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Alexander Cheyne (1785–1858)

by A. Rand

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Alexander Cheyne (1785-1858), director of public works, was born on 8 October 1785, the third son of John Cheyne, surgeon of Leith, Scotland, and his wife Margaret, the daughter of William Edmonston, fellow of the College of Surgeons, and Cecilia, daughter of Alexander Bayne, professor of Scots Law at the University of Edinburgh. He was apprenticed to an iron founder at Wilsontown, Lanarkshire, and continued his engineering studies with the Royal Engineers. He was commissioned lieutenant in 1806, served with distinction at Dover, in Scotland and Ireland and in the Peninsular war, and became a captain in 1811. He was retired on half-pay in 1817 and became director of the Glasgow Edinburgh Union Canal in 1822. In 1833 he sold out of the army and sailed for King George Sound in the James Pattison, arriving in August 1834. There he became a justice of the peace and directed public works.

Encouraged by Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur, he left Western Australia in the Caledonia and reached Hobart Town on 8 December 1835. Next day Roderic O'Connor, inspector of roads and bridges, resigned because of Cheyne's superior qualifications and Cheyne became director-general of roads and bridges. In 1838 he was given the directorship of the new Department of Public Works. Well qualified by army engineering experience and with architectural assistance from James Blackburn, Cheyne won support from Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin for an increased salary in 1840, yet in October 1841 Franklin was endeavouring to justify his dismissal of Cheyne at the pressing entreaty of the colonial secretary, John Montagu, whose personal dislike of Cheyne led him to misrepresent his every official action to the lieutenant-governor. Franklin encouraged his colonial secretary, presented the case to the Executive Council and dismissed Cheyne without a hearing. His appeal to London failed. Having thus disposed of Cheyne, Montagu proceeded to make him the scapegoat when Franklin discovered that a more elaborate and expensive tower had been commenced at St George's Church, Battery Point, than had been approved. Cheyne's assertion that he had instructions to proceed with this construction was denied by Montagu. Two years later a note verifying Cheyne's statement was discovered. Franklin was on the point of departure, and it was left to his successor, Sir John Eardley-Wilmot to take proceedings to clear Cheyne's name. In March 1844 an inquiry by Francis Burgess, chief police magistrate, exonerated Cheyne. Grateful for Wilmot's consideration, he agreed not to press for reinstatement, but desperate financial difficulties soon forced him to present endless petitions to the local authorities and the Colonial Office.

His attempts to gain further employment present a depressing list of frustrations. In February 1842 he had successfully tendered to supply water to Launceston, but repeated government delays in passing the necessary bills kept him waiting two years and crippled his finances. Sale of his stock failed to stave off bankruptcy; declared in May 1844, it prevented worthwhile employment in the civil service. Wilmot, aware of his destitution, finally appointed him supervisor of Launceston swamp draining, but a coach accident kept him indoors on the charity of James Blackburn for six months. Permanently lamed, he took on the duties of bonded warehouse keeper until removed through ill health. British disallowance of the Water Acts cancelled the contract he had won, and ten years were to pass before arbitration on his claims for compensation was finally allowed. Financial need forced him to accept appointment as gaoler at Swansea; although grateful for the £80 salary, his pride rebelled when it was reduced to £50. From January to July 1846 he acted as town surveyor of Hobart, and then with help from fellow Presbyterians, Rev. John Lillie and Dr Adam Turnbull he was appointed director of the waterworks in January 1847. A clash with private interests soon brought his dismissal; he appealed three times, but by publishing confidential official documents, he earned severe rebukes and again debarred himself from government employment. He next applied unsuccessfully for the positions of librarian to the Mechanics' Institute of which he was a member, and for the town surveyorship of Melbourne. Although urged to go to Port Phillip where openings for engineers were plentiful, inadequate finance put this solution out of reach.

Here his misfortunes ended. In 1852 Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison gave him another chance as assistant superintendent of road building at Ross, which he accepted although his friends begged him to refuse so humble a situation and raised a subscription for his support. In 1853 he was made surveyor of the main road between Hobart and Launceston, until this position was also discontinued. Before his death in Hobart on 6 July 1858 he had the satisfaction of receiving £3000 compensation for the loss of the water contract in 1842. More important was the public testimony to his ability and honest intentions shown by his election as alderman of the city of Hobart in 1858, the bitter feeling aroused twenty years before by his condemnation of colonial morals when supporting Alexander Maconochie's theories of convict discipline having been forgotten. Although a regular church-goer and superintendent of the Presbyterian Sunday School, alternating self-reproach and self-pity allowed him few moments of serenity of mind.

Select Bibliography

  • Hobart Town Courier, 31 May 1855
  • Mercury (Hobart), 7 July 1858
  • GO 25/15/565, 33/40/595-1472 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • EC 2/7/483 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • CSO 8/24/101, 8/86/632 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • Lady Franklin to Mary Simpkinson, 22 Feb 1842, (microfilm, Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • A. Cheyne diary (University of Tasmania).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

A. Rand, 'Cheyne, Alexander (1785–1858)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 22 June 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

Life Summary [details]


8 October, 1785


6 July, 1858 (aged 72)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Cause of Death

lung disease

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