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Sir Richard Davies Hanson (1805–1876)

This article was published:

Richard Davies Hanson (1805-1876), by unknown photographer

Richard Davies Hanson (1805-1876), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 5988

Sir Richard Davies Hanson (1805-1876), judge and author, was born on 6 December 1805 in London, the second son of Benjamin Hanson, fruit merchant. Educated at a Nonconformist school in Melbourn, Cambridgeshire, he was articled at 17 to the Methodist John Wilks, admitted an attorney in 1828 and practised briefly in London. With his family he attended the King's Weigh-House Chapel under Rev. Thomas Binney, whose intellect challenged his own and confirmed his aggression as a Nonconformist. Hanson talked of migrating to Canada but joined the legal firm of Bartlett & Beddome. His conservative employers, dismayed by his utopian ideals, soon dismissed him without a testimonial.

Through Robert Gouger and John Brown Hanson was influenced by Edward Gibbon Wakefield and drawn into promoting the province of South Australia. He drafted an early proposal in 1831 and supplied the South Australian Land Co. with charters and precepts of the seventeenth-century colonies in America and persuaded his relations to sign its petition in 1832. At the South Australian Association's public meeting in Exeter Hall on 30 June 1834 he was entrusted with an important resolution and announced his intention of migrating. In the Morning Chronicle, 3 July, he replied to criticism of the meeting by The Times. In August with Gouger and others he persuaded the Duke of Wellington to support the South Australian bill and, when it was passed, contributed colonial articles to the Morning Chronicle. In February 1835 he reviewed the anonymous New British Province in the Eclectic, joined a legal firm in Southampton, tried to float a land company and helped to organize the South Australian Literary Association. His inaugural address claimed that many minds in England were restricted by privilege; even if men could not be made perfect, a reasonable community could be formed with instructed people. In 1836 he was persuaded to give evidence to the select committee on the disposal of land in British colonies and to apply for appointment as judge in South Australia. Despite strong support he failed, and withdrew from the South Australian venture.

Early in 1837 Hanson joined the Globe as a political critic. In 1838 he was appointed assistant commissioner of inquiry into Canadian crown lands and migration at a salary of £660 and arrived at Quebec with Lord Durham. He went to work with a will on his special report, later printed over his name in the appendix of the Durham report, and showed clearly that under the 1790 Constitutional Act land reserves had been administered erroneously. In Canada he worked with (Sir) Dominick Daly, later governor of South Australia. Hanson returned with Durham to England and continued as his private secretary until the report was printed. According to Henry Reeve, editor of the Greville papers, he gave a copy to The Times before it was submitted to the government.

Hanson was then appointed by the New Zealand Co. to draft legal documents and seek investors to buy land orders. After the principal agent, Colonel Wakefield, sailed hurriedly in May 1839 in the Tory, the directors sent Hanson, as second agent, in the Cuba in August to speed the surveys. He arrived at Port Nicholson (Wellington) on 3 January 1840 but his hopes of making a quick fortune and returning to England were foiled when the consul, William Hobson, negotiated the Treaty of Waitangi. In May Hanson went to the Chatham Islands, beyond Hobson's jurisdiction, and with stores and guns bought some 200,000 acres (80,938 ha). The Colonial Office later disallowed the deal, but soon after his return to Wellington Hanson was charged by the colonel with buying land without authority and withholding the deeds as security against the uncertainty of the company honouring his bills. As the private agent of several absentee land buyers and the elected vice-president of the Council of Government Hanson was well placed to defy Colonel Wakefield and the company. He helped restive colonists to organize protests against the company's delay in making rural sections available and in September was deputed with George Evans and Henry Moreing to interview Governor Sir George Gipps in Sydney. The result was a ruling that the company's land agreements with Maori chiefs should be confined to blocks of 100,000 acres (40,469 ha) in which individual settlers were to select their sections. In December the deputies returned to Wellington by way of Auckland where Hanson made his peace with Hobson.

In 1841 Hanson's breach with the company deepened but in October he was also ostracized by the settlers as a 'government man' when Hobson made him crown prosecutor for the southern districts at £200 a year. Supported by a few independents he founded the New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser in August 1842. Its premises caught fire and the last number, 1 August 1843, appeared in black borders with the motto, 'Not dead but speaketh'. The Wairau massacre on 17 June had alarmed many settlers who clamoured for vengeance, but Hanson refused to prosecute until Rauparaha and Rangihaeta were committed by a police magistrate and advised Governor Robert FitzRoy, who arrived at Wellington early in 1844, not to retaliate. FitzRoy followed this advice and became intensely unpopular, but Hanson assured him that any other course would have brought every Maori into revolt. Hanson was attacked for accepting appointment as a magistrate and commissioner of the Court of Requests with the right of private practice, and vilified by Jerningham Wakefield in Adventure in New Zealand (1845). Disgusted by the relentless native policy of Governor (Sir) George Grey in 1846, he decided to leave New Zealand but did not resign his legal posts for a year.

In July Hanson arrived in Adelaide where his friend, John Brown, had kept him in touch with local affairs, especially on proposals to grant state aid to religion and education. Hanson promptly helped to revive the League for the Preservation of Religious Freedom and as one of its most active secretaries wrote tracts, spoke at meetings and contributed to the South Australian Register in 1846-49. On 7 October 1846 he was admitted 'a barrister, solicitor, attorney and proctor' in the Supreme Court. With an office in King William Street he started a practice. He had been in the Legislative Council Chamber in September when the non-official members walked out in protest against Lieutenant-Governor Frederick Robe's reservation of royalties on copper, and in June 1848 won popularity as junior counsel to (Sir) James Fisher and Edward Gwynne when Judge (Sir) Charles Cooper decided against seignorage. In 1849 he appeared in over a hundred cases, but in December was thrown from his gig, damaging his hip permanently. He appeared in court on a crutch after three months, and made Richard Hicks his partner. In 1848 he had bought a house in Sturt Street where on 29 March 1851 he married Ann, née Hopgood, aged 24, the widow of Captain Scanlon of New Zealand. In 1855 he moved to a larger house in East Terrace when his brothers and sisters began to join him. He gradually acquired seven sections of Mount Lofty where he later built his family home, Woodhouse.

In 1851 Hanson stood as a voluntaryist for Yatala in the first part-elective Legislative Council but his victory was disputed. In June he was appointed acting advocate-general in place of the ailing William Smillie (d.1853) at a salary of £500, with the right of private practice and 'without the obligation hitherto required of voting with the government'. Although the ordinance for state aid to religion had expired in February, some grants were given to churches, but Hanson stopped them and in August helped to throw out the state aid bill at its first reading in the Legislative Council. He then drafted and introduced the Education Act with aid for school buildings and teachers' stipends and became a member of the first Board of Education. In 1852 he had a leading role in the passage of the Bullion Act, the Grand Jury Abolition Act and the District Councils Act, the first of its kind in Australia designed to encourage local democracy.

On the select committee for drafting the colony's constitution in 1853 Hanson proposed a lower house with a low franchise and a nominee upper house on trial for nine years. He was criticized for abandoning 'pure democracy' but argued that his plan was as much as the Colonial Office would accept. This constitution was rejected in London and in 1855 Governor Sir Richard MacDonnell arrived with a decided preference for a unicameral legislature. He was persuaded by a newly-elected council to endorse a bicameral constitution: an assembly to be elected by manhood suffrage under secret ballot and the 'cross in the square' system, and a council guarded by householding voters. This constitution was sent to London in January 1856 and received the royal assent in June. When the news reached Adelaide in October, Boyle Finniss formed a ministry with Hanson as his attorney-general.

On 9 March 1857 at the first elections under responsible government Hanson won the second of six seats for the City of Adelaide. The Finniss ministry fell on 21 August and after two short governments Hanson formed a ministry on 30 September; with some reconstruction it lasted until 9 May 1860. As advocate-general he had introduced forty-six bills and twenty-one as attorney-general. He employed only one clerk but was seldom absent from the legislature, served on many select committees, helped to form the parliamentary and law libraries and made his home a meeting place for politicians in need of advice. Hicks attended to much of his court work, but prominent cases like his defeat of the Anglican claim to a cathedral site in Victoria Square made Hanson the acknowledged leader of the South Australian Bar.

Sir Charles Cooper resigned as chief justice and was replaced by Hanson who was graciously farewelled from the House of Assembly on 21 November 1861. The appointment was challenged by Judge Benjamin Boothby who had told MacDonnell in June 1860 that he would automatically succeed Cooper and that neither the governor nor Executive Council could appoint anyone else. In chambers Boothby reiterated this claim, denying the right of Hanson and the third judge, Edward Gwynne, as mere attorneys, to sit in the court or to pass opinion on the dicta of the 'Senior Judge'. Overruled, be announced that he would appeal to higher authority. The threat was carried out but the Colonial Office advised him to submit his case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Unwilling to pay the costs, Boothby desisted but the incident and his rebuke for not sending his protest through the governor added to his annoyance. In January 1861 MacDonnell, himself a barrister and former chief justice of Gambia, had confessed to his superiors that 'no measures are possible which would prevent Mr. Boothby's peculiar idiosyncrasies breaking out from time to time in prejudice to the interests of justice', but Hanson was more tactful. When both Houses sent addresses to the Queen for Boothby's removal, Hanson had opposed them declaring that 'we have a Judge against whose character and integrity not one syllable is brought … It would be wrong to punish [him] for expressing his conscientious opinion on the validity of laws, which it is his sworn duty to do'.

One of Hanson's first duties in the Supreme Court was to inquire into the validity of local legislation, much of which he had drafted. He recommended various amendments to several Acts, 'not because he considered them necessary but merely to set the minds of people at rest'. Gwynne sometimes deprived him of a majority in the court especially in cases connected with the Real Property Act. Hanson had been sceptical about its validity in 1857 and redrafted '(Sir) Robert Torrens's clumsy and unprofessional attempt to improve the law'; when it was passed he advised the governor to assent to it on the Queen's behalf, and worked hard to simplify its operation.

In parliament Hanson's ablest speech had been against the amendment of money bills by the Legislative Council whose members looked only at the letter of the law and ignored its obvious intention. This distinction was all-important to Hanson and he expounded it clearly in his minority judgment in Dawes v. Quarrel, when it was decided that the South Australian legislature had no 'power to establish courts' as these words were omitted from the Constitution Act. Hanson argued that as the Act specifically established representative institutions and the making of laws for peace, order and good government, it was 'somewhat singular that the Imperial Parliament should have deliberately deprived South Australia, under the pretence of providing for its better government … of creating Courts of Justice … I must confess this seems to me to raise a very strong presumption against the construction now contended for'. In contrast Boothby stuck to punctilio and, because he deemed the Constitution Act invalid, found fault with a large and indefinite number of Acts passed by the colony's legislature. The imperial parliament came to the rescue with validating Acts but they had little effect on Boothby. To him the colony's entire legal system was different from that of Britain and therefore repugnant to the laws of England.

By 1866 the administration of justice was in confusion and uncertainty. Boothby was accused in the press of bullying counsel, dictating to juries, quashing informations, discharging prisoners in criminal trials and bringing equity cases to a standstill. Petitions for his removal poured into parliament and both Houses sent addresses to the Queen, but were advised that the only remedies were by appeal to the Privy Council or 'to remove him at your own responsibility'. Hanson remained outwardly imperturbable but had been deeply hurt in 1863 when Boothby and his eldest son with fourteen other colonists persuaded Bishop Augustus Short to carry a protest to Governor Sir Dominick Daly against Mrs Hanson attending a ball at Government House. Daly angrily rebuked the bishop for spreading slander and named the protesters in his report to London after Hanson 'spoke to me very earnestly of their unfairness'; inquiry revealed that she had been Hanson's housekeeper before she married him and that all their six children had been born in wedlock in 1853-63.

In the Full Court on 12 April 1867 the chief justice declared that 'the remarks of my learned colleague have ceased to annoy or affect me in any way because I feel … that by dwelling upon his fancied rights and fancied wrongs, he has incapacitated himself judicially from any reliable conclusions … and therefore I look upon them as I should any other utterance founded upon mental or moral illusion'. Four days later Hanson and Gwynne conferred and adjourned the sittings until next term. Boothby dissented and tried in vain to conduct the Court by himself. On 24 April Hanson and Gwynne wrote to the governor seeking remedial measures but disclaiming any personal motives or inability to overcome obstructive difficulties. Boothby was given time to prepare his defence before trial by the governor and his Executive Council. He was found guilty of misbehaviour and 'amoved' from office on 29 July.

Despite his 'steady flow of carefully measured words, weighted with calm and logical reasoning', Hanson often claimed that he turned to law to please his father but wished he was rid of it, especially its 'archaic procedures' such as public executions. A voracious reader in his leisure, he turned readily to science and theology and was moved to share his knowledge. He believed in inevitable human progress and abhorred the mental barriers that hindered it. He saw the Bible as 'God's main instrument in the education of the world' only if read with a spirit of inquiry instead of infallible authority. His first public lecture on this theme was to the South Australian Library and Mechanics' Institute in March 1849 and shocked his audience. He emerged again to lecture in 1856 to the East Torrens Institute and in 1857 to the South Australian Institute on the power derived from adult self-instruction. By 1860 he was propounding law in nature in relation to scripture to the Adelaide Philosophical Society. Members of the Bible Society were present and asked him to resign; when he refused, they elected a new president. Hanson moved on to law in creation, rejecting Lamarck as 'absurd' but confessing attraction by Charles Darwin's theories, however incomplete. In 1865 his Law in Nature and other Papers was published in Adelaide and London; its argument that the Bible should not be exempt from inquiry was highly praised by Bishop Colenso, whose sermons on the Pentateuch had greatly influenced Hanson.

Hanson applied for leave to visit Britain and sailed in February 1869. In March he published The Jesus of History which he had started to write in 1866 and finished on the voyage. The book was well documented although he lamented his inability to read German sources except in translation. Working from the first three gospels, especially Matthew, he succeeded in 'fusing the evangelical narratives into a clear and consistent whole', rejecting the romance of Renan and the miracles but judicially interpreting the record 'as an inquirer before the fall of Jerusalem'. The 'trained sifter of evidence and weigher of probabilities' was neither orthodox nor rationalist and reached his conclusions only after years of struggle. 'It is no slight matter', he wrote, 'to part with convictions that have been cherished for years … But perhaps the belief in a God, who is both just and merciful, may rest with equal confidence upon the instincts of our nature and our experience … as upon … a slavish submission to the dogmas of a self-styled infallible Church'. Nor could he resist an analogy between 'the letter of Scripture' and 'the broad principles upon which it is based' and the strictness, rigidly technical and practically unjust in English law which, although reformed, was too often administered by men trained under the old system. William Sanday in The Authorship and Historical Character of the Fourth Gospel (1872) disagreed with the unnamed author of The Jesus of History but commended his 'admirable ability' while Samuel Butler in The Fair Haven (1873) admitted 'very great obligations … to the ablest of all the writers who have treated the subject'.

On 9 July Hanson was knighted by the Queen at Windsor Castle after at least four recommendations from the governors, Daly and (Sir) James Fergusson. Prompted by Renan's Saint Paul (1869) Hanson sketched out his The Apostle Paul and the Preaching of Christianity in the Primitive Church on the voyage to Adelaide in 1870. Before it appeared in 1875 over his name, his slight Letters To and From Rome, A.D. 61-63 was published in 1873 over the pseudonym C.V.S. His Paul was more original, penetrating and rationalistic than his life of Jesus yet he was still careful of expressing opinions that would wound his friends. He also confessed that 'with a few mental suppressions, I could join in the prayers … and sermons in the churches of the denomination with which from my childhood I have been connected, the old words bringing back something of the old feelings'.

From 18 November 1872 Hanson acted as governor until April 1873 when Governor (Sir) Anthony Musgrave arrived. With the latter he had very cordial relations, each helping the other with friendly comment on their publications. Hanson gave enthusiastic support to the founding of the University of Adelaide and, when the Act was passed in 1874, its councillors elected him chancellor and invited him to give the inaugural address on 25 March 1876. It was prepared but not given. He died suddenly of heart disease in his garden at Woodhouse on the 4th, and was buried with a state funeral. Survived by his wife, a son and four daughters, he left an estate of about £5000.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 21
  • D. Pike, Paradise of Dissent, (Melb, 1967)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1851-60, 1861 (141), 1863 (53), 1866-67 (33), 1867 (22, 23), 1868 (184)
  • Register (Adelaide), 16 May 1849, 22 Aug 1850, 29 June 1855, 21 July 1856, 3 Feb 1857, 7 March 1876
  • C. H. Spence, ‘Sir Richard Hanson’, Melbourne Review, July 1876
  • H. Brown, Sir Richard Davies Hanson (Fred Johns thesis, University of Adelaide, 1938)
  • H. S. Chapman and S. Revans letters (National Library of New Zealand)
  • A. Musgrave letters (copies at State Library of New South Wales and National Library of Australia)
  • Governor's confidential dispatches, 1863-66 (State Records of South Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

'Hanson, Sir Richard Davies (1805–1876)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 25 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Richard Davies Hanson (1805-1876), by unknown photographer

Richard Davies Hanson (1805-1876), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 5988

Life Summary [details]


6 December, 1805
London, Middlesex, England


4 March, 1876 (aged 70)
Mount Lofty, South Australia, Australia

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