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Joseph Maria Gordon (1856–1929)

by Warren Perry

This article was published:

Joseph Maria Gordon (1856-1929), army officer, was born on 18 March 1856 at Jeréz de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain, son of Carlos Pedro Gordon and his wife Elena, née Prendergast. He was baptized José Maria Jacobo Rafael Ramon Francisco Gabriel del Corazon de Jesus Gordon y Prendergast. Little is known of his childhood; he left Spain with his parents, probably in 1867, for Scotland where the family settled on an inherited property known as Wardhouse in Aberdeenshire. Before becoming a boarder in 1868 at the Oratory School, Edgbaston, Birmingham, he had to learn to speak English. He later attended Beaumont College, a Jesuit school at Old Windsor.

Gordon entered the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, in March 1874 and in February 1876 became a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. He was stationed in Ireland in 1877-78, then contracted rheumatic fever and resigned his commission on 16 August 1879. For health reasons he sailed to New Zealand where he became a drill instructor in the armed constabulary. Gordon then went to Melbourne, and while trying to obtain military employment entered two unsuccessful business ventures and for a few months went on the stage. His expectations of a commission in Victoria's permanent artillery were not realized, but through the influence of the governor of South Australia, Sir William Jervois, he was employed as a mounted constable in Adelaide in June 1881, then in December was offered an artillery appointment. He began duty in January 1882 as a subaltern on the permanent staff. He had come to South Australia just when a permanent artillery unit was first being raised; his promotion was rapid and by May 1892 he was a lieutenant-colonel. That year, on 29 February, he married Eleanor Fitzgerald (d.1910) at St James Catholic Church, Elsternwick, Melbourne. In July 1893 he was appointed commandant of the military forces of South Australia vice Major General M. F. Downes and, from 2 August, held the rank of colonel.

When the South African War began in October 1899 Gordon had been serving temporarily in London for over a year as inspector of warlike stores for South Australia and other Australian colonies. After returning to Adelaide he sailed for Cape Town in January 1900 as a special service officer and was appointed chief staff officer for Overseas Colonial Forces. Gordon took part in military operations in Cape Colony, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal but was recalled after nine months by the South Australian government. For his work in South Africa he was appointed C.B. and mentioned in dispatches.

In December 1900 Gordon was granted the 'local and temporary' rank of brigadier general. Federation brought no immediate change in his career, except that after 1 March 1901 he became responsible to the Federal minister for defence, and in the long run it brought him no promotion. In 1902 he was transferred to Victoria where, from July 1902 to January 1905, he commanded the Commonwealth Military Forces in that State; he held the same post in New South Wales in 1905-12.

Gordon was passed over for the post of inspector general and for that of chief of the General Staff. Colonel (Major General Sir) J. C. Hoad was appointed C.G.S. in 1909 despite the fact that General Sir Edward Hutton had made a more favourable report on Gordon. In May 1912 Gordon became C.G.S. but without promotion to major general—probably to avoid extending his age for retirement. Early in 1914 the inspector general of British Overseas Forces, General Sir Ian Hamilton, reported on Australia's military forces and, pending the completion of his inspection, the Federal government deferred Gordon's relinquishment of the post of C.G.S. until 31 July 1914. He was at sea on his way to England for a holiday when World War I broke out. He offered his services to the Australian government but the offer was refused. In the United Kingdom he commanded the 92nd Brigade and the 10th Reserve Division, British Army, in 1914-15, was an inspector in the Ministry of Munitions in 1916-17, and in 1919 was with the army of occupation in Cologne, Germany. On 1 November 1921 he was placed on the retired list of the Australian Military Forces with the honorary rank of major general.

After the war Gordon lived in England and in 1921 his autobiography, The Chronicles of a Gay Gordon, was published in London. Survived by his son and daughter, he died of cancer on 6 September 1929 at Egham, Surrey, and was buried in the Catholic section of Old Windsor cemetery, Berkshire.

Gordon was a keen, energetic and tenacious officer who made the best of the scant means at his disposal to keep himself professionally informed and efficient. None of the governments he served in Australia sent him to courses of training in England. He was, moreover, an officer with ideas. He was an early exponent of universal training and was active in the early development of military aviation in Australia and in the creation of the Small Arms Factory at Lithgow, New South Wales. But officers with ideas gather enemies as well as friends in seats of power and Gordon's fate in this respect, especially after Federation, seems to have been no exception.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian. Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray, ed (Melb, 1911)
  • London Gazette, 29 Nov 1900, 16 Apr 1901
  • Victorian Historical Journal, 47 (1976), no 2
  • Sabretache, Mar-June 1979
  • Bulletin, 28 June 1902
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 27 Apr 1912
  • Punch (Melbourne), 2 May 1912
  • Herald (Melbourne), 9 Sept 1929
  • Times (London), 10 Sept 1929.

Citation details

Warren Perry, 'Gordon, Joseph Maria (1856–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 March, 1856
Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain


6 September, 1929 (aged 73)
Egham, Surrey, England

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