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Gilles, Osmond (1788–1866)

by G. W. Symes

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

Osmond Gilles (1788-1866), by unknown photographer, c1865

Osmond Gilles (1788-1866), by unknown photographer, c1865

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7030

Osmond Gilles (1788-1866), colonial treasurer and pioneer, was born on 24 August 1788 in London, the son of Osmond and Hannah Gilles. Of Huguenot descent and well-to-do, after the Napoleonic wars he travelled extensively on the Continent before settling in Hamburg as a merchant in partnership with his brother-in-law, Philip Oakden, in 1816. There he gained an extensive knowledge of the sheep and wool trade. In 1833 Oakden emigrated to Van Diemen's Land, and Gilles returned to England. About this time his wife died without issue. Because his brother, Lewis, was also in Tasmania, Gilles's thoughts turned to emigration.

By 1835 he joined the circle of contenders for office in the projected province of South Australia. This mainly consisted of men of radical views, dogmatic, independent, intractable, some (including Gilles) republicans, and most of them full of theory and empty of practice. Gilles was appointed colonial treasurer partly because of his wealth and his loan for the initial expenses. He sailed in the Buffalo with Governor (Sir) John Hindmarsh and reached Holdfast Bay in December 1836. He was one of the few who uniformly supported Hindmarsh, thereby drawing the fire of political opponents and many detractors. The Treasury was generally empty, but Gilles kept it going by personal loans, and carried on his land deals and other business activities as well as bickering with his fellows.

Despite his public brawls and official independence, Gilles retained the favour of Hindmarsh. Governor George Gawler also had a high regard for him but suffered from his neglect and failed to obtain satisfactory statements of accounts. As agent for Colonel Robert Torrens Gilles had powerful friends, but Gawler caused him to resign his offices of treasurer and accountant-general in October 1839. Gilles had at least kept the Treasury going; it owed him nearly £12,000, which Gawler repaid.

'Very irritable' and with an almost ungovernable temper when excited or provoked, his failure as an official was offset by his success in business. From the beginning his interests were many and varied, including land, stock, money-lending and general trading. His ventures in land were among the most extensive in the province and included town acres in Adelaide (the largest holder in 1837) and Port Lincoln, sections in the suburbs and country, and a special survey of 4000 acres (1619 ha) on the Murray River. Profiting by his experience in Germany he was an early importer of sheep from Van Diemen's Land and sheep and rams from Saxony. In 1839 he discovered silver-lead on his property at Glen Osmond, which yielded him substantial royalties until the mine was worked out. In all his business he had close connexions with Oakden and his brother Lewis.

Despite his temper, the dominant factors in his private life were his strong religious beliefs and generosity. Soon after arrival he helped the colonial chaplain, Rev. Charles Howard, to drag a handcart under a blazing sun from Holdfast Bay to Adelaide. There they draped a sail over a branch and held the first official service in Adelaide; when Trinity Church was built on the site Gilles was an active trustee and a generous supporter. He gave land and materials for St Saviour's, Glen Osmond, as well as endowing its incumbent.

He also gave ready aid to many other churches of various denominations, and to many cultural societies and charitable institutions. Fluent in French and German he took a special interest in immigrant welfare, and in 1852 gave land in Adelaide for a German hospital. The annual gatherings of the German Rifle Club were held on his property.

He died at his home, Woodley, Glen Osmond, on 25 September 1866. As well as tablets in many churches, several streets and districts in Adelaide bear his name.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Jose, The Church of England in South Australia 1836-1856 (Adel, 1937)
  • D. Pike, Paradise of Dissent (Melb, 1957)
  • A. A. Lendon, ‘Kent v. Torrens: An Episode in the History of Suburban Development, 1840-1859’, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia: South Australian Branch vol 27, 1925-26, pp 29-46
  • Southern Australian, 30 Jan, 6 Feb, 20 Mar 1839
  • Register (Adelaide), 29 June, 24, 31 Aug, 26 Oct 1839, 30 Jan 1847
  • Knox and Hargrave papers (State Records of South Australia)
  • dispatches, Hindmarsh to Glenelg, 1, 3 May 1838, Gawler to Hill, 8, 18 Apr 1839, 27 June, 18 Oct 1839 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

G. W. Symes, 'Gilles, Osmond (1788–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gilles-osmond-2097/text2641, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 31 October 2014.

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

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