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William Bloomfield Douglas (1822–1906)

by P. L. Burns

This article was published:

William Bloomfield Douglas (1822-1906), naval officer and public servant, was born on 25 September 1822 in Aberystwyth, Wales, son of Richard William Clode Douglas and his wife Mary, née Johnson. His uncle, Rev. Francis Charles Johnson, married Emma, a sister of Sir James Brooke, first rajah of Sarawak. In January 1842 he entered the navy and became a captain's steward on H.M.S. Wolverene before resigning in September at Hong Kong. He then won distinction fighting pirates with Brooke in Sarawak in 1843-44. He also claimed to have served in a steam frigate in the Indian Navy. On 25 April 1848 at Embleton, Northumberland, he married Ellen, daughter of Christopher Atkinson, yeoman. At that time he was stationed at near-by Alnmouth, a coastguard station. To provide for his growing family he returned to the sea in September 1852.

In 1854 in command of the General Screw Steam Shipping Co.'s Bosphorus, a coastal mail vessel, Douglas successfully applied in Adelaide for the post of naval officer and harbourmaster. He assumed duty in December and in July 1858 became collector of customs as well. He also served as master of Trinity House and chairman of the Harbor Trust until these authorities and the post of naval officer were replaced in 1860 by a Marine Board with Douglas as its first president. He contributed as a commissioner or witness to official inquiries into South Australian lighthouses in 1855, harbours in 1855 and 1865 and defences in 1858, and surveyed Kangaroo Island and the Backstairs Passage in 1858, the Murray River mouth in 1859 and the west coast in 1867. He also served at various times on the Immigration Board, and as inspector of distilleries and stipendary magistrate.

In March 1870 Douglas was appointed government resident for the Northern Territory. Inspired perhaps by Brooke's example, he hoped to find fame and fortune on this new frontier. He governed like a white rajah but lacked the competence to introduce a suitable administration. He squandered money, ignored instructions and quarrelled with subordinates. He failed to control the gold rush which he encouraged and probably delayed the introduction of the 1872 mining regulations in order to protect his own investment. By early 1873 his ambitions were shattered and he had to be warned about his drinking. With a characteristic burst of energy he tried to put his administration in order but in June Thomas Reynolds, the commissioner of crown lands, visited Palmerston (Darwin) and Douglas had to resign.

Douglas returned to Adelaide financially ruined. In April 1874 the government sent him to Singapore, on a mission he had proposed in 1871, to recruit Chinese miners for the Northern Territory. Almost 200 came to Australia in the first group but Douglas stayed in Singapore where in October he became acting police magistrate and in May 1875 second police magistrate. As British control extended in the Malay States he became acting assistant resident of Selangor in November and acting resident in April 1876. Selangor flourished in spite of Douglas's shortcomings. His incompetence was soon discovered and his work had to be closely supervised by the governor at Singapore. He spoke little Malay and his violent temper led to quarrels with important Malays and Chinese. In 1879 an inquiry found the treasury and land offices hopelessly disorganized and he was criticized for failing to extend his control to the mining districts in the interior. In response he moved to Kuala Lumpur and attempted to remedy the deficiencies in his administration, but in 1882 his son-in-law, Dominick Daniel Daly, whom he had appointed superintendent of public works, was dismissed for land jobbery; other irregularities were discovered and Douglas had to resign.

With a sick wife, a mentally retarded daughter and a son at school, Douglas was given a retirement allowance and a passage to England; instead he joined Daly who now had a job with the British North Borneo Co. His wife died in 1887 and he returned to England. His next move was to Canada where in 1893 he was employed by the tidal service of the Department of Marine and Fisheries. In 1895 he sat on an inquiry into pilotage dues in St John and in April 1897, giving his age as 65, became an examiner in the Department of Marine and Fisheries. On 31 January 1899 Douglas married Annie Maude, daughter of Ronald McDonald, collector of customs, Sydney, Nova Scotia. In 1900-03 he was a departmental inspector at Halifax and served again as an examiner before he died on 5 March 1906. The Halifax newspapers gave the 'Captain' favourable obituaries.

By his first wife Douglas had eight children; of his three sons, the eldest died young and the others served in Malaya and Sarawak. In Adelaide on 23 October 1871, his eldest daughter Harriet married D. D. Daly, a nephew of Governor Dominick Daly. She recorded her experiences in the Northern Territory in Digging, Squatting, and Pioneering Life … (London, 1887) and for years wrote a column from London for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Keppel, The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy: With Extracts from the Journal of James Brooke of Sarawak (Lond, 1845)
  • E. Sadka, The Protected Malay States, 1874-1895 (Kuala Lumpur, 1968)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1855-56 (158), 1858 (88), 1870-71 (25, 148, 160)
  • G. N. Hawker, The Development of the South Australian Civil Service 1836-1916 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1967)
  • CO 273/74-119
  • CSO and NT letters (State Records of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

P. L. Burns, 'Douglas, William Bloomfield (1822–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 14 July 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

Life Summary [details]


25 September, 1822
Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, Wales


5 March, 1906 (aged 83)
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

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