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Edward Abbott (1766–1832)

by W. A. Townsley

This article was published:

Edward Abbott (1766-1832), soldier and public servant, was born in Montreal, Canada. He entered the army at 13, was commissioned a lieutenant in the 34th Regiment in March 1785, joined the New South Wales Corps in October 1789 and sailed in the Scarborough for Port Jackson, where he arrived in June 1790. He served at Norfolk Island in 1791-94, and then took command at the Hawkesbury. He was promoted captain in 1795 and next year was invalided to England. In 1799 he returned to Sydney where as engineer and artillery officer he directed the repair and alteration of the battery at George's Head on Sydney Cove. In 1802 he was again at Norfolk Island, but returned next year to command a detachment at Parramatta, where he was appointed a magistrate. For his services in helping to quell the Irish insurrection in March 1804, Governor Philip Gidley King gave him 1300 acres (526 ha). In August he moved to Sydney but was again at Parramatta in 1806-07, and by this time had bought another 700 acres (283 ha).

In January 1808 Major George Johnston transferred Abbott to Sydney to assist in the opposition to Governor William Bligh. Next in seniority to Johnston, Abbott had a reputation for sound judgment and leadership; though Bligh removed him from the magistracy when he came to Sydney, he took no active part in deposing the governor, being concerned for the reputation of the corps and anxious to avoid a blunder. He approved the governor's arrest but, although he returned to the bench, he declined to act when Johnston appointed him judge-advocate. In May 1808, before news of the mutiny had reached England, he was promoted major; he returned to England with the corps in 1810 and resigned from the army after Johnston's court martial. Governor Lachlan Macquarie had refused to ratify the grant which William Paterson had made to him in 1809, but he sold the 2000 acres (809 ha) he had held since 1807 and, despite the Bligh affair, in February 1814 he was commissioned deputy judge advocate at a salary of £600, to preside over the first Lieutenant-Governor's Court in Van Diemen's Land.

He sailed in the Emu for Hobart Town, where he arrived with his wife and three children in February 1815; his formal instructions had not arrived and he could not be sworn in before Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Davey proclaimed martial law in April. Abbott opposed this step, but he sat on several courts martial before going to Sydney again to collect documents on the practice of his court. When he returned in November, the state of martial law had been ended and a month later Abbott opened his court. Governor Macquarie had regretted his appointment, fearing that the litigious spirit prevalent in Van Diemen's Land would 'Meet a Very inadequate Check from the Administration of the Laws by Mr Abbott'; nevertheless, despite his small knowledge of law and his large concern for the welfare of his own family, Abbott was very successful. He maintained that his court was one neither of law nor of equity, but of justice and right; exasperated by legal punctilios, he simplified procedures, reduced fees and argued by common sense. He displeased northern litigants and John Bigge by refusing to visit Launceston, and Macquarie by some of his judgments, but as a lover of fair play his adjudication was rarely questioned in Hobart. He was prominent in other public affairs: in 1820 he headed the list of petitioners for separation from New South Wales and in 1823 he was an original subscriber to the Van Diemen's Land Bank.

When the Supreme Court was opened in May 1824 under a new Charter of Justice, the Lieutenant-Governor's Court and the office of deputy judge advocate were abolished. Abbott had been offered appointment as commissioner of the Court of Requests at a salary of £300, but he accepted instead a pension of £400, and sailed for England in the Guildford in June. At the Colonial Office in 1825 he was promised appointment as civil commandant at Port Dalrymple and a grant of 3210 acres (1299 ha), in addition to his pension, and was also appointed to the Legislative Council. These arrangements displeased Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur, who was reluctant to displace Lieutenant-Colonel William Balfour at Port Dalrymple and to supplement the 2000 acres (809 ha) near Hobart which Abbott had previously been granted but not improved. In response to Arthur's protests, in June 1826 Bathurst ordered that Abbott be appointed commissioner of the Court of Requests instead, but long before this instruction reached Van Diemen's Land, Abbott had taken up his post at Launceston. There he remained, tending his lands, carrying out his duties and winning esteem for his generous and upright intentions, though he regretted his removal from the Legislative Council. He died on 31 July 1832, survived by his wife, who claimed his pension without success.

Of his sons, John (1803-1875) was a landowner and public servant. Edward (1801-1869) also served briefly as a public servant and acquired land of his own. He took over his father's grant, 3000 acres (1214 ha) of which were located on the South Esk River. The other 210 acres (85 ha), shrewdly located on the outskirts of Launceston, had been disallowed by the Colonial Office, but were claimed by William Charles Wentworth in 1847 and Edward brought an action against the Crown over it, without success. Nevertheless he prospered as a pastoralist and was a member of the Tasmanian House of Assembly in 1856-64 and of the Legislative Council in 1864-67.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 1-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-10, series 3, vols 2-6
  • J. West, The History of Tasmania, vol 1 (Launceston, 1852)
  • R. W. Giblin, The Early History of Tasmania, vol 2 (Melb, 1939).

Citation details

W. A. Townsley, 'Abbott, Edward (1766–1832)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

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