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Thomas Robert Disney (1842–1915)

by T. B. Millar

This article was published:

Thomas Robert Disney (1842-1915), by unknown engraver, 1883

Thomas Robert Disney (1842-1915), by unknown engraver, 1883

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S19/12/83/224

Thomas Robert Disney (1842-1915), soldier, was born on 16 October 1842, probably the son of James William King Disney and his wife Anna Maria, née Oliver, of Ireland. After joining the British army as a cadet on 1 January 1861, he was commissioned in the Royal Artillery on 18 December. He served in India in 1862-68, 1870-76, 1880-82 and 1893-95. He was present at the fall of Magdala, Abyssinia, in April 1868 and awarded the campaign medal. He was promoted captain in April 1875 and served as an adjutant in the Royal Horse Artillery from July 1877 to September 1880. He was made a temporary major in December 1881, becoming substantive next year.

In 1883 Disney was invited to command the reconstituted Victorian Military Forces, with the local rank of colonel. He assumed the rank on 1 September, was appointed on 1 December and remained commandant until 28 September 1888 when he left for England. His relations with the Victorian government were marred by a number of disputes, chiefly over the respective military responsibilities of the governor, the minister of defence and the commandant. In 1863 the secretary of state for the colonies had defined the military position of the governor as that of commander-in-chief of the local forces until these were called out for actual service, when the command passed to the general or military officer of the district. Under the Victorian Discipline Act, 1870, the commandant was responsible to the governor-in-council. Disney claimed that he was responsible to the governor as his commander-in-chief; he made his inspection reports to him and listed him in the Volunteer Force as commander-in-chief. The attorney-general declined to give the minister of defence an opinion on the legal issue except at the request of the governor. In March 1885 Major-General Major Francis Downes, who had been commandant of the South Australian Forces, was appointed secretary of the Victorian Defence Department. Deference to Downes as senior officer and persuasion exerted by the minister of defence, Lieutenant-Colonel (Sir) Frederick Sargood, on the governor induced Disney to accede to the constitutional requirements.

Under Disney the permanent artillery force which had existed since 1871 was expanded and a permanent engineer section was created. Trained instructors were also provided for the militia forces, which were increased from 2789 in 1883 to 4451 in 1885 but reduced to 2852 by April 1888. A wider range of corps was introduced, including military commissariat and transport. A volunteer regiment of mounted rifles was raised in 1885 and the fixed defences were modernized. Disney must be given some credit for the improvement of the colony's defences, but his relations with the government remained prickly and he appeared to take only slight interest in the welfare of the forces he commanded.

On his return to the British army Disney held the rank of colonel from June 1896 until he retired in October 1899. He died at Dover on 2 March 1915, leaving a widow, Anne Eliza, and two sons, James William King and Thomas Brabazon.

Select Bibliography

  • W. H. Askwith (ed), Kane's List of Officers of the Royal Regiment of Artillery … to 1899, with Notes on Officers' Services (Lond, 1900)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1862-63, vol 4 (82)
  • Victorian Defence Department file 85/1903 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

T. B. Millar, 'Disney, Thomas Robert (1842–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 18 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

Thomas Robert Disney (1842-1915), by unknown engraver, 1883

Thomas Robert Disney (1842-1915), by unknown engraver, 1883

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S19/12/83/224

Life Summary [details]


16 October, 1842


2 March, 1915 (aged 72)
Dover, Kent, England

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