Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fenton, Michael (1789–1874)

by L. L. Robson

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

Michael Fenton, by  J. W. Beattie

Michael Fenton, by J. W. Beattie

State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125647081

Michael Fenton (1789-1874), politician and landed proprietor, was born in Castle Town, County Sligo, the third son of Michael Fenton, sometime high sheriff of Sligo. The family was of French origin and had been established in Ireland for some centuries. Michael Fenton joined the 13th Light Infantry in 1807 and served in India and Burma until 1828, when he sold his commission and emigrated to Van Diemen's Land. He received an initial grant of 1970 acres (797 ha) at Fenton Forest, near New Norfolk. He was one of three brothers (the 'Fighting Fentons') who all eventually settled in Van Diemen's Land, and who were all captains in the army.

Captain Michael Fenton was nominated to the Legislative Council in 1840, but resigned with others of the Patriotic Six on the question of whether financial responsibility for the convict services in the colony should be borne by the local administration or the imperial government. The issue came to a head when the six unofficial members of the council (Richard Dry, William Kermode, John Kerr, T. G. Gregson, John Dunn and Fenton) withdrew from the council in October 1845, leaving it without a quorum; they thus prevented the passing of the appropriation bill, to the great satisfaction of many colonists. Fenton was reappointed by Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison in 1847.

In 1851 Fenton was voted into the new partly-elective Legislative Council as member for New Norfolk, and made Speaker in 1855. He was the subject of legal action brought by John Hampton against the council. Hampton, the comptroller-general of convicts, refused to appear before the council when summoned to do so and give evidence concerning administration of the Convict Department. Fenton, as Speaker, issued a warrant for his arrest. A writ of habeas corpus was then served upon Fenton and the serjeant-at-arms, and the case went to the Privy Council which gave judgment against the Legislative Council. In 1856 Fenton was elected unopposed to the House of Assembly in the first election; he was also appointed Speaker, a position he occupied until 1861 when he retired from public life. He died on 6 April 1874 at his property, Fenton Forest, near New Norfolk.

Hops were cultivated on Fenton's property, and nearly thirty families were tenants on Fenton Forest estate when he died; the rent roll figures amounted to approximately £800 a year. In 1832 the Lindsays (Captain Daniel Ross) brought out seventy-six men, women and children as his indentured servants. The ship was evidently owned by Fenton.

In 1828 at Calcutta Michael Fenton married Elizabeth, the widow of Captain Neil Campbell, also of the 13th Light Infantry. She was a daughter of Rev. John Russel Knox, rector of Lifford and Inishmagrath, County Leitrim. They had six children, of whom one son, Michael, and three daughters survived Fenton. His wife's The Journal of Mrs. Fenton, a Narrative of her Life in India, the Isle of France—Mauritius—and Tasmania During the Years 1826-1830, was published in London in 1901.

Select Bibliography

  • Hobart Town Courier, 15 Aug 1829, 26 Feb 1831, 9 Nov 1832, 13 May 1836, 29 Apr 1848
  • Hobart Town Gazette, 1840, p 799
  • Mercury (Hobart), 9, 13, 18 Apr 1874
  • CSO 1/397/8993, 1/604/13764 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • LSD 1/75/117, 160a, 161, 162, 188, 1/76/94 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

L. L. Robson, 'Fenton, Michael (1789–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fenton-michael-2038/text2519, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 24 October 2014.

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

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