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Pratt, Sir Thomas Simson (1797–1879)

by Ronald McNicoll

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Thomas Simson Pratt (1797-1879), by Batchelder & O'Neill, c1864

Thomas Simson Pratt (1797-1879), by Batchelder & O'Neill, c1864

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H37475/15

Sir Thomas Simson Pratt (1797-1879), army officer, was the son of Captain James Pratt and his wife Anne, née Simson. Educated at the University of St Andrews, in 1814 as a volunteer, he accompanied his father in the 56th Regiment on the expedition to Holland; he was under fire before Merxem on the day his ensigncy in the 26th Foot, the Cameronians, was gazetted. He served in the Mediterranean and Ireland, gaining his captaincy in 1825, and India, whence he was returned sick to England. In 1827 he married Frances Agnes, second daughter of J. S. Cooper.

On learning that the 26th was ordered to China, Pratt rejoined it in Calcutta. In the first China campaign in 1840-42 he commanded the land forces at the assault and capture of the forts of Chuenpi on 7 January 1841, for which he was made a brevet lieutenant-colonel; and he took part in the attack on the Boca forts, guarding the approach to Canton, on 26 February. He commanded the Cameronians in the attacks on Canton in May 1841, in the night attack on Ningpo in October and at Chapu, Wusang, Shanghai and Chinkiang in 1842. In October 1841 he was appointed C.B. and from 1843 to 1855 he was deputy-adjutant-general of the forces in the Madras Presidency.

In October 1858 Pratt became a major-general, and next year was appointed to command the troops in the Australian colonies. He reached Melbourne on 8 January 1860. His command embraced New Zealand, so that when early in July news reached Melbourne of the serious reverses suffered by British troops in the Waitara district of Taranaki, he decided not only to send reinforcements but to direct operations in person. He sailed from Melbourne with his staff on 26 July, the centre of much public interest heightened by his only daughter's marriage to Governor Sir Henry Barkly.

Pratt's operations in Taranaki were circumspect. Wary of the unorthodox methods of the Maoris, he avoided his predecessors' mistake of fighting in the open, and reduced the Maori forts with minimum casualties by using earthworks to give covered approaches to the assaulting troops, a method advocated by Captain Pasley. Progress was slow and unspectacular, and Pratt was criticized by New Zealand settlers and Australian editors: he did miss opportunities of using bush fighters who could have met the Maoris on equal terms. The authorities in London had decided to separate the New Zealand command from that of the Australian forces and a new commander arrived early in 1861. By then the Taranaki revolt had been suppressed. Pratt returned to Victoria in April, to receive acclaim in military circles, votes of thanks in parliament and grudging acknowledgment in the press. Wider appreciation of his work soon followed. In July he was appointed K.C.B. for his services in New Zealand. He was publicly invested with the insignia by his son-in-law on 15 April 1862, the first such investiture in Australia.

Pratt was then in an unusually strong position. He sat in the Victorian Executive Council, and was prominent in the colony's affairs. He presided over the royal commission on the Burke and Wills expedition. Foreseeing that imperial troops would inevitably be supplanted by locally-raised units, he advocated the grouping of the future forces of the several colonies under a unified command, however difficult this might be to achieve. He had little respect for the local volunteer forces, of which he was the nominal head, and his views led to cool relations with two successive treasurers, Verdon and Haines. He was not unduly troubled by the short-comings of the volunteers because he believed that the only external danger which the Australian colonies faced was that of raids from the sea.

In 1863 it was decided to lower the status of the command and to move the headquarters to New Zealand. Pratt left Melbourne in April 1863. In England he was appointed colonel of the 37th (North Hampshire) Regiment. In May 1873 he was promoted general, and in October 1877 retired. He died in England on 2 February 1879.

Pratt's portrait in 1862, whiskered and heavy-jowled, is that of an orthodox soldier of his time, and is given the lie by his distinguished early record and ability to learn lessons late in life.

Select Bibliography

  • J. W. Fortescue, History of the British Army, vols 12-13 (Lond, 1927-30)
  • J. Cowan, History of the New Zealand Wars, vols 1-2 (Wellington, 1922)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1862, 2 (97)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 25 July 1860, 12 Apr 1861, 16 Apr 1862
  • Illustrated Melbourne Post, Feb, Apr 1862
  • 'Naval and Military Intelligence', Times (London), 6 Feb 1879, p 10.

Citation details

Ronald McNicoll, 'Pratt, Sir Thomas Simson (1797–1879)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pratt-sir-thomas-simson-4414/text7205, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 17 June 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019

Thomas Simson Pratt (1797-1879), by Batchelder & O'Neill, c1864

Thomas Simson Pratt (1797-1879), by Batchelder & O'Neill, c1864

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H37475/15