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Drennan, Frederick (1779–1837)

by George Parsons

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

Frederick Drennan (1779?-1837), public servant, entered the army as an assistant commissary on 10 April 1809. He served in Canada during the American war and was promoted deputy-commissary on 23 April 1814. He was next posted to Jamaica, where he incurred a large deficiency in his accounts; this was apparently thought to qualify him for appointment to New South Wales. He arrived in Sydney in the Globe in January 1819 with his wife (née Sharp) and two sisters-in-law; one of them married John Galt Smith, who later settled at Paterson's River.

Drennan immediately told Governor Lachlan Macquarie that the use of store receipts in the colony was not in accordance with Treasury instructions, led to incomplete accounts, and encouraged 'Fraud and Peculation'. Macquarie was unconvinced by Drennan's arguments, but agreed to his proposals for changing the system. Store receipts were no longer to be regarded as cash vouchers or as saleable and transferable, and all payments were to be made in silver coin or in Drennan's own notes drawn on the Treasury, though this seemed similar to earlier practices of Deputy Commissary General David Allan which had been tried and found wanting.

Drennan's relations with the governor quickly deteriorated, for he claimed that Macquarie's use of store receipts had favoured the Bank of New South Wales whose principal shareholders were the governor's friends. He felt that the bank was attempting to make a 'tool' out of the commissariat and he blamed the store receipt system on William Broughton's report that Allan had issued more notes on his private account than he was able to take up. Drennan insisted that the use of store receipts enveloped the accounts in 'unnecessary Mystery', but his strange economic theories and even stranger record did nothing to endear him to the governor. He criticized Macquarie's convict policy and attitude to the Treasury. He demanded that the Police Fund be placed in the military chest under commissariat control. He accused Macquarie of insulting the commissariat and its officers to an extent 'unparalleled in the History of Tyrants'. In turn on 24 March Macquarie sent a lengthy criticism of Drennan's conduct to the Treasury.

Meanwhile Drennan had also fallen foul of Lieutenant-Colonel James Erskine, whose officers he accused of using the regimental mill for their own profit and of insulting one of his clerks, Andrew Allan. When Macquarie dismissed Allan from the commissariat, Drennan ascribed this to malice against his only efficient clerk, but since he was living with the Allan family, the governor thought that he identified himself too much with them and that Allan's misconduct was clear. Erskine had Drennan arrested for making allegedly unfounded accusations about the mill; but on the advice of Judge-Advocate (Sir) John Wylde and on the precedent of the trial of William Broughton, the court martial which was held decided it was not competent to try Drennan on such charges, so he returned to his duties.

Next year he ran into more serious trouble. In September 1820 a committee consisting of Wylde, John Thomas Campbell and Judge Barron Field found that Drennan had received no instructions from the Treasury to alter the store receipt system prevailing in the colony on his arrival and severely criticized the administration of the Commissariat Department. It advised the governor to call in Drennan's notes for consolidation and to revert to the use of store receipts, Bank of New South Wales notes, and silver as the only circulating media in the colony. On 19 May 1821, as a sequel to Macquarie's earlier criticism to the Treasury, Drennan was replaced by William Wemyss. A committee of inquiry found an unfavourable balance of £6526 3s. 5d. in Drennan's accounts, and his effects were put up for sale. As he could not explain the deficiency Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane sent him to England in April 1822 under arrest. He remained on half-pay until 1827, but then was struck off the list of commissariat officers for failing to pay over any of the large balances due on his accounts in both Jamaica and New South Wales. He died in London on 28 January 1837.

Drennan was opinionated and clashed bitterly with Governor Macquarie by trying to assert his authority improperly. He was both incompetent and dishonest, but incompetence probably played a larger part in his administration than any deliberate intention to defraud.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 10
  • newspaper indexes under Frederick Drennan (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under Frederick Drennan (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

George Parsons, 'Drennan, Frederick (1779–1837)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/drennan-frederick-1992/text2427, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 24 August 2017.

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

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