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Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane (1773–1860)

by J. D. Heydon

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Thomas Brisbane, by F. Schenck, c.1850

Thomas Brisbane, by F. Schenck, c.1850

State Library of New South Wales, 110335898

Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane (1773-1860), governor, was born on 23 July 1773 at Brisbane House, near Largs, Ayrshire, son of a family of ancient Scottish lineage. He was educated by tutors and attended both the University of Edinburgh and the English Academy, Kensington. In 1789 he was commissioned an ensign in the 38th Regiment, which next year he joined in Ireland; there he struck up a long and profitable friendship with a fellow subaltern, Arthur Wellesley. From 1793 to 1798 he served in Flanders as a captain, from 1795 to 1799 in the West Indies as a major, and from 1800 to 1803 he commanded the 69th Regiment in Jamaica as a lieutenant-colonel, earning high praise from the governor, Sir George Nugent. From 1803 to 1805 he served in England, but when the 69th was ordered to India went on half-pay in Scotland because of his health.

He then was able to indulge his interest in astronomy, which he developed after nearly being involved in a shipwreck in 1795, and in 1808 he built at Brisbane House the second observatory in Scotland. In 1810 he was promoted colonel and elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London, and in 1812 at Wellington's request he was promoted brigadier-general. He commanded a brigade which was heavily engaged in the battles of the Peninsular war from Vittoria to Toulouse, and continued to practise his astronomy so that in Wellington's words, he 'kept the time of the army'. In 1815 he was created a K.C.B., received the thanks of parliament, and commanded a brigade in the American war. From 1815 to 1818 he commanded a division in the army of occupation in France and in 1817 he was created a K.C.H. (G.C.H., 1831). He returned to England in 1818 and next year married Anna Maria, daughter and heiress of Sir Henry Hay Makdougall of Makerstoun, Scotland, whose surname he added to his own by letters patent on 14 August 1826. In 1815 he applied for appointment as governor of New South Wales, but the post was not then vacant; in November 1820 on Wellington's advice Brisbane, then in command of the Munster district in Ireland, was appointed. He arrived in the colony on 7 November 1821 and took over from Governor Lachlan Macquarie on 1 December.

Brisbane's policies for the colony were usually sensible answers to pressing problems, based on Commissioner John Thomas Bigge's report and the instructions derived from it, modified by his own impressions. Though he was on good terms with Macquarie he condemned the latter's 'system' and told Earl Bathurst later that he had changed New South Wales in so many ways that if Macquarie had returned 'he would not have recognised the place'.

When Brisbane arrived 340,000 acres (137,593 ha) of promised grants had still to be located and there were many confused permissive occupancies and nebulous promises. Lands were occupied and transferred without legal title, and boundary disputes seemed never ending. Proper survey was essential for a workable policy of alienation to be evolved, and the Ripon regulations of 1831 were made to a large extent possible by the practical development of the policies which Brisbane had implemented.

In 1822 he issued tickets-of-occupation which enabled land to be immediately occupied without a preliminary survey and graziers to be given security against trespass without the land being permanently alienated. Additional assistant surveyors were appointed to reduce arrears in the surveying and granting of land, but Brisbane promised land only to those with the inclination and ability to use it productively, forbade the acceptance of chits signed by irresponsible persons as valid titles, and gave tickets-of-occupation only when extra stock had actually been obtained. He granted land to sons of established settlers only if their fathers' properties had been considerably improved, and to immigrants in proportion to their capital. He was reluctant to make grants to his newly-appointed officials, even though this subjected him 'to a most unpleasant feeling'. In order to promote settlement of the colony by settlers who really wanted to improve the land and to deter speculators with fictitious capital, he insisted that grantees should maintain one convict labourer, free of expense to the Crown, for every 100 acres (40 ha) they were given, and he maintained this rule against criticism from the Colonial Office that it would hamper settlement. Brisbane insisted that although the regulation had been temporarily unpopular genuine settlers did not oppose it, for convict servants were coming to be looked on as a boon. It would help to control the intense demand for land, though even that check would not be sufficient. 'Not a cow calves in the colony but her owner applies for an additional grant in consequence of the increase in his stock', he wrote. 'Every person to whom a grant is made receives it as the payment of a debt; everyone to whom one is refused turns my implacable enemy'. He asked the British government 'to fix an invariable proportion of land to be cultivated in every grant' and to appoint a Commission of Escheat, for without it, since a judgment by Barron Field, the 'clearing and cultivating clauses' in the grants had become 'a dead letter'. The instructions on the disposal of crown lands which were sent from London in January 1825 owed so much to Brisbane's advice that he found 'great satisfaction' in noticing 'the very prominent similarity' between them and the practice he had been following in New South Wales.

Acting on one of Bigge's suggestions Brisbane in 1824 had begun selling crown lands, at 5s. an acre. 'While the system of free grants exists, there is little chance of extensive improvement taking place generally in the colony, as the improver of land can never enter the market in competition with the individual who gets his land for nothing', Brisbane told Bathurst. Between May and December 1825 more than 500,000 acres (202,345 ha) were sold. In land policy Brisbane had recognized the need to encourage men of capital, though at the same time opposing over-lavish land grants. Seeing the need for consolidation rather than expansion, and for more accurate surveys of the settled areas, he gave less encouragement to land exploration than either his predecessors or successors, but he continued, as instructed, to organize coastal surveys.

Brisbane received from Bathurst full instructions on convict affairs, derived from Bigge's report. These were based on the belief that Macquarie had been too lenient and too extravagant, and Brisbane conscientiously carried them out. He rigidly adhered to the rules against the premature granting of tickets-of-leave. He reduced the number of road-gangs, whose members often indulged in dissipation and crime, and the numbers employed on public works in Sydney, and organized in their place gangs to clear land for settlers in return for payment to the government; this greatly speeded up the rate of clearing. He ordered convict mechanics to be hired instead of being assigned; this brought in revenue and made for a more efficient distribution of labour. He established new centres of secondary punishment as Bigge had recommended, first at Moreton Bay and later at Bathurst's suggestion on Norfolk Island, and he sent educated convicts to be confined first at Bathurst and later at Wellington valley, but he opposed excessive corporal punishment, reprieved many prisoners sentenced to death and was criticized by Bathurst for his improvidence in granting pardons.

Brisbane set up an agricultural training college and was the first patron of the New South Wales Agricultural Society, founded in 1822, which among other activities, financed the importation of livestock. On Bathurst's instructions, he drastically reduced the assistance given to new settlers and so, by making it virtually impracticable to begin farming without capital, helped to improve production. He conducted experiments in growing Virginian tobacco, Georgian cotton, Brazilian coffee and New Zealand flax, but unfortunately without much success.

Brisbane looked forward to getting the 'Colony on to its own Resources' and regarded the achievement of economy in government expenditure as one of his major successes. In 1822, on the advice of Frederick Goulburn, colonial secretary, and William Wemyss, deputy commissary general, he initiated currency reforms by which commissariat payments were to be made in dollars at a fixed value of 5s. or about one-eighth above their intrinsic value. This attempt to set up a dollar standard was intended both to reduce expenditure and to provide the colony with a coinage which would prevent a repetition of the issue of store receipts as practised by the former commissary, Frederick Drennan, and it would discourage imports by depreciating the local currency. But the system was not a success and after the terms on which the dollars would be received had been modified the dollar standard was replaced by a sterling exchange standard on instructions sent from London in July 1825. In 1823 all commissariat supplies were called by tender, though the introduction of price competition hurt small farmers and favoured the larger ones; when only three month's grain was bought by tender, instead of a year's at a fixed price, a minor depression occurred, but this was partly due to the suddenness of the change.

Brisbane was devout and broadminded in religious matters, and prepared to support any sect that did not threaten the state. He encouraged Wesleyan societies, advocated and gave financial aid to the Roman Catholics, but opposed what he regarded as extravagant demands by the Presbyterians, considering them wealthy enough to build their own church. He supported Bible and tract societies. He attempted to encourage education by appointing a director-general of all government public schools, but this was quashed by the Colonial Office. He believed that clergy, like government officials, should not indulge in private trade, which of course made him unpopular with Samuel Marsden. His policy towards Aboriginals was ambivalent. On one occasion he ordered some to be shot; on another he imposed martial law beyond the Blue Mountains because of 'the aggressions of the Native Blacks'. However, he favoured compensating them for lost land, and in 1825 granted the London Missionary Society 10,000 acres (4047 ha) as an Aboriginal reserve.

Like other governors, Brisbane found the emancipist-exclusive quarrel a major difficulty, and the success of many of his policies was vitiated because some of his officials ignored him and favoured the exclusives. Brisbane himself did not have great faith in the future of a colony based on emancipists; but though he preferred the large-scale immigration of free settlers, especially those with capital, his cautious liberalism was to the emancipists' tastes. Unlike the exclusives, they gave him a warm farewell. Brisbane appears to have believed, as he said at a public meeting just before he left, that free institutions could be safely established in New South Wales. In 1824 he did not apply any censorship when William Charles Wentworth's Australian began publication, and ended control of the Gazette by government officials. He ordered the holding of Courts of Quarter Sessions at which there would be trial by jury, an experiment which Chief Justice (Sir) Francis Forbes reported to have been very successful; they were abolished by the Act of 1828, but not before the exclusives had grossly misused them at Parramatta in their vendetta against Henry Grattan Douglass. The Legislative Council set up by the New South Wales Act of 1823, which began meeting in August 1824, operated calmly under his rule and began the process of reducing the powers of the governor from the autocracy of the past.

At first Brisbane had too few men to do the work of government; by 1824 he found himself with a number of departmental heads appointed independently of him, varying in ability, at odds with each other and the government. He thought Judge Barron Field and Judge-Advocate (Sir) John Wylde responsible for much of the party feeling in the colony, and was heartily glad to see them go in 1824, but John Oxley, Saxe Bannister and Frederick Goulburn were also sources of trouble. Men like George Druitt, John Jamison, Marsden, John Dunmore Lang, the Macarthurs and the Blaxlands frequently made vicious misrepresentations in London about Brisbane's administration. They gave the governor much to contend with and, though he 'evinced a forbearance amounting to Stoicism', in the end he felt compelled to remove some 'exclusive' magistrates for grossly improper behaviour. It was partly to counter their misrepresentations that he sent Dr Douglass to London in February 1824, but his patronage of Douglass, who was in trouble with the War Office, in the end contributed to his recall. Brisbane did not find Goulburn easy to work with and in January 1824 asked for an assistant-secretary. Goulburn refused to carry out some of Brisbane's instructions; he suppressed letters or answered them without reference to the governor; on 19 April 1824 he even claimed that the governor's proclamations and orders were invalid unless they went through his department. Such conduct Brisbane clearly could not countenance and he protested to the Colonial Office; the reply in December was the recall of both governor and secretary, and in November 1825 Brisbane departed.

Brisbane did not concern himself with all the details of his administration; but a governor could no longer attend to everything. The colony had expanded in size in recent years, and Macquarie had ruined his health and peace of mind by a concern with every administrative detail and petty squabble as Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling was soon to do also. Brisbane had worked well with Lieutenant-Governors William Sorell and (Sir) George Arthur in Van Diemen's Land, which was still under his jurisdiction, and he had no trouble there. Unfriendly contemporaries, Marsden, Archdeacon Thomas Scott and the Macarthurs, found Brisbane amiable, impartial but weak. His enemies accused him of a lack of interest in the colony, but this was untrue. Judge Forbes, whom he found 'a great blessing', praised his work; an emancipist address on his departure spoke of 'a mild, an unpartial, and a firm administration'; but soon afterwards John Dunmore Lang was to make what became the standard comment on his governorship; 'a man of the best intentions, but disinclined to business, and deficient in energy'. Of the quality of his intentions there is little doubt: highly patriotic, and regarding New South Wales as being of considerable moral, political and strategic value to the United Kingdom, he was genuinely concerned in its future progress. The stock criticisms, that he was weak and lacked interest in administrative detail, either because he was lazy or more concerned with 'star-gazing', are very misleading. 'In place of passing my time in the Observatory or shooting Parrots, I am seldom employed in either. And Altho' I rise oftener at 5 o'clock in the Morning than after, I cannot get thro' the various and arduous duties of my Government', he wrote. Brisbane had been a very respected and successful soldier, as indicated by Nugent's admiration and Wellington's occasional recorded praise and continued championship. Brisbane's dispatches are permeated with bitter realism about the greed and duplicity of leading colonists, and his policies for the colony were usually sensible. He was ready to delegate work to subordinates who were too often untrustworthy, but he was extremely diligent in the duties which he undertook himself as pertinent to his office. Sensitive, respectful to others, and never vindictive, he was rather out of his element when surrounded by the arrogance of the New South Wales magistracy, the disloyalty and factiousness of officials and the explosive rifts in colonial society. At the same time a more forceful man, living in Sydney not Parramatta, who ignored his wife and infant family (two of whom were born in the colony and a third on the voyage home), would probably have had more success in overcoming his difficulties. It was an unhappy period in Brisbane's life and, as Wellington commented on his recall, 'there are many brave men not fit to be governors of colonies'.

His astronomical activities had continued in Australia and indeed were probably a reason for his seeking the appointment. He built an observatory at Parramatta and made the first observations of stars in the southern hemisphere since Lacaille's in 1751-52 of which he published an account. 'Science' was 'not allowed to flag'. When he departed he left his astronomical instruments and 349 volumes of his scientific library to the colony, as he wanted his name to be associated with 'the furtherance of Science'; but he had had to leave most of his observatory work to Christian Rümker. There is little reference to astronomy in his letters after 1823, but he kept up his interest and in 1828 reported on the subject to the Royal Society, London. His astronomical achievements indeed brought him as much fame as his military and vice-regal career. When in 1823 Oxford University made him a D.C.L. he wrote that 'no Roman General ever felt prouder of the Corona Triumphatus … than I do on this occasion'. In 1826 he built another observatory at Makerstoun. Later he became president of the Edinburgh Astronomical Institution and did much to make the Edinburgh Royal Observatory highly efficient. In 1832 he was elected president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in succession to Sir Walter Scott. In 1836 he was created a baronet, in 1837 awarded a G.C.B. and in 1841 promoted general. In 1826 he had been given command of the 34th Regiment; in 1836 he was offered the command of the troops in the North American colonies, but refused on grounds of ill health, as he did in 1838 when offered the Indian command. In 1858, when he was 'the oldest officer in the Army' he twice sought a field-marshal's baton; but though asked for without emolument it was refused. Much of his later life was occupied in paternal works at Largs. He improved its drainage, endowed a parish school and the Largs Brisbane Academy. Predeceased by his four children, he died on 27 January 1860, after enjoying locally great popularity and respect. The city of Brisbane, Queensland’s capital since 1859, was founded as a convict settlement in 1824, and it and its river were named for the governor at the suggestion of the explorer Oxley, the first European to survey the area. Brisbane himself visited the new settlement that year. It was declared a town in 1834 and opened for free settlement in 1839.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 10-16
  • (W. Tasker), Reminiscences of General Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane, Bart (Edinb, 1860)
  • V. W. E. Goodin, ‘Parramatta Observatory: The Story of an Absurdity’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 33, part 3, 1947, pp 173-87
  • Thomas Brisbane letter books (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Brisbane letters (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. D. Heydon, 'Brisbane, Sir Thomas Makdougall (1773–1860)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 15 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

Thomas Brisbane, by F. Schenck, c.1850

Thomas Brisbane, by F. Schenck, c.1850

State Library of New South Wales, 110335898

Life Summary [details]


23 July, 1773
Largs, Ayrshire, Scotland


27 January, 1860 (aged 86)
Largs, Ayrshire, Scotland

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