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Sir John Eardley Eardley-Wilmot (1783–1847)

by Michael Roe

This article was published:

John Eardley Eardley-Wilmot (1783-1847),  by J. W. Beattie

John Eardley Eardley-Wilmot (1783-1847), by J. W. Beattie

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125646828

Sir John Eardley Eardley-Wilmot (1783-1847), lieutenant-governor, was born on 21 February 1783 in London, the son of John Eardley-Wilmot and his wife Frances, née Sainthill. His grandfather was chief justice of common pleas, his father a master in chancery. Through this background, rather than as a result of personal achievement, Wilmot was created a baronet in 1821. He was called to the Bar in 1806 and was chairman of the Warwickshire Quarter Sessions from 1830 to 1843. He published An Abridgment of Blackstone's Commentaries … (1822) and A Letter to the Magistrates of England (1827), and received an honorary D.C.L. from Oxford (1829). The Letter urged various reforms in the criminal law, especially as it affected juveniles. A fellow of the Royal, Linnean, and Antiquaries' Societies, Wilmot had wide if not deep intellectual interests. He married twice: in 1808 Elizabeth Emma Parry (d.1818; six sons, two daughters), and in 1819 Elizabeth Chester (d.1869; two sons, two daughters).

Wilmot represented North Warwickshire in the House of Commons from 1832 to 1843. He first supported the Whig government, but became attached to Stanley's embryonic third party. This group united around opposition to the government's interference with the revenues of the established Church in Ireland. His biggest coup in parliament was to carry a motion for the end of negro apprenticeship. He continued working for law and prison reforms, urged the need for widespread grammar schools with a commonsense syllabus, and reiterated the importance of the squire-magistrate in the social scheme. Altogether, he justified his self-description as an 'independent country Gentleman', 'A Conservative … who had left Toryism, and who desired to preserve a constitutional and a rational reform' (Parl. Deb., (3), 42, 1215). When, with all these qualifications, and especially his interest in criminal law, Wilmot was appointed lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen's Land, The Times criticized the appointment, which indeed had a taint of jobbery. Stanley, who was then secretary of state for the colonies, said that he chose Wilmot to administer the probation system because of his interest in juvenile delinquency; that he had recently called the baronet 'a muddle-brained blockhead' (Morrell, Colonial Policy, 389) made his decision strange and culpable. Wilmot later denied having sought the position, but probably its endowments determined him to accept. His three youngest sons, Augustus Hillier, Robert Charles Chester, and Charles Octavius, went with him to Van Diemen's Land, each receiving a public office; Lady Wilmot stayed in England.

When Wilmot arrived at Hobart Town in August 1843, colonial affairs were dominated by the probation system of convict discipline and by economic depression. Probation aspired to new standards of scientific and effective punishment. Early in their sentence convicts would remain in gangs, preferably employed so as to defray their upkeep; later they would enter the labour market as wage-earners. Settled colonists thus reaped no benefit of cheap assigned labour, and therefore abhorred the new system. They objected most to paying all local police and judicial expenses, insisting that these largely arose from Britain's use of the island as a convict dump and hence should be met by the British Treasury. Feeling against Whitehall rose very high.

The trade depression, which since 1841 had brought most colonists close to insolvency, added fuel to such flames. Everyone grudged, even should they possess, the money to pay taxation. All sources of public revenue, especially land sales, withered; by 1844 the colony was virtually bankrupt. There was market for neither the produce nor the labour of pass-holders.

Wilmot was in a dilemma. Government must go on, but colonists and British government alike refused to pay. In his dispatches he generally took the colonists' side, arguing that police and judicial costs were Britain's responsibility. In 1844 he suggested that the 1842 Act, which set £1 an acre as the minimum land price, be not applied in Van Diemen's Land, that ex-convicts be granted small holdings, and that gentlemen settlers receive larger estates, virtually by grant. He encouraged Major (Sir) Sydney Cotton to plan irrigation works, and urged their execution upon Whitehall. Several dispatches attacked Britain's differential duties against colonial corn. Wilmot advised that conditionally-pardoned convicts should have free movement throughout Australia, not merely Van Diemen's Land. The immediate financial problem he met by drawing upon the funds supplied directly from Britain for convict and military needs.

Wilmot's efforts bore some fruit. In 1845 the British government did suspend the 1842 Act and liberalize conditional pardons. More important, in 1846 the Colonial Office at last persuaded the Treasury to accept responsibility for two-thirds of the police and judicial costs. Meanwhile Wilmot had pared the expenses of local government very low. Ultimately he could, and did claim that his term saw the lifting of the grim depression. Nevertheless he became desperately unpopular.

The Colonial Office found Wilmot slap-dash in administrative procedures, too lenient in creating new jobs and granting leave of absence, arbitrary in his judgments, careless of referring major issues to Whitehall, cursory in describing local affairs. Whatever Wilmot's virtues, he was guilty on every count. Between March 1844 and February 1846 dispatches brought him twenty-seven separate rebukes. In particular, the Colonial Office deplored his neglect to explain the working of probation. In Whitehall's view this was a crucial matter, but Wilmot did little more than add covering notes to the returns of the convict comptroller-general, Matthew Forster. As these were generally more statistical than descriptive, and Forster was unlikely to admit grave faults within his department, Wilmot's failure to exercise independent criticism was the more unfortunate.

Relations between Wilmot and most colonists had also become very sour. Sympathetic to their plight, he nevertheless had to bear the odium of representing Whitehall. His response was increasing acerbity. A climax came with the August and October 1845 sittings of the Legislative Council. Private members expressed their hostility to probation and its costs by obstructing all financial measures. The Patriotic Six finally resigned their seats, and closed the session in confusion. Wilmot declared their actions 'radical, in fact Jacobinical' and argued his case to the Colonial Office with unusual heat.

The near-unanimity of feeling against Whitehall caused factions within colonial society and politics to be less active than in earlier years, but Wilmot nevertheless entered their toils. Soon after arrival he founded the Royal Society of Van Diemen's Land: a worthy venture, but an affront to a society already established by Franklin. Much more important were disputes arising from religious feeling. Throughout his term Wilmot disputed with Bishop Francis Nixon on the relative powers of church and state, especially with chaplains employed in the convict department. They also differed over education, the bishop wanting state aid for denominational schools while Wilmot maintained the British and Foreign Schools Society plan. Non-Anglicans supported him, giving the administration what backing it had from local interests.

Further troubles accrued to Wilmot from tales of his licentious behaviour that carried to New South Wales and to England. After their publication in the London Naval and Military Gazette, October 1845, leading colonists signed a repudiation. The validity of the charges remains doubtful. Sir John Pedder certainly declared them false in a letter to Sir George Arthur, 18 February 1846, but George Boyes, another signatory to the repudiation, appeared to accept their truth in his diary.

All these elements of discord coalesced in the one dramatic event of Wilmot's career, his recall. In 1845 W. E. Gladstone replaced Stanley at the Colonial Office and soon studied Wilmot's faults and critics. He and James Stephen became increasingly disturbed by the apparent failure of probation, and in particular by reports of homosexual practices among convicts. In their eyes such behaviour was utterly abominable. Wilmot himself had indicated its existence; the evidence, though often vague, leaves little doubt. The Colonial Office decided that Forster should give way to someone more energetic, and John Hampton received the post. Meanwhile Gladstone, while accepting that Wilmot was justified in denying Nixon control over convict chaplains, showed his High Anglican sympathies in supporting denominational education and in reversing a particularly stringent application of the colony's Church Acts against Nixon. Spokesmen of colonial interests received a friendly hearing at Downing Street; they made propaganda of the convicts' supposed homosexual behaviour, and of Wilmot's alleged amours.

During April 1846 Whitehall received details of the constitutional crisis of six months earlier. Stephen was little impressed by Wilmot's apologia: did not his own earlier dispatches justify the colonists? But, the under-secretary now argued, the real blame for colonial ills lay with the imperial authorities: with the Treasury for so long refusing to meet police and judicial costs, with the Colonial Office for not forcing that issue earlier, and with the government generally for channelling convicts into the probation system. With dubious logic, Stephen then suggested that the solution was to recall Wilmot for reasons other than the constitutional crisis. Gladstone accepted this advice, the ground decided upon being neglect of the convict system. Wilmot was immediately to hand the government to Charles La Trobe, the superintendent at Port Phillip.

A dispatch of 30 April 1846 carried the news to Wilmot. Simultaneously Gladstone wrote a private letter telling him that the rumours concerning his private life rendered him ineligible for further employment in colonial service. Gladstone had learned of Wilmot's alleged misdeeds primarily through the correspondence of Nixon with their mutual friend, Edward Coleridge. The dismissal certainly derived in part from Gladstone's lingering belief that the government should uphold the Church of England with all possible strength.

The dispatch reached Hobart in September, the private letter in October. Wilmot at once made the latter known, and asked the Executive Council to appoint a committee of inquiry. This reported that charges so vague were beyond investigation, but denied their import. Wilmot's own letters of this period became passionate as he declared himself 'The Victim of the most extraordinary conspiracy that ever succeeded in defaming the character of a Public Servant'. He demanded redress, and stayed in the colony to gather rebutting evidence. Soon he became ill, and died of no diagnosed disease on 3 February 1847.

Friends and family maintained Wilmot's cause. The issue was brought against Gladstone in the Oxford University election of 1847; for support he appealed to Nixon, who clung to an earlier public statement so worded as to uphold Wilmot. Both Gladstone and his successor, Earl Grey, recanted the personal allegations, while maintaining the validity of the recall. The colonial press discussed the episode with heat, using it as a weapon in their squabbles. Feeling for Wilmot gathered weight, the Colonial Times, 9 February 1847, even declaring him 'murdered'. Citizens of Hobart subscribed to a Gothic mausoleum for Wilmot; erected in 1850, it still stands in St David's Park.

A portrait by an unknown artist is held by Wilmot's descendants, and he is among those depicted in R. B. Haydon's 'The Anti-Slavery Convention, 1840' in the National Portrait Gallery. Wilmot's sons remained in the colony for various periods. All married daughters of John Dunn of Hobart, and descendants have since lived in Tasmania. The second baronet maintained his father's interest in public affairs.

Wilmot's was a tragic story. Through many years, manner and inheritance won him greater reward than his abilities merited. At the end, he was set a vast, probably insuperable task. Under this strain, his paternalism and sense of duty took the shape of autocracy; his open-mindedness, of vacuity; his urbanity, of indolence. Thus he lay open to his enemies' attacks.

Select Bibliography

  • J. West, The History of Tasmania, vols 1-2 (Launceston, 1852)
  • W. P. Morrell, British Colonial Policy in the Age of Peel and Russell (Oxford, 1930)
  • W. A. Townsley, Struggle for Self-Government in Tasmania 1842-1856 (Hob, 1951)
  • R. M. Hartwell, The Economic Development of Van Diemen's Land 1820-1850 (Melb, 1954)
  • K. Fitzpatrick, ‘Mr Gladstone and the Governor: The Recall of Sir John Eardley-Wilmot from Van Diemen's Land’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 1, no 1, Apr 1940-Oct 1941, pp 31-45
  • A. G. L. Shaw, ‘Sir John Eardley-Wilmot and the Probation System in Tasmania’, Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), vol 11, no 1, Sept 1963, pp 5-19
  • Gladstone papers (British Library)
  • CO 280/184, 186, 196.

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Citation details

Michael Roe, 'Eardley-Wilmot, Sir John Eardley (1783–1847)', 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

John Eardley Eardley-Wilmot (1783-1847),  by J. W. Beattie

John Eardley Eardley-Wilmot (1783-1847), by J. W. Beattie

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125646828

Life Summary [details]


21 February, 1783
London, Middlesex, England


3 February, 1847 (aged 63)

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