Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

King, Philip Gidley (1758–1808)

by A. G. L. Shaw

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Philip Gidley King (1758-1808), by unknown artist

Philip Gidley King (1758-1808), by unknown artist

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9631735

Philip Gidley King (1758-1808), governor, was born at Launceston, Cornwall, England, on 23 April 1758. His family had long lived in the district and were not impecunious. His father, Philip, was a draper, his maternal grandfather, Gidley, was a local attorney; but though his origin shows that for men of humble birth it was easier to advance in the navy than in the army, it proved a handicap in New South Wales where some of his critics considered him 'not a gentleman'. For all that he was neither ignorant nor narrow in his interests, even if his references to the workings of Providence, his advice to his young son Norfolk, his views on alleged 'Republican sentiments' and 'seditious principles', and his reverence for the existing British constitution show that his religious and political opinions were clearly those of an orthodox naval officer.

King joined the navy as captain's servant in H.M.S. Swallow on 22 December 1770. After five years in the East Indies he was moved to American waters in 1775, when fighting began against the rebellious colonies, and became a midshipman in the Liverpool in July. He was commissioned lieutenant in the Renown on 25 December 1778, after an examination the previous year when one of his examiners told King's mother that he was 'one of the most Promising young men I have ever met'. He returned to serve in the Channel Fleet from January 1780, and in the Ariadne he served under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip. In 1783 King sailed to India in the Europe with Phillip who formed a high opinion of his merits; on their return, since peace had been made, King was paid off. In October 1786, as soon as Phillip had been nominated to command the expedition then setting out to establish a penal settlement at Botany Bay, he chose King as second lieutenant in the Sirius, in which he was sailing himself. He took King with him when he transferred to the Supply in the hope of reaching their destination ahead of the main fleet, and a fortnight after they arrived selected him 'as a officer of merit … whose perseverance may be depended upon' to establish a subordinate settlement on Norfolk Island.

On 14 February 1788 King sailed for his new post with a party of twenty-three, including fifteen convicts. He discovered the difficulties in landing which were to harass the settlement there, but got ashore on 6 March. For two years he supervised this little establishment, organizing the clearing of land and the struggles against grubs, rats, hurricanes and occasionally troublesome convicts, but on the whole reporting favourably on its prospects. Despite the lack of a safe harbour, of lime and of any untimbered land, there was plenty of fish, the stock throve and the soil was good. It could maintain 'at least one hundred families', King told Phillip. Impressed by his work, the governor several times recommended his subordinate for naval promotion, but this would have raised difficulties because of King's lack of seniority; to solve the problem the secretary of state announced in December 1789 that King would be appointed lieutenant-governor of Norfolk Island at a salary of £250, and next month, in consequence, he was discharged from the Sirius; however, before this news reached New South Wales, King had sailed for England in March 1790 on Phillip's orders to report on the difficulties of the whole settlement.

King's visit to London was brief but successful. He arrived just before Christmas, saw Lord Grenville and Sir Joseph Banks, discussed the problems of New South Wales, and on 2 March 1791 was promoted commander. On 11 March he married Anna Josepha Coombe at St Martin-in-the-Fields and four days later sailed, with his wife and his young protégé, William Chapman, as a passenger, in H.M.S. Gorgon (Captain Parker) to return to Norfolk Island with his commission as lieutenant-governor. On the voyage he learned at the Cape of the continued shortages in New South Wales, so on his own responsibility he bought some livestock there; unfortunately many died before they reached Sydney and the reluctance of the Treasury to recognize such unwonted if highly warranted independent action by junior officials gave rise to a protracted correspondence on the question of paying for them. After five weeks in Sydney King landed on Norfolk Island early in November, and six weeks later Anna Josepha safely gave birth to a son, Phillip Parker; apart from this, King found much trouble on his hands.

During his twenty months absence the island had been under the command of Lieutenant-Governor Robert Ross and the population had grown to nearly one thousand. But Ross was not an easy commandant and convicts, settlers, soldiers and officials had become discontented under his rule. King found 'discord and strife on every person's countenance' and was 'pestered with complaints, bitter revilings, back-biting'. Tools and skilled labour were both very short. Thefts were common and there was still no criminal court on the island, despite the representations he had made in London on the need for better judicial arrangements. However, King's able and enthusiastic guidance helped to improve conditions. The regulations he issued in 1792 encouraged the settlers, who were drawn from ex-marines and ex-convicts, and he was willing to listen to their advice on fixing wages and prices and other things. By 1794 the island was self-sufficient in grain, and had a surplus of swine that it could send to Sydney. The numbers 'off the store' were high and few of the settlers wanted to leave, but unfortunately King had had no success in stimulating the growing of flax which so interested the British government. While in England he had persuaded the government to order Captain George Vancouver, who was then setting out on a voyage of exploration in the Pacific, to bring native flax-dressers from New Zealand to Norfolk Island. Two Maoris were duly kidnapped, but when they arrived it was found that they knew nothing about flax-dressing: all that King could do was to take them home. This gave him the opportunity for a ten-day visit to New Zealand in November 1793, which earned him unmerited reproof from Lieutenant-Governor Francis Grose and the Duke of Portland for leaving his post without permission. Grose accompanied his reprimand in February 1794 with a criticism of King's treatment of the mutinous conduct of some of the New South Wales Corps on the island. This followed their unfounded allegations of the lieutenant-governor punishing them too severely and the ex-convicts too leniently when disputes arose between them, an argument between some soldiers and Mrs King's servants, and a drunken soldier's insolence to King himself. King, supported by most of the corps' officers, sent twenty mutineers to Sydney for trial by court martial, but Grose, probably imperfectly informed of the affair, sharply censured the lieutenant-governor's actions and issued orders which gave the military illegal authority over the civilian population. King implemented these instructions, though noting their impropriety; and in due course Portland ordered him to withdraw them and Grose apologized for the severity of his language. However, this precursor of conflict with the military which was to plague King later was followed by another portent of the future in his increasing ill health. He had become ill on the voyage to England in 1790 and in December 1795 was so sick with gout 'an almost fixed compression of the Lungs and Breast, with a difficulty of Breathing and a constant Pain in the Stomach' that 'much doubt was entertained of his Recovery'. Governor John Hunter gave him leave of absence and in October 1796 King left Norfolk Island for England, carrying the customary plants for Banks.

In England he somewhat recovered his health and sought further employment. This he needed for financial reasons if no other, for, as he told Banks, his salary had been very small, he had 'neither kept a shop or sold drams', and his total worldly possessions were little more than £1500; if he were not given an appointment, he thought he would have to retire to farm in the west country. Phillip had wanted King to be appointed governor of New South Wales, had continued to advocate King's cause after Hunter had been preferred in 1794, and was partly responsible for his salary at Norfolk Island being raised to £450 in January 1795. Banks supported King too, and in January 1798 it was decided that he should return to New South Wales with a dormant commission to succeed Hunter in the event of the latter's death or absence from the colony, though at that time there was no question of his being recalled. The commission was issued on 1 May, but King was to take out a new ship which was being built for the colonial service, whose design, as with James Cook's Resolution in 1772, was based in part on Banks's requirements for a 'plant cabbin'. It was utterly cranky and King's strenuous efforts to improve her while still satisfying Banks had no success; when she finally sailed in August 1799, she had to return to Portsmouth after her first encounter with rough weather to be condemned as unseaworthy. King was properly absolved of responsibility for her defects, but he had found the delay financially embarrassing and his 'cup of disappointment and anxiety' was 'compleatly overflowed' by the 'long detention'; however, he had the satisfaction of being commissioned post-captain on 5 December 1798 and when he sailed in the Speedy on 26 November 1799 he carried the dispatch recalling Hunter.

Authorized to assume office as soon as Hunter could arrange his departure, already irritated by the delays in England, anxious to set in motion radical reforms in the colony and worried about his pay, King showed none of the goodwill that had marked his earlier relations with his predecessor but displayed in a correspondence which each regarded as insulting an unseemly impatience for him to be gone. King did not assume command until 28 September 1800, but long before then had assured Under-Secretary John King that his taking over was 'well-liked and anxiously looked for'. King wrote gloomily of existing conditions, insisted that 'nothing less than a total change in the system of administration' was necessary, and forecast that 'discontent will be general' when this took place. His task would be 'laborious and highly discouraging' but he would not be 'at all intimidated', and although he had no formal instructions until raised from the status of lieutenant-governor to governor in 1802, he improvised them for himself from the dispatches to Hunter and elaborated them in the orders he gave to Major Joseph Foveaux whom he appointed to replace himself as lieutenant-governor of Norfolk Island in June 1800.

King's first task was to attack the misconduct of monopolist traders and traffickers in liquor. In March 1799 the commander-in-chief had ordered Colonel William Paterson, when he was leaving England to rejoin his corps, to inquire into his officers' trading activities, and this gave King the chance, even before Hunter had left, to ask Paterson to act. As soon as he assumed command King issued a host of orders which he had already prepared, including a new set of port and price regulations intended to curb exploitation and the liquor traffic. He felt compelled to allow Surgeons William Balmain and D'Arcy Wentworth to sell 4359 gallons (19,816 litres) of spirits which they had on hand, but was able to reduce the rate of spirit imports to about a third that of the last months of Hunter's administration. He tried to persuade the government in Calcutta and British consuls in the United States to discourage the shipping of liquor to New South Wales and, to offer the colonists an alternative beverage, he began the construction of a brewery. It only began production in 1804, and in his efforts to reduce spirit drinking he faced the refusal of most convicts to work 'in what they … call their own time for any other mode of payment', but he cut spirit consumption per adult male in 1801-04 to about two and a half bottles a month. Unfortunately as time went on King found increasing difficulty in suppressing illicit local distillation, despite repeated orders against it, and although he imposed a duty of 5 per cent on imports to raise revenue, as Hunter had suggested in 1798, he did not anticipate the later policy of reducing the profits of illegal grog-selling by allowing unrestricted import subject to a moderately heavy duty.

In June 1800 King had protested to Hunter against the 'exorbitant demands of creditors' in the colony. He felt that the poorer settlers could best be protected by price control and by the 'establishment of a public warehouse', such as he had advocated for Norfolk Island in 1796 and Hunter had also referred to; but Hunter had not told the authorities in London what goods were needed. King's detailed requests were at once acted on, and merchandise was sold through it at a price only 50 per cent above cost to cover transport and selling charges. The increasing quantities imported commercially also weakened the monopolists' grip on the colony's economy and improved the colonists' means of obtaining supplies. King tried to control, though not always with success, prices, wages, hours of work, the employment of convicts, baking, butchers, interest rates, weights and measures and the value of all the many kinds of currency circulating in the colony; he tried to reduce forgeries by introducing printed forms for promissory notes, but they were usually ignored. He recalled all the officers' servants in excess of two each, and so reduced the number victualled by the Crown from 356 to 94; he increased the number of convicts on the public farms from 30 to 324, and had quadrupled their cultivated acreage by 1803; later he allowed them to decline, following orders from London and the increase in private agriculture. He helped the private farmers by land grants, by the issue of seed, tools, sheep and rations, by hiring oxen, by postponing—contrary to his instructions—the purchase of grain by tender and keeping its price up to 8s. a bushel, by ordering the government stores to buy direct from the grower and by distributing government breeding stock as a reward 'to those whose exertions … appeared to merit that encouragement'. He also increased the size of land grants and made reservations for pasturage adjacent to them. The upshot was that only 56 out of 646 farmers were 'on the stores' in 1806, compared with 110 out of 401 in 1800. The smallholders had done much better than before, particularly during the first half of his administration, and the colony seemed to be self-sufficient in grain, though the disastrous floods in 1806 destroyed King's hopes in this regard.

During King's administration the government's flocks and herds quintupled. He bought cattle from India to improve the quality of the government stock, and though disavowing the idea of the government concerning itself with 'fine-woolled sheep', and mindful of the importance to the small settlers of the 'weight of Carcase', he was able by careful breeding to produce 'a total change in Government Flock from Hair to Wool', and to distribute ewes to settlers in expectation of a general improvement in the flocks of the colony. He began the mining of coal, which he hoped would be a profitable export, was interested in timber cutting and encouraged experiments in growing vines, tobacco, cotton, hemp and indigo. Although in the opening sentence of the first journal of his experiences from 1787 to 1790, which was published with minor revision as an appendix to Hunter's Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island (London, 1793), King had affirmed the contemporary opinion that Botany Bay was being founded simply as a penal settlement, by 1791 he was expressing great hopes for it as a Pacific base for flax cultivation and for whaling. The flax was not a success but whaling was, and both it and later sealing owed much to King's encouragement. A friend of Samuel Enderby, he advised the British government to allow the whalers to carry merchandise to New South Wales. He encouraged sealers to go to Bass Strait and whaling ships to visit New Zealand and the Pacific. In 1804 he encouraged Robert Campbell to make his experimental shipment of oil and skins in the Lady Barlow in contravention of the monopoly of the East India Co., which he had constantly urged the government to modify, and sought permission at the same time to open up trade between New South Wales and China.

As befitted a naval officer King's interest was attracted by the islands and the oceans in and around the Pacific. In 1793 he proposed a British settlement at the Bay of Islands in New Zealand. He continued to insist on the value of Norfolk Island, not least because it afforded 'the most ample Refreshment to our Whalers', and succeeded in 1807 in persuading the British government to reverse its decision to evacuate it. In 1801 he dispatched Lieutenant James Grant to complete the exploration of Bass Strait and to survey Western Port and then to examine Hunter's River; he sent two ships to Tahiti to try to open up a trade in pork, and Lieutenant John Murray on the voyage that led to the discovery of Port Phillip, where he urged that a settlement should be founded. In 1803 he sent Lieutenant John Bowen to establish a settlement on the Derwent River and next year sent Paterson to found one at Port Dalrymple on the Tamar. On land, he sent out Francis Barrallier on two expeditions, on the second enabling him to evade his military duties by instructing him in November 1802 to go on a mission to the 'King of the Mountains', and he encouraged the expeditions of George Caley.

King could, of course, never forget that he was in charge of a convict colony. He had to keep the prisoners in subjection, but at the same time he could not ignore the growing number of emancipists, and firmly reminded Major George Johnston that the British government had not intended the prisoners to be consigned 'to Oblivion and disgrace for ever'. King appointed emancipists to his bodyguard and enrolled them in the Loyal Associations, as had been done in the New South Wales Corps. Apart from the rather special case of appointing as military engineer, George Bellasis, a former officer in the East India Co. who had killed an opponent in a duel, he placed men like Richard Fitzgerald, James Meehan, David Mann, Andrew Thompson, Rev. Henry Fulton and Father James Dixon in administrative positions. He took firm measures to regulate the position of assigned servants, even if at first they were often disobeyed, and he laid the foundation of the future ticket-of-leave system by granting 'annual certificates' to prisoners deserving indulgence. Though he granted pardons to about 50 per cent more convicts every year than Hunter had done, he had about 30 per cent more to deal with and they included many political prisoners. Of these, especially the Irish, King was at first perhaps unduly alarmed, though he had been in England in the dangerous years, 1797-99; however, after initial forebodings, in both 1801 and 1802 he was able to report their 'regular and orderly behaviour' and to compare their conduct most favourably with that of the military officers. He was again rather over-excited at the time of the Irish conspiracy in 1804, but he seems to have felt more secure after it had been suppressed and he had divided the ring-leaders between the different settlements, including Newcastle, which he re-established in 1804 largely in order to take them. That year, when the war with France had been renewed, to supplement the battery on Dawes Point King began to build the citadel at Fort Phillip, intending that it would also be a place of refuge in case of an internal rising; but it turned out to be rather a white elephant.

These and other public works were hampered by a shortage of convict labourers, until 1804 by their necessary employment on the public farms and afterwards by the very small numbers arriving. On the average King had few more than two hundred men working on buildings, but he was able to complete a granary, church and schoolhouse at the Hawkesbury, St John's Church, a gaol and brewery at Parramatta, a barrack at Castle Hill, saltworks, a guard-house, a printing office, wharves, mills, a bridge and a house for the judge-advocate at Sydney, as well as a tannery and a manufactory for canvas, sacking, blanketing and rope; he made progress with the fort and St Philip's Church, built boats and struggled, though not always successfully, to keep other buildings in repair.

King strove valiantly to satisfy the British government's never-ceasing demand to reduce the costs of the colony. The general success of his policies enabled him to cut the proportion of the population drawing government rations from 72 per cent in 1800 to 32 per cent in 1806 and the amount of their indebtedness to the government was reduced. Fortunately trouble with the Treasury over his expenditure when on Norfolk Island made him meticulous in his keeping of accounts, and he drew Treasury bills for stores at a rate about 20 per cent less than Hunter had done in 1796-98 for only three-quarters the number of people. In June 1802 King imposed a 5 per cent duty on imported spirits and on merchandise brought from east of the Cape and not of British manufacture; though legally unauthorized this was not questioned, and by using it for the gaol and orphan funds he began the appropriation of colonial revenue for local purposes. He was interested in the girls' Orphan School, and though he regretted that he could not establish a similar institution for boys, he took several day-schools 'under the protection of Government' and by apprenticeship taught convict boys to become skilled tradesmen. He asked the British government to send out supplies of smallpox vaccine, and so enabled the surgeons to perform the first successful vaccination in the colony. In March 1803 he permitted the government printer, George Howe, to establish the Sydney Gazette, allowing him the use of the government press and type. He was sympathetic to the missionaries who visited the colony, welcomed Maori and Tahitian visitors to Sydney, and strove to keep peace with the Aboriginals. These, he told Governor William Bligh, he 'ever considered the real Proprietors of the Soil'. He refused to allow them to be worked as slaves, tried to protect their persons and their property and to preserve a 'good understanding' with them; but he found them 'very capricious', often 'sanguinary and cruel to each other', and like his contemporaries failed to understand what he called their 'most ungrateful and treacherous conduct'.

He was an able and conscientious administrator, nearly always, as Phillip had said, 'labouring for the public and doing nothing for himself'. Yet this was not entirely true, especially as his health grew worse and his family increased. In 1779 he had been reprimanded for appointing, without authority, an agent to sell a prize on behalf of himself and the rest of the crew of the Renown. On Norfolk Island he acted as a broker for Treasury bills. In 1801 he arranged for the government store to buy the cargo of the Britannia, in which he had an interest, at a 50 per cent profit instead of the 30 per cent it was then paying for purchases from other ships, claiming in 1804 that he had received authority to raise the price, although in fact this only arrived three months later. He took, again without authority, 300 cattle valued at £5600 from the government herds to satisfy a claim to some of the 'wild cattle' which had strayed in 1788, and ignored orders to return them; he improperly granted 1345 acres (544 ha) to Bligh when he arrived in 1806 as his successor, and a week later allowed Mrs King with equal impropriety to accept 690 acres (279 ha) from Bligh, described, with delightful irony, as 'Thanks'. None of these actions was disinterested, but on eighteenth century standards they were not unusual; compared with most of his subordinates, be was a pillar of rectitude. His salary as governor was only £1000, half that of his successor, and when he died his property of £7000 amounted to little more than the current value of the cattle.

A more serious source of criticism was his hot temper which, if in part a professional attribute and intensified by sickness, severely handicapped him in New South Wales. If men like Banks, Phillip, Matthew Flinders, Nicolas Baudin and Rowland Hassall held him in the highest esteem, others in the colony including Paterson, Captain Colnett R.N. and Joseph Holt found cause to complain of his 'violent passions' and the Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux portray a man at first benevolent, though mildly eccentric, becoming rather petty as well as irascible by the time of his voyage home in 1807. Though perhaps overfond of practical jokes he was not without a more sophisticated sense of humour, but as time went on he became overweight, heavy-eyed and strained, sometimes blustering and pompous, sometimes on the verge of breakdown, as he saw a widening gap between his hopes and his achievements. In the end he was defeated by the officers of the New South Wales Corps.

That he would have to fight them he knew when he arrived in Sydney in 1800, and even before he had assumed office he was regretting that Hunter had allowed Captain George Johnston to go home for his trial on charges of trading in spirits. Johnston was soon back untried, but trials in the colony were not successful, and King found the military arrogance which he had faced at Norfolk Island was now exacerbated by his economic policy. He badly needed capable law officers and a change in the personnel of the military force, the New South Wales Corps, but the British government ignored his requests for these things. He was faced with frequent disobedience and insolence which early in 1803, immediately after he had refused to allow a cargo of spirits to be landed from the Atlas, culminated in the circulation of libellous 'pipes' against him and his officials. The investigations and courts martial which followed only revealed the animosity which existed between the governor and the corps; no wonder that King declared that 'for the prosperity of His Majesty's subjects in this territory … some change is absolutely necessary in our criminal courts'. With this Colonel Paterson entirely agreed, asserting that 'most of the disquiet that has agitated this settlement … is chiefly to be attributed to the unfortunate mixture of civil and military duties'. In November 1801 King had repeated Hunter's action and sent home an accused officer, John Macarthur, charged with fighting a duel with his commander, Paterson, itself the result of a quarrel with the governor. But in July 1805 Macarthur returned in triumph. He had not been court-martialled, had resigned his commission, and had obtained an order for 5000 acres (2024 ha) of the best land in the colony for his sheep-breeding. King had failed to receive support in England, just as when he complained of the proceedings of the local courts martial as vitally affecting the peace of the colony, the judge-advocate in London in January 1804 coldly told him that 'for the sake of harmony' he would 'pass over any seeming irregularity'. Owing to these disputes, in May 1803 King had asked to be given leave of absence while an inquiry was held into the state of the colony. In November the secretary of state at once accepted what he was quick to interpret as an offer of resignation, and after King received this reply in June 1804 his activities slowed down; but he was not relieved until August 1806 and in the interval he suspected that other critics, like Maurice Margarot, Henry Hayes, Michael Robinson and William Maum, were blackening his reputation in England. For all that he had good friends in New South Wales, including Surgeon John Harris and Rowland Hassall who managed his wife's farm, and who corresponded with him after his departure.

When he embarked in the Buffalo on 15 August for the voyage home he completely collapsed. He could not sail until 10 February 1807, and a stormy passage around Cape Horn delayed his arrival in England until November. He pressed the Colonial Office insistently for a pension, but before it was granted he died on 3 September 1808. He was buried in the churchyard of St Nicholas, Lower Tooting, London.

King had always aimed at promoting 'the prosperity of the colony, and giving a permanent security to the interests of its inhabitants'. He knew he could not satisfy all, and had faced 'scurrility and abuse, clothed with darkness and assassination'. This abuse has apparently harmed his reputation, which stands today lower than is deserved. He worked hard for the good of New South Wales and left it very much better than he found it, but succumbed to sickness and the hard conditions of his service while still relatively young.

King had two natural sons, Norfolk (1789-1839) and Sydney (1790-1840), by Ann Inett, a convict from Worcestershire. They were born when their father was first on Norfolk Island, both were well cared for by him and rose to be lieutenants in the navy. His only legitimate son, P. P. King, married Harriet Lethbridge of Cornwall. Of King's four daughters, two settled in New South Wales: Mary (b.1805) married her brother-in-law, Robert Lethbridge, in 1826 and Anna Maria (b.1793) married Hannibal Macarthur in 1812. Elizabeth (b.1797) who married an artist, Charles Runciman, remained in England, and Utricia (b.1795) died as a child.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 1-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-7, series 3, vol 1
  • M. Bassett, The Governor's Lady (Lond, 1956)
  • M. Roe, New South Wales Under Governor King (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1955)
  • manuscript catalogue under P. G. King (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

A. G. L. Shaw, 'King, Philip Gidley (1758–1808)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/king-philip-gidley-2309/text2991, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014