Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Pitcairn, Robert (1802–1861)

by Peter Crisp

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

Robert Pitcairn (1802-1861), solicitor, was born on 17 July 1802 in Edinburgh, where he was educated in law. He arrived in Hobart Town from Leith in September 1824 as a settler recommended by the Colonial Office, and established himself on a grant near Bothwell. Soon persuaded to return to the legal profession he became the fourteenth barrister and solicitor admitted to the Supreme Court. His success brought modest prosperity. In September 1830 he married Dorothea Jessie, eldest daughter of Captain J. C. Dumas of the 63rd Regiment; they had a daughter and three sons, two of whom died in infancy. The home he built at New Town was known as Cairn Lodge (Runnymede). In his early colonial experience his most important public service was as a member of a government committee set up during the depression of the 1840s to consider the law relating to insolvency. Their report, published in September 1844, recommended the abolition of imprisonment for debt and the protection of creditors of small sums, proposals which closely followed English legislation.

In 1845 Pitcairn became active in the cause for which he is chiefly remembered: the cessation of transportation, and its corollary the introduction of responsible government. His petitions to the British government were long and closely argued; although strongly contested by Lieutenant-Governors Sir John Eardley-Wilmot and Sir William Denison, they carried much weight both in Eardley-Wilmot's recall in so far as it was due to his mismanagement of convicts, and in the ultimate abolition of transportation. To Pitcairn the moral and social evils of the probation system and the exodus of thousands of free people to the mainland were to be cured only by the cessation of transportation, the introduction of representative government and the large-scale immigration of free families. These views brought him into close association with the Australasian League, which sought and gained the support of the mainland colonies for the cause of cessation. When transportation ceased in 1852, Pitcairn withdrew from public life. He died on 28 January 1861.

Pitcairn was a member of the Church of England, and the respect and affection in which he was held were expressed in a window to his memory in St David's Cathedral, Hobart, and a marble bust by Charles Summers unveiled by the chief justice in 1866 in the Supreme Court where, in a courtroom otherwise lacking ornament, it still stands as a memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • correspondence file under Robert Pitcairn (Archives Office of Tasmania).

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Citation details

Peter Crisp, 'Pitcairn, Robert (1802–1861)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pitcairn-robert-2553/text3477, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 20 May 2019.

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

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