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George Gawler (1795–1869)

by R. Hetherington

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George Gawler (1795-1869), by Samuel Laurence, c1843

George Gawler (1795-1869), by Samuel Laurence, c1843

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 14428

George Gawler (1795-1869), soldier and governor, was born on 21 July 1795, the only child of Samuel Gawler, captain in the 73rd Regiment, and his wife Julia, née Russell. His family had lived at Chulmleigh Hall near Chudleigh, Devon, England, since the time of James II. His grandfather was with Wolfe at Quebec, and his father was killed in December 1804 at the storming of Fort Muggerall in Mysore.

Gawler was educated first by a tutor, then at school in Cold Bath, Islington. After two years at the Royal Military College he was commissioned ensign in the 52nd Regiment in October 1810. With his battalion he arrived at Lisbon in January 1812 and in April led a storming party during the assault on Badajoz. Wounded in the knee, he was mentioned in Wellington's dispatches, and in May was promoted lieutenant. In August he took part in the advance on Madrid and was wounded again at San Munoz. From Vittoria in June 1813 to Toulouse in April 1814 he saw action in several major battles and many minor engagements. In 1815 the 52nd Regiment was in the Netherlands, and Gawler led its right company in charges on the French Imperial Guard at Waterloo. After three years with the army of occupation in France he had trouble with his sight and was given sick leave.

When Gawler returned to duty in Chester in 1819 his fellow officers found him greatly changed. During his illness he had pondered over Paley's Evidences of Christianity and decided to become a true Christian. He was soon noted for his piety and works of active evangelism within and outside the regiment. In 1820 he married Maria, 'a lady as religious as himself', daughter of John Cox of Friar Gate, Derby and his wife Mary, niece of the novelist Samuel Richardson. Of their twelve children only five survived childhood.

Until June 1823 Gawler's regiment was stationed in Ireland where his works of charity among Catholics gained some converts. Moved with the regiment to New Brunswick, he and his wife exerted themselves to stir the sluggish religious life at St Andrews, establishing a flourishing Sunday school, a weekly Bible-reading class, a lending library, and other religious institutions. Back in England in 1825 Gawler was gazetted captain. In 1830 he was in charge of the regiment's depot at Weedon. He purchased his majority in February 1831, and in November briefly commanded the companies stationed at Bristol to preserve order during the passing of the Reform Act. He resigned this command because he disapproved of some of his instructions. He left the regiment in August 1834, an unattached lieutenant-colonel by purchase. He retained an active interest in military affairs, contributing many articles to papers and magazines. His pamphlets, The Close and Crisis of Waterloo (1833) and The Essentials of Good Skirmishing (1837) which went to a second edition in 1852, were well received in military circles. In January 1837 he was appointed K.H.

In 1838 some of the colonization commissioners approached Dr Gregory of the Royal Military College to recommend a godly man as governor of South Australia. He advised Gawler to apply. With testimonies from the commander-in-chief, Lord Hill, and from the adjutant-general, who could not 'conceive it possible that Gawler should do a foolish thing', his application was accepted and his appointment confirmed within a month. His task was to render viable the experiment in systematic, self-supporting colonization, devised by Edward Gibbon Wakefield and modified by Colonel Robert Torrens. Disputes between the first governor, Captain (Sir) John Hindmarsh, and the resident commissioner, (Sir) James Fisher, over their respective jurisdictions had retarded the colony's development, so the two offices were combined in Gawler. Thus, as governor he became representative of the Colonial Office in the province, and as resident commissioner, representative of the non-governmental Colonization Commission which was responsible for the control of land sales, for applying the proceeds to the emigration of labourers and for raising loans until such time as the colony had sufficient revenue to support itself.

Gawler was hurried off to try to bring some order to South Australian affairs. Before leaving England he was much disturbed by the colony's financial provisions, for his authorized ordinary expenditure was limited to £8000 a year, with the right to draw on the commissioners for an extra £2000, later increased to £4000, to prevent destitution. He was also given a credit of £5000 for contingencies such as 'fire, pestilence, attacks from pirates, incursions of convicts from other colonies, or seditious risings'. Without prior authority from London, no public works were to be undertaken nor any extraordinary expenditure permitted 'except in cases of pressing emergency' when such authority could not be obtained 'without serious injury to the public service'.

On 12 October 1838 Gawler with his wife and five children arrived in Adelaide in the Pestonjee Bomanjee and found conditions far worse than he had been led to expect. The total authorized expenditure for 1838 had already been exceeded. In the first quarter £12,000 had been drawn and spent in six months. The number of public officials was greater than the establishment laid down, yet still too small. Salaries for the third quarter were unpaid. At least one public servant had been granted rations from the colonial store to save him from starving. Some public officials were inefficient, some were factious and others devoted more time to private ventures than to public duties. The accounts were in complete disorder. The colonial Treasury was empty and the acting governor, George Milner Stephen, had advanced £200 from private resources for essential services.

The surveys were badly in arrears. The first of the preliminary purchasers had been able to select their rural sections around Adelaide only in March 1838, but 21,000 acres (8498 ha) of these preliminary purchases had yet to be surveyed in the reserved areas east and south of the capital. Through the resignations of Colonel William Light and his subordinates the Survey Department was almost at a standstill, with the result that the population of more than 4000 was living under makeshift conditions around Adelaide, unable to take up their country lands. Capital earmarked for rural development was being diverted to urban speculation, while a building boom kept prices high and labour costly.

Gawler acted with energy and decision. He sincerely believed that he had no alternative but to ignore his instructions and treat the situation as an emergency. On his own authority he increased the number of public officials, raised the salaries of juniors and recommended similar increases for the rest. He gradually rid himself of factious officials and replaced them with efficient men from Sydney and Van Diemen's Land. He organized a police force according to a plan he had submitted before leaving England and, as he felt it necessary, enlarged it.

The most urgent necessity, he believed, was to promote rural settlement. He persuaded Charles Sturt to accept the post of surveyor-general and, until he could assume office, Gawler himself took charge of the Survey Department, reorganizing it and conducting preliminary explorations. He also hired every available surveyor, including some of Light's former officers. In October 1839, to his dismay, he was ordered to dismiss them. The commissioners had appointed Lieutenant Edward Frome as surveyor-general and sent him out with a party of sappers. Gawler solved the problem by amalgamating the two forces, feeling justified by the increasing volume of land sales. In 1839 over 170,000 acres (68,797 ha) were sold. Sturt was appointed assistant commissioner, in charge of the land office and immigrant labourers. This action was approved by the commissioners, who also authorized an increase of expenditure of £16,500 a year.

Gawler produced results. Within twelve months 200,000 acres (80,938 ha) had been surveyed. By May 1841 mapping of 7000 sq. miles (18,130km²) had been completed and over 500,000 acres (202,345 ha) divided into sections. The cost was over £65,000, more than his total authorized expenditure for the period. The commissioners had made no allowance for problems created by their own policy changes, especially for the costly measurement of widely dispersed special surveys that entitled each buyer of 4000 acres (1619 ha) to a survey of 15,000 acres (6070 ha) from which to select his estate. Gawler favoured the system as a means of speeding settlement, but to save costs he ignored regulations and surveyed little more land than was actually sold.

Gawler's difficulties were compounded by the stream of immigrants which the commissioners poured into the colony. With free passages 2800 immigrants were sent out in 1838, 4600 in 1839 and 3000 in 1840. In Gawler's two years and a half of office the population increased to over 15,000. As resident commissioner Gawler had to transport the immigrants from Port Adelaide to the city, feed and house them, provide for the sick, and employ them at reduced rates if the labour market could not absorb them. In August 1839 he wrote to the commissioners that the expenses of the Emigration Department were beyond control. At the same time he considered that the condition of the labour market justified more stringent measures with immigrant labourers. He limited migrants to free rations for a week from disembarkation and to a free house for a month, unless inquiry revealed genuine need. Any migrant who refused a fair offer of employment had both house and rations withdrawn forthwith. He also ordered the removal of temporary dwellings from the Adelaide park lands at the end of 1839 in order to encourage permanent settlement.

In 1840 a new and unexpected crisis arose because crop failures in the neighbouring colonies threatened a food shortage in South Australia. To meet this emergency Gawler advanced £3000 to a group of merchants to import flour, and placed a heavy duty on the export of foodstuffs. The duty was reduced by the end of the year but prices had risen beyond his expectations. At the end of 1839 land sales suddenly dropped, mainly because Wakefield and his supporters had turned towards New Zealand, but also through the explorations that Gawler encouraged assiduously and shared in himself. Their disappointing results created the impression that little fertile land was left in the colony. Gawler rejoiced that the sudden check in sales had 'the most desirable effect of forcing settlers from land speculation to land cultivation'. But it diminished the flow of badly needed capital and hastened financial depression.

Gawler's solution to this problem, derived from his reading of Adam Smith, was the expansion of government expenditure. 'Without it', he explained in 1840, 'there would have been extensive financial ruin, and very extensive and hopeless destitution.' He pressed on with the surveys, therefore, and speeded the programme of public works begun soon after his arrival. He had then rejected the idea of temporary buildings as unsatisfactory and uneconomic; he had set out instead to provide a 'permanent outfit' of public works which would long serve the colony's needs, as well as provide the essential development that would hasten colonial production and help 'small uneasy capitalists' to get firmly established. In one of his earliest dispatches to the commissioners he included a list of urgent public works. The first of these was Government House, which he began immediately. It cost nearly £10,000, despite the economical omission of screens and verandahs, but here, as elsewhere, he built only a portion of a substantial building, leaving additions to posterity. He continued his programme, guided by the urgency of the need and exigencies of the colony. By 1841 he had built a police barracks, customs house, hospital, wharf, and jail, as well as houses for public officials and missionaries, outstations for police and surveyors, and had opened roads into the country. These public works absorbed much immigrant labour, but the unskilled became increasingly difficult to place and had to be employed on clearing the park lands and city streets of fallen timber, and building a road through the Mount Lofty Ranges. Gawler continued Fisher's practice of paying these relief workers, thus contravening the commissioners' instructions which allowed only rations and clothing.

Gawler was intelligent but somewhat naive and authoritarian. His aim was 'to establish a paternal rather than a judicial system of government'. After appraising a situation, he did what he thought necessary without always weighing the costs. He yearned for praise and public approval. He applied for a knighthood before leaving England and wrote to Stanley in January 1844 that it had been his 'earnest study … throughout his professional career to obtain the support and approbation of every Military and Civil superior', and, it might be added, of his colonial inferiors. More suited to devising the grand design than to supervising details, he relied on verbal orders and trusted too much in his subordinates. Where he had chosen them himself, he was not ill served. William Smillie, for example, introduced efficiency and method in the Emigration Department, within six months halving the cost of transporting migrants and their luggage from the port. But other officers were less reliable. After the tender for the jail was approved, Gawler accepted unquestioningly some 'trifling' additions, and then discovered that the colonial engineer, (Sir) George Kingston had on his own initiative made other alterations that added many thousands to the cost. Gawler was equally casual about peculation and inefficiency among minor officials, which he regarded as regrettable but inevitable in a new settlement.

Some colonists criticized Gawler's lavish spending particularly his twelve-roomed official residence, which Mrs Gawler thought 'a pretty looking comfortable house … not at all suited for a Governor's House'. In general, however, his expenditure was well received and he was personally popular, even if rather too religious for all tastes. He and his wife interested themselves as they had always done in Sunday and infant schools and charitable work, particularly among the migrants in the immigration depot, which Mrs Gawler visited regularly. Gawler's most persistent colonial critics complained that his paternal benevolence towards the Aboriginals prevented efforts to discipline them for their own good into habits of prudence and hard work. One action which aroused strong protest was his treatment of members of the Milmendjeri who in 1840 had murdered survivors of the wrecked Maria. Advised by Judge (Sir) Charles Cooper that they could not be dealt with by the normal processes of law, Gawler sent a detachment of police under Major Thomas O'Halloran to administer summary justice. Two Aboriginals were hanged and two others shot while trying to escape. O'Halloran was accused by excited colonists of being a murderer and Gawler an accessory. While absolving the two officers of moral culpability, the Colonial Office and the law officers of the Crown agreed that they were technically guilty, and the possibility of free pardons or a bill of indemnity was considered. However, when Stanley assumed control of the Colonial Office, he avoided renewed publicity and let the matter rest.

Gawler's major weakness was his complete failure to understand political realities. Convinced that his actions were obviously right he expected them to be accepted by his superiors. On appointment he had interviewed James Stephen, who predicted the failure of the commissioners' self-supporting system and advised Gawler to seek government assistance. Gawler assumed that he had been given a blank cheque and that he could rely on the unquestioning support of the British government. He was disillusioned. His expenditure steadily rose. By the end of his thirty-one months of office he had drawn bills on the commissioners for £200,500. Lulled by the boom in land sales, the commissioners did nothing for the first eighteen months except sanction Gawler's irregularities, express their highest confidence in him, and borrow from the land fund to meet his drafts. They ignored Gawler's gloomy dispatches and his expressed intention to continue a high rate of spending, and assumed that this was merely temporary. When the South Australian Colonization Commission was dissolved in January 1840, the new board of three salaried commissioners slowly became aware that the colony's funds in London were rapidly dwindling. After months of inexcusable procrastination they had no choice but to throw the colony on the mercies of the Colonial Office. Nevertheless the blame for their own shortcomings and extravagance was placed squarely on Gawler for his irregularities, 'reckless' expenditure, and alleged grave errors of judgment. In its own good time, the imperial parliament appointed a select committee in 1841 to inquire into South Australia's affairs, accepted its recommendation to advance £155,000, later converted to a free gift, and took control of the colony's affairs. When the Colonial Office first became involved in the crisis James Stephen had prevented Gawler's immediate recall and tried to save his reputation, but the combined weight of outraged Wakefield theorists, commissioners anxious to whitewash themselves, and enemies of the colony was too much. Gawler was abandoned as the scapegoat.

In Adelaide Gawler remained in blissful ignorance of these developments and was congratulating himself on the success of his measures when in December 1840 he received a letter from Torrens advising him to return to the self-supporting system. He had already started to reduce expenditure when he learnt next February that two of his bills had been protested. Not until 21 April 1841 did he receive instructions to cease drawing on the commissioners. He promptly announced that he would use his emergency powers as governor to draw direct on the British Treasury, but the matter was out of his hands. His recall and his successor, Captain (Sir) George Grey, arrived together on 10 May 1841.

Gawler returned to England to find that he had been judged in his absence. The select committee of 1841 had refused to condemn him and reported that even his severest critics had suggested no way in which Gawler's expenditure might have been significantly reduced. This was forgotten, however, in the spate of public criticism which overwhelmed him. Gawler tried desperately to rehabilitate himself without recourse to public controversy. He poured letters in his own defence into the Colonial Office. Bewildered, angry, in the end pathetic, he tried to get from the government some public acknowledgment of the value of his work. He asked for a knighthood, for an appointment in Syria, for any other public appointment, but to no avail. The final blow to his reputation was the publication in 1843 of his successor's dispatches. Young, ambitious and ruthless, Grey had quarrelled bitterly with Gawler on his arrival in South Australia. Grey also exceeded his authorized spending but his dispatches were a series of boastful half truths which contrasted his own 'prudent economy' with Gawler's alleged extravagance. He created a myth that Gawler's policies were responsible for the land speculations and concentration of population in the town. In contradiction to truth he claimed that Gawler's expenditure had prevented rural settlement. In fact it had proceeded at a greater rate under Gawler than it was to do under Grey. Before Gawler left the colony, the rural population was over 5000, nearly 16,000 acres (6475 ha) had been enclosed, and 6700 acres (2711 ha) put under crop, making possible the magnificent harvest of 1841 for which Grey coolly claimed full credit. The best Gawler could do was to wring a grudging admission from Stanley in parliament that his expenditure had been less, and the prosperity of the colony greater, than Grey's dispatches would suggest, although this was not reported in Hansard. Gawler was finally told bluntly that he had no further hope of public employment, and he retired into private life.

Gawler devoted his remaining years to religious and charitable works. He retained an active interest in South Australia and also took up the cause of the resettlement of the Jews in Palestine. His writings include: The Tranquillization of Syria and the East, 1845; The Emancipation of the Jews, 1847. In 1847 he was promoted colonel, and later received the Peninsular war medal with seven clasps. In 1849 he toured the Holy Land. Next year he sold his commission and retired from the army. He wrote Present State of Moral Principle in the Supreme Government of the British Colonial Empire, 1850, a petition to the Queen seeking redress for the injustices done to him by successive secretaries of state. He accused George Grey of dishonesty and claimed that through his own efforts South Australia was 'the only cheap and brilliantly successful new colony in modern history'. On 11 July 1850 he was informed that Earl Grey had laid the petition before the Queen 'but could not advise her Majesty to give any orders on the subject'. His last years were spent at Southsea, where he died of pneumonia on 7 May 1869. He was buried at Portsmouth.

His eldest surviving son, Henry (1827-1894), returned to South Australia in 1858. Admitted to the Bar in England in November 1852, he was a solicitor in the South Australian Land Titles Office from July 1858 to September 1884. For nine days in October 1861 and four days in March 1876 he was attorney-general without a seat in parliament in the Waterhouse and Boucaut administrations.

One portrait of Gawler is in Parliament House, Adelaide, and another in the City Council Chamber, Adelaide. The town of Gawler, 40 km north of Adelaide, commemorates him, as do its adjoining river and a range of hills on Eyre Peninsula in western South Australia, named by the explorer Edward John Eyre in 1839. Much of the range was proclaimed a national park in 2002.

Select Bibliography

  • C. W. N., George Gawler (Lond, 1900)
  • R. C. Mills, The Colonization of Australia 1829-1842 (Lond, 1915)
  • A. Grenfell Price, Foundation and Settlement of South Australia (Adel, 1924)
  • D. Pike, Paradise of Dissent (Melb, 1957)
  • Annual Reports of Colonization Commissioners of South Australia, Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons, Great Britain), 1836 (491), 1837-38 (97), 1839 (255), 1840 (556)
  • Select Committee on South Australia, 1st and 2nd Reports and Minutes of Evidence, Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons, Great Britain), 1841 (394)
  • Papers Relative to South Australia, Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons, Great Britain), 1843 (505)
  • Observer (Adelaide) 20 Sept 1884, 8 Dec 1894
  • CO 13/11-41, 396/3-3
  • CSO 1838-41 (State Records of South Australia)
  • G. H. Pitt, The Crisis of 1841, Its Causes and Consequences (State Records of South Australia)
  • Executive Council, minutes, 1841-43 (State Records of South Australia)
  • Resident Commissioners' letter books, 1838-39 (State Records of South Australia)
  • Colonization Commissioners' dispatches, 1838-41 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

R. Hetherington, 'Gawler, George (1795–1869)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 21 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

George Gawler (1795-1869), by Samuel Laurence, c1843

George Gawler (1795-1869), by Samuel Laurence, c1843

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 14428

Life Summary [details]


21 July, 1795


7 May, 1869 (aged 73)
Portsmouth, Hampshire, England

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