Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Sir George Ruthven Le Hunte (1852–1925)

by Diane Langmore

This article was published:

George Ruthven Le Hunte (1852-1925), by unknown photographer, c1903

George Ruthven Le Hunte (1852-1925), by unknown photographer, c1903

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3690

Sir George Ruthven Le Hunte (1852-1925), governor, was born on 20 August 1852 at Artramont, Wexford, Ireland, son of George Le Hunte, high sheriff, and his wife Mary, daughter of Edward Pennefather, lord chief justice of Ireland. He was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1873; M.A., 1880), and called to the Bar of the Inner Temple, London, in 1881. On 14 February 1884 he married Caroline Rachel Clowes at the parish church, Eardisland, Herefordshire. Appointed private secretary to Sir Arthur Gordon in 1875, he served in Fiji in 1875-87, becoming judicial commissioner for the Western Pacific High Commission in 1883. He was transferred to the West Indies where he served as president of Dominica (1887-94), and colonial secretary of Barbados (1894-97) and Mauritius (1897). He was appointed C.M.G. in 1898.

On 22 March 1899 he assumed the administration of British New Guinea as lieutenant-governor in succession to Sir William MacGregor. The two were as different 'as chalk from cheese', wrote one of their field officers. In contrast with his short, stocky and crusty predecessor, Le Hunte was 6 ft 2 in (188 cm), with distinguished features, a walrus moustache and a genial nature. Contemporaries remarked upon his 'charm of manner' and his 'constant kindness of heart'. He nevertheless announced his intention of maintaining and furthering MacGregor's policies and accordingly promoted the extension of government control, supported the 'civilising influence' of missions and encouraged, though with as limited success as his predecessor, controlled European settlement. A medical department was established and a government station founded at Cape Nelson. Further policy initiatives were inhibited by lack of funds. His rule coincided with a troubled phase in the colony's history. Delay until November 1901 in the assumption of Commonwealth responsibility (in place of the joint control by Britain and Queensland) led to uncertainty about funding and in August 1900 he declared the colony to be 'within measurable distance' of the end of its resources. Over half his period in office was spent elsewhere, much of it in lobbying Australian premiers.

The killing and eating of the two missionaries James Chalmers and Oliver Tomkins and their Papuan companions at Goaribari Island on 8 April 1901 further overshadowed his time in New Guinea. Rejecting the London Missionary Society's representative's plea against reprisals, Le Hunte, taking 'full responsibility' for the decision, three weeks later led a punitive expedition which killed some twenty-four Goaribari, burned their skull-laden ceremonial houses and smashed their war-canoes. His report 'deplored' the necessity of taking life but added, 'the natives brought it on themselves and I believe conscientiously that they deserved it'. Unlike that led by his successor Christopher Stansfeld Robinson in 1904, it was a disciplined, orderly expedition whose 'moderation' and 'humanity' were praised by the L.M.S. Although a time-honoured stratagem of colonial rule, the punitive expedition provoked criticism in Britain and Australia, which was largely allayed by his second, conciliatory expedition in March 1902.

Returning to New Guinea in May 1903 after a year's leave in England, Le Hunte was appointed K.C.M.G. and governor of South Australia (July 1903–December 1908). He carried out his vice-regal duties with energy and enthusiasm, winning respect for his administrative ability, common sense and unassuming kindliness. His intelligent interest in the welfare of Aborigines was recognized, while his affection for youth earned him the title, 'the children's governor'. He continued to give Alfred Deakin and Atlee Hunt candid and frequent advice on the administration of Papua. Reflecting in 1906 on thirty-one years of colonial service, he wrote, 'every day of it has been a happy one'. In December 1908 Le Hunte accepted the post of governor of Trinidad and Tobago, declining reluctantly to extend his 'run in an Australian paddock'. Despite personal frugality his position involved financial burden and he advised Deakin: 'Unless a Governor here has considerably more private means than I … he will find the struggle very hard'.

Appointed G.C.M.G. in 1912, he retired in 1915 to Crowborough, Sussex. In December 1917 he was appointed to the London Appeals Tribunal. Predeceased by his son, and survived by his wife and daughter, he died of cancer on 29 January 1925 at Crowborough and was buried with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Murray, A Man's Life (Lond, 1934)
  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1907)
  • Alcazar Press, Queensland, 1900 (Brisb, nd)
  • British New Guinea Annual Report, 1898-1903
  • Public Service Review (South Australia), June 1903
  • South Australian Literary Societies' Journal, 10 Jan 1909
  • Sydney Mail, 4 Mar 1899
  • Times (London), 30 Jan, 4 Feb 1925
  • Report, 5 Aug 1905, Walter Malcolmson papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Atlee Hunt papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • S. J. Way letters (State Records of South Australia)
  • A1 03/3487 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Le Hunte, Sir George Ruthven (1852–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George Ruthven Le Hunte (1852-1925), by unknown photographer, c1903

George Ruthven Le Hunte (1852-1925), by unknown photographer, c1903

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3690

Life Summary [details]


20 August, 1852
Artramont, Wexford, Ireland


29 January, 1925 (aged 72)
Crowborough, Sussex, England

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.