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Charles Pasley (1824–1890)

by Ronald McNicoll

This article was published:

Charles Pasley (1824-1890), military engineer, was born on 14 November 1824 at Chatham, England, eldest son of General Sir Charles William Pasley, a leading military engineer, and his second wife Martha Matilda, née Roberts. Educated at the King's Grammar School, Rochester, and from 1840 the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, he was commissioned in the Royal Engineers on 20 December 1843. He served in Britain until 1846, in Canada and then in Bermuda whence he returned to England because of sickness. From early 1851 he was on the staff of the Great Exhibition. In April 1853 he was appointed colonial engineer of Victoria. He reached Melbourne on 17 September. His department, hitherto undermanned and demoralized, soon busied itself with port improvements and with the building of barracks, court-houses and offices throughout the settled districts. His captaincy in the Royal Engineers was dated 17 February 1854.

When later that year unrest increased on the Ballarat goldfield, Pasley had no doubt that the situation was serious and offered his services to the commander-in-chief. On 28 November he reached the camp at Ballarat and took up duty as aide-de-camp to Captain Thomas of the 40th Regiment. He fully agreed with the firm measures taken by the authorities to bring matters to a head. In the assault on the Eureka stockade on 3 December Pasley commanded the skirmishers in the centre; after the place had been captured he was active in restraining soldiers from taking reprisals on the prisoners.

Pasley had been an official nominee in the old Legislative Council from October 1854 to November 1855 when the new Constitution was introduced. On 28 November he was appointed commissioner of public works in the ministry of W. C. Haines, thus acting as both political and professional head of his department. Some major Melbourne works projects were begun in 1856, including Parliament House, Victoria Barracks, the gaol at Pentridge, the lunatic asylum at Kew and in 1857 the Customs House. Many of these buildings reflected Pasley's taste. He consistently favoured the use of local materials, and recognized the virtues of the Melbourne basalt or 'bluestone'. His efforts to encourage local designers were well known. Among many extraneous duties he was president of the Central Road Board, a commissioner of the Melbourne-Mount Alexander railway, a councillor of the Philosophical Institute, a vice-president of the Melbourne Philharmonic Society and first patron of the Victorian Institute of Architects.

Since the new Constitution provided for a wholly elected parliament, Pasley could only continue as a minister by winning a seat at the forthcoming election. His father had lent him money to help in buying a house as his property qualification. He stood for South Bourke in the Legislative Assembly. With a liberal policy he favoured measures to check the alienation of public lands by grazing interests and would have reserved from sale the land adjoining railway routes. He supported state aid to religion. He won the seat easily, but lost his ministerial status on 11 March 1857 when Haines was displaced by J. O'Shanassy; Pasley resigned his seat in July.

In 1858 Pasley was vice-president of the royal commission on the colony's defences, which adopted his proposal for Melbourne to be defended by batteries on Hobson's Bay rather than at Port Phillip Heads, because of the performance of the artillery then in service and the expense of manning forts at the heads. However, when rifled ordnance was introduced in 1859, he recommended the fortification of the heads. The chief Melbourne monuments to his last years in the department are the Treasury, by J. J. Clark, and the General Post Office, which was completed after he left.

Late in 1859 the royal commission on the civil service, overruling Pasley's protest, recommended that the Public Works Department be headed by a non-professional. It was time for Pasley to go. He failed to obtain compensation for loss of office but was given leave on full pay to enable him to rejoin his corps and resume his military career. He was about to embark for England in July 1860 when news of a military reverse in New Zealand decided Major-General Pratt to take the field in person. Pasley, who had missed the Crimean War, could not pass by the chance of active service so close at hand. He offered his services and on 24 July embarked with General Pratt.

In Taranaki Pasley soon found himself employed as an engineer. In the attack on one of the Maori forts on the Kaihihi River on 11 October he was emplacing a heavy gun when the enemy opened a fusillade from concealed positions and he was severely wounded in the thigh. He was invalided to Melbourne in November. For his work in New Zealand he was promoted brevet major and mentioned in dispatches. His convalescence was prolonged but on 29 May 1861, after receiving many tributes, he sailed for England.

Rejoining his corps, Pasley was appointed commanding engineer at Gravesend. In 1864 he succeeded his former colleague, Major Andrew Clarke, as special agent for Victoria, a part-time office largely concerned with advice on armaments and procurement of warlike stores. Pasley dealt not only with land armaments but with the equipment of H.M.V.S. Nelson, and with the design, construction and armament of the turret-ship Cerberus and its dispatch to Victoria. He filled this appointment for four years.

In October 1865 Pasley became superintendent engineer of the naval dockyard at Chatham, which was about to undergo a major extension. He managed this project for eight years. In September 1873 he succeeded Clarke as director of works at the Admiralty. He held this office until September 1882 and was responsible for such important works as the entrance locks at Chatham Yard, dry docks at Devonport and Haulbowline, and the barracks and the Naval Engineering School at Keyham. In 1874 he was elected an associate member of the Council of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He retained his connexions with Victoria, and in July 1879 was appointed a commissioner for the Melbourne International Exhibition. In 1880-82 he acted as Victoria's agent-general and chairman of the Board of Advice in London. He was appointed a civil C.B. in April 1880, and in August 1881 on his retirement from the army he was promoted major-general. He died at his home, Bedford Park, Chiswick, on 11 November 1890. At Hampton, Middlesex, on 29 March 1864 he had married his cousin Charlotte Roberts, who survived him; they had no children.

Slight in stature, Pasley was self-effacing but contemporaries found him responsible, conscientious and sound in judgment; his gravity was tempered by a sense of humour so that he was liked as well as respected. However conventional in morals and behaviour, he was enterprising and original in his professional practice. While in charge of public works in Victoria he administered his department with skill, coping with wide fluctuations in financial appropriations, and he left his mark.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • J. Stokes, ‘Major-General Charles Pasley, C.B.’, Royal Engineers Journal, 2 Feb 1891
  • Punch (Melbourne), 6 Dec 1855, 12 June 1856
  • Australian Builder and Railway Chronicle, 30 Apr, 29 May, 26 June, 21 Aug 1856, 26 Jan 1861
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22 July, 18 Aug 1856, 25 July, 21 Nov 1860, 24 Jan, 11 May 1861
  • CO 309/22/58.

Citation details

Ronald McNicoll, 'Pasley, Charles (1824–1890)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 22 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

Life Summary [details]


14 November, 1824
Chatham, Kent, England


11 November, 1890 (aged 65)
Chiswick, London, England

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