Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Childs (1787–1870)

by John V. Barry

This article was published:

Joseph Childs (1787-1870), soldier, became a second lieutenant in the marines in April 1809, lieutenant in September 1827, adjutant in March 1836, captain in July 1837, and brevet major in May 1843. He served in H.M.S. Gibraltar in the Napoleonic wars and in 1813 volunteered for service in the Chesapeake in the war against the United States, and was in action at landings on Craney Island and Kent Island, on the Canadian frontier, and in charge of gunboats on Lake Champlain. He also served in the Syrian campaign in 1840.

Reputed to be a strict disciplinarian, in 1843 he was appointed to replace Captain Alexander Maconochie as commandant of the penal settlement of Norfolk Island. He took up his duties on 7 February 1844, but his administration was a failure. The conditions on the island, amounting almost to anarchy, and the insubordination of the colonial convicts, or 'old hands', were described in great detail in a report dated 20 June 1846 by Robert Pringle Stewart, who visited the island in May 1846. Stewart, while conceding that Childs was 'a most amiable benevolent gentleman and honourable officer', considered that those conditions could not have arisen had the island been in charge of 'an officer of experience in, or capacity for government, judgment, energy, decision and firmness'. Before Childs could be replaced, a group of convicts, provoked by the ill-advised seizure of their cooking utensils, revolted on 1 July 1846 and murdered four officials. Thirteen convicts convicted in respect of the murders were later hanged, twelve on one day. In August 1846 John Price arrived from Hobart to take over command, and Childs left the island on the 19th. The comptroller-general of convicts, Colonel W. T. N. Champ and Price both considered Childs responsible for the state of affairs that led to the outbreak, and the Edinburgh Review (vol. 86, 1847) ascribed the state of the island to Childs's 'utter imbecility'. There was a great deal of official brutality under Childs; according to a resident chaplain, Rev. Thomas Rogers, 26,024 lashes were inflicted in the last sixteen months of his command. W. H. Barber, an English solicitor later shown to have been wrongly convicted, was treated very harshly, and in 1847 before a select committee of the House of Lords, Bishop Robert Willson gave evidence of the shocking conditions when he visited the island in May 1846. Childs returned to England, where he continued to serve in the Royal Marines, being promoted lieutenant-colonel in October 1852, colonel 2nd-commandant of the Plymouth Division June 1855, and colonel-commandant of the division July 1855. He retired with the honorary rank of major-general on 31 March 1857, and died at Liskeard, Cornwall, on 2 January 1870, aged 83.

Select Bibliography

  • W. H. Barber, The Case of Mr. W. H. Barber (Syd, 1847)
  • T. Rogers, Correspondence Relating to the Dismissal of Rev. T. Rogers from his Chaplaincy at Norfolk Island (Launceston, 1849)
  • J. West, The History of Tasmania, vols 1-2 (Launceston, 1852)
  • J. V. Barry, Alexander Maconochie of Norfolk Island (Melb, 1958)
  • M. Cash, Martin Cash: The Bushranger of Van Diemen's Land in 1843-4: A Personal Narrative of His Exploits in the Bush and His Experiences at Port Arthur and Norfolk Island (Hob, 1961)
  • J. V. Barry, The Life and Death of John Price (Melb, 1964)
  • Correspondence on Convict Discipline, Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons, Great Britain), 1847 (785), p 80-97, 174
  • Select Committee on Criminal Law, 2nd Report, Parliamentary Papers (House of Lords, Great Britain), 1847 (534), p 551
  • records (Royal Marine Barracks, Eastney, Southsea, Hants).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John V. Barry, 'Childs, Joseph (1787–1870)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 19 May 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]




2 January, 1870 (aged ~ 83)
Liskeard, Cornwall, England

Cause of Death

general debility

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