Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

William Balfour (1785–1838)

by E. R. Pretyman

This article was published:

William Balfour (1785-1838), soldier and commandant, joined the 40th Regiment as a boy ensign in 1799, purchased his lieutenancy in 1800, and was promoted captain in 1802, major in 1808 and lieutenant-colonel in 1814. He saw service at Copenhagen; in the Peninsula he won the approval of Sir John Moore, and in southern France won a medal at Nivelle. With his regiment he sailed in the Castle Forbes, arrived in Sydney in January 1825 and went on with a detachment to Port Dalrymple, where he replaced Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Cameron as civil and military commandant in April. He soon won popular acclaim for his hospitality, upright impartiality and prompt attention to duty. His wife Charlotte died at Launceston on 22 August 1825, aged 33, leaving him with several young children. For some months his position was uncertain because the Colonial Office proposed to supersede him by appointing Edward Abbott as civil commandant at Port Dalrymple, despite (Sir) George Arthur's strong pleas for his retention.

In February 1826 Balfour went to Sydney to transfer command of the regiment to Van Diemen's Land, and was warmly welcomed on his return next month to Launceston where Matthew Brady and his bushrangers were daily becoming more threatening. When Balfour's well organized pursuit harassed the gang, Brady announced that he would attack Launceston; his capture of Richard Dry's home on 4 March made Balfour divide his forces, but the bushrangers were driven off. A public meeting at Launceston praised his courageous action and next month, when Abbott's appointment was formally announced, Balfour was given a grand farewell dinner in the court-house. To retain his services Arthur on his own initiative divided the colony into military districts and placed Balfour in command of them all. He was also granted 2000 acres (809 ha), although he had no intention to settle.

In Hobart Town Balfour was chosen as president of the committee of the board for general purposes. His inquiries led to important new regulations for the public stores and civil establishment. He also recommended 'elegant and ornamental' extensions to the Hobart barracks to prevent overcrowding and the loss of discipline through officers living in town lodgings. He left Van Diemen's Land in December 1826, and sailed from Sydney with dispatches from Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling for the Foreign Office. Believing them urgent he left the ship in the pilot boat off Portsmouth and went straight to London. His costs for this zealous act were refused by the Colonial Office. He became commanding officer of the 82nd Regiment in January 1828 and was posted to Mauritius. He retired from the army in 1832 and died in London in February 1838.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 13, series 3, vol 5
  • Gentleman's Magazine, 1838
  • Hobart Town Gazette, 21 Jan, 1 Apr 1826.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

E. R. Pretyman, 'Balfour, William (1785–1838)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 13 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




February, 1838 (aged ~ 53)
London, Middlesex, England

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Passenger Ship
Military Service
Key Places