Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Bruce (1808–1870)

by George F. Wieck

This article was published:

John Bruce (1808-1870), military officer, was born on 25 July 1808 in Athlone, Ireland, of Scottish parents. He was educated privately and at the Military College, Sandhurst, England. Appointed ensign on 31 July 1828 in the 16th Regiment he joined it in Bengal. He was promoted lieutenant in 1831 and next year he married Johannah Jacoba Herklotz, daughter of a Dutch judge at Trichinopoly.

Bruce returned to England in 1840 without seeing active service and, believing that the war in China offered opportunities, he transferred to the 18th Regiment and again went abroad. When he reached China the war had practically ceased and he was placed on the staff of (Sir) George Charles d'Aguilar, first as deputy judge advocate then as assistant adjutant general, offices he held for three years and a half. His desire for active service was partly satisfied in military actions against Canton in 1847 when he served with distinction. He had been promoted captain in 1842 and soon after his return to England in 1847 was posted as staff officer to the troops at Tilbury. He now regarded his chances of further active service as remote. In 1850 when the War Office called for applications for the post of staff officer to the Pensioner Force being formed for control of the newly-established penal station in Western Australia, Bruce applied and was selected. It was an admirable choice, for Bruce had a sound knowledge of military administration and, although a strict disciplinarian, he was far-seeing and humane.

With his wife, five daughters and an infant son, Bruce arrived at Fremantle on the convict transport Hashemy on 25 October 1850. Some of the pensioners with families had already arrived but, because the force remained a direct responsibility of the War Office, no steps had been taken to provide accommodation other than tents. Labour, building material and money were scarce and, as the size of the force was increased to maintain a reasonable ratio to convict numbers, Bruce engaged in constant strife with other local claimants for a share of available resources. He abhorred injustice and fought cleanly and effectively, stating his case with such clarity and courtesy that no ill feeling was created. The success of the enrolled pensioner system was due largely to his wise control and keen interest in the welfare of individuals and their families after the term of service had expired. He was the leading figure in the establishment of the Pensioners' Benevolent Fund in January 1855.

When in 1861 a volunteer force became necessary to replace the regular troops about to be withdrawn from the colony the task was entrusted to Bruce. Despite many difficulties it was successfully completed by the end of the year. He had been promoted brevet-major in June 1854 and lieutenant-colonel in February 1860. His services as military commandant were honoured by appointment as colonel of the volunteers on 17 November 1863.

Bruce had been appointed to the Executive Council in 1854 and often presided over its meetings. From 20-27 February 1862 and 2 November 1868 to 29 September 1869 he acted as governor of the colony. Confident of Western Australia's future he acquired several properties, the best known being Nedlands, named after his son Edward to whom he gave the land. He was also active in the founding of the Mechanics' Institute and Perth Building Society; in 1863 his unpaid work for benevolent societies won high praise. He died on 5 November 1870 and was buried with full military honours. His wife died on 18 June 1904 at Stamford, Lincolnshire, aged 94. Of their seven children a son and four daughters married members of prominent Western Australian families. Mount Bruce, the highest point in the colony, was named in his honour in 1881.

Select Bibliography

  • J. T. Reilly, Reminiscences of Fifty Years' Residence in Western Australia (Perth, 1903)
  • Inquirer (Perth), 1 July 1863, 2 Jan 1867, 30 Mar 1870
  • Perth Gazette, 4, 25 Jan 1867
  • Colonial Secretary's Office, in-letters, 221, 253 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • CO 18/57.

Citation details

George F. Wieck, 'Bruce, John (1808–1870)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 June 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

Life Summary [details]


25 July, 1808
Athlone, Westmeath, Ireland


5 November, 1870 (aged 62)
Western Australia, Australia

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