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Sir Charles Henry Darling (1809–1870)

by F. K. Crowley

This article was published:

Charles Darling, by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, c.1863

Charles Darling, by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, c.1863

State Library of Victoria, 49332890 H29512

Sir Charles Henry Darling (1809-1870), military officer and governor, was born on 19 February 1809 at Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, the eldest son of Major-General Henry Charles Darling, sometime lieutenant-governor of Tobago, and his wife Isabella, the eldest daughter of Charles Cameron, sometime governor of the Bahamas. With a recommendation from Sandhurst, Charles joined the 57th Regiment as an ensign in 1826 and next year went with his regiment to New South Wales. He served as assistant private secretary to his uncle, Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling. In 1831 he returned to Sandhurst. In 1833-39 he served as military secretary to Sir Lionel Smith in the West Indies and in 1839-41 was captain of an unattached company. He then retired from the army and settled in Jamaica. At Barbados in 1835 he had married the eldest daughter of Alan Dalzell; she died in 1837 and in 1839 he married the eldest daughter of Joshua Bushill Nurse; she had one daughter and died in 1848.

Recommended by Lord Elgin, Darling was appointed agent-general for immigration and adjutant-general of militia in Jamaica in 1843 and became a member of the Legislative Council. He served as secretary to two governors, Major-General Sackville Berkeley and Sir Charles Grey, and in 1847 was appointed lieutenant-governor of St Lucia. In 1851 he married Elizabeth Isabella Caroline, the only daughter of Christopher Salter of Buckinghamshire; they had four sons. In that year he was transferred to Cape Colony as lieutenant-governor, and from May to December 1854 acted as administrator when parliamentary government was being established. His appointment as governor of Newfoundland in May 1855 was made permanent in February 1857. While in office he helped to inaugurate parliamentary government. He then served as governor of Jamaica, Honduras and the Bay Islands until 1863. He was appointed K.C.B. in 1862.

In September 1863, Darling took up duty as governor of Victoria. The governorship was one of the best paid and most highly prized in the empire, and Victoria appeared fortunate to have a governor with long experience of colonial administration and first-hand knowledge of parliamentary government. But the Colonial Office soon had misgivings about the wisdom of Darling's appointment. In his first year he became involved in the Australia-wide controversy over the continuance of convict transportation to Western Australia, and was privately censured by the secretary of state for the colonies, Edward Cardwell, for allowing his cabinet ministers too free a rein in their official dealings with the other Australian colonial governments. He was also rebuked for being a public, and thereby a partisan, supporter of the anti-transportation policy, but the matter was settled when the British government decided to end transportation within three years. The significance of this conflict lay partly in the close personal affinity which Darling had quickly established with his cabinet ministers, and partly in his eagerness to establish rapport with progressive colonial opinion. He soon became so personally involved in local political crises that he was unable to maintain the role expected of all colonial governors, that they should act as independent arbiters between contending factions in parliament and between social divisions in the community. He allowed his vice-regal authority to be used by the progressives as a bludgeon on the conservatives, and for this he was abruptly removed from office.

In the early 1860s Victoria was plagued by three controversial issues: reform of the crown land laws; proposals to change the customs tariff; and the parliamentary power of the pastoralists and free traders who dominated the Legislative Council. The council was elected on a property- and rurally-weighted franchise, whilst the Legislative Assembly was elected by manhood suffrage and represented the urban and working classes. Both Houses of the parliament had the power to accept or reject any new legislation. The McCulloch government, elected with a large majority in the assembly in November 1864, began to change the law in the three fields and provoked constitutional struggles with the council that brought chaos to the parliamentary system and involved the public and the press in controversy on an unprecedented scale. These important disputes between the progressive post-gold majority in the assembly and the conservative pre-gold majority in the council drew attention to the difficulty of grafting British parliamentary institutions on to a novel colonial society at a time when the British government, convinced of the virtues of free trade, was reluctant to make the colony completely independent especially in matters of manufacturing, trade and commerce. The disputes also made great demands on the governor's prudence and tact.

The council thwarted its own reform early in 1865 but the land issue was solved for the time being by Grant's Act of March 1865. However, the McCulloch government's attempt to introduce the first major protective tariff in Australia led to the main crisis. The assembly tacked the tariff bill to the annual appropriation bill, but the government had miscalculated the strength of feeling in the council where the bill was thrown out in July. With Darling's approval, the government continued to collect the new protective customs duties, relying on a resolution of the assembly. But the funds from the Customs House were inadequate to meet day-to-day administrative expenses, especially the need to pay the civil servants. The government then negotiated a series of short-term loans with the London Chartered Bank, whose sole local director was the premier. The bank then sued the Crown for the return of the money; by a series of court actions the government confessed judgment and the bank was repaid by vouchers drawn on consolidated revenue. The procedure incensed the council, the other private banks, the Argus and a large section of the commercial community. After a Supreme Court decision the government ceased to collect the new duties and seemed likely to be able to resist the council indefinitely. The assembly decided not to pass any appropriation bill until the council had passed the tariff. Darling tried in vain to arrange a conference between the two Houses, but in November the assembly sent up a separate tariff bill which the council promptly rejected. Thereupon Darling agreed to the government's request to dissolve parliament, and at the assembly elections in January 1866, the McCulloch government was returned with a two-thirds majority; the council, being indissoluble, retained its political complexion. After further disputes, another rejection of the tariff bill and the resignation and reinstatement of the McCulloch government, a conference was arranged in April and the tariff bill was eventually passed by both Houses of parliament.

Meanwhile in December 1865 twenty-two former cabinet ministers, who had served as members of the Executive Council, petitioned the Queen complaining of the financial and constitutional irregularities which Darling had permitted. When transmitting the petition Darling commented adversely on both the petition and the character of the petitioners and stated that it would be impossible for him to accept any of them in the future as cabinet ministers because he believed that they were conspiring to remove him. But Cardwell had already decided that Darling's actions had made him unfit for office; he was recalled to London and his successor appointed. Popular indignation over Darling's 'recall' was widespread. Petitions, public meetings and torchlight processions preceded the departure of 'the people's Governor', whom many believed had become a martyr in the cause of progress; others hinted that he was being sacrificed as part of a deal between the Colonial Office in London on the one hand, and the Legislative Council, the free traders and the pastoralists of Melbourne on the other. The assembly then resolved to make a grant of £20,000 to Lady Darling because the governor was not allowed to receive a direct gift. More constitutional crises ensued and Darling put his case to his superiors for the redress of his wrongs, on the ground that he had properly accepted the advice of his responsible advisers. But the response he received in the English press and in the British parliament was unsympathetic. Eventually the secretary of state informed Darling and the Legislative Assembly that Darling could not accept the grant. As a result Darling resigned from the colonial service in April 1867, and the Victorian government then included the grant in the annual estimates. The council rejected the appropriation bill. The McCulloch government resigned but was returned to office. A further appropriation bill was rejected by the council and the constitutional struggle now appeared interminable. A fresh assembly election merely reinforced the progressives in their determination to press the issue, especially as no alternative government was possible. Finally in May 1868 Darling was allowed to withdraw his resignation and in July was granted a retrospective pension. Broken in spirit and fortune he died on 25 January 1870 at Cheltenham, England. At his death a separate bill was passed by both Houses of the Victorian parliament, at the instigation of the McCulloch government, which granted a pension to Darling's widow and a sum for the education of her children.

As a vice-regal representative, a constitutional head of state and an officer of the British government Darling had been a failure. He had been neither prudent nor cautious and had allowed his partisan sympathy to undermine the functioning of the parliament and the rule of law. He had become a mouthpiece of McCulloch and his ministers, especially of the attorney-general, George Higinbotham. Doubtless the Colonial Office was justified in recalling him but perhaps the judgment of history ought to allow him to continue as a martyr in the democratic cause. Perhaps the odd feature of the Victorian imbroglio of 1864-68 was that Darling should have become 'the people's Governor', for neither his training, experience nor temperament fitted him to be a political Samson in the cause of democracy. Yet he was honestly convinced that the pre-gold Victorian Establishment was deliberately impeding development of the colony, and he never seemed to realize that a governor had the right to reach such a conclusion, but not to act upon it.

Select Bibliography

  • D. P. Clarke, ‘The Colonial Office and the Constitutional Crises in Victoria, 1865-68’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, no 18, May 1952
  • F. K. Crowley, Aspects of the Constitutional Conflicts . . . Victorian Legislature, 1864-1868 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1947).

Citation details

F. K. Crowley, 'Darling, Sir Charles Henry (1809–1870)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 13 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Charles Darling, by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, c.1863

Charles Darling, by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, c.1863

State Library of Victoria, 49332890 H29512

Life Summary [details]


19 February, 1809
Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, Canada


25 January, 1870 (aged 60)
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England

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