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Rolleston, Christopher (1817–1888)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Christopher Rolleston (1817-1888), by unknown photographer

Christopher Rolleston (1817-1888), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 09461

Christopher Rolleston (1817-1888), public servant, was born on 27 July 1817 at Burton-Joyce, Nottinghamshire, England, second son of John Rolleston, Anglican clergyman, and his wife Elizabeth, née Smelt. After working in a Liverpool mercantile house he went to Sydney and in 1838 bought land on the Allyn River near Paterson, where he farmed with his younger brother Philip. Lack of success led him to apply, through his father, for a government post and in December 1842 Governor Gipps, seeking only 'persons of very active habits … single men without encumbrance of any sort' as commissioners of crown lands, appointed Rolleston to the frontier district of Darling Downs. His activities as an autocrat on horseback pleased his Sydney superiors and the local squatters. He reported a 'decidedly hostile disposition towards European settlers' among Aboriginals, but later attributed better relations partly to his distribution of blankets, flour and tobacco in winter months. Granted leave of absence to visit England in 1853, he received a silver salver and 125 guineas from the squatters.

On 20 September 1854 at Foller, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, Rolleston married Katherine, daughter of William Leslie, ninth laird of Warthill, and sister of Patrick Leslie formerly of the Darling Downs. In December he brought her to Sydney, reputedly having declined the presidency of Montserrat, in the West Indies, and in January 1855 became the private secretary to the governor-general, Sir William Denison. On 10 December he was appointed registrar-general at a salary of £700 and in 1856 he launched the compulsory registration of births, deaths and marriages, based upon statistical principles introduced earlier in Victoria by W. H. Archer. The details required on the new registration forms put the records among the fullest and most useful in the world. Despite obstacles such as 'the indifference of our public men to statistical knowledge', he reported in 1857 that the new system was 'in easy and quiet operation'. Referring in his second report to persisting 'misapprehension', he argued that 'enlightened persons will not object to the apparent exposure of their family history when satisfied that the only object is the promotion of the public welfare, nor will they think inquiries impertinent which, although seemingly minute and unimportant, have been recommended by the united experience of the ablest statisticians in Europe'.

Influenced by the growing interest in science fostered by Denison, Rolleston joined the Philosophical (later Royal) Society of New South Wales in 1856 and was sometime treasurer, vice-president and president. He delivered papers and occasionally public lectures on the history of savings banks, statistics and sanitation, and contributed monthly figures on the 'Health of Sydney' to its journal. From 1858 his annual Statistical Register was published as a parliamentary paper. In evidence to a parliamentary select committee that year he recommended reforms in land title registration similar to those of R. R. Torrens and, after the 1862 Real Property Act, the new system devolved upon him.

On 10 November 1864 Rolleston became auditor-general at a salary of £900. When the Audit Act was amended in 1870 his office became responsible to parliament alone and he asserted vigorously his duty 'to maintain a check upon the expenditure of the Government'. Though he retired in 1883 he was appointed in 1887 to the royal commission of inquiry into the civil service.

Capital acquired under his marriage settlement and his connexion with the Leslie family and vice-regal circles helped Rolleston in his financial dealings. From 1860, with Louis Hope and Alfred Denison, he acquired extensive runs in the Leichhardt district of Queensland centred upon his head station, Springsure, near the present town of Rolleston. He was a director of the European Assurance Society, the Mercantile Bank of Sydney and the Australian Gaslight Co. and vice-president of the Savings Bank of New South Wales. A magistrate from 1842, he was active in public affairs. He was superannuation fund commissioner, president of the 1869 imperial royal commission into alleged kidnapping of natives of the Loyalty Islands, a trustee of the Australian Club and an official trustee of the Australian Museum. A prominent Anglican layman he was on the Sydney diocesan synod. He also devoted much time to charity and was chairman of the Government Asylums Board for the Infirm and Destitute and a committee-man of the Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind. In 1872 he was elected to the Senate of the University of Sydney vice W. C. Wentworth. That year he sought in vain to become agent-general in London. In 1875 he was on the commissions for the Philadelphia International and Melbourne Intercolonial exhibitions, and next year attended Philadelphia as a representative commissioner.

Rolleston's career in the civil service was notable for his steady devotion to duty and his avoidance of political controversy. His work contributed to the orderly growth of responsible government in New South Wales. He was made C.M.G. in 1879. A pillar of the colonial community, he died on 9 April 1888 of chronic Bright's disease at his home, Northcliff, Milsons Point, Sydney, survived by his wife and four of their six children and was buried in the Anglican cemetery, Willoughby. His estate was sworn for probate at £16,763.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 21-26
  • Reports of Registrar-General and Auditor-General, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1856-83
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 22 (1888)
  • Town and Country Journal, 7 June 1879, 14 Apr 1888
  • Australasian, 14 Apr 1888
  • W. H. Archer papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Leslie letters (State Library of Queensland)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue (State Library of New South Wales)
  • run registers (Queensland State Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Rolleston, Christopher (1817–1888)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rolleston-christopher-4501/text7359, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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