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Joseph Foveaux (1767–1846)

by B. H. Fletcher

This article was published:

Joseph Foveaux (1767-1846), soldier and administrator, was baptized on 6 April 1767 at Ampthill, Bedfordshire, England, sixth child of Joseph Foveaux, steward of the earl of Upper Ossory, and his wife Elizabeth, née Wheeler. At the time of purchasing a lieutenancy in the New South Wales Corps on 5 June 1789 he was probably an ensign in the 60th Regiment. He became a captain on 6 April 1791 and in 1792 reached Sydney. Here he quickly rose to the fore. Promotion to major on 10 June 1796 came with striking rapidity for a relatively young man stationed in an unimportant outpost on minor duties, and suggests that someone in England may have looked after his interests. As senior officer in the absence of Lieutenant-Colonel William Paterson between August 1796 and November 1799 he controlled the New South Wales Corps during a period when some of its officers were making their fortunes from trading and extending their landed properties. Whether Foveaux was a trader is unknown but he certainly turned his hand to stock-raising. By 1800 he had 1027 sheep on the 2020 acres (817 ha) of land he had been granted, making him the largest landholder and stock-owner in the colony.

In 1800, presumably with an eye to advancing his career, Foveaux offered to go to Norfolk Island as acting lieutenant-governor. This move forced him to dispose of his livestock, which was bought by John Macarthur. On 26 June 1800 Foveaux was commissioned by Philip Gidley King; a year later his position was confirmed by the British government, and in April 1802, he was promoted lieutenant-colonel. By this time he had begun to establish a reputation as an able and efficient administrator. Finding the island station run down, he concentrated his efforts on building it up, paying particular attention to public works, with results which earned him high praise from both Governor King and the secretary of state; more questionable, however, was the severity with which he crushed convict disturbances in 1801, and the dubious morality of allowing the sale of female convicts to settlers.

Throughout his administration Foveaux was plagued by severe asthma. A stay on the mainland between 29 September 1803 and 15 January 1804 failed to restore his health, and on 9 September 1804 he left Norfolk Island for England, partly to attend to his private affairs, partly in the hope that he would find relief from his malady in a sea voyage. By this time the British government had decided to abandon the island and transfer the inhabitants to Port Dalrymple, and when Foveaux reached London he presented the plans he had formulated for the evacuation; these were accepted by the authorities, but by 1807 the government had received further advice from Governor King, had come to doubt the wisdom of its earlier policy, and resolved to retain the settlement. Since Foveaux had recuperated, in December he was ordered to return to Norfolk Island and resume command if sufficient inhabitants remained there; if the evacuation was complete he was to proceed to Port Jackson and act as lieutenant-governor in the absence of Paterson.

Arriving at Port Jackson on 28 July 1808 he found Major George Johnston in command and Governor William Bligh under arrest. As the senior officer he faced the unexpected and unwelcome problem of deciding whether to reinstate Bligh or take command himself pending the receipt of orders from London. Foveaux was already ill disposed towards Bligh for his vindictive treatment of Captain Short. Personal feelings apart, the restoration of the deposed governor would only have invited further trouble and was in any case scarcely practicable, since the corps opposed such a move. After consulting the rebels but without bothering to heed Bligh's case, Foveaux decided in a matter of hours to assume command. By the time the governor's confidants approached him on 29 July he was already convinced that the Rum Rebellion had saved New South Wales not only from a 'general insurrection' but also from ruin at the hands of one out to advance his own interests and those of his supporters, most of whom Foveaux viewed with profound mistrust.

The new ruler's assessment of the Bligh era was one-sided and hastily conceived. Nevertheless his actions stamped him as a man of decision and firmness, with a courage to follow a course that might well have destroyed his career. 'Pleasant looking and handsome tho' very corpulent', he appealed to at least one contemporary as 'quite a man of business and extremely attentive and obliging'. A forceful character, he at once took secure hold of the reins of government, dispensing with the services of John Macarthur who as colonial secretary had been the power behind Johnston. The broad outlines of his policy were influenced by the same desire for cheap and efficient government that had guided his work on Norfolk Island, but it is also possible that, aware of the dangers to which he had exposed himself by taking office, he sought to make his administration palatable to the British government by pursuing objectives it had long favoured. He attacked the liquor trade and endeavoured to reduce expenditure, purify the administration of the commissariat and improve public works. Efforts were made to encourage the raising of beef and mutton, while he tried to persuade smallholders to breed additional swine, thereby providing an outlet for their surplus maize.

Little exception can be taken to these aspects of Foveaux's rule. Nor was his land policy objectionable, for he made few grants and those impartially, though he did alienate some town land which was properly available only for lease. His treatment of the pro-Bligh faction, however, was severe and sometimes unfair. The troublesome Bligh refused to depart and was bitterly assailed in Foveaux's dispatches. George Suttor and a group of his associates were imprisoned for challenging his authority by refusing to attend a muster. He disapproved Robert Campbell's contract with David Collins to import cattle to the Derwent, criticized Campbell's assistance to Bligh and accused Campbell and John Palmer of benefiting greatly from the liquor trade. It has been argued that the counsel of officers who were jealous of Campbell's trading position underlay these moves and that Foveaux, acting as their tool, sought to destroy the merchant; if so this forms a serious blemish on what was quite an enterprising administration.

On 9 January 1809 control of New South Wales passed into the hands of Paterson when he arrived from Van Diemen's Land. Although at first resolved to return home, Foveaux remained to assist both the new lieutenant-governor and his replacement, Lachlan Macquarie. Both these men entertained a high regard for his qualities. On 1 January 1810 Macquarie gave him command of the troops stationed at Sydney, and when Foveaux departed for England in the Experiment in March the governor recommended that he be appointed to succeed Collins as lieutenant-governor at the Derwent.

Despite this and subsequent urgings Foveaux was not appointed, his undoubted merits being outweighed in the eyes of the British government by the fact that he had sided with the rebels in 1808, an action for which he was lucky to escape a threatened court martial. Fortunately his military career was not jeopardized and he continued the steady rise that had begun earlier. On 4 June 1811 he was appointed inspecting field officer of the recruiting district for Cork and Waterford. A month later he became lieutenant-colonel in the Greek regiment of light infantry and on 4 June 1814 was promoted major-general. On 17 November 1814 he married Ann Sherwin at All Saints, Derby. He was made a lieutenant-general on 22 July 1830 and he died on 20 March 1846 at New Road, London. He was buried in All Souls cemetery, Kensal Green. His daughter Ann predeceased him.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 1-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-7
  • G. Mackaness, The Life of Vice-Admiral William Bligh (Syd, 1951)
  • M. H. Ellis, John Macarthur (Syd, 1955)
  • C. M. H. Clark, A History of Australia, vol 1 (Melb, 1962)
  • E. Bent letters (National Library of Australia)
  • manuscript catalogue under J. Foveaux (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

B. H. Fletcher, 'Foveaux, Joseph (1767–1846)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 22 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

Life Summary [details]




20 March, 1846 (aged ~ 79)
London, Middlesex, England

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