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Gregson, Thomas George (1798–1874)

by F. C. Green

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

Thomas George Gregson (1798-1874), politician, was the son of John Gregson, squire, of Lowlynn, near Holy Island, Northumberland, England. He was educated at Edinburgh. As a sequel to family differences he migrated to Van Diemen's Land, and with his wife reached Hobart Town in the Emerald in 1821. As Earl Bathurst had already instructed Lieutenant-Governor William Sorell to grant Gregson land proportionate to his means of bringing it under cultivation, he was given 2500 acres (1012 ha) at Jericho; here he built a home and named it Northumbria. Later, on an additional grant of 1000 acres (405 ha) at East Risdon, he built a second home and named it Restdown. It became the town house where, with his wife and family, he entertained lavishly and became well known and popular. Gradually his public and social activities increased so much that he sold Northumbria and concentrated on the Risdon property. He was interested in horse-racing and hunting, imported a pack of hounds from England for the local hunt club and helped to organize in 1827 the first race meeting in the colony.

In 1824 Gregson, one of the foremost protagonists for free settlers' liberties, had drawn up the petition for the separation of Van Diemen's Land from the administration of New South Wales. Successful, separation brought some advantages, but put the lieutenant-governor's power beyond control. When Colonel (Sir) George Arthur determined to maintain the island as a prison and to subordinate the settlers' interests to this end Gregson opposed him at every turn. He protested at the usury laws of 1829, delimiting interest rates; he objected to the public works programme and to Arthur's arbitrary power to ruin the settler by resuming his land and withholding convict labour. He took a leading part in the movement for trial by jury and, to increase public opposition, supported the anti-government newspaper Colonial Times, until, under the Press Licensing Act of 1827, the lieutenant-governor withdrew its licence. With others, Gregson organized a protest meeting, and petitioned the secretary of state who disallowed the Act. With typical egotism, Gregson claimed the success as his own, and with equally characteristic unconcern, refused the 500 acres (202 ha) of land some colonists wanted to give him. In July 1832 he launched his own newspaper, the Colonist, financed jointly with George Meredith, to be 'The Journal of the People'. Publishing violent personal abuse against governor and officials, he soon had to face libel charges and meet an £80 fine. It was paid by public subscription.

In September 1835 Gregson organized a political association which petitioned the Colonial Office for a legislative council of elected members instead of government nominees. When no answer came a petition was sent to the King setting out the colony's grievances. This brought a reply from the secretary of state that the petitioners had exaggerated their wrongs. Gregson then realized that no progress could be made while Arthur remained, so he sent to London a series of accusations against the governor. In 1836 Arthur was recalled, but his officers remained, and Gregson fought a pistol duel with Henry Jellicoe, one of Arthur's supporters, and horsewhipped the governor's nephew, Henry Arthur, collector of customs. Jellicoe was severely wounded and taken to hospital, and Henry Arthur filed a criminal prosecution against Gregson for assault. Trial by jury was refused, and he was sentenced to three months imprisonment and fined £200. A petition signed by 1400 people asked for commutation of the sentence. The new lieutenant-governor, Sir John Franklin, received the petition and remitted the remainder of the sentence 'as an act of grace calculated to allay public feeling'.

For the next six years Gregson maintained very cordial terms with the governor, and, shortly before Franklin left in 1843, was appointed to the Legislative Council, an action which had important influence on the attainment of self-government for the colony.

In the council Gregson pressed for encouragement of free immigration and argued the cause of education in a speech that was published in Hobart in 1850. His most important contribution, however, arose out of the economic depression of the 1840s. Gregson blamed the convict system, particularly the cost of police and gaols, for the colony's financial distress. He resisted a bill to impose taxation and customs duties on tea, sugar and tobacco, refusing to support taxation without representation. In October 1845 when the annual estimates of expenditure were about to be approved Gregson and five other members walked out leaving the council without a quorum. The Patriotic Six resigned but, after temporary replacement, were reappointed on the direction of the Colonial Office. For his leadership of the six, Gregson's followers presented him with 2000 guineas at a public dinner.

By 1850 agitation against the convict system had reached its height with protests from public gatherings and anti-transportation societies, while Gregson and his supporters continued to obstruct all legislation. The British parliament, as a concession to all the agitation, included a clause in the Australian Colonies Government Act (13 & 14 Vic. c. 59) providing Van Diemen's Land with a Legislative Council of twenty-four members, of whom sixteen were to be elected and the others nominated by the governor. Elections in 1851 gave a complete victory to the anti-transportationists. Gregson was elected for Richmond. He and his followers in the new council carried a resolution declaring their intention to oppose any further expenditure on the convict establishment, and instituted an inquiry into the Convict Department, Gregson leading the attack on its controller-general, Major John Hampton. By the end of 1852, the British government was convinced that transportation must cease and with its abolition the main obstacle to responsible government disappeared. A committee, including Gregson, was chosen to draw up a Constitution, and in 1856 the colony had a parliament of two fully elected Houses. Despite opposition well organized against him, Gregson wooed the working class vote and by a narrow margin won election to the first House of Assembly as member for Richmond.

The first ministry under self-rule was led by William Champ and remained in office from 1 November 1856 to 26 February 1857. The next premier was Gregson, who remained in office for two months. His proposals for land reform and retrenchment in the public service attracted the bitter fury of the press, and his advocacy of a government loan led to uproar, with ten members withdrawing from the chamber. The end came when a censure motion was carried against him. He failed because he was temperamentally unfitted to govern. His emotionalism and fiery wit, however suitable for radical agitation, had no place in parliamentary government. Although he was highly intelligent, impetuosity and extremist conduct coloured his judgement; as a responsible minister he was impossible. After defeat he would never admit that the colony was suffering from growing pains, but regarded the depressed economic conditions as a consequence of the failure of responsible government. Outside parliament he had a following that admired his sincerity and appreciated his radicalism, but he was never able to gather his ideas into a practical creed. For the lack of constructive reform he blamed the self-interest of large landowners whom his efforts had helped to power but who had then established their economic oligarchy, rejecting Gregson as an outcast. 'An embodiment of thorough John Bullism', he remained in parliament, turbulent and vituperative, until 1872 when friends induced him to retire. He died on 4 January 1874.

Gregson had ability as an artist, and exhibited some of his work in Hobart in 1845 and 1846. His best-known painting, still preserved in the Tasmanian Art Gallery, is a portrait of Robert Knopwood on horseback.

On his death he left a widow with two spinster daughters. Another daughter had married James Whyte, premier of Tasmania, 1863-66. A son, John Compton Gregson, after education in England, had become a Hobart barrister and was attorney-general in the Gregson cabinet; he died in 1867.

Select Bibliography

  • Examiner (Launceston), 6 Jan 1874
  • R. J. Brain, Thomas Gregson, a Tasmanian Radical (draft M.A. thesis, University of Tasmania, 1955)
  • L. L. Robson, Press and Politics (M.A. thesis, University of Tasmania, 1954).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

F. C. Green, 'Gregson, Thomas George (1798–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gregson-thomas-george-2124/text2689, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 25 June 2017.

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

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