Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Robert William Rede (1815–1904)

by Weston Bate

This article was published:

Robert William Rede (1815-1904), goldfields commissioner and sheriff, was born on 13 July 1815 at Ashman's Hall, Beccles, Suffolk, England, the seat of his ancient county family, son of Thomas William Rede, naval officer, and his wife Anne (Mary), née Mills. He was privately educated in England and spent nine years in Paris. He abandoned his medical studies, travelled throughout Europe for many years and was reputedly a queen's messenger to Greece. He arrived at Port Phillip in November 1851, and joined the rush to Bendigo where he dug with some success. Dabbling in medicine he became popularly known as 'the little doctor'. His family background was probably a passport to employment in the Goldfields Commission, which he joined in October 1852. He served at Bendigo and then Mount Korong where he was rapidly promoted to resident commissioner.

In May 1854 Rede took charge at Ballarat. Even more than Governor Charles Hotham, he might have prevented the Eureka rebellion of December. He sympathized with the mining population, but became the object of their hostility over a miscarriage of justice. He was publicly humiliated during the burning of Bentley's hotel, and his pride determined him to teach the miners 'a fearful lesson' if they resisted the arrest of the incendiaries. Backed by military reinforcements he used the hated licence hunts, which he had earlier opposed, to bring about a confrontation; while in Melbourne he conferred with the governor and arranged to communicate with him by cypher if an emergency developed. Although Hotham counselled caution and legality, he gave Rede ample scope for initiative. As early as 28 November, Rede advised that the agitation should be crushed and two days later he provoked resistance by hunting for licences. Intending to split the disaffected from the law-abiding, he forced the Irish and other extremists into open rebellion and justified an attack on them; but he also alienated the majority, whose reaction to the storming of the Eureka stockade on 3 December showed how far Rede and the governor had misread the situation. 'I should be sorry to see them return to their work', declared Rede on the night before the assault, but when the government victory turned into a moral defeat he had to be removed from Ballarat.

Rede was let off lightly by the royal commission into the goldfields administration, and was kept on full pay until late in 1855 when Hotham arranged for his appointment as deputy-sheriff of Geelong and commandant of the Volunteer Rifles. He became sheriff of Geelong in 1857, Ballarat in 1868 and Melbourne in 1877, and major and later colonel of various volunteer detachments. In 1878 he was second-in-command in the colony. Public-spirited, he became a member of the Ballarat and Melbourne clubs and a vestryman at St John's Church of England near his home in Toorak. He retired in 1889.

In 1859 Rede had married Isabella, daughter of J. F. Strachan; she died in 1862 leaving a son. On 9 January 1873 he married Geraldine Margaret, daughter of Dr George Clendinning of Ballarat; they had three sons and three daughters. He died of pneumonia in Melbourne on 13 July 1904 and was buried in St Kilda cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Humphreys (ed), Men of the Time in Australia: Victorian series, 1st ed (Melb, 1878)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1857-58, 1 (D23)
  • Victoria Government Gazette, 1852, 1854, 1857, 1877
  • Australasian, 7 Dec 1889
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 July 1904
  • Goldfields Commission letters (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Weston Bate, 'Rede, Robert William (1815–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 22 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 July, 1815
Beccles, Suffolk, England


13 July, 1904 (aged 89)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death


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