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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hamilton, William Henry (1790–1870)

by P. R. Eldershaw

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

William Henry Hamilton (1790?-1870), public servant and banker, became a purser in the navy in June 1808 and after several years service was appointed secretary to Admiral Scott and then to Sir Richard King, commander of the Indian Station. In 1820 he went on half-pay and became a partner in a mercantile house at Bombay. In 1823 he had to leave India through ill health and decided to improve his fortune in Van Diemen's Land; he arrived in Hobart Town with his wife in April 1824. In his application to the secretary of state for recommendation as a settler he referred to capital of £12,000 and indicated his intention of applying himself to the growth and improvement of wool; when he applied for land, he pledged £3000 for remittance to the colony. He was granted 2000 acres (809 ha) near the present town of Hamilton (probably named after him), on the banks of both the Clyde and the Derwent: 'Excellent sheep walk', said the land commissioners, 'and beautifully situated'. He also received a town allotment in Davey Street.

Within six months of his arrival the serious mismanagement of the Naval Office led Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur to ask Hamilton 'to remodel the office, and place it on a footing … similar to arrangements of the Custom Houses in England'. Hamilton later earned the praise of the officer investigating the Naval Office, though he remained there only until April 1826 when Arthur, oppressed by public business consequent on his administrative reorganization appointed him acting colonial secretary, until that key official should be appointed and arrive from England.

Hamilton, whom Arthur thought 'a gentleman of much arrangement and accustomed to the detail of business', transferred from the governor's office to his own all the official correspondence which was, as Arthur told Under-Secretary Hay, 'far more voluminous than you can possibly suppose'. This is important, as it seems likely that the systematic registration and filing of the colonial secretary's correspondence, today one of the richest research sources in Australia, may be credited to Hamilton, whose short period in this office (only eight months) was of such disproportionate significance.

On John Burnett's succession to the office, Hamilton went to live on his land, at the same time becoming police magistrate of the New Norfolk district. Arthur, hoping that the British government would appoint him collector of customs, allowed him to exchange his magisterial duties with those of Edward Dumaresq, collector of internal revenue and a member of the Land Board. Hamilton thus returned to Hobart, but since public office meant the loss of his naval half-pay of £100 a year, and an unsanctioned salary increase of £150 was not enough to keep him in it, he resigned in April 1830 to become the first full-time salaried bank manager in Australia. He declared, however, that he would have stayed in the colonial service had the salary been adequate or had he been put in charge of Customs. In January 1832 he returned to England with his family to become the London representative of the Derwent Bank, and appears to have held this post until the bank closed down in 1849. He never returned to the colony.

His naval half-pay continued until his death at Clifton, Bristol, on 3 February 1870 at the age of 80. He left an estate of some £30,000.

Select Bibliography

  • S. J. Butlin, ‘Charles Swanston and the Derwent Bank, 1827-50’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 2, no 7, May 1943, pp 161-85
  • Hobart Town Gazette, 23 Dec 1826
  • correspondence file under Hamilton (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

P. R. Eldershaw, 'Hamilton, William Henry (1790–1870)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 31 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 1

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