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Thomas Frederick Elliot (1808–1880)

by Albert A. Hayden

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Thomas Frederick Elliot (1808-1880), public servant, was the youngest son of Hugh Elliot, minister at the court of Frederick the Great and later holder of governorships in India and the West Indies, and his second wife Margaret, née Jones. He was a nephew of the earl of Minto and later related by marriage to Lord John Russell. He was educated at Harrow and at 17 entered the Colonial Office. Although his family and connexions may have helped his career, he soon demonstrated enough ability of his own to warrant his advancement.

In 1825 the Colonial Office was small and ill organized but it already included several men who were to become noted administrators. Elliot was also undoubtedly influenced by the ideals and methods of James Stephen. In July 1827 he was promoted to fourth clerk as a précis writer, became secretary to the Emigration Commission in 1831 and in April 1833 senior clerk in the North American department. While secretary to the Gosford Commission in Canada in 1835-37 he wrote to Sir Henry Taylor a letter which was circulated among cabinet ministers, who regarded it as the ablest description of politics in Lower Canada they had seen. Elliot's penetrating observation became even more marked when in 1837 he was appointed agent-general for emigration and in 1840 a member of the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission. In these positions he made his most significant contribution to Australian affairs, and indeed to British emigration to America and colonization of the empire.

After the Napoleonic war Britain became aware of her population problem but, apart from small experiments in South Africa and in Canada, the government was reluctant to give financial assistance to emigration. Nevertheless Passenger Acts were devised to prevent exploitation of migrants by shipowners and the cost of passages to Australia was sometimes offset by a bounty of crown land. After the Ripon regulations in 1831 part of the revenue from land sales in Australia was devoted to emigration, but the first migrants thus assisted were most unsatisfactory, and colonists in New South Wales preferred the bounty system. With the United States as chief attraction, the rate of migration increased and the government began to regulate the traffic at British ports by appointing in 1833-35 eleven emigration agents, one of whom, James Pinnock, was paid by the governments of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land. These officers were placed under Elliot's direction in 1837 when he became agent-general for emigration. In 1831 as secretary for the Emigration Commission he had helped to collect and disseminate information on all the British colonies. Now he resumed charge of the general emigration correspondence, and chartered ships for assisted migrants to Australia. His duties increased when the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission was created in 1840. Among his widespread cares one constant trouble spot was New South Wales. Land-hungry colonists complained that the commission chartered ships only during slumps in British trade, took little care with shipboard conditions and used Australia as a dump for Britain's unwanted poor. By contrast they claimed that the bounty system was cheaper and brought more of the agricultural labourers most needed in the colony. Their narrow interests blinded them to the inherent weaknesses of the bounty system and to the far greater attractions of the United States, even though British migrants paid their own passages to go there.

Elliot patiently answered each criticism, and persisted in protecting emigrants from the time of their recruitment in Britain until they found work in the colony. In principle he was opposed to state intervention in the lives of individuals and in business, but as a responsible official he could not stand idly by and permit the sickness, death, destitution and immorality that were present in the emigration traffic. He took special pride in winning the co-operation of shipowners but, when some continued to be intransigent, he was driven to attempt reform of the Passenger Acts. Success came with the Act of 1855, the 'Magna Charta of the Emigrants', which he helped to prepare after he left the commission.

The land and emigration commissioners were frequently changed. Robert Torrens resigned in December 1840 and his successor, John George Shaw Lefevre, in 1843. Edward Ernest Villiers died in October 1843. Charles Alexander Wood and Frederick Rogers were Elliot's colleagues when he resigned in November 1847, his place as chairman being taken by Thomas William Clinton Murdoch.

Elliot became assistant-under-secretary for the colonies in 1847, but continued his lively interest in emigration until his resignation from the Colonial Office in 1868. Next year he was appointed K.C.M.G. for long public service. In May 1833 he had married Jane, daughter of James Perry, a former proprietor and editor of the Morning Chronicle. She died in January 1861, and in January 1869 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Admiral Sir Robert Howe Bromley of Stoke Hall, Nottinghamshire. He and his wife died from typhoid fever in February 1880 at Cairo. There was no issue of either marriage.

Elliot's broad concept of imperial administration and his practical humanity were rarely recognized or appreciated in Australia, yet he was prominent in a generation of paternal officials who sought to protect the young colonies from the worst crudities of social development while reluctantly accepting that they must learn to govern themselves.

Select Bibliography

  • H. I. Cowan, British Emigration to British North America 1783-1837 (Toronto, 1928)
  • F. H. Hitchins, The Colonial Land and Emigration Commission (Philadelphia, 1931)
  • R. B. Madgwick, Immigration into Eastern Australia 1788-1851 (Lond, 1937)
  • O. MacDonagh, A Pattern of Government Growth (Lond, 1961)
  • Parliamentary Papers (House of Lords, Great Britain), 1840 (30), 1845 (143), 1846 (179, 184, 189).

Citation details

Albert A. Hayden, 'Elliot, Thomas Frederick (1808–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 14 July 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]




February, 1880 (aged ~ 72)
Cairo, Egypt

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