Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Spencer, Sir Richard (1779–1839)

by Robert Stephens

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

Sir Richard Spencer (1779-1839), naval officer and settler, was born on 9 December 1779, the only son of Richard Spencer, a London merchant. At 14 he entered the navy as a midshipman, serving in Channel patrols and later on North American and West Indian Stations. Transferred to the Mediterranean at 21, he was promoted lieutenant in the captured French Guillaume Tell. In the brig Camelion he commanded a unit of a gunboat patrol for some years, once guarding a flank of the British army at Aboukir Bay. He was appointed by Nelson to command the captured French schooner Renard, aptly renamed Crafty; in her for five lively years he harassed enemy shipping, intercepted dispatches, captured sulphur cargoes, and rescued thirty Maltese captives who rewarded him with a hundred-guinea set of plate. He suffered severe head wounds in action against two Spanish 24-pounders, and on one shore leave he swam stormswept Valetta harbour to save the Crafty from destruction by the Eagle, adrift from her moorings. Early in 1808, he was appointed commander of the corvette Samarang on the East Indies Station, where his service in the subjection of Amboina and adjacent islands brought promotion to command the Blanche, and post rank early in 1812. Soon afterwards he went on half pay until June 1815 when he was appointed captain of the Eurydice on the Irish Station. In that year he was appointed C.B. A typical product of Nelson's school, his knowledge of naval strategy, his initiative and his charm of manner inspired loyalty in subordinates and gained advancement from superiors.

On 31 August 1812 Spencer married Ann Warden Liddon of Charmouth, Dorset. When his naval career ended in 1817 he settled with his wife on a farm at Lyme Regis, Dorset, for seventeen years, during which nine of their ten children were born. In 1833 he was appointed K.C.H. and government resident of Albany, Plantagenet district of Western Australia, on the recommendation of Sir James Stirling. Spencer and his family sailed in the storeship Buffalo, in company with his chartered Brilliant, loaded ark-like with plants, livestock, farm implements, stores and servants. In September they reached Albany, where he found seventeen civilians, a few soldiers, dilapidated buildings and a moribund economy.

Albany's development in the next six years was largely due to Spencer's administrative skill, energy and determination. As well as performing his judicial duties as local representative of the government he superintended public works, native welfare, police, and surveys. Records tell of official duties performed with the efficiency, zeal and probity born of his naval training which often irked some settlers. His own affairs also prospered. On arrival he bought Strawberry Hill; to its six cleared acres (2.4 ha) he added 1400 virgin acres (567 ha) and the existing wattle and daub dwelling he enlarged with two-storied additions. Within two years good progress had been made with all his agrarian and livestock plans. The needs of his sheep prompted the purchase of pastures thirty miles (48 km) north-west of Albany on the Hay River. Soon afterwards two-storied additions in granite were made to his homestead. His leadership and insistence on the need for a church won posthumous reward in October 1848 when Bishop Augustus Short consecrated St John's Church at Albany.

Spencer died suddenly at Strawberry Hill on 24 July 1839. His grave, as he wished, overlooked King George Sound. He was survived by his wife, who in spite of a reduced income contrived to maintain great style and gracious hospitality. She had much difficulty with her headstrong sons. In 1843 she took three of them to England for education, but later one was drowned, another was sent to New Zealand and a third was killed by a falling tree. Of their daughters, Eliza Lucy was married to Captain (Sir) George Grey on 2 November 1839, and Augusta was married to George Edward Egerton-Warburton, a pioneer settler near Mount Barker. Lady Spencer died in 1855.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Marshall, Royal Naval Biography, vol 3 (Lond, 1829)
  • W. H. Fitchett, Nelson and his Captains (Lond, 1902)
  • H. Colebatch (ed), A Story of a Hundred Years: Western Australia 1829-1929 (Perth, 1929)
  • C. E. Egerton-Warburton, ‘Albany, past and present’ (newspaper clippings, State Records Office of Western Australia)
  • Spencer papers (privately held).

Citation details

Robert Stephens, 'Spencer, Sir Richard (1779–1839)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/spencer-sir-richard-2685/text3731, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 28 November 2014.

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

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