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O'Connor, Roderic (1784–1860)

by P. R. Eldershaw

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

Roderic O'Connor (1784-1860), public servant and landowner, was the son of Roger O'Connor and his first wife Louisa Anna, née Strachan. His father, descendant of a rich London merchant, was an eccentric Irish landowner whose sympathies veered from suppression of agricultural rioters to support of United Irishmen; by a second marriage he had two notable sons: Feargus, who became an erratic leader of English Chartists, and Francis, who won high military and political rank in Bolivia.

O'Connor's motives for emigrating to Van Diemen's Land can only be guessed, but the fact that he brought with him in his own ship Ardent his natural sons William and Arthur (Rattigan) may give the clue. They arrived in May 1824 and O'Connor, who had considerable capital, received a free 1000-acre (405 ha) grant on the Lake River. Here his experiences on his father's land and as a practical engineer were not wasted; bridges, weirs and farm buildings were among his early improvements. He lost no opportunity to increase his estate either by free grant or by shrewd purchase and in four years had trebled it.

Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur, whose patronage and protection O'Connor was many times to enjoy, chose him to be third commissioner of survey and valuation. The commission had been set up in consequence of the British government's instructions to have the colony divided into counties, hundreds and parishes, and to have the waste lands of the Crown valued for purposes of levying quitrent; Arthur used them for many other purposes, such as reporting on the suitability of areas for towns, and surveying harbour facilities and the route for a north-south road.

O'Connor's journals point to the conclusion that he was the commission's most active member; in company with Peter Murdoch between 1826 and 1828 he examined all the settled districts of the island; what he saw is recorded in vivid and uncomplicated language that goes far beyond the usual limits of official reports. The journals give an entertaining picture of the landed community, exposing various stratagems to defraud the government of land and other assets, describing farming methods and improvements, recalling the humble and sometimes disreputable beginnings of many of the wealthy people and fulminating against the unrighteous. They reflect a hot-tempered, outspoken, worldly-wise, contentious and egotistical Irish personality, but one possessed of wit and commonsense.

When his field work as commissioner ended, O'Connor was made inspector of roads and bridges, a post which gave him control of many hundreds of convicts on public works and put several major projects in his charge; these included the new wharf in Hobart Town, the Bridgewater causeway, as well as 'nearly all the finished parts of the Roads in this Colony'. He was also a magistrate and a member of the board for investigating disputed claims to land.

O'Connor left active public life when Arthur's governorship came to an end in 1836. But his many quarrels with officials and others, aired both in the courts and the press, insured him a place in the public eye; libel cases and lengthy and vigorous exchanges with his opponents in the newspapers, in one section of which he was influential lent colour to his position as one of the largest landed proprietors in the colony. Lady Jane Franklin told her sister that he was 'a man of immense estate … bound by ties of I know not what nature to the Arthur faction … but … a man of blasted reputation, of exceedingly immoral conduct and of viperous tongue and pen'. A large employer of convict labour on his estates, O'Connor was also from personal conviction solidly opposed to the anti-transportationists; this attitude probably influenced Lieutenant-Governors Sir John Eardley-Wilmot and Sir William Denison in nominating him for two terms, 1844-48 and 1852-53, in the Legislative Council.

The son of a professed atheist, O'Connor turned to the Roman Catholic Church very late in life; in the year of his death he gave it £10,000 for a cathedral in Hobart. In old age his irascibility became notorious, as from his Benham estate the 'red-hot Irishman' quarrelled with his neighbours and waged war on the local road trust. When he died in July 1860, he owned eleven properties totalling 65,000 acres (26,305 ha) and had 10,000 acres (4047 ha) of leasehold. William had died in 1855 and Arthur inherited the estate.

Select Bibliography

  • A. McKay (ed), Journals of the Land Commissioners for Van Diemen's Land 1826-1828 (Hob, 1962).

Citation details

P. R. Eldershaw, 'O'Connor, Roderic (1784–1860)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oconnor-roderic-2518/text3407, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 17 January 2018.

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

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