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Sir Andrew Clarke (1824–1902)

by Betty Malone

This article was published:

Andrew Clarke (1824-1902), by Ludwig Becker, c1855

Andrew Clarke (1824-1902), by Ludwig Becker, c1855

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9351877

Sir Andrew Clarke (1824-1902), military engineer and public servant, was born on 27 July 1824 at Southsea, Hampshire, England, the eldest son of Andrew Clarke and his wife Frances Jackson, née Lardner. His first years were spent in India with his parents but later, while his father was serving abroad, he was brought up by his paternal grandfather and two uncles, one of whom was the father of Marcus Clarke, at the family home, Belmont, near Lifford, Ireland. He was educated at The King's School, Canterbury, and at Portora School, Enniskillen, Ireland. At 16 he entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, where one of his teachers was Michael Faraday. He graduated in 1844, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Royal Engineers and after a year of further study at Chatham was sent to the Fermoy district in Ireland at the height of the disastrous famine there.

In 1846 Clarke was nominated to the Oregon Boundary Commission. His father, then governor of Western Australia, urged him instead to come to Australia with the hope of gaining a professional post with him later. As a lieutenant in command of a detachment of Royal Sappers and Miners Clarke sailed with the new lieutenant-governor, Sir William Denison, in the Windermere and arrived at Hobart Town on 26 January 1847. His father's death next month left Clarke with little motive for remaining in the colonies but he continued to superintend convict labour and to survey the area around Hobart and design wharf accommodation. He and Denison became firm friends.

His next tour of duty, from September 1848, was with Governor Sir George Grey in New Zealand. There he and his detachment worked primarily on road building, and Clarke first revealed his gift for dealing with native problems and native peoples when he was sent on a special peace-making mission to the Bay of Islands.

In 1849 he returned to Hobart as private secretary to Denison. In May 1850 he wrote to his uncle, enthusiastic about Denison's help and friendship. 'I have fortunately been thrown across one who is now my guide … Had it not been for him I should have been but a mere drudging sub. of Engineers, still dreaming on and still castle-building; now I find myself, it is true but at the lowest rungs of the ladder, but the ladder is there'. Clarke was ambitious. Although his letters reveal him as a man of action and impatient of red tape he never made a hasty judgment, especially of any move connected with his own career. While in Hobart he had avowed his deepest ambition: 'I am trying to seize the golden opportunity … which may lead ultimately not alone to wealth, but that which I prize still higher, the establishment of a name and character'.

Clarke found the confinement of an office irksome, but proved conscientious and tactful, mediating between Denison and the community in the controversy over transportation and showing resource with an unexpected influx of 150 military pensioners and their families. He dealt tactfully with immigrants seeking official posts, and found time to collect fifty tons of local products for the Exhibition in London. He was also an official nominee in the Legislative Council in 1851-53. More congenial duties were the control of the mounted police and the relaxation of occasional hunting and shooting expeditions with Denison.

Invited in March 1853 to replace Robert Hoddle as surveyor-general of Victoria at a salary of £1200, he decided to accept and arrived at Melbourne in May. Clarke entered enthusiastically into his new duties, reorganizing the department, travelling widely in the colony, noting routes for roads and railways, supervising surveys and land sales. His success and energy resulted in more land being sold in the next eighteen months than since 1836. He also initiated the Roads Boards that preceded the introduction of local government. When discontent increased on the Bendigo goldfields he was sent to Tasmania to recruit police reinforcements.

Clarke entered the Victorian Legislative Council in August 1853 as an official representative. He was active in the drafting of the new constitution and in debates revealed himself as more liberal and progressive than most of his colleagues. He was also responsible for the drafting and successful inauguration in December 1854 of the Municipal Institutions Act, which provided for local government, based on the English model, in the fast-growing suburbs of Melbourne, on the goldfields and in the country. Writing to his uncle in 1857 he reported, 'This Act has done more to establish order and good government and to create a healthy conservative feeling than even I ever anticipated'.

The new Constitution Act, proclaimed in November 1855, altered the status of the Victorian executive, which then became responsible to the Victorian parliament and not to the Colonial Office. When reappointed, Clarke became entitled to a civil pension of £800 in addition to his army pay. This dual income must have been of great assistance to an official who admitted that he lived out of Melbourne on a small farming property in order to make ends meet, but until 1886, when he retired from the Royal Engineers, the pension led to controversy with the Victorian government whenever he accepted other paid appointments.

At the elections in 1856 Clarke refused an invitation to stand for Bendigo. Instead he spent £700 in a vigorous but successful campaign against David Blair for South Melbourne in the Legislative Assembly. This seat he held till he left the colony. He joined the first cabinet, under William Haines, as surveyor-general and commissioner for lands. In February 1858, when his moving of a successful amendment to Haines's electoral bill was followed by the government's resignation, Sir Henry Barkly invited Clarke to form a government but he failed to get the support he needed, and declined. In March he was appointed permanent head of the Lands and Surveys Department. At this stage he decided to return to England. He had sought to rejoin his regiment when the Crimean war broke out, and never forgot that he was a soldier by profession. He seems to have been conscious that he had lost face by his failure to form a ministry and wrote that 'a graceful retreat at this moment is my best policy'. He also planned to seek appointment as first governor of the Moreton Bay District while in London.

Clarke paid a farewell visit to Denison in Sydney and returned to Melbourne for a banquet given in his honour by the Freemasons of which he was grand master. He was optimistic about his record in Victoria, and in a letter to his uncle commented, 'I think I leave Victoria … at a good time, in tolerable favour with the country, my name connected with much of its national progress, and that I will not soon be forgotten'. The Argus, 11 August 1858, was less complimentary, observing that despite his creditable start 'that promise has been but half fulfilled … It is not apprehended anywhere that the colony will suffer material loss or inconvenience from [his] absence'. Whatever critics might say, the list of his successes was impressive. Much of the colony's scientific, material and artistic development stemmed from Clarke's interest and effort. From his appointment in 1853 he was responsible for much of the planning of Victoria's first railways, and his formal proposals for a government-controlled railway system were examined by a select committee and made law in 1857. Despite the derision of his more conservative colleagues, he was able to install the first electric telegraph from Melbourne to Williamstown and to report in November 1857 that the service had reached the borders of New South Wales and South Australia.

Clarke initiated the Museum of Natural History and controlled the spending of grants for its exhibits from 1853 on, and he held office in both the Victorian Institute for the Advancement of Science and the Philosophical Society of Victoria, becoming president on their amalgamation as the Philosophical Institute (later Royal Society of Victoria) in July 1855. He designed the building for the first Melbourne Industrial Exhibition in which the exhibits for the Paris Exhibition were displayed. He made sure that land was set aside for public reserves, helped to enlarge the St Kilda cemetery and selected the sites for the Botanic Gardens and St Paul's Anglican Cathedral. He also made certain that Melbourne should have a pure water supply, and the first meteorological statistics were begun under his tutelage. On his way to Britain he visited Italy and was so impressed by the art treasures there that he wrote to the Victorian government urging them to found an art gallery. With Hugh Childers he selected the first of its works of art.

In London Clarke failed to secure the governorship of Queensland and spent many months on barrack duty at Colchester. He served in 1859-64 on the Gold Coast and in England. In 1864-73 he was director of works at the Admiralty, and in 1873-75 governor of the Straits Settlements. He was on the council of the Viceroy of India in 1875-80, commandant of the School of Military Engineering at Chatham in 1881-82 and inspector-general of fortifications in England in 1882-86. He was responsible for the design and construction of the floating dock at Bermuda and the navy docks of Portsmouth, Chatham and Malta. He also promoted the Brennan torpedo. He gradually mounted the ladder of promotion until he became lieutenant-general, and was appointed C.B. (civil) in 1869, K.C.M.G. in 1873, C.I.E. in 1877 and G.C.M.G. in 1885. After his retirement from the army, he unsuccessfully contested Chatham for the House of Commons in 1886 and 1892 as a follower of Gladstone and home rule.

Clarke never lost his interest in the Australian colonies and was often asked to carry out official commissions in Britain for the Victorian and Tasmanian governments. In Birmingham he helped to found the Colonial Emigration Society. Commissioned in 1859 to buy arms for Victoria's defence, he firmly refused to allow the government to foist obsolete weapons on the colonists, weathering both the British government's opposition and the criticisms of the Victorian government over the delay.

Clarke was a special agent for Victoria from April to August 1864 and acted as agent-general briefly in 1886 and 1891 and longer in 1893. He was appointed agent-general in 1899-1902 and at times served in the same capacity for Tasmania. He fought for moderate postal charges to the colonies, was an important spokesman on their behalf when German colonization of the Pacific Islands made the Australian governments anxious for British intervention and annexation of the New Hebrides and south-east New Guinea. His help to Victoria in the financial depression of the 1890s was particularly valuable. In 1899 he acted as Australian representative at the International Commercial Congress in Philadelphia and on the board of the Pacific Telegraph Cable Co. His last service was to help in steering the Commonwealth bill through the British parliament in 1900 when he replaced Alfred Deakin as delegate for Victoria. Clarke died at his home in Portland Place, London, on 29 March 1902. He was predeceased by his wife, Mary Margaret MacKillop, whom he had married in London on 17 September 1867, and was survived by their only child, Elinor Mary de Winton.

Colourful as was his career, the man himself was equally interesting. Bulky and ruggedly handsome, with strong features and soldierly stance, hasty but kind, he had the gift of universal popularity. Contemporaries labelled him tactful, genial and ardent and admired his zeal and ability. The colonists christened him 'Spicy Andrew'. He was not deeply religious: both Denison and General Gordon tried to convert him to an interest in the Bible without success. He was, rather, a scientist, a humanitarian and an idealist, and these traits, coupled with his practical approach to colonial problems, made him popular.

Select Bibliography

  • R. H. Vetch, Life of Lieutenant-General the Hon. Sir Andrew Clarke (Lond, 1905)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Victoria), 1854-55, 2 (A76)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Apr 1856, 1 Apr 1902
  • B. R. Atkins, The Problem of the Representation of Australia in England (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1960).

Citation details

Betty Malone, 'Clarke, Sir Andrew (1824–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 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

Andrew Clarke (1824-1902), by Ludwig Becker, c1855

Andrew Clarke (1824-1902), by Ludwig Becker, c1855

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9351877

Life Summary [details]


27 July, 1824
Portsmouth, Hampshire, England


29 March, 1902 (aged 77)
London, Middlesex, England

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