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Sir Charles Augustus FitzRoy (1796–1858)

by John M. Ward

This article was published:

Charles Augustus FitzRoy (1796-1858), by Henry Robinson Smith, c1855

Charles Augustus FitzRoy (1796-1858), by Henry Robinson Smith, c1855

State Library of New South Wales, Original : ML 159

Sir Charles Augustus FitzRoy (1796-1858), governor-general, was born on 10 June 1796, the eldest son of General Lord Charles FitzRoy, the second son of the third Duke of Grafton, and Frances, daughter of Edward Miller Mundy, M.P., of Shipley Hall, Derbyshire, England. She died a year after he was born, and his father then married Frances Anne, daughter of Robert, first marquis of Londonderry. Robert FitzRoy, sometime governor of New Zealand and commander of H.M.S. Beagle on her famous voyage, was a child of this marriage. When FitzRoy on 11 March 1820 married Lady Mary Lennox, eldest daughter of Charles, fourth Duke of Richmond, and Charlotte daughter of the fourth Duke of Gordon, he ensured himself the interest of three ducal houses.

FitzRoy went to Harrow at 9, was commissioned in the Horse Guards at 16 and served at Waterloo. He was made captain in 1820, placed on half-pay as a major in June 1825 and four months later, promoted lieutenant-colonel. In the early 1820s he went to the Cape of Good Hope, serving in a variety of positions including military secretary and later deputy-adjutant general. He liked the colony but became liable for £5000 of debts connected with his office and was not released from further claims until 1834. He returned to England in 1831, was elected to the House of Commons for Bury St Edmunds, a seat in the power of the Grafton family, and voted for the first reform bill. His political career ended in 1832 when this seat was required for his brother-in-law. In 1833 FitzRoy retired from the army and lived very quietly while the fifth Duke of Richmond, aided sometimes by the Grafton family, tried to find him employment. FitzRoy wished to return to the Cape, perhaps as colonial secretary or treasurer. In 1837 his patrons succeeded at last. He was appointed K.H. and lieutenant-governor of Prince Edward Island, where he soon won a reputation for tact and moderation. His next appointment as lieutenant-governor of the Leeward Islands in 1841 helped to restore his finances, which Prince Edward Island had depleted. In 1845 Lord Stanley, secretary of state for the colonies, called on him to conciliate New South Wales.

In contrast to the ailing Sir George Gipps whom he replaced, FitzRoy brought to the colony the lustre of aristocratic connexions, success in two governments, a shrewd, earthy judgment of men and events, robust health and an obvious preference for peace at any not-too-unreasonable price. He had the confidence of W. E. Gladstone, who had succeeded Stanley at the Colonial Office. Even the most rancorous colonial leaders knew that it would be imprudent for them to quarrel with two governors in succession. His prospects were excellent and he summed them up correctly at once.

With his wife and second son, George, who became his private secretary, FitzRoy arrived in Sydney in H.M.S. Carysfort on 2 August 1846, and next day began his administration. Difficulties with the Legislative Council were soon solved. When FitzRoy submitted his first estimates, he asked for a supplementary grant for the administration of justice beyond that provided in the schedules to the 1842 Constitution. The council, as expected, renewed its claim to scrutinize the details, which Gipps had refused. But they had had time to judge FitzRoy and undertook not to alter salaries to which the government was committed, a concession that they had not made to Gipps. FitzRoy thereupon submitted all the details to the council, which passed them with little discussion. The Colonial Office was appalled at FitzRoy's actions, which were possibly illegal and not practically necessary. He knew the value of conceding a point that had been granted in some other colonies and prized good relations between the legislature and the executive far above the niceties of constitutional law. At the beginning of 1847 his conciliation policy was helped from London. He then announced that the new secretary of state, Earl Grey, was willing to surrender to the council the right of appropriating the casual revenues of the Crown, a concession much valued.

The bitterest strife of the Gipps period had been over the land claims of the squatters. FitzRoy received a flying start when imperial policy was settled by Grey in a way that pacified the most powerful of those who had battled with Gipps. The Waste Lands Occupation Act of 1846 (9 & 10 Vic. c. 104) and the Order in Council of 9 March 1847 gave the squatters the long leases, renewals, rights of pre-emption and other concessions that they had demanded. Robert Lowe headed a strong protest movement, denouncing Grey for having virtually handed over the lands to the squatters. This was an embarrassment that FitzRoy could easily tolerate, for Lowe's action marked the disintegration of the alliance of squatters and landowners that had plagued Gipps. FitzRoy himself contributed nothing to Grey's new policy, for he withheld his advice on the squatting question until he had seen the country for himself. He set off on 9 November 1846 on the first of many journeys into the country districts, with his wife and son, his cousin, Lieutenant-Colonel G. C. Mundy, and the colonial secretary, Edward Deas Thomson. FitzRoy crossed the Blue Mountains and went as far as Carcoar and Molong, driving his own four-in-hand much of the way. He was away from Sydney for thirty-three days and visited many wealthy pastoralists, admiring their stock and properties and hunting as opportunity offered. Those squatters who feared that he might overestimate the soil and underestimate their difficulties need not have worried. He had offered no advice to the Colonial Office when Grey made his concessions in 1847.

Without consulting the Colonial Office, FitzRoy himself made an important concession in October 1846 when he allowed a generous adjustment of quitrents. Debtors were permitted to commute their payments on favourable terms, and lands on which twenty years rent had been paid were freed from further charges, with refunds of overpayments. Grey feared that these concessions were extreme and censured him with such severity that FitzRoy complained to the Duke of Richmond of the unfairness and 'ebullition of temper' to which he had been subjected. FitzRoy was ever afterwards convinced that Grey was prejudiced against every governor appointed by Stanley. Grey, for his part, believed that FitzRoy was making himself popular at the expense of his superiors, who had to refuse concessions that he should never have recommended. 'Beyond the pleasure of doing a good-natured thing', there was no reason to do as the governor asked, wrote James Stephen, when considering FitzRoy's too generous recommendation of a land grant for an officer's widow. FitzRoy, Grey told Lord John Russell in 1848, was 'a most incapable Governor of so important a Colony'. However dissatisfied London may have been, the colony liked its new governor. He had soon recognized that the man on whom to rely for policy and local knowledge was Deas Thomson 'an old Harrow school-fellow'. Shortly after his arrival, he wrote enthusiastically to Gladstone about Thomson's skilful management of the legislature and profound good sense. After six years of close co-operation he won Thomson a substantial increase of salary, handsomely back-dated.

FitzRoy's happy beginnings in New South Wales ended in tragedy. On 7 December 1847 his wife, on whose loyalty and charm he had greatly depended, was killed in a carriage accident in the grounds of Government House, Parramatta. His aide-de-camp died as a result of the same accident, and FitzRoy, an excellent whip, who had as usual been driving, suffered leg injuries. FitzRoy at first thought of giving up his post and returning to England. He could not afford to do so, and within a year was enduring allegations of undue partiality for the opposite sex. Later these attacks on his moral character increased and affected his reputation in the colony and in London.

On 31 July 1847 Grey wrote to FitzRoy that he proposed to separate the Port Phillip District from New South Wales and make it a new colony, Victoria, with representative government on the New South Wales pattern. The same form of government would be granted to Van Diemen's Land and South Australia. To watch over the common interests of the four colonies Grey proposed to establish a federal legislature. The separation of the Port Phillip District was not resented in New South Wales, and the proposed federal legislature aroused little interest. FitzRoy himself had recommended in September 1846 that 'some superior Functionary' should be appointed in Australia with power to veto any act of an Australian legislature. This suggestion was inspired by Thomson when the Legislative Council addressed FitzRoy to obtain the disallowance of a Tasmanian Act which had ended what was left of free trade between that colony and New South Wales. In his earlier governorships FitzRoy had learned the value of federal authorities and, although he was not responsible for Grey's plan, his own thoughts lay in the same direction. Other parts of Grey's proposals, however, embarrassed FitzRoy. The plan to extend the powers of the district councils, which had worked badly under the 1842 Constitution, was resented in the colony as likely to diminish effective self-government. FitzRoy told Grey that it would cause great opposition and discontent. He did not, however, tell Grey plainly that all his proposals were unsatisfactory to New South Wales because they ignored the colonists' demands for reform and were no more than an attempt to apply in Australia the model constitution that Grey and Stephen had planned unsuccessfully for New Zealand.

FitzRoy did not allow duty to the Colonial Office to obstruct his conciliation policy. He gave Grey's proposals full publicity, but did not support them, by explaining that Grey was asking for advice, not announcing decisions. He allowed the storm to break over Grey's head, repeating tactics that he was using simultaneously over the plan to revive convict transportation in a modified form. He had taken no public part when a select committee supported the convict plan in 1846 and the Legislative Council condemned it in 1847. He did not mislead his superiors about opinion in New South Wales, for it was certainly confused and changing. But he did nothing to clarify opinion, or to lead it in the direction that the Colonial Office wanted. These tactics were rewarded after a fashion by the strange proceedings of the Legislative Council in 1848. Grey was attacked throughout them, but FitzRoy was able to report to him that in April the council had reversed its vote against transportation after a debate which left it still seething in May and frustrated its attempts to protest against the constitutional proposals.

FitzRoy emerged almost unscathed in 1848 from the battles over Grey's Australian policies. The next year, however, the governor was less able to steer safely between his duty to the Colonial Office and his desire to live at peace with the people of New South Wales. First he annoyed Grey by failing to take a strong line on the protection of Aboriginals. Grey was zealous in this cause; FitzRoy was not, partly because he was reluctant to quarrel with landholders who found the Aboriginals a nuisance and objected to expenditure on their welfare. A little later the transportation problem was deposited at the gates of Government House when a public meeting at Circular Quay on 11 June 1849 protested against the arrival of convicts in the ship Hashemy. They were soon engaged by employers or sent to Moreton Bay, but FitzRoy had to face a furious public. In Melbourne in March he had conceded that the Port Phillip District need take no convicts; now he was blamed for insulting Sydney by unloading them there. The Legislative Council had reversed its decision of 1848 in favour of taking convicts. The meeting of 11 June was attended by few men of standing, but its vehemence was alarming. FitzRoy's quiet strengthening of the guard at Government House was blamed as a show of military force, and his cool reception of a deputation from the meeting was blamed as discourtesy. Many leading colonists supported the governor, and even some of Grey's critics believed that FitzRoy was at heart as much on their side as he dared to be. Grey commended him for moderation and sensible adherence to imperial orders. It was the most difficult affair of FitzRoy's government and he was glad when the next convict ship, the Randolph, arrived in September with less disturbance.

After the crises of 1849 Grey's policies gave FitzRoy less trouble. It was easy for the governor to send to London with little comment the many petitions against transportation to Tasmania. Because Grey had decided not to impose the New Zealand Constitution on Australia, the passage of the Australian Colonies Government Act through parliament in 1849-50 troubled New South Wales very little. FitzRoy was not directly involved in the colonial moves for a more liberal franchise, although he did write privately to the Colonial Office to support the enfranchisement of the leasehold squatters, who would strengthen the government in the Legislative Council. The new Act gave the right to vote to the holders of depasturing licences and certain leaseholders, much as FitzRoy had wished, although in subsequent moves for the Electoral Act of 1851, the council amended the government's measure in an attempt to preserve the old balance of power.

The real fire of the council's wrath was reserved for Grey's failure to remedy the grievances against which it had been complaining since 1843. On the motion of William Charles Wentworth, the council adopted an elaborate Declaration and Remonstrance against the Act. The new council confirmed it after the elections and FitzRoy himself mildly supported most of the reforms that the politicians were seeking. He pointed out to the Colonial Office that a large transfer of power from Britain to New South Wales was advocated by the 'most loyal, respectable and influential members of the community'. Grey refused any concessions, but his successor, Sir John Pakington, while accepting most of Grey's principles, was willing that transportation to Van Diemen's Land should cease and that the colony should have power over its waste lands and land revenues, after it had drawn up a new Constitution to be approved in London.

FitzRoy was not pleased to see the colony thrust into the troublesome business of constitution-making. He agreed that the colonists had a strong case for reform, but feared that their lack of unity might arouse a bitter contest for power. The Colonial Office, he expected, would insist on a bicameral legislature with an upper house nominated by the Crown for life. This was his own preference and, substantially, it was also the colony's. He was surprised when the Duke of Newcastle, who had taken over the Colonial Office in December 1852, expressed a preference for elected upper houses. FitzRoy found it hard to believe that the Colonial Office or the colonists wanted New South Wales to have responsible government. The final report of the select committee that drew up the new Constitution recommended a somewhat modified form of responsible government with which FitzRoy and his most powerful advisers would have been well enough satisfied. But Newcastle meanwhile had ordered the governors of all the Australian colonies to prepare for the introduction of responsible government in the full sense of the term. The draft Constitution was amended appropriately by the Legislative Council in December 1853 and responsible government for New South Wales then became inevitable. FitzRoy had not sought it because he knew that he could keep legislature and executive in harmony without it and because he had doubted whether the Colonial Office would allow it. His lack of fixed ideas on constitutions made him flexible enough to accept these changes without embarrassment. His sympathies were with the conservatives, especially Wentworth and James Macarthur, who were the most powerful in drawing up the new Constitution. He disliked Wentworth's proposal for a hereditary, aristocratic element in the government, but was willing that the new Constitution should preserve the power of those by whose aid he had governed. A ministry, headed perhaps by Thomson and responsible to a parliament dominated by Wentworth and Macarthur, would have preserved the political balance to which he was accustomed.

In 1851 FitzRoy wrote privately to Grey, asking whether his governorship might be extended beyond the normal period of six years. As he had just received new commissions as governor of New South Wales, Van Diemen's Land, South Australia and Victoria and also as governor-general of all the Australian possessions, including Western Australia, he suggested that a new period of six years should begin to run. The colony, he rightly declared, would welcome an extension of his term. For financial reasons he needed the continued employment. Moreover most of his family had joined him in Sydney. In addition to George, his eldest son, Captain Augustus Charles Lennox, had become his civil aide-de-camp, and his only daughter, Mrs Keith Stewart, wife of a naval officer, had been châtelaine at Government House since 1849. Grey could see no reason for extending FitzRoy's term. In 1853 soon after Grey left office to FitzRoy's considerable satisfaction, FitzRoy wrote to the Duke of Newcastle to ask whether he might be employed in India. Newcastle could not help him, but recommended him for the K.C.B., conferred in June 1854.

The problems posed for FitzRoy by the gold discoveries of 1851 were unprecedented in British colonial experience. He handled them in heavy reliance on his Executive Council. In considering the gold discoveries, the council had the advantage that neither the law nor the facts were clear for some time. Policy was ready when the news that the discoveries really were rich was confirmed by the government geologist, Samuel Stutchbury, whose appointment FitzRoy had requested in 1849. The government asserted the right of the Crown to control mining and adopted a system of licences that cost each man 30s. a month. The council hoped vainly that the fee would be high enough to prevent an indiscriminate rush to the diggings. The goldfields were placed under special commissioners, clergy were induced to go there, and a gold escort was established. The Colonial Office, delighted at FitzRoy's apparently firm initiative and gratified that the goldfields of New South Wales were more orderly than those of California, approved all that had been done. FitzRoy himself made a happy excursion to the diggings. The criticisms that the licensing system unnecessarily favoured small-scale enterprise, that royalties on gold produced might have been simpler and more profitable and that the government had not prevented a rush that upset the conditions on which the new land policy was founded, seemed unimportant compared with the victory for law, order and revenue that FitzRoy and his council had won.

Goldfields management concerned FitzRoy as governor-general as well as governor. He had power to visit the other colonies, except Western Australia, and take over their governments, if thereby he could solve intercolonial problems. He had also a wide discretion to advise the lieutenant-governors of the other colonies on matters of common interest. As he had no intercolonial executive, he had little encouragement to overcome a strong natural inclination to avoid trouble by doing nothing. When the New South Wales Legislative Council considered reducing the miners' licence fee in 1853 because of threatened disturbances at Turon, there was an immediate unfavourable reaction from Victoria, where an identical fee was charged. In the upshot, FitzRoy was unable to give a lead to either colony. The Victorians reduced their fee first and New South Wales had to follow. FitzRoy was not greatly to blame for this, but he was clearly indifferent to imperial orders when in 1853-54 he missed the last official chance of avoiding the break-of-gauge problem of the New South Wales and Victorian railways. Preoccupation with New South Wales, where he was greatly interested in railway construction and helped the Sydney Railway Co. to obtain loans, clouded his judgment. He ignored the warnings sent to him about the gauge problem by both Gladstone and Grey. In other intercolonial matters, such as tariff policy and sea and postal communications, he displayed neither the energy nor the sense of responsibility that Grey had hoped for in a governor-general. After Grey left the Colonial Office FitzRoy had no encouragement to be an effective governor-general.

Late in 1854 FitzRoy was told that his successor would be Sir William Denison. Before FitzRoy departed that acrimonious divine, John Dunmore Lang, hurled at him a thunderbolt that has pursued him ever since. On 1 December Lang moved, as an amendment to the Legislative Council's farewell address to the governor, seven resolutions deploring his rule as a 'uniform conspiracy against the rights of the people', inefficient, extravagant, incapable of stimulating sufficient immigration, dilatory in promoting exploration, oppressive in its land policy and discredited by a 'moral influence' emanating from Government House that had been 'deleterious and baneful in the highest degree'. Only the last charge was seriously hurtful; the rest could pass for the normal exchanges of colonial politics. The amendment was lost, but five men of standing supported it: Robert Campbell, Charles Cowper, (Sir) Henry Parkes, Edward Flood and J. W. Bligh.

Denison arrived on 17 January and took over the government three days later, when FitzRoy sailed for England in the Madras. He was sorry to leave and hoped for another colonial appointment. He claimed with some justice that he had found the colony turbulently discontented and given it a smooth and easy administration. He would have welcomed a chance to succeed Sir Charles Hotham as governor of Victoria in 1856, and thought Denison's administration of New South Wales much inferior to his own. The Colonial Office remained silent in face of his claims.

On 11 September 1855, a few months after his return to England, FitzRoy's eldest son, Augustus, died of wounds suffered at Sebastopol. On 11 December 1855 FitzRoy was married in London to Margaret Gordon, daughter of Lieutenant Alexander Milligan of the 17th Rifle Brigade, and widow of J. J. Hawkey, a Melbourne land agent. A little later his financial difficulties were eased when the government of New South Wales paid him £7268 16s. 5d. so as to raise his annual salary to £7000, the amount provided in the new Constitution, retrospectively from 1 June 1851. FitzRoy died in Piccadilly on 16 February 1858, without issue of the second marriage.

As an administrator FitzRoy has been given credit for tact, humanity and moderation. There is more than his record as governor-general to suggest that he may have lacked vigilance and energy. He so mismanaged his attempt to remove the surveyor-general, Sir Thomas Mitchell, from office that Grey, though not unwilling to do so, could not dismiss him. FitzRoy's dispatches to London were liable to lack necessary information, to be unduly delayed, or to reveal that he had not properly understood the subjects on which he commented. His ability to delay the movement to establish a new colony in northern New South Wales was partly due to political convenience, but it rested also on unwillingness to be involved in difficult questions. FitzRoy prided himself on popularity with all classes. Even the critics of his private life often liked him for easy manners, practised sociability and fine bearing. He stood for no inconvenient principles. He genuinely sympathized with projects of colonial advancement, such as the railways, the university and the growth of manufacturing. His sense of display and geniality commended him to the multitude. 'The lower classes' he wrote in 1853, 'are too well off at present to trouble their heads about politics'.

FitzRoy's gift for working with people extended to most of the colonial politicians. Only the irreconcilable were beyond the reach of his patience and humour. High on this short list were Robert Lowe and J. D. Lang. FitzRoy disliked Lowe for sharp changes of policy, tactless pertinacity and the trenchant criticisms that he continued to utter after he returned to England in 1850. FitzRoy knew that Lowe had repeated at the dinner table of the Duke of Newcastle some of the charges that Lang had made against his moral character. He could see in Lang only a hypocritical perturbator, a libeller and a savage critic. Charles Cowper he judged to be too adroit. Wentworth he admired, although regretting his tendency to run to extremes. James and William Macarthur he recognized as genuine aristocracy of the colony and he deferred to their wealth, power and judgment.

FitzRoy was above all else a man of the world, tough and shrewd in his political and social judgments, liable to great self-indulgence and sustained by a very high opinion of himself. When he compared himself with Lord Elgin, he boasted, but he could have claimed justly to be at least the equal of any Australian governor of his time.

Select Bibliography

  • G. C. Mundy, Our Antipodes, vols 1-3 (Lond, 1852)
  • J. D. Lang, An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1875)
  • G. W. Rusden, History of Australia, vols 1-3 (Lond, 1883)
  • A. P. Martin, Life and Letters of the Right Honourable Robert Lowe, Viscount Sherbrooke, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1893)
  • J. M. Ward, Earl Grey and the Australian Colonies, 1846-1857 (Melb, 1958)
  • G. Blainey, ‘The Gold Rushes: The Year of Decision’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 10, no 38, May 1962, pp 129-40
  • Goodwood manuscripts (County Record Office, Chichester)
  • Newcastle manuscripts (University of Nottingham)
  • Grey papers (University of Durham)
  • CO 201/368-403.

Citation details

John M. Ward, 'FitzRoy, Sir Charles Augustus (1796–1858)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 29 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

Charles Augustus FitzRoy (1796-1858), by Henry Robinson Smith, c1855

Charles Augustus FitzRoy (1796-1858), by Henry Robinson Smith, c1855

State Library of New South Wales, Original : ML 159

Life Summary [details]


10 June, 1796


16 February, 1858 (aged 61)
London, Middlesex, England

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