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William Edward Nairn (1812–1869)

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William Edward Nairn (1812-1869), public servant and politician, was born at Widcombe, Somerset, England, only son of Captain William Nairn and his wife Mary Ann. In January 1830 he entered Queen's College and until 1834 was a scholar at Lincoln College, Oxford (B.A., 1833). In London he met Alexander Maconochie who told him that Sir John Franklin was to replace Lieutenant-Governor Arthur in Van Diemen's Land. Nairn's father had bought a schooner for £500 in the Sandwich Islands and with a royal certificate sailed to Madras, Swan River and Hobart Town where the authorities refused to allow her to clear for any port except in the Sandwich Islands. In January 1836 William Edward wrote to Franklin who agreed to grant the schooner a licence for trade on the Tasmanian coast. With this experience Nairn sailed from Southampton in the Fairlie with Franklin's party and arrived at Hobart in February 1837.

Nairn was appointed clerk in the Colonial Secretary's Office in June but his diligent competence soon won him more important posts. On the voyage he had offered to serve on the Tasmanian Board of Education and in February 1839 Franklin appointed him as an Anglican member of the board in place of Captain Swanston. In October Nairn became its secretary, holding that office intermittently until 1847, and retained his seat on the board until 1858, when it was made a council; he served as its president until 1868. He had acted as clerk to the Executive and Legislative Councils in 1840 and as assistant colonial secretary and assistant police magistrate at Prosser's Plains in 1842. As assistant comptroller of the Convict Department in 1843, he had charge of the prisoners in Tasmania and Norfolk Island, was departmental registrar in 1855-56 and comptroller-general of convicts at a salary of £800 in 1859-68. He was also sheriff of Hobart in 1857-68.

Nairn had been elected unopposed for Meander to the Legislative Council and became its president in January 1856. When Tasmania was granted responsible government he again won Meander and in the first administration, led by W. T. N. Champ, in November became minister without portfolio. The government fell in February 1857 but Nairn was re-elected for Meander and again in 1865 and continued as president of the Legislative Council. He was invited to sit on a dozen select committees of the House of Assembly. His uprightness and urbanity eased the transaction of business with colleagues and those who served under him. In September 1868 he took sick leave but did not recover. He died at Hobart on 9 July 1869, survived by his wife Maria, née Swan, whom he had married on 26 April 1845 at St David's Church, and by three sons and five daughters. His estate of £2200 in Tasmania and £4400 in England was left to his widow.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (House of Assembly, Tasmania), 1859 (72), 1870 (13)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 10 July 1869
  • CSO 5/4/32, 206/5103, 22/18/1853, 50/12/1838, 13/1839, 25/1843, 27/1850 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

'Nairn, William Edward (1812–1869)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Edward Nairn (1812-1869), by J. W. Beattie

William Edward Nairn (1812-1869), by J. W. Beattie

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125646943

Life Summary [details]


Widcombe, Somerset, England


9 July, 1869 (aged ~ 57)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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