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Sir Frederick Palgrave Barlee (1827–1884)

by J. H. M. Honniball

This article was published:

Frederick Palgrave Barlee (1827-1884), by Alfred Choppin, c1870

Frederick Palgrave Barlee (1827-1884), by Alfred Choppin, c1870

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H29500

Sir Frederick Palgrave Barlee (1827-1884), colonial secretary, was born on 6 February 1827 at Worlingworth, Suffolk, England, seventh of the ten children of Rev. Edward Barlee Buckle and his wife Justina, daughter of Zachariah Levy, a Jewish merchant of Walthamstow, who had married into the Gentile family of Laurence. His father was rector for thirty-eight years and magistrate for twenty; he and his brother had legally assumed the name of Barlee in 1811 in compliance with the will of a half-sister, the last lineal descendant of the Barlee and Palgrave families. Frederick was educated privately and at local schools. In January 1843 he began work in a bank but had to leave after sixteen months because of illness. In 1845 he was appointed clerk in the Ordnance Department at Chatham and soon afterwards at Woolwich. On 2 April 1851 he married Jane, daughter of Edward Oseland, of Coleraine, Ireland. She had for several years helped her sister to run a girls' school at Framlingham, Suffolk; among the pupils at this school were Barlee's sisters.

Two weeks after his marriage Barlee sailed with his wife for Sierra Leone, to take up appointment as store-keeper and barrack master. Because of the colony's climate the tenants of official positions changed often, and in three years Barlee was able to gain experience in several branches of the civil service. In 1853 he was private secretary to the governor and clerk of the Legislative Council; in 1854 he was clerk in charge of the Liberated African Department, a branch of the local administration then gradually winding up its activities. Ill health compelled Barlee to return to England in May, a few months ahead of Captain Arthur Kennedy, who had been governor of Sierra Leone for two years. When Kennedy was appointed governor of Western Australia early in 1855 Barlee was invited to accompany him as colonial secretary at a salary of £600. They arrived at Fremantle in the Avalanche in July and for a month had the advantage of personal contact with their predecessors in office, Charles FitzGerald and W. A. Sanford.

Barlee stayed in Western Australia for twenty years. At first there were drastic economies in public expenditure but the colony steadily progressed as prosperity followed the introduction of transported convicts in 1850. The civil service grew from about 100 in 1855 to about 250 in 1875, including chaplains, teachers and postal officials, many of them part-time.

While Western Australia remained a Crown colony the governor had to maintain a close supervision over every aspect of government and all decisions of any importance were reserved for him. His main channel of communication with his subjects was the colonial secretary, and Barlee's experience made him increasingly influential. He travelled widely throughout the colony, often on horseback. In 1855 the only administrative offices outside his responsibility were the Treasury, Survey, Judicial and Military Departments. One of Kennedy's earliest acts was to quash the ambitious but costly plans of the Board of Education and, after reconstituting the board, to nominate Barlee to a seat on it. Kennedy wished to see the board become an appendage to the Colonial Secretary's Office; it did so by meeting in his office, but Barlee did not become its chairman until 1863. He took his duties seriously, tirelessly inspecting schools and 'examining' the pupils; his wife also examined the girls in appropriate subjects and presented prizes. As a magistrate Barlee presided over the Perth Court with dignity but his aloofness, it was said, 'failed to impress' either petty offenders or police officers. He was also criticized for his handling of legislation on the licensing of public houses. In 1862 the newly-arrived Governor John Hampton relieved the Colonial Secretary's Office from all dealings with the convict establishment, so that he himself could have direct oversight of a field in which he was personally experienced.

The position of chief intermediary between governor and governed was in itself difficult, but Barlee lacked the diplomacy necessary to maintain even a semblance of harmony between them, and this led to serious quarrels with Kennedy and Hampton. The colonial secretary was ex officio a member of the Executive Council and of the Legislative Council which in 1855 consisted of four official and four nominated unofficial members. In the governor's absence, the senior military officer was administrator, and when Colonel John Bruce was acting governor for eleven months in 1868-69, much friction with Barlee prevailed. After the introduction of representative government in 1870 Governor (Sir) Frederick Weld thought it more fitting that the colonial secretary should be his heir; but the Colonial Office again nominated the military commandant to administer while Weld visited New Zealand early in 1874. Barlee had the satisfaction of 'representing' Western Australia at the intercolonial conference in Sydney in 1873 and keenly promoted his colony as commissioner at the exhibition held there soon afterwards; he also negotiated with Victorian businessmen, offering them liberal inducements for investing in Western Australian mining.

With Weld Barlee got on well. By 1869 he perhaps felt that his prospects would improve if he concentrated primarily on being the governor's chief assistant. Weld's experience as premier of New Zealand also contributed to their good relations. From 1871 Weld had to govern without the right of attending the new part-elective Legislative Council, and co-operation with Barlee was all the more desirable. Barlee's loyalty to the governor then forced him to compromise other loyalties and as a quasi-premier he had to bear the brunt of criticism from various quarters. However, his salary, £800 since 1863, was increased to £900 in 1875.

Like Hampton and Bruce before him, Barlee fell foul of Beresford and Pearce, the vociferous, if not widely respected, editors of the Fremantle Herald. They took exception when Barlee referred in council to their convict antecedents, and their appeal to the Colonial Office led to Weld's receipt of directions which he considered humiliating. But the most serious imbroglio for Barlee was in connexion with the Elementary Education Act of 1871. He had always assiduously advanced the causes of education and religion, but the two interests were brought into collision by Weld. The Roman Catholic governor's plan for granting assistance to denominational schools was a bold manoeuvre, and it would probably never have been accepted by the council without Barlee's support. For his part in the concurrent 'disestablishment' of the Church of England in the colony, Barlee incurred the wrath of Bishop Mathew Hale, till then one of his closest friends.

In the Legislative Council the government often had difficulty in carrying its policies after 1871 whenever the numerically superior elected members united in opposition. However, on the crucial matter of a proposed import duty on flour in years of poor local harvests, the government managed to uphold the principle of free trade. The metropolitan councillors sided with the officials and nominees to defeat the protectionist country representatives. On the question of raising loans for public works, the opposition showed great dissatisfaction with the restrictions imposed upon a Crown colony, and made the matter an important argument in favour of responsible government. Barlee won popular acclaim for his explanation of government policy at two large public meetings in Perth, one in June 1871 on the tariff and the other in April 1872 on the loan issue.

Barlee professed liberal political principles. When the colonists first began to press seriously for representative government in 1865, his sympathy was well known, but he was obliged to keep in line with official policy. Often, however, he was placed together with his more conservative colleagues on the council, all of whom were long in office and criticized for impeding progress, indulging in nepotism and engaging in 'trade'. In preparation for representative government in 1870 Weld sent Barlee to the eastern colonies for two months to study their more advanced legislative and administrative machinery. It was generally expected that representative would soon give way to responsible government as in the other colonies. Barlee became a leading advocate of the change, and the council declared itself in favour of responsible government in 1874. Primarily because of the colony's small population, the Colonial Office was determined to delay the final step and Weld, much to his surprise, was rebuked for being too sympathetic to the movement. The colonial secretary undoubtedly looked forward to becoming first premier. He had a wide following but opponents accused him of advocating the change chiefly to forward his personal ambitions. When in 1874 the council suggested that Barlee be sent to England in connexion with an immigration programme, Weld steered them into sending his cousin, E. H. Laurence, in his place, apprehensive lest Barlee be also commissioned to lobby for full self-government. In July 1875, however, Barlee went to England on extended leave. The Colonial Office and Governor (Sir) Hercules Robinson, who had succeeded Weld in January 1875, calculated that the demand for responsible government would lose force during Barlee's absence. The elected legislators, led by (Sir) James George Lee Steere, nevertheless fought a determined rearguard action against Robinson's efforts to follow Whitehall's policy.

Heavy work did not prevent Barlee from taking part in many other public activities. He gave financial help in founding the Bishop's Collegiate School in 1864 and was one of its governors. His keen participation in Anglican church affairs lessened somewhat after his difference with Hale. When synodical government was introduced, he was chosen as lay delegate of a country parish; Hale noted in his diary that his 'factious proceedings' were prominent in the synod of 1874. Barlee held office in the Swan River Mechanics' Institute and gave occasional lectures. He was first president of the Working Men's Association in 1864 and of the Weld Club founded in 1871. As worshipful master in 1867 he dedicated the first Freemasons Hall in Perth. Living on a large estate at Crawley for some years, the Barlees patronized the activities of their neighbours, the former pensioner guards and their families settled at Freshwater Bay (Claremont). After their move in 1867 to a house in Adelaide Terrace, Perth, they took a leading part in the foundation of the Protestant orphanage. Mrs Barlee was a talented pianist, much praised for her accompaniment at concerts.

In private financial affairs Barlee was none too successful. He seemed to regard the colony as his permanent home and was optimistic about its progress. He was chairman of the Roebuck Bay Pastoral and Agricultural Association, but their colonization venture in West Kimberley in 1864 failed to emulate the success of other north-west settlements. Returns were disappointing on his investments in the Melbourne and Champion Bay Lead Mining Co. and in the Western Australian Times. In 1867 he dispatched Thomas Dickson, with stock from his Crawley property, to establish a farm, Biddelia, on Barlee Brook, the chief tributary of the Donnelly River in the south-west. In the Geraldton district he bought the sheep station, Glengarry, in 1877, after several years' tenancy and a major court case against his landlord, Maitland Brown. The two properties were rather a headache to their absentee owner.

In 1876 Barlee found the Colonial Office anxious to prevent his return to Perth. In November he accepted promotion as administrator of British Honduras with a virtual guarantee of succession to the lieutenant-governorship. He arrived in Belize in March 1877, applied himself to his duties with zeal and energy, and travelled extensively through his tropical domain. He kept a sharp eye on the public service, built up the police and volunteer forces, encouraged commerce, improved communications and introduced several public health measures, but on his north-west frontier hostile Indians were a more serious worry than Australian Aboriginals had ever been to him. Once again he encountered opposition to his policies. In 1880 a petition against his administration from a sector of the mercantile community reached the House of Commons and with other correspondence was duly printed. Barlee weathered that storm but also had serious differences with his colonial secretary. After bouts of fever he returned to England in September 1882. Business affairs soon took him for a month to Western Australia, where he was warmly welcomed. He then spent a miserable year in England suffering acutely from asthma and with only a slim chance of further employment by the Colonial Office. In April 1884 he was offered the temporary administration of Trinidad, again with some prospect of the governorship. He reached Port of Spain in June and again threw himself into work, but after six weeks he succumbed to asthma and died on 8 August 1884.

Barlee was zealous, well meaning and outstanding but success eluded him for he seemed to make enemies as easily as friends. Though appointed C.M.G. in 1877 and K.C.M.G. in 1883 recognition of his work was belated. Ten speakers paid tribute to him in the Legislative Council of Western Australia in 1884-85; to Maitland Brown he was 'the friend of all, young and old, rich and poor alike. He was certainly the most prominent figure in Western Australia during his long connexion with it, and no one would gainsay that the progress made by the colony was in a great measure due to Mr. Barlee's single-minded exertions in promoting its advancement'. According to Septimus Burt, he 'was for many years the embodiment of the whole government', and (Sir) John Forrest attested to the encouragement Barlee had given to him and the younger generation. Explorers had indeed shown their respect for him in his lifetime; they commemorated his name in at least nine geographical features, including two Mounts Palgrave. The marble altar of St George's Cathedral, Perth, was presented in his memory by his widow in 1896.

Lady Barlee, who was granted a pension by the Western Australian government, retired to Bournemouth and died aged 78 on 18 February 1901; she had no children. Barlee's sisters, Louisa and Ellen, were 'female emigration agents' in London and sought to encourage girls to go to Western Australia for domestic service. Other relations settled in Australia. Barlee's second brother, Charles (1822-1882), went to South Australia in 1839 and later to Sydney and Brisbane; his sons, Alan and Frederick, went to Perth and were active in the public service and in law. A sister, Catherine, arrived in Western Australia in 1876 with her husband, Rev. James Allen (1830-1908); as a digger at Eureka he had given refuge to the fugitive Peter Lalor and later held appointments at Greenough, the Bishop's School, Perth Cathedral and Pinjarra. A cousin, Edward Haynes Laurence (1846-1885), was resident magistrate at Greenough and Roebourne for fifteen years; his brother, Henry, was rector at Geraldton in 1876-86.

Select Bibliography

  • J. T. Reilly, Reminiscences of Fifty Years' Residence in Western Australia (Perth, 1903)
  • A. G. Austin, Australian Education, 1788-1900 (Melb, 1961)
  • Correspondence on the Administration of Public Affairs in British Honduras, Parliamentary Papers (Great Britain) 1881 (Cmd 2978)
  • P. J. Boyce, The Role of the Governor in Western Australia, 1829-1890 (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1961)
  • P. U. Henn (ed), Bishop Hale's Diaries, 1856-76 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Western Australian government records 1855-85 (State Records Office of Western Australia)
  • F. Weld, letters to W. Monsell, 1869-74 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • F. P. Barlee diary, 1884, and letters, 1876-84 (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

J. H. M. Honniball, 'Barlee, Sir Frederick Palgrave (1827–1884)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Frederick Palgrave Barlee (1827-1884), by Alfred Choppin, c1870

Frederick Palgrave Barlee (1827-1884), by Alfred Choppin, c1870

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H29500

Life Summary [details]


6 February, 1827
Worlingworth, Suffolk, England


8 August, 1884 (aged 57)
Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.