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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hibbins, Thomas (1762–1816)

by B. R. Penny

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Thomas Hibbins (1762-1816), deputy judge advocate, is said to have been born into a well-known family of Rowton, Shropshire, England. He was educated at Eton, and under the patronage of the earl of Morton, a fellow Etonian, was commissioned to the penal settlement at Norfolk Island on 12 July 1794. Next year he sailed in the Sovereign with his wife and infant daughter Emmeline. When he reached Port Jackson on 5 November 1795, the Letters Patent to establish a court of criminal jurisdiction at Norfolk Island had not arrived, so, as an expedient, Hibbins was sworn in as a justice of the peace. He sailed with his family in H.M.S. Reliance, and landed on 13 February 1796 bringing a hope of justice and order. He found the settlement administered by the ailing Philip Gidley King, who was concerned only with getting back to England; supplies and morale were low, and communication with Sydney desperately uncertain. When the Letters Patent arrived, Hibbins's court was established on 23 April with much solemnity, but it had little immediate effect in deterring crime.

Hibbins, by temperament compassionate, angered successive administrators by his pedantic legal interpretations during crises which they felt called for swift and strong action. Hibbins chafed at the thought of wasting the prime of his life in obscurity but although he had written on 8 July 1796 to his friend John King, the under-secretary in the Home Department, seeking support for his appointment to 'the more agreeable respectable and profitable' position of judge-advocate of New South Wales, then being vacated by David Collins, he received neither promotion nor the law books and special stationery which would have been external props to his existing position. After Joseph Foveaux assumed command in July 1800, he and Hibbins were soon in conflict. In December the plot for an insurrection by Irish convicts was revealed by an informer. The ringleaders were examined by the civil and military officers; Hibbins said it would be impracticable to execute them as no copy of recent relevant Acts was available; Foveaux ordered them to be hanged.

Soon afterwards Hibbins faced a domestic crisis. His wife had borne him a second daughter, Constantia, in 1796, and a son on 18 May 1798; but the next year she had died. Then followed the events which permanently blighted Hibbins's career. In September 1802 Zachariah Clark, the deputy-commissary, returned from sick leave in England accompanied by his 25-year-old daughter Ann. This embarrassed Foveaux who had promised his position to the store-keeper William Broughton, and had permitted him to act as commissary during Clark's absence. On 21 November Foveaux had Clark arrested for incest and suspended him from office. Hibbins declared that Clark could not be tried on Norfolk Island for that offence, so he was sent to Sydney, but Governor King disagreed and returned Clark to Norfolk Island where in May 1803 he was convicted of a 'misdemeanour'. Before the trial Hibbins had attempted to influence a member of the court; after the proceedings were over he protested that he had been compelled by Foveaux to suppress the more favourable part of his official opinion on the case. Foveaux, in turn, complained that his judge-advocate had given him little support. Next month Hibbins offered himself as Foveaux's successor or as the next governor of New South Wales, but on these matters there was no response from England, for suspicions about the motives of both men had been aroused: Foveaux wished to replace Clark by Broughton, and Hibbins wished to marry Ann Clark, which he did on 9 October 1803.

Clark died on 5 December 1804, according to King 'from excessive drinking'. Hibbins attempted to clear Ann's name by establishing the paternity of the child she had borne soon after landing in 1802. When in December 1806 the order was given to transfer the civil establishment to Van Diemen's Land, Hibbins was excepted from the arrangements and for his conduct in the Clark affair he was ordered to be dismissed. On 31 December 1807 he sailed for the Derwent with his wife and five children; he settled at New Norfolk, receiving a grant of 92 acres (37 ha), as well as 30 acres (12 ha) on account of his wife's mother. He died on 10 November 1816, leaving his family to the charity of the government.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1, 3, 6, series 4, vol 1
  • correspondence file under Hibbins (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • manuscript catalogue under T. Hibbins (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/18, 29, 42.

Citation details

B. R. Penny, 'Hibbins, Thomas (1762–1816)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 25 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

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