Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Nicholas Divine (1739–1830)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

Nicholas Divine (1739?-1830), superintendent of convicts, was born in County Cavan, Ireland, the eldest son of Patrick Divine and his wife Amie, née Ellis. After some years of farming he went to England, and about 1782 became a superintendent on the government hulks at Woolwich; then, as a result of Governor Arthur Phillip's request for proper overseers in New South Wales, he was engaged with several others as a superintendent of convicts. He left England in September 1789 in H.M.S. Guardian, where he was recorded as Philip Divine. After the ship was wrecked off the Cape of Good Hope, he proceeded in the Lady Juliana and on arrival in Port Jackson in June 1790 at once took up his post as principal superintendent of convicts in Sydney. He was married to Margaret Smith, a sister of the wife of the notorious George Crossley, and had a son in 1791 and a daughter in 1794. By then he had been granted 120 acres (49 ha) at Bulanaming, near Newtown, and he received a further 90 acres (36 ha) there in October 1799; these grants he named Burrin Farm after his birthplace. As a tenant at will he also cultivated for some years land on either side of the stream which ran into Farm Cove, and by 1818 he had an additional 500 acres (202 ha) forty miles (64 km) from Sydney.

In 1801 he became associated with Crossley in some trading ventures. On New Year's Day 1808 he signed the loyal address to Governor William Bligh. Though he signed the petition to Major George Johnston to depose Bligh less than a month later, he seems to have been a Bligh supporter, and in August 1808 Lieutenant-Governor Joseph Foveaux dismissed him. In February 1810 he applied to Governor Lachlan Macquarie to be reinstated, and claimed his salary arrears, but contrary to his general policy Macquarie refused. The governor informed Castlereagh that Divine was 'old and infirm, and very deaf', and 'had frequently been very remiss and Negligent'. In consideration of his long service, however, he allowed him a pension of 2s. 6d. a day until the British government advised on the matter. In support of Bligh he went to England as a crown witness in the court martial of Johnston. He presented his grievance to the Colonial Office, and in a memorial dated 22 August 1811 stated that his great age of 72 rendered him 'incapable of taking upon himself the execution of his former duty' and sought permission to retire on his salary of £75. This request was refused and Divine asked to be reinstated or superannuated. On his return to Sydney he retired to his farm and was given a pension of £45. In failing health, he gradually lapsed into imbecility and died on 29 May 1830. His wife predeceased him on 29 August 1827, aged 62: both were buried in the Roman Catholic portion of the Devonshire Street cemetery.

Divine was tall and robust and in Ireland was considered one of the best and strongest competitors in the county ploughing matches. He appears to have been a colourful character, something of this even emerging in the derogatory remarks of his critics. Surgeon John Harris wrote in 1807 that 'the proudest Monarch on earth cannot equal him riding thro' the Town on his charger' and referred to him as 'Lt. Governor Devine' and as having swallowed 'Sherridan's Dictionary'. He is best remembered, however, for his connexion with the celebrated Newtown Ejectment Case, Doe dem Devine v. Wilson and Others, he being the original grantee through whom the plaintiffs claimed. In 1827 Divine's 210-acre (85 ha) farm had passed into the hands of his assigned servant, Bernard Rochford, who afterwards disposed of it, and later John Divine, his grand-nephew and heir-at-law, attempted to recover this now valuable property. After proceedings over almost nine years, and which included an appeal to the Privy Council in 1855, the new trial, which it ordered, found again in favour of the defendants in 1857. Further litigation was prevented by a compromise, the plaintiff receiving a sum of money in consideration of his forgoing any further claim to the property. The case was also noteworthy because it was the last of its kind distinguished by the presence of the imaginary party, John Doe.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 2-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 7, 8
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21, 23 Sept 1857
  • Divine to Johnston, 20 May 1818 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Divine, Nicholas (1739–1830)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 21 April 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]

Alternative Names
  • Devine, Philip

Cavan, Ireland


29 May, 1830 (aged ~ 91)
New South Wales, Australia

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