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Boyle Travers Finniss (1807–1893)

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Boyle Travers Finniss (1807-1893), by Townsend Duryea, c1880

Boyle Travers Finniss (1807-1893), by Townsend Duryea, c1880

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 5833

Boyle Travers Finniss (1807-1893), soldier, surveyor and public servant, was born on 18 August 1807 off the Cape of Good Hope in the Warbey, the eldest son of Captain John Finniss, paymaster of the 36th and 56th Regiments, and his wife Susanna, née Major. His mother died in Madras, and on 25 February 1821 his father married Maria, daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel John Hassard, on whose retirement he became chief commissary of police in Mauritius in 1824-46. Finniss lived at Madras until he was sent to a school at Greenwich, conducted by Dr Charles Burney.

In 1822, after heading sixteen candidates at the entrance examination, Finniss entered the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. In 1825 he was appointed ensign in the 88th Regiment. Promoted lieutenant in 1827, and recommended by Sir Lowry Cole, governor of Mauritius, he was appointed to the 56th Regiment then disembarking at Portsmouth. At his own request he was transferred to the 82nd Regiment and in August 1833 went with it to Mauritius, where he superintended the construction of one of the island's largest bridges. His regiment was then sent to Ireland, and at Dublin on 13 August 1835 he married Anne Frances Rogerson, of Mullingar, County Westmeath. On his return to London next month, he applied for a land grant in New South Wales. Although this was approved, he turned his attention to the proposed colony at Gulf St Vincent and became a member of the South Australian Building Committee. In October he sold his army commission in order to qualify for appointment as deputy surveyor general in South Australia. In December he bought two preliminary land orders and added his signature to the undertaking required to obtain the loan which was a condition to the commencement of the colonization of South Australia.

Finniss sailed with his wife in the Cygnet, and after an eventful voyage arrived at Kingscote on 11 September 1836. On Kangaroo Island he made a traverse of the Cygnet River and was then sent in charge of a party to the mainland, where at Rapid Bay on 31 December 1836 his daughter, Fanny Lipson, was born, the first white girl in the colony. While waiting for Colonel William Light to decide the capital site, Finniss grew a crop of potatoes and with the help of Aboriginals made a topographical survey of the neighbouring country as far as Yankalilla. On 23 January 1837 Finniss left Rapid Bay with his wife and child to join the main surveying party on the site of Adelaide. He was given charge of the work on the western side of the town, and in North Adelaide he helped Light to fix the first points of the trigonometrical survey. On 10 February 1837 at the meeting held in Samuel Stephens's tent he supported Light's choice of the capital site, and at the sale of Adelaide sections a month later he selected his two acres (.8 ha) in King William Street, where he erected a hut and a wooden house brought out in the Tam O'Shanter. Drawn into politics with other leading colonists he soon became one of the governor's most vocal critics, seldom missing an opportunity to discredit (Sir) John Hindmarsh. He signed the memorial on 12 April 1837 for speeding up the surveys and, three months later, the address which criticized the South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register and advocated the establishment of a second newspaper. In June 1838 he reported on the Encounter Bay district. Next month Light and all his official surveyors resigned in protest against the commissioners' instructions brought by (Sir) George Kingston from London. Soon afterwards the surveying firm of Light, Finniss & Co., was formed with an office in Stephens Place, Adelaide. The firm surveyed in the Lyndoch valley for the South Australian Co. until Light's fatal illness. Finniss laid out the township of Gawler, but thereafter the business lapsed and he became a devoted visitor at Theberton Cottage, being present with his wife at Light's death on 5 October 1839.

In 1840 Finniss bought a water-mill on First Creek, near his property, Traversbrook, at Burnside and adapted it to grind flour as well as sawing timber. It proved a costly failure and on 28 November 1843 Finniss returned to the public service as commissioner of police and police magistrate. On 28 April 1847 he succeeded Captain Charles Sturt as registrar-general and treasurer, with a seat on the Executive and Legislative Councils. Still registrar-general, he was nominated to the new part-elective Legislative Council in 1851, and next year was appointed colonial secretary. In this office he played a conservative part in the drafting of the Constitution bill. From December 1854 to June 1855 he was temporary administrator between the departure of Lieutenant-Governor Sir Henry Young and the arrival of Sir Richard MacDonnell. He was still colonial secretary on 24 October 1856 when he became the first premier of South Australia under responsible government. In 1857 he was elected by Adelaide to the new House of Assembly and his ministry fell in August. Next year he became treasurer in Hanson's ministry. He was returned for Mount Barker to the second parliament and resigned his seat in October 1862.

In March 1864 Finniss was appointed government Resident in the Northern Territory, later becoming special and stipendiary magistrate as well. The hastily organized and poorly planned survey party under his command was instructed to examine the Adelaide River and near-by coast and to select a capital site. Against the advice of his subordinates, Finniss chose Adam Bay and began marking out sections on its mosquito-infested mud flats. Bitter dissensions followed with his assistants who complained to Adelaide. Finniss was recalled to face a Royal Commission which condemned him for poor judgment and for spending some £40,000 of public funds on a hopeless venture. For holding ministerial office for three years, Finniss received royal permission to bear the title of Honourable within South Australia. He acted as auditor-general in 1876 and served on the Forest Board in 1875-81.

Finniss had varied interests outside his public duties. He was an original member of the short-lived South Australian Club in 1838-42, its inaugural meeting being held at the office of Light, Finniss & Co. With Sturt, he was a trustee of Trinity Church and responsible for offering the living to Rev. James Farrell in 1844. He was also a member of the committee of the South Australian Church Society. In the 1840s his initiative created the 'Adelaide Marksmen', a volunteer company of which he was captain. In 1864 he was appointed lieutenant-colonel of the South Australian Volunteer Force. In 1871-72 he was agent of the British Australian Telegraph Co., at Palmerston. In retirement he wrote The Constitutional History of South Australia, published in Adelaide in South Australia's jubilee year 1886. He died at Kensington Park, near Adelaide, on 24 December 1893, and was buried in West Terrace cemetery, Adelaide. His first wife had died at Traversbrook on 3 January 1858. He was survived by his second wife, Sophia Florence Maud, née Lynch, and by two sons and three daughters.

Industrious, honest and self-righteous, Finniss was an acute observer of his fellows and his sense of public duty impelled him to point out the mistakes of others, however trivial. Determined to make a name for himself, he sometimes shone in small groups, but he lacked the personal qualities of large leadership.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1866-67 (17)
  • Finniss papers (State Records of South Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

'Finniss, Boyle Travers (1807–1893)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 24 May 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

Boyle Travers Finniss (1807-1893), by Townsend Duryea, c1880

Boyle Travers Finniss (1807-1893), by Townsend Duryea, c1880

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 5833

Life Summary [details]


18 August, 1807
at sea


24 December, 1893 (aged 86)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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