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Sir Robert Wilmot Horton (1784–1841)

This article was published:

Robert Horton, by Richard James Lane, 1820s

Robert Horton, by Richard James Lane, 1820s

National Library of Australia, 9918213

Sir Robert Wilmot Horton (1784-1841), politician, public servant and pamphleteer, was born on 21 September 1784, the only son of Sir Robert Wilmot, baronet of Osmaston, Derbyshire, England, and his first wife Juliana Elizabeth, née Byron. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, (B.A., 1806; M.A., 1815). On 1 September 1806 he married Anne Beatrix, eldest daughter and co-heiress of Eusebius Horton of Catton, Derbyshire, and on 8 May 1823 Wilmot assumed by royal licence the surname of Horton in compliance with his father-in-law's will.

As a popular man about town, Wilmot was known as 'the first punster of the age, addicted to good shooting, good eating and écarté'. He became a fellow of the Royal Society and pursued his various activities with great ability and boundless, if undisciplined, energy. In 1818-30 as representative of Newcastle under Lyme in the House of Commons he won repute as an animated debater. In December 1821 he was appointed parliamentary under-secretary in the Colonial Department at a salary of £2000. With small encouragement from Bathurst, Wilmot reorganized the office for economy and uniformity. Among other reforms he divided the empire into geographical areas with a senior clerk responsible for the conduct of policy in each area. His retirement of several ageing clerks led to some confusion, but he recruited twice as many able young men when funds improved. With much assistance from James Stephen he improved the system of record keeping in the department and revised the general instructions to colonial governors, a task which had been neglected for nearly thirty years. He had a prominent part in the constitutional changes in New South Wales in 1823 and in the granting of charters to the Australian Agricultural Co., the Van Diemen's Land Co. and the Canada Co. He also exercised his patronage of behalf of John Macarthur junior, and carried on a voluminous private correspondence with leading colonial officials such as Francis Forbes. In 1825 he secured the appointment of a second under-secretary, R. W. Hay, with whom he divided the affairs of empire. This arrangement allowed Horton to devote more time to the subject of pauper emigration.

Horton's deepest concern was for the distressed victims of economic change in the United Kingdom and he hoped to turn this curse of the mother country into a blessing for the colonies. In 1823 and 1825 he was largely responsible for securing parliamentary grants for two experiments in Irish pauper emigration to Canada. He moved successfully for a select committee on emigration and as its chairman in 1826-27 propounded a plan whereby married paupers with families might surrender their legal rights to parish maintenance in exchange for assisted passages, grants of colonial land and the provision of houses, stock and equipment, the costs being paid from loans raised on parish rates in Britain. The plan was embodied in a bill which was dropped when Horton left the Colonial Office in 1828, but in parliament, press and pamphlets he continued to advocate assisted emigration and settlement. His writing had much influence on Edward Gibbon Wakefield, whose scheme for emigration financed by colonial land revenue was partially adopted by the Whig government, but which led to the alienation of vast areas of land, the colonies' greatest asset, in exchange for a small and inefficient supply of British labour, without cost to the mother country.

In 1827 Horton was appointed to the Privy Council; in 1831 he was knighted and appointed governor of Ceylon. In his absence systematic colonizers ridiculed him as an impractical dreamer, but he continued to produce pamphlets in answer to Wakefield, opposing the creation of an artificially fixed price for colonial land, and insisting with great vision that the cost of assisted emigration and settlement should be paid by the British government. On his father's death in July 1834 Horton succeeded to the baronetcy. He left Ceylon in 1837 and returned to England, where he died on 31 May 1841 at Sudbrooke Park, Petersham, survived by his widow, four sons and two of his three daughters.

Citation details

'Horton, Sir Robert Wilmot (1784–1841)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 25 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

Robert Horton, by Richard James Lane, 1820s

Robert Horton, by Richard James Lane, 1820s

National Library of Australia, 9918213

Life Summary [details]


21 September, 1784


31 May, 1841 (aged 56)
London, Middlesex, England

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