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Robert Arthur Cecil (1830–1903)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published:

Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne Cecil (1830-1903), statesman, was born on 3 February 1830 at Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England, son of James Brownlow William Cecil and Frances Mary, née Gascoyne. He was educated at Eton and at Christ Church, Oxford (B.A., 1850; M.A., 1853). In 1851 he was advised to take a sea-voyage to cure his nervous illness. After three months in South Africa he arrived in Adelaide in January 1852 and visited Victoria, Van Diemen's Land, New South Wales and New Zealand. His detailed diary, much of it devoted to theological musings, contains many lively and shrewd comments on the colonies. A small section of it was edited by E. Scott as Lord Robert Cecil's Gold Fields' Diary (Melbourne, 1935 and 1945). Contrary to legend, he did not 'swing a pick' on the diggings although he bought a jumper when warned that the diggers would hoot his gentleman's dress. He went to Castlemaine in a spring-cart with a drunken driver and was given hospitality by William Wright, the chief commissioner. There and at Bendigo he was impressed by the 'perfect civility' with which he was treated by the diggers, their respect for authority, the 'orderly quiet' with which the Sabbath was observed, and the fact that 'mate' was the customary mode of address. On the diggings he was surprised to find, in contrast to Melbourne, 'less crime than in a large English town, and more order and civility than I have myself witnessed in my own native village of Hatfield'. In Tasmania Cecil was moved by the cruelty and degradation of the convict system and reluctantly sympathized with the 'very strong and general discontent' throughout the colonies with bureaucratic government by the Colonial Office.

Salisbury did not form any lasting interest in the Australian colonies, although later as prime minister he was associated with vital developments relating to Australia and the empire. In 1887 at the first Colonial Conference in London he figured in a famous brush with Alfred Deakin and other Australian delegates when, preoccupied with a series of issues in dispute with France, he sweepingly derided colonial demands to resist the French attempt to control the New Hebrides. Ultimately, although he considered the colonists 'the most unreasonable people I ever heard or dreamt of', he unwillingly carried through a compromise settlement. In 1888 he worked constructively and harmoniously with most of the Australian colonies to settle the question of Chinese immigration, but the treaty negotiated with the Chinese government was abandoned when New South Wales alone did not concur. Salisbury was prime minister again at the time of Federation, but does not appear to have shown any interest or to have influenced the negotiations. He died on 22 August 1903, predeceased by his wife Georgina Caroline, née Alderson, whom he had married on 11 July 1857.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Cecil, Life of Robert, Marquis of Salisbury, vol 1 (Lond, 1921)
  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story, J. A. La Nauze ed (Melb, 1963)
  • J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin, vol 1 (Melb, 1965)
  • Salisbury papers (Christ Church, Oxford).

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Cecil, Robert Arthur (1830–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 May 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

Robert Cecil, 1896

Robert Cecil, 1896

State Library of Victoria, IAN01/02/96/6

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • third Marquess of Salisbury
  • Salisbury, third Marquis of

3 February, 1830
Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England


22 August, 1903 (aged 73)
Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England

Cultural Heritage

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