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Sir Charles Hotham (1806–1855)

by B. A. Knox

This article was published:

Charles Hotham, by Batchelder's, n.d.

Charles Hotham, by Batchelder's, n.d.

State Library of Victoria, H29538

Sir Charles Hotham (1806-1855), naval officer and governor, was born on 14 January 1806 in Dennington, Suffolk, England, the eldest son of Frederick Hotham (pronounced `Hutham'), prebendary of Rochester, and his wife Anne Elizabeth, née Hodges. He entered the navy on 6 November 1818 and on the Mediterranean station was promoted, rapidly for peacetime, lieutenant in 1825 and postcaptain in 1833. In 1842 on the South American station he was in command of the steam sloop Gorgon; she ran aground in Montevideo Bay in 1844 and he displayed stubbornness and skill in refloating her. In November 1845 he commanded the squadron on the Parana River and, with help from a French force, defeated the Argentine insurgents under General Rosas. In 1846 he was made K.C.B. and appointed commodore on the west coast of Africa in May. His talent for languages prompted Lord Malmesbury in April 1852 to appoint him head of a mission to Paraguay to negotiate a commercial treaty. Lord Clarendon, Malmesbury's successor, thought the attempt futile and sent his recall, but the dispatch crossed one bearing home the completed treaty. However, Hotham was not appreciated by the Aberdeen ministry, and this as well as his quality is why the Duke of Newcastle appointed him lieutenant-governor of Victoria on 6 December 1853.

The extraordinary changes occasioned by the discovery of gold gave Victoria the reputation of being a most difficult colonial post. Hotham had diplomatic and naval successes to recommend him and, compared with his predecessor Charles La Trobe, was an impressive appointment. The colonial press and public as well as Newcastle were enthusiastic. But Hotham's own preferences emerged in 1854 when the Crimean war broke out and he applied unsuccessfully for a ship rather than take up his governorship. He arrived in Melbourne on 22 June. He soon appreciated the need to increase revenue, strengthen administration and allay goldfields discontent by extending political privileges and improving the licence system, but he totally misunderstood his position as governor of a sizeable Crown colony, particularly Victoria, for which a new constitution providing 'responsible' government was then under consideration in London. He courted the working population, especially miners, while remaining clearly authoritarian. Yet he upset the firmest supporters of authority, the propertied and official classes, by his declarations of 'democratic' principles and his refusal to call regular meetings of the Executive Council. He was obstinate and secretive with his councillors and, unwilling to delegate matters to his officials, he soon exhausted himself with work. When introducing reform of government finance he unnecessarily disparaged his predecessor and the existing officials. Despite the weight of public opinion against the mining licence fee, he proved unwilling to abandon it. Thus in the Eureka crisis he could depend on little help from the officials, and his popularity, though still existing, was a fragile thing.

To Hotham the crisis was a rebellion. Reasonably enough he regarded it as analogous to the Chartist assemblies, speeches and marches in England in 1848, and his policy resembled that of Sir Charles Napier demonstrating to would-be insurgents the futility of challenging a strong military force. It might have worked, but unlike Napier Hotham was neither cool nor well informed. His communications with officials in Ballarat were poor and on 3 December they precipitated armed action which Hotham in Melbourne wrongly interpreted as proof of the continuing danger of insurrection. His diplomatic talents therefore had little room for exercise. He had already set up a royal commission to inquire into discontent on the fields, and now urged on its work; he also arranged the resignation of the chief secretary, John Leslie Foster, who was unpopular among the miners. But his fear of 'revolutionaries' remained; he kept troops ready and refused an amnesty for the Eureka prisoners. By mid-January 1855 his popularity had collapsed. In March when the royal commission recommended reform of the licence system he foolishly maintained that the fee was right in principle, but the remedial measures passed in the Legislative Council show clearly that Hotham had lost such weak political grasp as he possessed. Among other ineptitudes he alienated the capable auditor-general, Hugh Childers.

Fortunately for Hotham six months of political quiet followed Eureka. His post had been raised to a full governorship on 3 February 1855 and the imperial government commended him for suppressing the 'outbreak', though not for his policy towards the ringleaders. His competence was already questioned in the Colonial Office and more so when the colonial reformer, Sir William Molesworth, became secretary of state in July. He rebuked Hotham for high-handed treatment of the Legislative Council over his taxation proposals in June. He also supplied hints on the governor's place in responsible government but Hotham handled awkwardly the inauguration of the new Constitution and ministerial government in November. In that month he sent his resignation to London and foreshadowed a justification of himself. His health was failing and on 17 December he caught a chill while opening the Melbourne gasworks. He died on the 31st, survived by his wife Jane Sarah, daughter of Lord Bridport, whom he had married on 10 December 1853.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Hadfield, Brazil, the River Plate, and the Falkland Islands: With the Cape Horn Route to Australia, Including Notices of Lisbon, Madeira, the Canaries, and Cape Verde (Lond, 1854)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • Gentleman's Magazine, May 1856.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

B. A. Knox, 'Hotham, Sir Charles (1806–1855)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 17 June 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

Charles Hotham, by Batchelder's, n.d.

Charles Hotham, by Batchelder's, n.d.

State Library of Victoria, H29538

Life Summary [details]


14 January, 1806
Dennington, Suffolk, England


31 December, 1855 (aged 49)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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