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Montagu, John (1797–1853)

by John Reynolds

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

John Montagu (1797-1853), soldier and public servant, was born on 21 August 1797 probably in India, the second son of Edward Montagu (1755-1799), lieutenant-colonel in the Bengal army and kinsman of the Duke of Manchester, and his wife Barbara, née Fleetwood. He was sent to England and educated at Cheam in Surrey, Parson's Green in Knightsbridge, and by a private tutor. In February 1814 he joined the army as an ensign in the 52nd Regiment, fought at Waterloo, was promoted lieutenant in November 1815 and went on half-pay next February. In April 1819 he joined the 64th Regiment and returned to half-pay as a captain in November 1822. In April 1823 he married Jessy, daughter of Major-General Vaughan Worsley, and niece of (Sir) George Arthur, lieutenant-governor elect of Van Diemen's Land; in August he transferred to the 40th Regiment, companies of which were about to go to New South Wales.

Montagu and his wife sailed in the Adrian with Arthur's party and arrived at Hobart Town in May 1824. In November he was appointed secretary to the lieutenant-governor, and soon took over the books and papers at the colonial secretary's office. Under Arthur's direction he began a reform of the public accounts but in 1825 the Colonial Office disallowed his nomination as colonial secretary. In March 1826 he began to act as clerk of the Executive and Legislative Councils. This appointment was also rejected by the Colonial Office, but Arthur protested against the decision and kept him in office. Meanwhile Montagu served on many boards of inquiry and was active in tightening up colonial regulations. His zeal and forthright comments were not calculated to lessen the growing hostility towards Arthur's nepotism, and denunciations of the government by the press led to the controversial Newspaper Licensing Act in 1827. By that time rumours of the transfer of the 40th Regiment to India were afoot and Montagu hastily applied to London for retirement from the army. In January 1828 he applied successfully for a provisional grant of 2560 acres (1036 ha), Arthur noting that it was important for him 'to select land without delay as the most advantageous situations will otherwise be chosen'. Three months later Montagu was ordered with his regiment to India, but because no answer to his resignation had come from London he was allowed to take charge of military invalids who were being sent to England. Arthur gave him a year's leave from his clerical duties on half-pay. In London Montagu persuaded the Colonial Office to confirm his appointment as clerk of the councils on condition that he resigned from the army. He sold his commission in September 1830 and with a recommendation for another maximum land grant sailed with his wife in the Mermaid.

Back in Hobart in January 1831 Montagu resumed office in the councils and in June was gazetted a justice of the peace. He continued to enjoy the benefits of Arthur's patronage and in turn his diligence increased the efficiency of the administration. In December 1832 he became acting colonial treasurer and had much success in collecting quitrents. A year later he returned to his clerkship of the councils and in 1834 distinguished himself by reorganizing the postal department, an additional task for which he was paid £50. At intervals he acted as colonial secretary while John Burnett was ill. In 1835 when Burnett became financially embarrassed Montagu persuaded him to retire on a pension, and in August was formally appointed colonial secretary.

Arthur was recalled in 1836 and left his personal investments in the hands of Montagu and two other executors. Montagu had borrowed from Arthur some £4000 for his home, Stowell, at Battery Point, and like Arthur had many land speculations in Van Diemen's Land and the Port Phillip District. He was also a director and the largest shareholder of the Derwent Bank; a few of his shares were in the names of his sons, but most were probably owned by Arthur.

Sir John Franklin, who arrived in Hobart in January 1837, had no experience of civil government. Faced by 'an independent party of great wealth and influence' entrenched in key positions throughout the colony, Franklin reported to the Colonial Office that he was determined to break it. However, he found it too powerful to resist and was inclined to leave the administration to Montagu while he pursued his own interests in exploration and science. Despite public hostility to the 'Arthurite Clique' the colonial secretary's office was said to run 'with the celerity of clockwork and courtesy was everywhere'. The first cloud on Montagu's horizon was the assignment of convicts, a system to which he and Arthur were strongly attached. Consulted at the Colonial Office in 1829 Montagu had opposed the use of convict gangs for public works and maintained that prisoners were a labour force best assigned to private contractors and settlers. Early in 1838, however, he showed how assignment could be abused when he secretly obtained a household cook who had been sentenced to secondary punishment for defrauding his employer, (Sir) Alfred Stephen, the attorney-general. Franklin promptly sent the cook to a road-gang and rebuked Montagu, overruling his protests. The defeat rankled and in December Montagu applied for eighteen months leave, pleading urgent family affairs in England. In February 1839 he sailed with his family in the Derwent. Next year Montagu was again consulted when the Colonial Office was planning changes in the management of convicts following the reports of the Molesworth committee on transportation. This time he opposed Captain Alexander Maconochie's theory of reforming convicts in separate penal stations and advocated a ticket-of-leave system in stages that would 'create character and self-esteem' by exposing convicts gradually to the 'temptations of Society'. On a later visit to the Colonial Office in November 1842 Montagu had several interviews with high officials and elaborated in greater detail his 'Convict Probationary System', which Lord Stanley then ordered to be introduced in Van Diemen's Land.

In 1839 before leaving for England Montagu had sold his furniture for £5000 and tried to sell Stowell. When he had not returned to Hobart by June 1840 Franklin proposed to replace him, but Montagu's leave was extended. In London he spent much time seeking English investments for the Derwent Bank, thereby helping Charles Swanston to make it Tasmania's major loan bank; within three years it held more than two-thirds of the colony's mortgages of £400,000, the onset of depression increasing its 'thraldom' over many settlers and a large part of the press.

Montagu returned to Hobart in March 1841 charged with important private commissions and his reputation supposedly enhanced by the special confidence of the secretary of state. In April a ball was given in his honour and he was praised for having urged the British government to continue transportation to Van Diemen's Land. Soon afterwards he clashed with Lady Jane Franklin over the site of Christ's College and with the lieutenant-governor over the dismissal of Dr John Coverdale. The addition of an elaborate tower to St George's Church at Battery Point caused an open rupture; Montagu insisted that it had been approved by Franklin and, when contradicted, adopted an offensive policy of passive resistance. Mediation was attempted by Judge (Sir) John Pedder and Adam Turnbull, but failed when the Franklins were scurrilously attacked in the Van Diemen's Land Chronicle. Assured that Montagu controlled the paper Franklin called on him for an explanation. Montagu claimed that he denied the charge 'in the most solemn and sacred manner [of] a Christian gentleman', but he also insinuated that Franklin's memory was at fault.

On 17 January 1842 Montagu was relieved of his office. Next day Franklin sent to London a mighty bundle of the relevant correspondence and a short statement giving five reasons for Montagu's suspension. Within two weeks the Hobart papers had the full story, 'authentic official information' supplied by Montagu. Before he sailed with his family in the Calcutta on 10 February he was given a testimonial signed by many leading colonists and money for plate to be inscribed Magna est vis veritatis. By June James Stephen at the Colonial Office had decided that the reasons given in Franklin's short statement did not justify Montagu's suspension. This opinion hardened as the dispatches from Hobart increased in volume, irrelevance and emotion. In contrast Montagu's letters and papers were impressive, with their air of injured innocence. When called to the Colonial Office on 28 August he was assured that no justifiable fault had been imputed to him, and next day he coolly told Stanley that Franklin 'was incapable of writing the letters signed by him … was little removed from an Imbecile … and had long been under the dominion of Lady Franklin'. He also accepted Stanley's offer of the colonial secretaryship at the Cape of Good Hope. On 13 September this news was sent to Franklin in a dispatch that questioned his judgment and relieved Montagu 'from every censure which infringes the integrity or the propriety of his conduct'.

Every relevant dispatch to and from Franklin was shown to Montagu and he sent copies of them to Swanston. Some appeared in the Hobart press, but the whole 'Manuscript Book' was circulated from the Derwent Bank with small show of secrecy. Franklin learnt of its existence from friends outraged by this underhand method of smearing the lieutenant-governor. His protest to London was sent to Montagu, whose last words on the case disclaimed any vindictive intention, vowed that the 'Book' was confidential, skirted around specific charges and contrived throughout to exalt the wisdom of the Colonial Office. Clearly Montagu had not outgrown the boyish disregard for truthfulness that had distressed his mother; even belated proof that he had lied about St George's tower failed to move him or the Colonial Office. Though historians disagree in interpreting the affair, it lost Montagu many friends in Hobart, and while it led to Franklin's recall, it effectively broke the power of the 'Arthurite Clique'.

In April 1843 Montagu assumed his duties at Cape Town. He worked in harmony with four governors, and in their many absences presided over the Executive and Legislative Councils. He had much success in reorganizing public finances, immigration and public works, especially the building of roads by convict labour, though his attempt to introduce stamp duties aroused much opposition. He applied his energies to the establishment of representative government in Cape Colony, strongly resisting any division of the colony and a franchise founded on wealth; according to one observer, 'by his flair for adapting existing administrative machinery to meet needs, he laid the soundest foundations for a parliamentary structure'. In 1851 as acting-governor he reorganized the recruiting system that changed the course of the Kaffir war. Soon afterwards his health began to fail and his personal finances were in bad shape, although he had sold his properties in Tasmania and Victoria and repaid his debt to Arthur. In May 1852 he was granted fifteen months leave and returned with his family to England. A visit to the south of France did not improve his health and his leave was extended. He died in London on 4 November 1853, leaving an estate valued at £600. His wife was granted a pension of £300 and a public subscription in Cape Colony provided her and her three sons with some £3000.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 15, 18, 20, series 3, vols 4-6
  • W. A. Newman, John Montagu (Cape Town, 1856)
  • K. Fitzpatrick, Sir John Franklin in Tasmania 1837-1843 (Melb, 1949)
  • M. C. L. Levy, Governor George Arthur (Melb, 1953)
  • A. G. L. Shaw, ‘The Origins of the Probation System in Van Diemen's Land’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 6, no 21, Nov 1953, pp 16-28
  • J. J. Breitenbach, ‘The Development of the Secretaryship to the Government at the Cape of Good Hope under John Montagu, 1843-52’, Archives Year Book for South African History, vol 2, 1959, pp 171-300
  • CO 48/351, 363, 280/158, 159
  • CSO 1/79/1767, 1/99/2388, 1/239/5782, 1/632/14281 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

John Reynolds, 'Montagu, John (1797–1853)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/montagu-john-2471/text3315, 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

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