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Charles FitzGerald (1791–1887)

by F. K. Crowley

This article was published:

Charles FitzGerald (1791-1887), governor, was the son of Robert FitzGerald of Kilkee, County Clare, Ireland, and a cadet of the ducal house of Leinster. He entered the navy in March 1809, passed his examination in 1815, and was first commissioned in March 1826. He served for a time as a lieutenant in the coastguard, and in 1833-36 commanded first the Cruiser and then the Belvidera on the North American and West Indian Stations. In 1838 he was sent in command of the Buzzard to the west coast of Africa to help suppress the slave trade, and served there with distinction. He was invalided home in 1840, promoted commander, and placed on half pay.

In 1844 FitzGerald was appointed lieutenant-governor of the British settlements on the Gambia. It was a comparatively quiet post, and the only significant event during his administration was an imbroglio in the higher public service, during which the governor suspended his chief justice, (Sir) Richard Graves MacDonnell, who later succeeded him as governor, and still later served as governor of South Australia. FitzGerald returned to England in 1847 and in July was appointed governor of Western Australia in succession to Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Clarke. However, FitzGerald insisted on taking the leave accruing to him from his Gambia appointment, and thus did not arrive in Western Australia until 12 August 1848. He was then 57, and twice married: first in 1837 to Lucy, youngest daughter of Dr Austin, and second in 1848 to Eleanora Caroline, daughter of Charles Elwes, of Great Billing, Northamptonshire.

On arrival in the colony FitzGerald found the local Treasury almost empty and a general despondency hanging over the pastoralists and farmers, nearly all of whom were thoroughly dissatisfied with the high price of crown land, the lack of labour and the interim administration of Colonel Frederick Irwin and his colonial secretary, George Moore. There were fewer than 5000 people in the whole colony. Neither workmen nor capitalists had been attracted to it for many years, and the colonists had already petitioned for convicts to be sent from Britain. FitzGerald was instructed to inquire whether the colonists would accept a small number of well-behaved convicts from Pentonville; after confirming that they would be welcome, he informed Earl Grey in London, who quickly instigated an Order in Council in May 1849 to convert Western Australia into a penal colony. The British government promised to send out as many free immigrants as convicts.

The first two ships carrying convicts arrived at Fremantle in 1850, and thereafter the colony received about three shiploads of felons a year, though their arrival was very irregular and no advance notice of either dates or numbers was given to the colonial authorities. The result was an alternation of surfeits and deficits in the supply of labour. By the end of 1855, the year in which FitzGerald retired, 3668 convicts had arrived in Western Australia, nearly half of them already holding tickets-of-leave entitling them to seek private employment and to be paid wages; if employers were not prepared to take them, they were employed by the government on public works at below-market wages. During these five years FitzGerald was not responsible for the day-to-day administration of the convict system, which was in the competent hands of Captain E. Y. W. Henderson, R.E., and his subordinate officers. However, inasmuch as FitzGerald was responsible for general policy, he had some control over the methods used to employ and to discipline the men, and he acquired the reputation of being at once autocratic, kind-hearted and humane. With more interest in the quick and efficient dispersal of convicts throughout the colony's rural districts than in the construction of a plethora of cheap public works, he adopted a country depot system to help private employers to engage the men. The remaining convicts were employed in building the Fremantle gaol and on other ancillary works. Although the labour supply for public works was never high, FitzGerald was able to claim credit for several notable improvements, especially the new roads from Perth to Fremantle, Guildford and Albany; he also used Aboriginal prisoners on the Perth-Albany project. Other notable improvements around Perth included the draining of several swamps and the erection of the first buildings specifically for use as a hospital and government schools.

During FitzGerald's administration the population of Western Australia nearly trebled, reaching 12,000, of whom about 3000 were convicts under sentence. Although the British government honoured its promise to send out assisted free immigrants, the colonists were not especially pleased with the quality of the English paupers and single Irish girls who were dispatched to counter an alarming decrease in the proportion of women in the colony. Furthermore, most free migrants to the Australian colonies had by-passed Albany and other western ports on their way to the Victorian and New South Wales goldfields. However, there had been little serious crime among the convicts, while the free immigrants had been readily absorbed into the community and the Irish girls showed no reluctance to marry the ex-convicts.

At the same time the economy of the colony benefited greatly from the increased imperial expenditure and the rising population. The fertile lands north of the Moore River in the vicinity of Champion Bay were settled by pastoralists taking advantage of the increased local market for meat and agricultural produce. After his arrival FitzGerald had strongly supported exploration of this district; on a tour of inspection in 1848 he was speared in the leg by Aboriginals and was fortunate to escape with his life. Wool production also improved in the early 1850s, pearl fishing began at Shark Bay, and a little lead was mined at Geraldine on the Murchison north of Geraldton, both place-names commemorating the governor. On the whole, therefore, the colony had recovered from its twenty years of economic depression, and the changing temper of the settlers, as well as the improvements in trade and commerce, confirmed the permanency of the colony.

FitzGerald's autocratic quarter-deck manner did not endear him to the leading settlers, who had been soured by long years of stagnation and were bent on gaining the greatest possible representation and power in the Legislative Council, as well as the quickest possible benefit from convict labour. They had always found Downing Street control of their public finances and land policy extremely galling, and orders from London were not at all palatable when coming from a salty ship's captain, who had been turned into a sort of schoolmaster, and who was more acquainted with giving orders than with receiving advice, especially from a highly critical and frequently intemperate local press.

FitzGerald appeased the opposition a little by appointing non-officials to the Council but by the very nature of the colony he had to remain an autocratic dispenser of his employer's policies. He was also a little unfortunate in his subordinates. With the important post of colonial secretary filled by three different men during his administration, FitzGerald had to intrude into too many petty affairs of government. Nor was he well served in the matter of government finance, which was also unfortunate because he had little business acumen. Any judgment on his abilities as an administrator and on his rather modest and unostentatious achievements must also be tempered by the fact that he governed the most insignificant Australian colony at the time of its greatest depression, and when its acceptance of convict labour was totally at variance with the policies of the other colonies. The critics of Western Australia were legion.

While FitzGerald performed with credit and social aplomb the many minor duties of his office, his young and attractive wife conducted a vigorous social programme revolving around Government House. She excelled at the opening of charity bazaars. She superintended an Anglican Sunday school, and she helped to organize a school for immigrant children. Her stay in Western Australia was probably the highlight of her life. Early in 1854 her husband was informed that his term of office was drawing to a close; in November his successor was appointed, and the FitzGeralds left Western Australia in July 1855.

Captain FitzGerald was probably thankful to be relieved of responsibility for governing a colony which daily became more penal, because he had always maintained that although the immediate economic effects of convict transportation were beneficial, its continuance would keep out the men and capital who alone could make it prosper. Such, indeed, was the tenor of his evidence to a select committee of the House of Lords, which in June 1856 examined him on his administration. In 1857 Captain FitzGerald was appointed C.B., and retired to his home, Geraldine House, Kilkee, where he died on 29 December 1887.

Select Bibliography

  • W. B. Kimberly, History of West Australia (Melb, 1897)
  • J. S. Battye, Western Australia (Oxford, 1924)
  • A. Hasluck, Unwilling Emigrants (Melb, 1959)
  • F. K. Crowley, Australia's Western Third (Lond, 1960)
  • Select Committee on Transportation, Parliamentary Papers (House of Lords, Great Britain), 1856 (124)
  • P. J. Boyce, Role of the Governor in Western Australia, 1829-1890 (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1961)
  • CO 18/48-88
  • CSO A/390 (State Records Office of Western Australia).

Citation details

F. K. Crowley, 'FitzGerald, Charles (1791–1887)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 23 June 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]




29 December, 1887 (aged ~ 96)
Kilkee, Clare, Ireland

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