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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Rawson, Sir Harry Holdsworth (1843–1910)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Harry Holdsworth Rawson (1843-1910), by Freeman Studio, c1902

Harry Holdsworth Rawson (1843-1910), by Freeman Studio, c1902

State Library of New South Wales, ON 219/367

Sir Harry Holdsworth Rawson (1843-1910), admiral and governor, was born on 5 November 1843 at Upper Islington, Liverpool, England, second son of Christopher Rawson, merchant, and his wife Ellen Frances, née Wright. Educated at Marlborough College (1854-55), he joined the navy in April 1857, serving in the Calcutta during the second China War (1857-60). Promoted lieutenant-commander on leaving the royal yacht in September 1871, he married Florence Alice Stewart Shaw on 19 October at Woodford, Cheshire.

Raised to captain (1877) and rear admiral (1892), Rawson served in the Channel and Mediterranean. While commander-in-chief on the Cape of Good Hope and west coast of Africa Station (1895-98) he landed in command of the naval brigade that captured Benin city. Appointed K.C.B. (1897) and promoted vice-admiral, he commanded the Channel Squadron from 1898 to 1901.

On 29 January 1902 Rawson was the first naval officer since Captain Bligh appointed governor of New South Wales. Sworn in on 27 May, he was 'a big tall burly Jack Tar' with 'broad forehead and shaggy eyebrows … steady and kindly sailor's eyes'. He governed New South Wales as if from his own quarterdeck. In June 1904 the premier Sir John See discussed his impending resignation and favoured B. R. Wise or W. P. Crick as his successor. Pointing out the 'unreliability' of Wise and the 'notorious' alcoholism and unpopularity of Crick, Rawson thought it doubtful 'if many in Cabinet would serve under either' and refused to send for Crick. See discussed the matter in cabinet and formally recommended that the governor send for Thomas Waddell. The secretary of state approved and commented: 'This might amuse the King'. The governor dealt with the intransigence of the Legislative Council by summoning 'an influential member' and warning him that they were 'playing into the hands of the Socialist Party', for if the ministry resigned he would have to send for the leader of the Labor Party.

Straightforward 'to the verge of bluntness', Rawson had 'a capacity for suggesting improvements or modifications to the State Government' without giving offence. Scandalized by the waste of time and money caused by the prolixity of members of parliament, he suggested that, apart from party leaders, 'all others may only speak as long as to take up three columns of Hansard when reported and if they desire to continue a charge of ten shillings a column shall be made'.

Rawson tried to temper the prevalent bitter sectarianism and to smooth Commonwealth-State relations. He promoted 'the ultimate formation of a separate navy' for Australia and spent much time dealing with defiant Norfolk Islanders. Although he generally supported the governor-general (especially over the vexed matter of honours), he insisted that direct communications between the State governors and the Colonial Office remain confidential and increasingly sided with the premiers over State rights.

Despite constant pain from his arthritic hip, Rawson travelled widely throughout the State and attended assiduously to his charitable and social duties. As grand master of United Grand Lodge of New South Wales (1905-09) he visited many Masonic lodges on his tours. Lady Rawson, 'a kind gentle-voiced motherly grey-haired woman', never spared herself; she died at sea on 3 December 1905 while returning to Australia. Alice Rawson took over her mother's duties. Lady Tennyson found the drawing-room at the new Government House, Cranbrook, 'very pretty, crammed full of silver & other things & curios, all presents to him'. An inveterate cigar-smoker, Rawson enjoyed clay-pigeon shooting at the vice-regal residence at Sutton Forest.

He so endeared himself that his term was extended; he retired on 27 May 1909. He had been promoted admiral in 1903 and was appointed G.C.B. (1906) and G.C.M.G. (1909). Survived by two sons and a daughter, Rawson died on 3 November 1910 in London after an operation for appendicitis and was buried in Bracknell parish churchyard, Berkshire. His nephew Admiral Sir Dudley de Chair was governor of New South Wales (1924-30). A portrait of Rawson is in Government House, Sydney; the Rawson Institute for Seamen and the Alice Rawson School for Mothers were named after him and his daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1901-11
  • G. Rawson, Life of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson (Lond, 1914)
  • Lady Poore, Recollections of an Admiral's Wife (Lond, 1916)
  • W. A. Orchard, Music in Australia (Melb, 1952)
  • A. Hasluck (ed), Audrey Tennyson's Vice-Regal Days (Canb, 1978)
  • British Australasian, 6 Feb 1902
  • Sydney Mail, 8 Feb 1902
  • Town and Country Journal, 20 Dec 1905, 17 Mar 1909, 9 Nov 1910
  • Arrow, 14 Apr 1906
  • Times (London), 4, 9 Nov 1910
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Nov 1910
  • Carruthers papers (State Library of New South Wales) and autobiography (typescript, State Library of New South Wales and National Library of Australia)
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • CO 418/26/f331, 351, /27/f160, 177, /32/f63, 177, 218, 277, /38/f117, /46/f257, 268, /53/f14, /62/f29, 51, 324, 386, 439, /72/f35 (microfilm, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Rawson, Sir Harry Holdsworth (1843–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 13 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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