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Sir William Wellington Cairns (1828–1888)

by R. B. Joyce

This article was published:

Sir William Wellington Cairns (1828?-1888), governor, was born in Ireland, son of William Cairns, property owner at Cultra, County Down, and sometime captain in the 14th Regiment, and his second wife Matilda, daughter of Francis Beggs of the Grange, Malahide, near Dublin. A half-brother, Hugh McCalmont Cairns, reached high legal, political and social positions, was lord chancellor in the Conservative ministries in 1868-69 and 1874-80 and became baron in 1867 and earl in 1878. Probably because of ill health William was advised to leave England. In December 1852 he joined the Ceylon civil service in which he rose to be postmaster-general by 1864. He was appointed lieutenant-governor of Malacca in 1867, of St Kitts in 1868 and of Honduras in 1870. In March 1874 he was created C.M.G. and became governor of Trinidad, but resigned after only a few weeks.

Since his health had degenerated in the tropics, it seems surprising that Cairns was appointed governor of Queensland, a position he held from 23 January 1875 to 10 April 1877. He certainly hoped to recover in Queensland: 'I am not physically so well … as I would like to be and as I have no doubt your climate will soon make me'. His hopes proved illusory and, when the governorship of South Australia fell vacant, his term in Queensland was reduced 'from a considerate regard for his health, which it was thought might be benefited by his removal to a cooler climate'. After only eight weeks in Adelaide, however, he resigned in May because of insomnia and 'the effect of long tropical residence upon [his] nervous system'. His earlier plans to speak for the colonies in the British parliament also proved vain, and after eleven years of retirement in England he died at a hospital in London on 9 July 1888. While Cairns suffered real complaints (his death certificate mentioned 'bronchitis [for] several years') his condition seems to have been worsened by imaginary fears. His health contributed to his failure to approach the levels reached by his half-brother. William was created K.C.M.G. in April 1887.

The position of governor was rarely a sinecure and although Cairns carried out his duties efficiently he was never popular in Queensland. His delicate appearance did not assist him. One squatter wrote: 'he looks like a Mute at a Funeral, and does not seem a very convivial individual'. Cairns showed little appreciation of Queensland's country life, illustrating Governor Sir George Bowen's warning to the Colonial Office: 'you should never send a Governor here who cannot ride and shoot'. He rarely left Brisbane, partly because of financial restrictions imposed by his government, and partly because of the lack of interest for which he was slated by the Brisbane Courier when it assured him that 'solid merit and true dignity may without anxiety submit to the test of close observation'. Nor was he impressed by Brisbane society, where the austerity of his bachelor establishment (he reputedly sacked all the maidservants at Government House) was in marked contrast to the generous hospitality of his predecessor, Lord Normanby. He made few friends, one exception being the clerk of the Executive Council, Albert Drury, to whom he later sent gifts and whose 'kindness and forbearance' he could 'never forget'. His conservative English views could be expected to clash with those of his 'Liberal' premiers. Cairns had little overt friction for seventeen months with Arthur Macalister who resigned on 2 June 1876, and his opposition then to any increase of members in the Legislative Council was based on the dangers of a precedent of swamping rather than on a defence of the squatting interests. Cairns was hostile to the next ministry led by George Thorn because of its inefficiency. He condemned its 'reckless expenditure' and its log-rolling 'game—it deserves no more courteous term', and was relieved when it fell in the month he left the colony. He hoped that the new premier, John Douglas, would shape 'a policy into which considerations of a statesmanlike character shall be allowed to enter'.

Cairns appreciated the limits of responsible government and interfered directly only when other parts of the empire were involved. Thus he reported fully on the extent of local interest in New Guinea and on French convicts escaping from New Caledonia, and criticized bills imposing special restrictions on Asiatic and African labourers on the goldfields because of the large numbers of British Chinese in Hong Kong, Labuan and the Straits Settlements. His concern was humanitarian, consistent with his appointment at St Kitts to a board of inquiry into the conditions of Indian and Chinese immigrants in British Guiana. In Queensland Cairns condemned cases of cruelty by native police to Aboriginals, telling his colonial secretary that 'inhumanity should never be resorted to, or palliated or left unpunished'. He was keenly aware of the prevalent injustice to South Sea islanders, describing the report of the 1876 select committee as 'rose-coloured'; and he encouraged measures to reform prisoners. He showed a keen interest in education and welcomed botanical and agricultural research.

Perhaps the main significance of his governorship was as a symbol in the growing gulf between Britain and Australia. Britain's approach to imperial and colonial problems was becoming increasingly alien to that of Queensland's, as alien as the views of this hypochondriacal, haughty, reserved, humanitarian bachelor were to the majority of Queenslanders.

Select Bibliography

  • Our First Half-Century: A Review of Queensland Progress (Brisb, 1909)
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 3 Feb 1877
  • Register (Adelaide), 26, 29 Mar, 26 Apr, 17 May 1877
  • C. A. Bernays, ‘The governors of Queensland’, Brisbane Courier, Nov 1922–Jan 1923
  • Governor's dispatches, 1875-77 (Queensland State Archives), Governor's dispatches, 1877 (State Records of South Australia)
  • Deas Thomson papers (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Parkes letters, 1875 (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

R. B. Joyce, 'Cairns, Sir William Wellington (1828–1888)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 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

William Cairns, n.d.

William Cairns, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 3803

Life Summary [details]




9 July, 1888 (aged ~ 60)
London, Middlesex, England

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