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William Lithgow (1784–1864)

by Allan Horton

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William Lithgow (1784-1864), by unknown photographer

William Lithgow (1784-1864), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 09459

William Lithgow (1784-1864), auditor-general, was born on 1 January 1784 in Scotland. He was educated at Edinburgh University and passed as a licentiate of the Church of Scotland, but in January 1808 he was appointed a clerk in the army commissariat and sent to Heligoland, where he also tutored the children of Commissary-General David Allan. In July 1812 Lithgow became deputy-assistant and was sent to take charge of the accounts branch of the commissariat in Mauritius. In April 1823 he was ordered to form and direct a similar branch in New South Wales.

Lithgow arrived at Sydney in May 1824 and soon impressed Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane by his skill in introducing a system that simplified the work of the whole commissariat and brought useful economies. Lithgow acted at times as the governor's private secretary and on Brisbane's recommendation was given the additional post of auditor of colonial accounts so that he could have 'the entire financial state of the Colony under his eye'. Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling also valued Lithgow's services and appointed him to the Board of General Purposes through which the colony's public administration was thoroughly, if somewhat autocratically, reorganized. Lithgow was appointed a magistrate and on occasions acted as clerk of the Executive Council and as private secretary to the governor. In 1826-27 he was a director of the old Bank of New South Wales; reappointed in 1829 he served the new bank for another twenty-three years. He sat on innumerable boards and inquiries and audited the accounts of many institutions as well as those of government and commissariat. In April 1827 Darling claimed that he had 'no more zealous officer in the government', but admitted that Lithgow, by attempting too much, was in arrears with his work. On the governor's recommendation Lithgow resigned as assistant commissary general and was appointed auditor-general of colonial accounts at a salary of £650.

Despite civil rank second only to the colonial secretary and a seat in the Executive and Legislative Councils he appears to have escaped most of the unpopularity of Darling and his 'creatures'. Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke thought Lithgow distinguished for liberal principles, employed him sometimes as private secretary and even hoped to make him colonial treasurer. But Lithgow's health was beginning to suffer; in spite of relief from auditing military accounts his duties were expanding greatly each year as new departments were created for the Port Phillip District, the border police, land sales and assisted immigration. Although he had won praise for the punctual dispatch of his financial statements in 1833, he was criticized thereafter by the Audit Board in London for arrears in his work and for failing to answer questions about his accounts. Each year the complaints mounted, culminating in a demand to the Colonial Office 'for effectual steps to enforce an immediate compliance'. In January 1842, warned by Governor Sir George Gipps that any delay would bring suspension, Lithgow exerted himself. His 'Accounts for the Year 1838' were sent to London in February and by June the annual reports for 1839-41. By October he had dispatched statements for the first half of 1842 and answered all outstanding questions on his accounts to the satisfaction of the Audit Board in London. Since the delays had not been entirely his fault, he had some solace in 1848 when he reported that the British Treasury had overlooked a substantial sum which should have been credited to the colony in the previous year.

With his office work in hand Lithgow gave more attention to his personal interests. He had always kept many private irons in the fire. From the grant of 2000 acres (809 ha) and a Sydney building allotment in 1824 he had built up substantial estates. He was a shareholder in the Bank of New South Wales and Bank of Australia and a trustee of the Savings Bank of New South Wales and the Australian Society for Deposits and Loans. He was a member of the Southern Cattle Association and served on the provisional committees of the British Australian Steam Navigation Co. and the Railway Association.

In 1848 Lithgow resigned from the Legislative Council after nineteen years service and on 30 April 1852 he retired as auditor-general with a pension of £339 3s. 4d. He died on 11 June 1864 at his home, St Leonard's Lodge, on the North Shore. Of his many bequests to friends, charities and institutions the largest, £1000, was for founding the Lithgow scholarships in the University of Sydney. The Lithgow Valley, an important coal-mining area for much of its European history, was named by the explorer Hamilton Hume in the auditor-general’s honour in 1827. Lithgow town, 140 km west of Sydney and a small village until the arrival of the railway in 1869, was declared a municipality in 1901.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 11-26
  • WO 61/2 (National Archives of the United Kingdom).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Allan Horton, 'Lithgow, William (1784–1864)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Lithgow (1784-1864), by unknown photographer

William Lithgow (1784-1864), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 09459

Life Summary [details]


1 January, 1784


11 June, 1864 (aged 80)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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