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Wemyss, William (?–1862)

by George Parsons

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

William Wemyss (d.1862), deputy commissary general, was appointed an assistant commissary general on 7 November 1809. He served with distinction in the Peninsular war. On 25 December 1814 he was appointed deputy commissary general and on 31 August 1820, while on half-pay, received instructions to go to New South Wales to replace Frederick Drennan in charge of the commissariat there.

When Wemyss and his wife arrived at the Derwent in the Medway on 14 March 1821 he complained about the rations which the master had issued to the convicts on board, a charge which Lieutenant-Governor William Sorell felt was justified. Wemyss then sailed for Sydney and assumed control of the Commissariat Department on 24 May.

Between 1822 and 1825 the dollar standard was introduced into the colony, and the immediate institution of a sterling exchange standard and a fixed rate of exchange appears to have been largely the work of Wemyss and the colonial secretary, Frederick Goulburn. The commissariat believed that the Bank of New South Wales was rashly increasing discounts and issuing an excessive number of notes, thus causing a bounty on imports; Wemyss hoped that the new dollar system would remove this bounty and make the bank much more cautious in its actions. The commissariat also announced that it would take dollars only at their bullion value in sterling, which was 4s. 2d.; since the conventional colonial valuation was 5s., by this ruling Wemyss depreciated the currency and reduced government expenditure, but those who sold to the commissariat store received less for their produce and the Bank of New South Wales lost 10d. on each dollar it had in reserve. In November 1822 the commissariat announced that no bills or store receipts in sterling would be recognized and the stabilized exchange rate was abandoned in favour of a rate determined by competitive tender. The change to dollars was also hastened on 5 February 1823 when it was ordered that all public accounts should be expressed in the new currency. The Bank of New South Wales and many merchants and settlers attacked this policy, and John Macarthur accused Wemyss of profiting by improper private contracts; he certainly acquired property quickly, but there is little evidence to evaluate Macarthur's charges and Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane praised Wemyss for his 'zealous co-operation' during the change to dollar payments and for his aid in necessary retrenchments.

Wemyss had been appointed a magistrate in December 1821 and a member of the Governor's Court next year. He joined his fellow magistrates in the protest which followed the judgment against William Howe for issuing a warrant of distress to enforce payment for certain labour, under the Government Order of 21 November 1821, on the ground that such a decision opened the way to fraud and imposition. He was faced with the perennial commissariat problem of attempted bribery, when assistant commissary general Moodie in Van Diemen's Land accused Edward Lord of attempting by this means to prevent the importation of 6000 bushels of wheat from the Cape of Good Hope. In 1822 he served as a member of the court of inquiry investigating charges of peculation against the colonial engineer, Major George Druitt.

In 1825, Wemyss and Brisbane clashed bitterly over the case of the Almorah, a ship chartered by the government to bring wheat from Batavia, which on its return was seized by Captain Mitchell of H.M.S. Slaney for violating the East India Co.'s monopoly by importing tea and dollars for the commissariat on Wemyss's order and without the governor's knowledge. The attorney-general issued a writ against Mitchell for seizing crown property; Mitchell replied with a writ against Wemyss and his deputy for engaging in trade which contravened the East India Co.'s charter. Even Macarthur, who claimed he would rejoice at Wemyss's humiliation, attacked Mitchell for seeking to endanger government property and to impede a public functionary in the course of his duty, but Chief Justice (Sir) Francis Forbes held that Wemyss had shown a 'great contempt of the government of the colony' in ordering these imports. By this time Brisbane had concluded that Wemyss was 'full of weakness, caprice and malevolence' and, though he believed Wemyss 'an honest Man', asked for his replacement. However, the British Treasury considered that there were no grounds for colonial protest against Wemyss as it was his 'obvious duty … to obtain all supplies required for the Public Service … from the best Market and upon the most favourable terms' and this was all that he had done.

In May 1826 Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling made Wemyss a member of the 'Board for General Purposes' which was created to assist in the administration of the various public establishments, and Wemyss and William Lithgow, the auditor of public accounts, inquired into the state of the colonial Treasury. Earlier Wemyss, Moodie and Lithgow had recommended the separation of the Van Diemen's Land commissariat from that of New South Wales.

Throughout the conflict over commissariat policy Wemyss played an important part in colonial society. In 1823 he was made a vice-president of the Bible Society. He was a regular subscriber to the School of Industry, the Benevolent Society and the Sydney Institution. In 1824 he was elected treasurer of the Reading Society, and in 1825 governor of the proposed public free grammar school. The Sydney Gazette credited him with being the moving force in the establishment of Scots Church, though this claim was bitterly opposed by John Dunmore Lang. Sir George Murray criticized Lang and agreed with Darling's estimate of Wemyss as a highly respectable man, but the government had already notified Wemyss of his impending replacement by James Laidley. In 1827 the deputy commissary general offered his furniture for sale by auction at his house on Church Hill, and after a serious illness he sailed for England in the Caroline on 4 November 1828. He remained on half-pay until 1862, when he died, probably at his home near Edinburgh.

William Wemyss was one of the most honest and competent commissariat officers to serve in New South Wales. During his administration the tensions caused by the transformation from a gaol to a free economy came to a head, and his activities caused conflict with governors who claimed that he was usurping jurisdiction over matters which rightfully belonged to the duties of their office; but his economic policies reflected the new commercial and financial developments in the colony and his administrative ideas also mark a significant turning point in colonial government.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 10-14
  • newspaper indexes and manuscript catalogue under William Wemyss (State Library of New South Wales)
  • WO 58/116.

Citation details

George Parsons, 'Wemyss, William (?–1862)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wemyss-william-2781/text3957, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 17 December 2017.

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

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