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Sir John Hindmarsh (1785–1860)

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John Hindmarsh (1785-1860), by Buchheister

John Hindmarsh (1785-1860), by Buchheister

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7009

Sir John Hindmarsh (1785-1860), governor, was baptized on 22 May 1785 at St Mary's, Chatham, Kent, son of John Hindmarsh, gunner on H.M.S. Bellerophon, and his wife Mary. In March 1793 he joined the Bellerophon, shown on the muster roll as his father's servant, aged 14. After a brief service in the West Indies, he saw action with the Channel Squadron under Howe at the battle of the Glorious First of June 1794 and at the retreat of Cornwallis in June 1795. As a midshipman in the Mediterranean Fleet he was present at most of the affairs off Cadiz in 1797. At the battle of the Nile in August 1798, while briefly the only officer on deck in the engagement with L'Orient (Captain Casabianca), he showed great resource by freeing his ship; he was commended by Nelson, but received a contusion through which he later lost the sight of an eye. Hindmarsh was at the capture of forts at Gaeta and Naples; in May 1800 he transferred to the Spencer and under Saumarez shared in the rout of French and Spanish ships off Gibraltar in July 1801. In 1802 when he passed as lieutenant, he produced a certificate (Adm.107/28/311) showing that he had been baptized at Chatham on 22 September 1782. Although in fact still under 20 in April 1803 he was promoted lieutenant by Nelson in the Victory and in August transferred to the Phoebe, patrolling the French coast and taking part in the storming of forts at Toulon and the destruction of enemy ships in Aix Roads. After serving at Trafalgar, he became first lieutenant in the Beagle with the Channel Squadron and saw action in the Walcheren expedition. Late in 1809 he went in the Acasta to the Cape Station and next year in the Nisus to the East Indies Station. Here he shared in the reduction of Mauritius, and at the capture of Java commanded the boats sent to silence the batteries, but met no resistance. When invalided to England after ten years service, he had helped to capture or destroy more than forty ships of the line as well as many merchantmen and small craft. He was promoted commander in 1814 and, after the war ended, placed on half-pay, but despite frequent applications he received no pension for loss of his eye. On 4 November 1809 he married Susannah Wilson Edmeades; they had three daughters and for some years they lived at Ancenis, France, where their son John was born in 1820.

In March 1830 Hindmarsh was given command of the Scylla on the Mediterranean Station. He returned to half-pay in 1832 and two years later worked at Fletcher & Fearnell's Blackwall shipyard, preparing the steamer Nile for delivery to the Egyptian navy. Under command of William Light the ship reached Alexandria in September 1834, with Hindmarsh as a passenger. He was captain of the Nile by November, but failed in his 'attempt (warranted by His Majesty's Government) to get command of the Pascha's Fleet'; later he claimed that he had refused to serve under the Frenchman who was given the position.

By 27 May 1835 Hindmarsh was back in Portsmouth, where he visited Colonel Charles James Napier who mentioned his week-old resignation from the governorship of the new South Australian colony. On 29 May Napier recommended Light as his successor, but Hindmarsh had already rushed to London, won influential support, applied to the Colonial Office and been promised the position by Lord Glenelg. The Admiralty friends who recommended Hindmarsh had made much of his Bellerophon exploit and Lord Auckland added that he was 'zealous, good tempered, anxious to do right, brave and well used to hardship—perhaps not remarkably clever, but altogether, not unsuited to the conduct of a new Colony'. By August when his appointment was approved Hindmarsh was vigorously trying to share in planning the new colony. Although a man of action and accustomed to discipline, he was impressed by Edward Gibbon Wakefield and avowed a liking for his 'system', but apart from its possibilities for profitable land speculation he understood it no better than did its promoters. He also failed in his struggle to grasp the significance of the division of powers in the South Australian Act, which James Stephen declared was 'most unskilfully drawn … in the attempt to enlarge and strengthen the authority [of] the Projectors of the Scheme'. With his responsibility to the Colonial Office, he was treated by the Colonization Commission with some reserve, although his recommendation of Light as surveyor-general was accepted. At meetings of the intending settlers Hindmarsh was also suspected of a quarter-deck manner; his wish to be 'the first man there' and his insistence on the provision of a man-of-war for his party and the survey expedition led to the formation of a Statistical Society to protest against his autocracy. At the Colonial Office Hindmarsh won more sympathy than help and was strictly charged to restrict government spending and to rely on his Council of Government if the jealousies, thwartings and clashes predicted by the commission should arise between himself and the resident commissioner. At the Admiralty he was promised a few marines and the storeship Buffalo, but his half-pay was temporarily stopped because of his civil appointment at a salary of £800.

After months of frustrating delay Hindmarsh was appointed K.H. in May and received his commission as governor and commander-in-chief of the province of South Australia on 14 July 1836. Three weeks later he sailed in the Buffalo with his family, the resident commissioner, (Sir) James Fisher and his family, and some 160 emigrants. By that time eight other colonizing ships had left for South Australia and the first had reached Kangaroo Island.

Hindmarsh's command of the overcrowded Buffalo was an unfortunate prelude to his governorship. His careful watch on costs and his obvious relish of authority were interpreted as naval tyranny, and his jocular patronage of suffering landlubbers was mistaken for rudeness and profanity. As a naval officer he was convinced that the colony's capital should be a port and he had exhorted Light to place it at Port Lincoln. Hindmarsh arrived there on 17 December to find that its navigation was difficult and that it had been rejected by Light in favour of a site on the plains under Mount Lofty. On 28 December the Buffalo anchored in Holdfast Bay and the governor went ashore to perform the ceremony of establishing his government. Two days later he visited the site of Adelaide and liked it, but, believing he had the right of choice, said that it was too far from its port. Light agreed to move the site down the river, but soon found this impractical, and within a few days began the survey of Adelaide. Hindmarsh appeared to be satisfied with this decision, though he refused to proclaim the port until the harbour had been mapped and charted. He also insisted that some town acres be surveyed at the port; when Light demurred that this demand was contrary to instructions, he was summoned to the council to be questioned.

Light's resentment at the governor's interference with the surveys was mild compared with that of the resident commissioner. According to Fisher, Hindmarsh was undermining carefully made plans and trying to turn the colony into a thing of his own creation. Every conflicting move and rumour caused uncertainty among settlers eager to locate their land. Hindmarsh, uncertain of his powers and egged on by his supporters, decided to force the issue. Although the question was ill suited for popular vote, on 10 February 1837 he called a meeting of the owners of land orders and their agents. Despite George Stevenson in the chair, a resolution in criticism of the Adelaide site was decidedly amended in vindication of Light's choice; it was also resolved that 1000 acres (405 ha) be surveyed at the port, but only 29 (12 ha) were eventually marked out. This partial defeat damaged the governor's prestige, and his later claims to the right of proclaiming secondary towns and naming places and streets were fiercely swept aside as infringements of the resident commissioner's powers.

The governor's annoyance did not cloud his judgement in seeking personal profit. With credit from George Fife Angas, he had bought five preliminary land orders for £80 each, and when the town acres were allotted by ballot, he chose four in Adelaide and later one at the port. When the remaining Adelaide acres were auctioned, he bought fourteen, mostly in North Adelaide, for a total of £74 10s. The lucky draw of a high priority secured him one 134-acre (54 ha) country section at Walkerville, which he sold within a year for £1500. Another section at Rosetta Cove gave him a crude wharf and rent from the whalers who used it; when a port at Encounter Bay seemed desirable for the River Murray trade, the government built a jetty, and the district council a road on the section, without proper notice; when his son sued the district council for £48,000, it was promptly dissolved, but an appeal to the House of Assembly in 1858 brought Hindmarsh a compensation of £2000 for his land.

Apart from land and survey problems, Hindmarsh had other difficulties. In February 1837 the Rapid was sent to Sydney for much needed stores, equipment and livestock, for which he drew bills of £5000 on the British Treasury without authority, thereby earning himself a sharp rebuke from the Colonial Office. He also ran into trouble with the Admiralty for keeping the Buffalo at Holdfast Bay until May, though he had nowhere else to live and needed the marines as police. His worst problems were with the resident commissioner and 'the contemptible bad set' that followed him. With some justification they condemned Stevenson who, as secretary, misguided the governor and, as editor of the South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register, waged private war against Fisher and his party. But their methods of humiliating Hindmarsh were disreputable. When his sailors cut a few pines and rushes on public land for the governor's residence, he was charged with committing an act of 'trespass and depredation'. When he had a mailbag opened to retrieve a dispatch, he was accused of opening private letters. To enlist the colonists' sympathy against the governor's 'acts of tyranny' a regular series of public meetings were convened by Fisher's party and their complaints to London often included petty gossip about Hindmarsh's family, frugal table and stingy hospitality. It was easy for Fisher to sneer that the governor's power for doing harm was very limited when, in reality, lack of funds prevented him from doing good. It was also easy for Fisher to protest that the laws were inadequate, but he and his followers hampered every proceeding of the council by their opposition.

In his intolerable position Hindmarsh was not disposed to suffer in silence and he soon found opportunity to turn the attack by removing his critics from the council. His first victim was the colonial secretary, Robert Gouger, who was followed by the emigration agent, John Brown. Both were replaced by suitors of the governor's daughters. The third casualty was the advocate-general, Charles Mann, who saw the writing on the wall and resigned. He was replaced, probably through a mistake, by George Milner Stephen, who knew no law but soon joined the band of suitors. The governor also recommended to the Colonial Office that Stevenson replace Fisher, for the resident commissioner had long ceased to attend the council.

The presence in Adelaide of the judge, Sir John Jeffcott, brought a brief respite to official dissension, but by December 1837 Gouger and (Sir) George Kingston had reached London with their separate missions to unseat Hindmarsh. From every hand the Colonization Commission was receiving reports of his gross misdeeds and his removal was even advocated at a public meeting of the august South Australian Society in London. The Colonial Office bowed to the pressure and Hindmarsh was recalled. His long reply to Glenelg, 21 June 1838, though not scrupulously fair, was restrained and dignified, and he was warmly farewelled by many colonists before he sailed for England in the Alligator on 14 July. He had high hopes of reinstatement and left his wife in Adelaide. She failed to place her son John in the Van Diemen's Land public service, but she married off her daughters with enviable success: in July 1840 Mary to G. M. Stephen, a cousin of James Stephen at the Colonial Office and in July 1841 Jane to Alfred Miller Mundy, a cousin of the earl of Lincoln. Mrs Hindmarsh also managed the sale of her husband's land to such effect that her account of £12,000 was by far the largest in the Adelaide branch of the Bank of Australasia when she left to rejoin her husband in 1841.

Hindmarsh's recall was not considered a disgrace either in Adelaide or at the Colonial Office. He claimed Glenelg's admission and Russell's concurrence that it had been 'too hastily determined'. In 1840 he was appointed governor of Heligoland, but neither the Colonial Office nor the Admiralty would recommend him for the knighthood he solicited, though they recognized his 'extraordinary gallantry as a sailor' and his 'very bad fortune as a governor'. Hindmarsh found the small and intermarried population of his cliff-bound island divided by factions, and was soon charged with despotic government by the aldermen and quartermasters who controlled the fishing fleet. Support from his other subjects saved his reputation and thereafter the chief disturbance of his calm came from visitors in the bathing seasons. With little to report, Hindmarsh once surprised the Colonial Office with detailed observations on the ornithology of the island, but many of his dispatches were personal complaints about living costs and lack of recognition for past service. He kept in touch with South Australian affairs, had several visits to England and was allowed to appoint his son as his secretary. In 1848 political convulsions in Europe and the Danish blockade of Hamburg seriously affected Heligoland's fishing trade, but Hindmarsh 'preserved a uniform Peace and quietness' and was later presented with a drinking cup by the King of Denmark. He was knighted in August 1851 and promoted rear admiral on his retirement in January 1856. Next year he settled with his wife in a Brighton villa. After her death on 2 April 1859 at the age of 72, he moved to London where he died on 29 July 1860, leaving some £4000 and his 'library, oil paintings, engravings and china' to his children. After her parents died Susan Hindmarsh became the second wife of Captain John Ellis, a wealthy South Australian pastoralist, who had retired to England. John Hindmarsh junior, who had left the Royal Naval College to go to Adelaide with his parents, returned to England with his mother in 1841 but did not rejoin the navy. Instead he entered the Middle Temple and became a barrister. He returned to South Australia in 1855 and later moved to Napier, New Zealand, where he died in 1903.

Hindmarsh once declared, 'I am not aware of a single instance in which my public actions have been other than calm in themselves and the result of careful deliberation'. This was self-delusion, for he always acted by impulse. Auckland was right in describing his youthful heroism as 'good fortune', for Hindmarsh allowed no one to forget it; as late as 1846 he was still reminding the Admiralty of his greatest exploit. Living up to this simple image brought him many disappointments and made him believe that his critics were contemptible republicans. He was constant in declaring his own loyalty, but he was also dedicated to domesticity and careful in providing for his family. In 1837 an Adelaide city square and an inner suburb, and next year an island (Kumerangk) near the River Murray mouth, were named after him.  Edward John Eyre named Lake Hindmarsh in western Victoria while overlanding cattle to Adelaide in 1838.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Grenfell Price, Founders and Pioneers of South Australia (Adel, 1929)
  • D. Pike, Paradise of Dissent (Melb, 1957)
  • G. Dutton, Founder of a City (Melb, 1960)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1857 (97)
  • Gentleman's Magazine, 9 (1860)
  • G. L. Fischer (ed), 'Captain John Hindmarsh's Letters to George Fife Angas: Part 1, 1835-1837', South Australiana, vol 1, no 1, Mar 1962, pp 5-31, and 'Part 2, 1837-1839', vol 1, no 2, Sept 1962, pp 49-83
  • CO 13/3-10, CO 118/23, 29, 31
  • letter from John Hindmarsh to Sir Pulteney Malcolm, 22 June 1838 (MS 1311, National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Hindmarsh, Sir John (1785–1860)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 23 May 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

John Hindmarsh (1785-1860), by Buchheister

John Hindmarsh (1785-1860), by Buchheister

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7009

Life Summary [details]




29 July, 1860 (aged ~ 75)
London, Middlesex, England

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