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Robert Gouger (1802–1846)

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Robert Gouger (1802-1846), organiser and public servant, was born on 26 June 1802, the fifth son of eleven children of George Gouger (1763-1840), a successful London merchant, and his wife Anne, née Sibley. He was descended from a Huguenot emigrant. His brother Henry (1799-1861) went to India and in 1824 was imprisoned by the Burmese as a British spy; he escaped after two years, made a small fortune in textiles, returned to England and settled at Frogmore House, Blackwater, Hampshire. Robert spent his childhood at Stamford, Lincolnshire, and was inspired by his mother to devote his life to some worthwhile calling. After leaving school at Nottingham, he entered his father's office, but soon found that life restricted. For some years he travelled, gaining experience in many fields and developing some skill in music, poetry and natural history. He had been brought up a pious Dissenter and, through a friendship with Robert Owen of Lanark, acquired a philanthropic outlook and a taste for radical politics.

In London in 1829 Gouger thought of going to the Swan River settlement as manager for Thomas Macqueen, but changed his mind after visiting Edward Gibbon Wakefield in Newgate prison. Unlike Wakefield Gouger was no mere theorist and his energy and practical philanthropy enabled the cause of systematic colonization to be established. The first outline of the theory, Sketch of a Proposal for Colonizing Australasia was printed in June and while Gouger distributed copies wherever they might make an impression, Wakefield composed A Letter from Sydney. It appeared in instalments in the Morning Chronicle from 21 August to 6 October before it was published in London with Gouger as editor. In November a debt to the printer landed him in King's Bench prison, where he shared a cell with Anthony Bacon and first learned of southern Australia from Captain Henry Dixon. Gouger was soon rescued by his brother and began to distribute copies of the Letter, but won little support until he approached Wilmot Horton for help in forming a society for assisting pauper emigration to the colonies. From this embryo was born the National Colonization Society, with Gouger as its secretary, but it came to grief on theoretical details after Wakefield was released from Newgate in May 1830. In August Gouger and many other members went to France and Spain to encourage constitutional reform. In November Gouger returned to London and revived the society. News of Captain Charles Sturt's discoveries renewed his attention to the unsettled territory of southern Australia as an ideal place for an experiment in systematic colonization.

In January 1831 Gouger submitted two proposals to the Colonial Office: his own plan for assisting pauper children to emigrate, and another, edited by Wakefield, for a new colony at Gulf St Vincent, stressing the advantages awaiting early land buyers. In May Gouger and Bacon, in the name of the National Colonization Society, produced a more radical plan for settling South Australia. It was shown to influential people and by August led to the formation of the South Australian Land Co. As its secretary Gouger won many supporters and potential emigrants, but after many deputations and much correspondence the Colonial Office rejected the entire plan. Gouger turned again to his philanthropic plan and published Emigration for the Relief of Parishes Practically Considered (London, 1833).

The idea of a profit-making joint-stock company was abandoned and in December 1833 Gouger formed the South Australian Association with the idea of securing a charter to found a colony belonging to the Crown but administered by trustees. Optimism revived and Gouger, as secretary, was deluged by a host of applications for information, official positions and free passages. Rejection of the charter by the Colonial Office caused a change of plan, but brought no advice from Wakefield until March 1834 when he returned from wintering in France and immediately began to prepare a colonization bill for parliament. Gouger rallied the intending emigrants, continued to write often to the press, helped to organize a large meeting at Exeter Hall, lobbied members of parliament and finally won the Duke of Wellington's favour. The South Australian Act was passed in August 1834 and a month later Gouger presented his library of colonial books to the South Australian Literary and Scientific Association. After much delay and more hard work by Gouger the South Australian Colonization Commission was gazetted in May 1835. Its first appointment was Gouger as colonial secretary, a recognition of faithful service that was affirmed even by the Colonial Office.

When Wakefield broke with the South Australian promoters in May 1835 he declared peevishly that Gouger had merely been his delegate on the various committees. Again and again, however, 'the mere delegate' had been left to foot the bill. His work on the committees was unpaid and his own costs were heavy, but he also met the printing costs of the National Colonization Society and was dunned for the debts of the South Australian Association. In March 1831 with Francis Place he helped to organize the Parliamentary Candidate Society and acted briefly as its paid secretary. When it dissolved he formed Robert Gouger & Co., a general agency office, to gather information and to assist poor labourers to emigrate to Canada and Australia. Later with less success, he supplied clothing and other softgoods to East India army agents and Sydney merchants. In 1835 on behalf of the Colonization Commission he sold nearly a sixth of the preliminary land orders and his commission of £286 enabled him at last to marry Harriet Jackson in London on 22 October. They sailed in the Africaine and in November 1836 arrived at Holdfast Bay. When Governor (Sir) John Hindmarsh arrived on 28 December, the first Council of Government met in Gouger's tent. Next day the consumptive Harriet gave birth to a son, but mother and child died in March 1837.

Gouger bought eight town acres (3.2 ha) at Adelaide's first land sale, and began to build a house, but was soon entangled in the party factions that bedevilled the new settlement. He quarrelled with Osmond Gilles; after a public brawl they were both arrested and Gouger was suspended. By way of Hobart Town he left in November 1837 for England where he was reinstated by the Colonization Commission, raised funds for a Congregational chapel in Adelaide and published South Australia in 1837; in a series of letters, with a postscript as to 1838. In October 1838 he married his cousin Sarah Whittem of Kenilworth. Gouger returned to Adelaide in June 1839 and resumed office, but his health began to fail. Soon after Governor (Sir) George Grey arrived he was appointed colonial treasurer. He bore the brunt of Grey's economic reorganization until August 1844 when he had to apply for leave because of mental affliction. He had also suffered in the depression but his claims for a pension and repayment of salary lost during his suspension were refused by the Colonial Office. Although Gouger had £1700 worth of securities, the sale of his effects yielded barely enough for him to return to London with his family. He died at Kensington on 4 August 1846, survived by his widow, two sons and a daughter.

Earnest, persistent and practical, Gouger had a pleasant manner and a persuasive tongue, but he was inclined to exaggerate his own republican views and the virtues of South Australia. With his youthful looks and boyish ardour he was often thought to be brash and reckless, yet he was South Australia's most devoted promoter.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Hodder (ed), The Founding of South Australia as Recorded in the Journals of Mr Robert Gouger (Lond, 1898)
  • research note 53 (State Records of South Australia)
  • CO 13/1-30, 386/10-11.

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Citation details

'Gouger, Robert (1802–1846)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 20 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

Robert Gouger, 1833

Robert Gouger, 1833

State Library of South Australia, B 48189

Life Summary [details]


26 June, 1802


4 August, 1846 (aged 44)
London, Middlesex, England

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