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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Buxton, Sir Thomas Fowell (1837–1915)

by P. A. Howell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Thomas Fowell Buxton (1837-1915), by Elliott and Fry

Thomas Fowell Buxton (1837-1915), by Elliott and Fry

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6970

Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton (1837-1915), philanthropist and governor, was born on 26 January 1837 at West Ham, Essex, England, eldest son of Sir Edward North Buxton, second baronet, of Warlies, Essex, and Colne House, Cromer, Norfolk, and his wife Catherine, née Gurney; his paternal grandfather of the same name, the first baronet, had been a notable leader of the anti-slavery movement. Educated at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge (M.A., 1859), in 1858 he succeeded to the baronetcy, landed interests and a partnership in the brewing firm of Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co. where he worked until 1889.

An Evangelical Anglican, Sir Fowell devoted much energy and money to religious and charitable causes, serving in the Church Missionary and British and Foreign Bible societies. He became vice-president of the British and Foreign Aborigines Protection Society, joined the committee of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, and secured the amalgamation of these bodies. He was a zealous student of natural history and a conservationist.

On 12 June 1862 at Exton Buxton married Lady Victoria Noel (1839-1916); ten of their thirteen children survived infancy. His wife was crippled by a spinal condition from 1869. Buxton served as a Liberal in the House of Commons in 1865-68, was a promoter of the Imperial Federation League, and represented Britain at several European conferences on slavery and central African affairs. In 1880 he declined a peerage because he was proud to continue the style and forenames of his grandfather. From 1882 he was increasingly critical of the effects of British imperial practice in Africa and Asia and, in a reformist spirit, became a director of the Imperial British East Africa Co. Nevertheless he broke with the Liberal Party over Irish home rule in 1886.

In 1895 Buxton accepted the governorship of South Australia, after anxious and prayerful reflection. The British were amazed at the choice of this critic of the government's colonial policy. The South Australian government was even more surprised. It had requested a long interregnum to follow Governor Kintore's retirement. The radical premier C. C. Kingston had hoped for participation of the local executive in the nomination of future governors and to save money. He made the post unattractive by abolishing the vice-regal expense allowance and demanded that subordinate posts be filled locally. The Colonial Office tried 'to bring [Kingston and his colleagues] to their senses by sending them a man strong enough to live within his salary'. Kingston retaliated with a bill to reduce the governor's salary by £1000. Although the Colonial Office advised Buxton that this proposal was derogatory to the dignity of the office, he refused to withdraw his acceptance of the office. Kingston applied other petty economies: when Buxton arrived in Adelaide on 29 October he was charged customs duty on his wife's invalid carriage, and told that the governor's salary (reduction) bill had passed both Houses.

When formally advised to assent to the bill, Buxton felt obliged to reserve it but he urged the secretary of state to secure royal assent speedily, and thus negated the conservatives' efforts to embarrass the government. Tension developed next year when Kingston ignored Buxton's advice and left the office of chief secretary vacant for several weeks following the resignation of J. H. Gordon. But the government soon came to appreciate Buxton's gentle courtesy; his unassuming friendliness disarmed all radical criticism. Kingston declared 'Governor Buxton and his flock to be the most genial, sociable and common-sense family who have ever inhabited the Adelaide vice-regal mansion'. He deplored the coloured immigration restriction bill, 1896, but when he reserved it the Colonial Office instructed him to assent to a similar measure if it exempted British subjects from its operation. With that single exception, the Advertiser later claimed, 'no one could have more completely identified himself with the aspirations of the people over whom he ruled'. He attended the Federal Convention debates of 1897-98 as an observer and lobbied discreetly to help resolve disagreements.

Uniquely among Australian governors, Buxton regularly visited and chatted with the inmates of the gaols, the Home for Incurables, the lunatic asylum and the destitutes' refuges. These people were to him 'individuals with lives and interests of their own'. He travelled to meet the Aboriginals, tried to explain their tribal land tenure and other customs to the whites, and frequently exhorted government, churchmen and pastoralists to make amends for past mistakes.

The Buxtons stimulated Adelaide's musical life and worked tirelessly for a host of religious, educational and charitable organizations: Government House became the meeting place of numerous committees and Buxton gave very large sums to drought victims. Lady Victoria became the first president of the Church of England Mothers' Union in Adelaide and founded several working-girls' clubs. They 'brought Government House nearer to the people than ever it was before'. Lady Victoria afterwards remembered, with 'real pleasure', 'our Garden Parties for State school-teachers, for the police and their wives, the hospital nurses, the market-gardeners and their families … [and] the Anglican Sunday-School teachers'. The family's tie with South Australia was cemented in 1896 when their daughter Constance Victoria married Rev. Bertram Robert Hawker.

On leave in England in 1898 the Buxtons' eldest son developed a near-fatal illness and Lady Victoria's condition worsened. Buxton resigned without returning to Australia. He had been appointed K.C.M.G. in 1895 and was promoted G.C.M.G. in 1899. He continued to 'stick up for South Australia' and strove to prevent Joseph Chamberlain tampering with the Constitution of the Commonwealth. He continued his philanthropic work. Since 'he used to say that the real advantage of wealth was not the great house but the “stray sixpence in the pocket”', it was fitting that when he died, on 28 October 1915, it was in a cottage at Cromer because he had made Colne House a hospital for wounded soldiers. The Art Gallery of South Australia holds a portrait of Buxton by John Collier.

Select Bibliography

  • G. W. E. Russell, Lady Victoria Buxton (Lond, 1919)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Great Britain), 1895 (Command 7910)
  • P. A. Howell, ‘Varieties of vice-regal life in South Australia’, JHSSA, no 3 (1977)
  • Bulletin, 25 Jan 1896
  • Register (Adelaide), 29 Sept, 21 Dec 1898
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 11 Apr 1899
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 4 Nov 1915, p 11
  • Buxton papers (British Anti-Slavery Society Library, Oxford, England)
  • CO 13/150-153 (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

P. A. Howell, 'Buxton, Sir Thomas Fowell (1837–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 20 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Thomas Fowell Buxton (1837-1915), by Elliott and Fry

Thomas Fowell Buxton (1837-1915), by Elliott and Fry

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6970