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Forster, Matthew (1796–1846)

by A. G. L. Shaw

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

Matthew Forster (1796-1846), soldier and public servant, was the son of John Randall Forster, of Berwick-on-Tweed, lieutenant-colonel of the 24th Regiment in 1799 and later brigade major at Plymouth, England. After studying at the Royal Military College, Gentleman Cadet Matthew Forster was commissioned ensign in the 46th Regiment in December 1811 and promoted lieutenant in the 12th in December 1812. He transferred to the 85th the following year, served in the Peninsular campaigns and then for fifteen years in Ireland. He was promoted captain in 1822, served as brigade major at Limerick and acted for a time as deputy judge advocate. In 1830 he sold his commission. He was recommended to the Colonial Office by Lord Holland, the veteran Whig politician, and by Sir Herbert Taylor of the Horse Guards; since he had married St Helena Worsley, a niece of Colonel (Sir) George Arthur, lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen's Land, it was with fair prospects that he sailed in the Mary Ann for Hobart Town, accompanied by his wife and daughter, and bearing testimonials from the former secretary of state, Sir George Murray, and other military officers.

He arrived on 23 August 1831. Arthur, anxious to recruit for his administration competent and honest officials, who had been so difficult to procure in the past, immediately asked him to join the committee inquiring into the treatment of the Aboriginals, and on 30 December appointed him chief police magistrate at a salary of £600. In December 1833 he was appointed to the Legislative Council and in April 1836 replaced Chief Justice (Sir) John Pedder on the Executive Council.

As chief police magistrate, in January 1833 Forster drew up a valuable report on the police establishment. He made himself familiar with all the details of the Police Department and, always insistent on efficiency from his subordinates, under Arthur's watchful eye he carried out his duties impartially and efficiently, despite recurring eye-trouble, and the secretary of state's refusal of two applications for an increase in salary—the latter perhaps not unconnected with the magistrate's pleasure-loving personality and his wish to repay the loan he had secured from the lieutenant-governor for his house. Though criticized by opponents of Arthur's penal policy, who resented the 'Algerine Laws' which restricted their liberty, he was moderately liberal in politics; he pleaded that Nonconformist churches should receive government aid and recommended complete freedom of religious teaching in schools. He supported the opening of Legislative Council debates to the public, and thereafter he won press approval for his opposition to the Newspaper Act.

While the colonial secretary, John Montagu, was absent on leave in 1839-41, Forster acted in his place. At this time, when Sir John Franklin had replaced Arthur, it was widely, and probably correctly, asserted that Montagu and Forster were running both the colony and the lieutenant-governor; however, that Franklin should have preferred Forster to the more senior John Gregory suggests that, like his predecessor, he appreciated his administrative capacity.

In the prolonged discussions on the convict system which took place during Franklin's term of office, Forster showed his sympathy with 'the martinet school'. He defended Arthur's graded system of punishment, but urged that punishment be made more severe by sending all prisoners on their arrival to the public works; he thought they should then be assigned after this period of labour in gangs; but the British government decided to abolish assignment altogether and to employ the men entirely on such works until they had earned tickets-of-leave as rewards for good behaviour. When Montagu returned to his post, Franklin appointed Forster, in May 1841, as director of the probation system, to organize these labour gangs, with a supplementary salary, while he remained chief police magistrate as well. Though forbidden to revive assignment as he wished, he successfully organized the new system and employed some of the gangs on works intended to develop the colony, but he found that the lack of suitable superintendents and overseers, and the desire for economy in buildings, made it difficult to control them properly.

In 1842 increased numbers of convicts made it necessary to separate Forster's dual functions and Franklin proposed that he should hold his former position of chief police magistrate. However, Stanley was by this time critical of the lieutenant-governor. He chose to disregard Franklin's warning that the system was running into trouble, and preferred to rely on John Montagu, who was again in England. Influenced by Montagu, and having noticed Forster's interest in economy, the secretary of state decided to create a new office of controller-general of convicts, to which he appointed Forster at a salary of £1200, directly under the lieutenant-governor, with status equal to that of the colonial secretary.

From September 1843 Forster had to reorganize his system according to Stanley's instructions of the previous November. Forster emphatically condemned Alexander Maconochie's experiment with the 'mark system' on Norfolk Island, but in theory Stanley's system was supposed to reform the convicts while they were in the gangs. In this Forster failed. Constantly ordered to economize, forbidden to employ the men on useful works unless the colony paid for them, which it could not afford to do, given insufficient superintendents and religious instructors, overwhelmed by the great numbers that arrived in 1842-44, he neither protested when the men worked badly, nor made much effort to improve their accommodation. Though it was not his fault that the men could not find work after they left the gangs as pass-holders, his reiterated reports that in the gangs all was well show his failing capacity and concern. This was accentuated by personal financial worries and by such poor health that in April 1845 he asked for two years leave; before a reply to this request had been received from England, he died suddenly on 11 January 1846, leaving a widow and two children (a son had been born on 16 December 1837).

Forster's easygoing nature had involved him in debts which finally caused him to 'countenance men whose character would have expelled them from all respectable society', but to whom he was 'under pecuniary obligation'. A blunt, hard-swearing soldier, under Arthur's strong rule he had shown himself a capable subordinate; given greater responsibility, under laxer supervision, his inability to regard the convict system as more than a job became more obvious and, whatever the defects of the probation system, he made little effort to correct them or even to make them known to his superiors. A monument to his memory stands in the churchyard of St John's, New Town.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Franklin, Narrative of Some Passages in the History of Van Diemen's Land (Lond, 1845)
  • J. West, The History of Tasmania, vols 1-2 (Launceston, 1852)
  • K. Fitzpatrick, Sir John Franklin in Tasmania 1837-1843 (Melb, 1949)
  • M. C. I. Levy, Governor George Arthur (Melb, 1953)
  • Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons, Great Britain), 1837-38 (309)
  • Correspondence on Convict Discipline, Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons, Great Britain), 1843 (158), 1845 (659), 1846 (36)
  • Colonial Times (Hobart), 13 Jan 1846
  • Examiner (Launceston), 21 Jan 1846
  • Forster to Franklin, 18 May 1837 CO 280/90
  • CSO 1/837/17747 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

A. G. L. Shaw, 'Forster, Matthew (1796–1846)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/forster-matthew-2058/text2559, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 31 July 2014.

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

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