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Hamilton, George (1812–1883)

by J. H. Love

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

George Hamilton (1812-1883), by unknown photographer, c1867

George Hamilton (1812-1883), by unknown photographer, c1867

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 25575

George Hamilton (1812-1883), police commissioner, was born on 12 March 1812, probably in Hertfordshire, England, one of at least eight children of Charles Hamilton. Following education at Harrow School in 1823-26, George served in the navy as a midshipman. He reached Sydney before 1837, when he overlanded sheep to Australia Felix. In 1839, following Charles Bonney's southern route, he drove cattle to Adelaide.

He began mixed farming in partnership with Arthur Hardy, while venturing, with scant success, into commerce and lithography, and visiting Melbourne in 1846. Next year he helped to organize the first exhibition of South Australian artists' works, including some of his own. A founding member of the South Australian Society of Arts in 1856, he won and gave prizes, and later acted as a judge, at its exhibitions. He contributed some of the illustrations for published journals of exploration by (Sir) George Grey and E. J. Eyre.

Hamilton became a clerk in the South Australian Treasury in 1848 and inspector of mounted police in 1853. His duty took him on a journey in 1859 to the far north with the governor Sir Richard MacDonnell, whom he considered a blustering humbug. Hamilton had to do the work of the police commissioner P. E. Warburton, as well as his own, while the latter was away on exploring expeditions, and organized the fitting out of the last two expeditions of John McDouall Stuart. In 1867 Warburton was removed from office and Hamilton became commissioner, surviving public criticism and two parliamentary inquiries. His prudent management during financial stringency led to expansion later, including the re-establishment of a detective unit and the use of camels in the far north.

As an active member of the Acclimatization Society (later Royal Zoological Society of South Australia), he was invited in 1881 to advise a parliamentary committee on sparrows, which were causing financial loss to farmers. He favoured a bounty on sparrows and their eggs to reduce their numbers and, incidentally, give an outlet for the 'larrikin instinct' of boys.

From 1848 Hamilton had contributed stories, verse and topical essays to Adelaide periodicals. His reminiscences, originally serialized, were published in 1879 as Experiences of a Colonist Forty Years ago, and A Journey from Port Phillip to South Australia in 1839, by 'An Old Hand', and reprinted the following year with A Voyage from Port Phillip to Adelaide in 1846. Hamilton's most ambitious poem, of about fifty pages, published in 1868, was Pscycos and Phrenia, or the World before Man's Advent, giving a romantic account of evolution to the point where 'Man' suddenly makes his appearance. In 1864-77 he published three booklets on horses, denouncing the cruel methods commonly used for breaking them in and advocating improved methods of shoeing and stabling. His books were illustrated with lithographs and photographic prints from his own drawings.

Hamilton's writings contain vivid descriptive passages and whimsical comments on human foibles. His pictures capture the horse in all its moods and, like his narratives, include valuable historical information. He is not among the first ranks of Australian painters, poets or authors, but is better than most of his amateur contemporaries in all these fields.

Energetic, ambitious and a strict but fair disciplinarian, Hamilton was nonetheless noted for his genial nature, while some of his poetry was quite sentimental. His expert knowledge of horses enabled him to raise the standard of the mounted police so that it became an attractive occupation for 'well-bred young men'. He helped to organize hunt meets and was a principal founder of the Adelaide Club, which became his home. He did not marry. Hamilton retired in 1882 and died on 2 August 1883 at Burnside. His estate was sworn for probate at £6500. A lake on Eyre Peninsula and a creek and a hill in the far north were named after him. Pictures by him are held by the State Libraries of New South Wales and South Australia, the National Library of Australia, and the Art Gallery of South Australia, which also holds a portrait of him by John Upton.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Depasquale, A Critical History of South Australian Literature (Adel, 1978)
  • A. Carroll, Graven Images in the Promised Land (Adel, 1981)
  • R. Clyne, Colonial Blue (Adel, 1987)
  • R. Holden, Photography in Colonial Australia (Syd, 1988)
  • J. Kerr (ed), The Dictionary of Australian Artists (Melb, 1992)
  • Frearson’s Weekly, 5 May 1883, supplement, 4 Aug 1883, p 409
  • Observer (Adelaide), 4 Aug 1883, p 32
  • Colonial Secretary’s Office correspondence (State Records of South Australia)
  • letter from Hamilton to his sister, 24 Sept 1860 (State Records of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

J. H. Love, 'Hamilton, George (1812–1883)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hamilton-george-12961/text23427, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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