose influence on his behalf evidently weighed heavily at the Colonial Office; Bathurst authorized grants to him and to his family totalling 8000 acres (3238 ha), including 2000 acres (809 ha) at Illawarra. He returned to Hobart in June 1818 but made little success as a settler.

Davey's improvidence aroused Macquarie's sympathy for his amiable wife, Margaret, and his daughter, Lucy Margaretta. In 1821, hearing that they were distressed, he ordered Lucy 1000 acres (405 ha), and instructed Sorell to have them victualled from the public store for twelve months. Davey himself that year sailed for England to settle his private affairs and to present certain claims to the secretary of state. He died in London on 2 May 1823, intestate, and leaving an estate of less than £20. The Admiralty decided that his widow had no claim to a pension. 'A lady of meek and uncomplaining spirit', according to the historian West, Margaret died in Van Diemen's Land in May 1827. His daughter married Dr James Scott in June 1821.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 7-10, series 3, vols 2-4
  • correspondence file under Davey (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

P. R. Eldershaw, 'Davey, Thomas (1758–1823)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davey-thomas-1959/text2359, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 25 October 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Thomas Davey (1758-1823), by unknown artist (photographed by J. W. Beattie, 1896)

Thomas Davey (1758-1823), by unknown artist (photographed by J. W. Beattie, 1896)

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125646786