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William Lonsdale (1799–1864)

by B. R. Penny

This article was published:

William Lonsdale, by James Fleet

William Lonsdale, by James Fleet

State Library of Victoria, H30221

William Lonsdale (1799-1864), soldier and administrator, was born on 2 October 1799, entered the British army as an ensign in 1819, became a lieutenant in the 4th Regiment in 1824 and arrived in Sydney in December 1831 with a detachment of troops guarding convicts in the Bussorah Merchant. During the next five years he served in Van Diemen's Land and in New South Wales. On 11 July 1834 he was promoted captain and on 6 April 1835, while stationed at Port Macquarie, he married Martha, the youngest daughter of Benjamin Smythe, civil engineer of Launceston. Like many of his fellow officers he also held civil office, first as assistant police magistrate, and from January 1836 as a justice of the peace.

Early in 1836 news of increasing numbers of unauthorized settlers in the south and of their outrages against the Aboriginals reached Sydney. Further attention was attracted in June when some inhabitants, led by John Batman, petitioned for the appointment of a resident police magistrate. In September Lonsdale was chosen by Governor Sir Richard Bourke to be the first police magistrate at Port Phillip. His salary was £250 while he drew half-pay from his regiment; when he resigned from the army in March 1837 it rose to £300.

Lonsdale, his wife, children and two servants sailed in H.M.S. Rattlesnake, which anchored near the mouth of the Yarra River on 29 September 1836. Three surveyors, two customs officials, a commissariat clerk, Ensign King with thirty privates of the 4th Regiment, and thirty convicts followed in October. They found 224 residents in a settlement several miles up the Yarra. Lonsdale decided to establish the government centre there, although Gellibrand Point (Williamstown) would have been more convenient for the unloading of stores. The inland site, however, had the advantage of a plentiful supply of fresh water, and was, he reported, suited to the performance of his civil duties.

Lonsdale's duties were straightforward although his powers were less precise. Bourke's instructions conferred on him not only the ordinary jurisdiction of a justice of the peace, but also 'the general superintendence in the new settlement of all such matters as require the immediate exercise of the authority of the government' in accordance with the applicable laws of England and the acts of the governor and council. He was to send in returns and reports, take a census particularly noting land occupation, protect and conciliate the Aboriginals and try to induce them to offer their labour in return for food and clothing, employing as the medium of communication with them 'the European named Buckley'.

Matters proceeded smoothly for the first few months. Lonsdale arranged the distribution of rations; and so plentiful and regular were supplies from Sydney and Van Diemen's Land that the issue to civilians was abolished within a year. Shelters were erected but it was not until November that Lonsdale could move his quarters from the ship to a cottage. Meanwhile he appointed a medical officer and required public house keepers to be licensed. He also wrote to the bishop of Australia deploring the lack of clergy, and reported that he read the service to soldiers and convicts and that the settlers held devotions in their houses. As instructed, he engaged William Buckley as constable and interpreter to the natives. When Governor Bourke visited Port Phillip in March 1837 he praised Lonsdale's ability, zeal, activity and discretion, confirmed his choice of a site for the town, and named it Melbourne, though Lonsdale suggested Glenelg. In particular Bourke was pleased with Lonsdale's approach to the Aboriginals. The foundations of the new settlement had been laid and Lonsdale had contributed by conscientiously following instructions from Sydney and referring all decisions to his superiors.

In the next two years friction developed between Lonsdale and other civil officials who disputed his right to supervise their activities. The surveyors, Robert Russell and Robert Hoddle, would not recognize that he had any authority beyond that of a police magistrate, and Lonsdale complained that a missionary to the Aboriginals, George Langhorne, was subverting his authority. The Melbourne Advertiser and Port Phillip Patriot supported Lonsdale, while the Port Phillip Gazette criticized his administration. Lonsdale did not court public support nor answer public criticism but continued to carry out his instructions from Sydney.

Charles La Trobe, who arrived in Melbourne in October 1839 as the first superintendent of Port Phillip, relieved Lonsdale of all the disputed areas of responsibility. The people of Melbourne marked the occasion by presenting Lonsdale with an address and £350 for a silver service. Lonsdale continued to act as police magistrate until April 1840, when he was appointed sub-treasurer of Port Phillip by Governor Sir George Gipps at £400 with continued use of his house. He was the obvious choice for the post: Gipps praised his zeal, intelligence and integrity.

The district grew rapidly, and Lonsdale prospered with it. He was able to give security of £8000 when appointed sub-treasurer, and he joined in the mania of speculation between 1836 and 1841 to a degree which caused him to share in the general censure distributed by the first resident judge of Port Phillip, John Willis. Gipps, in reporting this to the Colonial Office, acknowledged that Lonsdale was not altogether free from blame in purchasing bank shares from John Batman's estate, but did not consider his financial activities were dishonest.

Lonsdale's relations with La Trobe were always good; indeed to his superiors he seemed reliable, conscientious and unpretentious. When La Trobe became the first patron of the Melbourne Mechanics' Institute, Lonsdale became its first president; in August 1842 La Trobe appointed him acting mayor of Melbourne until one could be elected under the new Corporation Act, and from October 1846 to February 1847 he acted as superintendent of Port Phillip while La Trobe was absent in Van Diemen's Land.

In 1851, when Victoria became a separate colony, Lonsdale was nominated by La Trobe as its first colonial secretary, at a salary of £900. This time he was not the first and obvious choice for the position, but was persuaded to accept it provisionally only from a sense of public duty. No one was more conscious of his shortcomings than Lonsdale himself; in particular he questioned his ability to take the leading political role in the Legislative Council expected of a colonial secretary. Nevertheless he held office and served in the Executive and Legislative Councils in 1851-53, the turbulent years of the gold rushes. It could not be said that he took a leading part but he gave no serious cause of complaint. He was probably relieved to hand over the colonial secretaryship to J. F. L. Foster, who arrived with a commission from Downing Street in July 1853. Lonsdale then became colonial treasurer, at a salary of £1500. He continued to perform his official duties unobtrusively until July 1854, when he obtained eighteen months leave, and sailed for England. While he was away, responsible government was inaugurated in Victoria and Lonsdale retired on a pension. He died in London on 28 March 1864, survived by his widow and two sons.

The most noteworthy years of Lonsdale's long public career were 1836-39 when he supervised the founding of the new settlement at Port Phillip. By 1844 he was referred to as 'old Captain Lonsdale', and was associated with a past which seemed remote to those who knew only the prosperous and rapidly advancing colony of the 1850s. Lonsdale's high sense of duty and respect for authority made him a conscientious and hard-working servant of the Crown, and his ambitions never exceeded his abilities. Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, and Point Lonsdale were named after him, and Mount Martha after his wife.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 18, 20, 22-3, 25
  • H. G. Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1904)
  • R. D. Boys, First Years at Port Phillip (Melb, 1959)
  • ‘Proclamation’, New South Wales Government Gazette, 18 May 1836, p 395
  • ‘Port Phillip’, New South Wales Government Gazette, 14 Sept 1836, p 709
  • E. Scott, ‘Captain Lonsdale and the Foundation of Melbourne’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 4, no 3, Mar 1915, pp 97-116
  • E. Scott, ‘The Administration of Captain Lonsdale’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 6, no 4, Sept 1918, pp 145-159
  • Times (London), 31 Mar 1864
  • CO 309/1.

Additional Resources

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Citation details

B. R. Penny, 'Lonsdale, William (1799–1864)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 15 June 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 Lonsdale, by James Fleet

William Lonsdale, by James Fleet

State Library of Victoria, H30221

Life Summary [details]


2 October, 1799


28 March, 1864 (aged 64)
London, Middlesex, England

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