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Sir Robert William Duff (1835–1895)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

Robert William Duff (1835-1895), by unknown photographer

Robert William Duff (1835-1895), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 17475

Sir Robert William Duff (1835-1895), governor, was born on 8 May 1835 at Fetteresso, Kincardineshire, Scotland, only son of Arthur Duff Abercromby, of Glassaugh, Banffshire, and his wife Elizabeth, née Innes. His father had assumed the surname Abercromby on inheriting his mother's estates. Robert was educated at Blackheath School, London, and in 1848 joined the Royal Navy. He was promoted sub-lieutenant in 1854 and lieutenant in 1856, retiring with the rank of commander in 1870. On succeeding to the extensive estates of his uncle, including Fetteresso Castle, he assumed the surname Duff early in 1862. He was a keen sportsman and good shot, and was a member of Brooks's, the Devonshire and the Turf clubs. On 21 January 1871 in London he married Louisa, daughter of Sir William Scott, baronet.

From May 1861 until March 1893 he sat in the House of Commons for Banffshire and, one of the 'Adullamites', followed Robert Lowe in opposing Lord Russell's 1866 reform bill. Later a Gladstonian Liberal, Duff was a junior lord of the treasury in 1882-85, and a civil lord of the Admiralty in 1886; he became a privy councillor in 1892.

On the resignation of Lord Jersey as governor of New South Wales, Gladstone, opposed to the tradition of appointing a peer, wrote to Lord Ripon, secretary of state for the colonies: 'We of the H. of C. should like to see (Rt.Hon.) R. Duff. He would we believe do it well and other considerations recommend him'. Duff was appointed in March 1893 and arrived in Sydney with his family in the Parramatta on 29 May. Before leaving England he had been appointed G.C.M.G. Duff's first year was troubled. While on a cruise in H.M.S. Orlando he was asked by the premier Sir George Dibbs to telegraph his assent to a proclamation abolishing the old electoral rolls and constituencies, and did so on 5 October. Ripon thought Dibbs's proceedings 'partook of the nature of sharp practice'.

In December Duff found himself in a dilemma when a motion of no confidence was carried against (Sir) Edmund Barton, attorney-general, and R. E. O'Connor, minister for justice, for holding briefs against the Crown. If he had forced the reluctant Dibbs to resign by refusing his advice to prorogue parliament on 8 December, the dismantled electoral machinery would have precluded the new ministers from standing for ministerial re-election; and they would have been unlikely to get supply. Duff was accused of partisanship by Sir Henry Parkes and other free traders, and criticized in the press, but he believed his decision had been justified. He privately disapproved of Dibbs's action and his own Liberal background made him unsympathetic to the protectionist leader.

After losing the July 1894 elections, Dibbs asked the governor to nominate ten new members to the Legislative Council. Duff offered to make three appointments, but Dibbs resigned. The governor 'was sorry to have to report [to Ripon] Dibbs conduct in attempting to intimidate me by writing a memo full of false statements censuring my conduct, & then offering to withdraw it, if I would accede to his request'. He got on more comfortably with the new premier (Sir) George Reid.

On the Imperial level Duff was involved in the protracted negotiations for compensation for the seizure of the Costa Rica Packet in the Dutch East Indies. When the Sino-Japanese war broke out he warned the New South Wales government of the dangers to neutral ships trading in coal with the belligerents and told the Colonial Office 'I do not want another “Costa Rica” case'. Handsome, bearded, with a luxuriantly curling moustache and high forehead, Duff carried out his duties with dignity. A prominent Freemason in Scotland, he was installed by Lord Kintore as grand master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales soon after his arrival.

In February 1895 Duff visited Hobart; he became ill and on 9 March his medical attendant Dr Thomas Fiaschi was summoned. The governor returned to Sydney where he died at Government House with multiple hepatic abscesses and septicaemia on 15 March. The first New South Wales governor to die in office, he was buried in Waverley cemetery with Anglican and Masonic rites, in an impressive military ceremony; his funeral hatchment is in the Church of St James, Sydney. He was survived by his wife, three sons and four daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of National Biography, to 1900, supp (vol 22)
  • H. Stenton, Who's Who of British Members of Parliament, vols 1, 2 (Lond, 1976)
  • British Australasian, 16 Mar 1895
  • JRAHS, 56 (1970), pt 4, p 296
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 4 Mar 1893
  • Sydney Mail, 4 Mar 1893
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11, 12 Dec 1893, 16, 18 Mar 1895
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 16 Mar 1895, p 12
  • Lord Ripon papers (British Library)
  • CO 201/614-15.

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Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Duff, Sir Robert William (1835–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Robert William Duff (1835-1895), by unknown photographer

Robert William Duff (1835-1895), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 17475

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Abercromby, Robert William

8 May, 1835
Fetteresso, Kincardineshire, Scotland


15 March, 1895 (aged 59)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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