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Ricardo, Percy Ralph (1855–1907)

by Betty Crouchley

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

Percy Ralph Ricardo (1855-1907), grazier, businessman and soldier, was born on 28 August 1855 at Weston, near Bath, Somerset, England, into a county family with military traditions, son of Harry Ralph Ricardo, banker, and his wife Anna, née Halsey. Educated at Cheltenham College, he served in the Royal Canadian Artillery before migrating to New South Wales about 1874. He moved to Queensland in 1875, leased Waterview station on the Herbert River, and from 1879 managed and partly owned Franklyn Vale, near Laidley, until defeated by drought. A business associate of Sir Arthur Palmer and Sir Thomas McIlwraith, he was secretary of the Queensland Turf Club but, accused of tactlessness, resigned in 1885 to become secretary of the Queensland Ice & Freezing Co. From 1889 he was managing director of the Brisbane Ice Co.

Fiercely patriotic, Ricardo joined the Queensland Volunteer Force as acting captain in 1884, urged participation in the Sudan War, transferred to the Queensland Defence Force in February 1885, was commissioned captain in 1888, major in 1889, and joined its permanent staff in December 1891. From July 1897 he was lieutenant-colonel of the Queensland Mounted Infantry, which he had initiated and welded into a highly regarded regiment. An accomplished horseman, inventive and with mechanical skills, he improved cavalry equipment and wrote Mounted Infantry Drill.

Opportunity for military experience came with the shearers' strike of 1891, when Ricardo commanded the first detachment of mounted infantry sent to Clermont. William Hamilton commended his restraint but the labour movement resented Ricardo's apparent snobbishness, his exhortation to his volunteers 'to protect their hearths and homes' from the strikers, and the fine of only £1 imposed on him for obscene language when unionists were being imprisoned. The Boomerang satirized him as a comic-opera figure 'bursting with heroism, and patriotism, and egotism'.

In the South African War Ricardo commanded the 1st Queensland Contingent, and claimed indirect responsibility for Queensland's offer of troops. Well-intentioned but impetuous, typifying the aggressive militaire most disliked by the war's opponents, he aroused antagonism even before embarking from Brisbane in November 1899. Premier Dickson found him 'injudicious and censurable', and he had few defenders when his fitness for command was questioned in parliament.

Ricardo led the Queenslanders at Sunnyside on 1 January 1900 and participated in the relief of Kimberley and engagements at Poplar Grove, Driefontein, the Vet and Zand rivers, Pretoria and Diamond Hill. On 9 April the 2nd Contingent was added to his command which, however, was soon handed over to Major (General Sir Harry) Chauvel, after being reduced by casualties, illness, or recruitment into the constabulary or railways, to a force too small for Ricardo's rank of lieutenant-colonel. Lord Roberts appointed him commissioner of ejections, a civil office. In November he left for Queensland where adverse reports on him were circulating and where the government, despite contrary recommendations from the War Office, insisted that he refund monies paid him by the British.

When Ricardo was mentioned in dispatches, awarded the Queen's Medal with four clasps, and appointed C.B. in April 1901, Brisbane's Evening Observer queried whether C.B. meant 'Caught Behind'. Ricardo instituted a libel suit and was awarded £500 damages. However, while witnesses praised his courage, notably at Sunnyside and Sanna's Post, other evidence was an indictment of his leadership. The case caused a public furore and helped to foster cynicism towards Imperial decorations. Ricardo none the less retained the confidence of Major General Sir Edward Hutton who appointed him military commandant, Western Australia, in July 1902. Temporary colonel from January 1904, he was military commandant, Victoria, from February 1905. These environments were more sympathetic to him, and his geniality and courtesy ensured him popularity.

Tall, of soldierly bearing but corpulent and plagued by gout, Ricardo died in Melbourne on 4 June 1907 from a fractured skull after falling off his horse while hunting. He had married Annabella Eugenie (d.1895), daughter of William Lyall at Harewood, Yallock, Victoria, on 29 April 1879. In Brisbane on 4 January 1899 he married Ina Mary, daughter of Brigade Surgeon Lieutenant-Colonel John Thomson. She, and their two daughters, and a son and daughter of his first marriage, survived him. He was buried in Boroondara cemetery following an Anglican service; his favourite charger, Carnage, led the cortège.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. Knight and R. S. Browne, Queensland 1900 (Brisb, 1900)
  • Australian Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1891, p 162, 169, 173, 1899, p 717
  • Worker (Brisbane), 14 Oct–11 Nov 1899
  • Brisbane Courier, 15-23 Aug 1901
  • Age (Melbourne), 5 June 1907
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 8 June 1907
  • PRE/20 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Betty Crouchley, 'Ricardo, Percy Ralph (1855–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ricardo-percy-ralph-8190/text14325, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 December 2014.

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

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