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Sir Hercules George Robinson (1824–1897)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

Sir Hercules George Robert Robinson, 1st Baron Rosmead (1824-1897), governor, was born on 19 December 1824 at Rosmead, County Westmeath, Ireland, second son of Admiral Hercules Robinson and his wife Frances Elizabeth, née Wood. Educated at Sandhurst he joined the 87th Regiment (Royal Irish Fusiliers) as second lieutenant in 1843; he was promoted first lieutenant next year, but the enforced sale of the family estates compelled him to resign in 1846 and until 1849 he supervised relief works for victims of the Irish famine. On 24 April 1846 he married Nea Arthur Ada Rose D'Amour, fifth daughter of Arthur Annesley Rath, Viscount Valentia. In 1852 he was chief commissioner inquiring into Irish fairs and markets. In 1854 he became president of Montserrat and next year lieutenant-governor of St Christopher (St Kitts), a near-by island of the West Indies, with a dormant commission as governor-in-chief of the Leeward Islands. He was knighted in 1859 and became governor of Hong Kong; he negotiated the annexation of Kowloon and in 1863 was a member of a commission inquiring into the finances of the Straits Settlements. In 1865-72 he was governor of Ceylon and his success led to a K.C.M.G. in 1869 and, on his departure, to a discerning judgment by a local resident: astute and fond of power, a just and efficient administrator and 'an indefatigable worker'; a 'capital' writer and speaker, shy in public, 'fonder of the desk and … hard work in travelling, inspecting, and maturing schemes of improvement'. Lady Robinson was summed up as 'fond of gaiety and society, and … majestic-looking'. Gazetted as governor of New South Wales in February 1872, he reached Sydney on 3 June.

Robinson arrived within a month of (Sir) Henry Parkes's first cabinet, formed after a confused election that had followed a dissolution without supply: it was the fourth ministry since October 1868. He stated at once that he would not be a mere figure-head, and later asserted 'that the masses … instead of … resenting the outspoken sentiments of a governor on great questions, welcome them'. Aware of the deference that his office commanded in colonial society and of his power as a senior imperial officer, he quickly assessed the popular uneasiness with political instability and played a valuable role in the evolution of responsible government in New South Wales. But despite his achievements and popularity he was essentially disdainful of colonial institutions and people. Aided by his wife he projected an image of hearty sociality but it was based on an assumption of paternalism more suited to a crown colony than a semi-independent democracy.

Writing to Parkes in October 1873, Robinson observed that the premier's abolition of ad valorem duties would 'not only … supply a clearly defined principle for parties to contend over, but … by making this the cheapest place to live in … eventually result in a Confederation of which NSWales will be the centre and Sydney the metropolis'. The letter suggested both the patronizing style that he reserved for politicians and his feeling for the colony that found a popular response. His relations with the Legislative Assembly were strained by the Rossi case, which raised the constitutional issue of whether the assembly could interfere in the administration of the Volunteer Defence Forces, of which the governor was commander-in-chief. In October the House adopted the report of a select committee that recommended the dismissal of Captain F. R. L. Rossi; in a strong minute to the Executive Council Robinson denied that the parliamentarians had any right to interfere; and when Parkes tabled the papers the governor's views were criticized as an attack on the assembly's powers and privileges. The government survived a censure motion, and the governor received press and popular support.

In 1874 Robinson revealed further his propensity to antagonize parliament. In 1872 he had received petitions for the release of F. Gardiner, a bushranger who had served eight years of a thirty-two years sentence. The exercise of the prerogative of mercy in non-capital cases rested with the governor and in 1874 he approved Gardiner's release, subject to exile. Public and political uproar followed the decision and in June Robinson, in another Executive Council minute, referred to the widespread objections as 'unreasonable and unjust clamour'. Parkes's tabling of the minute precipitated another crisis and the ministry fell in November after assertions that the governor had not only slighted parliament but had also opposed the right of petition. By this time the governor had several powerful parliamentary critics, including (Sir) John Robertson, D. Buchanan and W. Forster. When Parkes lost the elections the governor refused at first to commission Robertson in 1875.

In September 1874 Robinson's stature as an imperial officer and his local prestige had increased when he negotiated the cession of the Fiji Islands from King Thakombau, which resulted in the award of G.C.M.G. in 1875. During his absence in Fiji Chief Justice Sir James Martin was aggrieved when he was not sworn in as colonial administrator. Martin had already sensed the equivocal condescension of Sir Hercules and Lady Robinson, and next year his resentment reached boiling point when the House of Lords papers on Gardiner reached Sydney; they included Robinson's claim that the chief justice had supported his release of the bushranger. Martin denied it in angry letters to the Sydney Morning Herald and Robinson replied similarly. Implicit in Martin's argument was his belief that the governor was behaving as if he were unaware that New South Wales had a system of responsible government.

Robinson's popularity remained undiminished. Balding and rotund, he had developed a flair for public speaking in which he extolled the merits of manly sport, especially cricket, the Anglo-Saxon spirit, and the advantages of New South Wales. In 1875 with some friends he owned four of the £500 shares in the Jervis Bay Property Association formed to exploit Parkes's coal-bearing land in the Illawarra. He urged his ministers on to a more rapid rate of railway building, rebuked them for slow correspondence and advised them when necessary. He was an enthusiastic race-goer in Sydney and Melbourne and collected a string of outstanding horses, including Kingsborough, which won the Australian Jockey Club Derby in 1874 and St Leger in 1875. At first he wagered heavily, but abandoned it; he became the patron of the A.J.C., the Northern Jockey Club and the Hawkesbury Racing Club, and did much to improve the tone and administration of horse-racing. In August 1878 when his daughter Nora Augusta Maud married A. K. Finlay (Harrow and Trinity, Cambridge) at St James's Church, Sydney, 'the crushing and screaming … were almost continuous'. The bride's travelling dress featured her father's racing colours.

Robinson's dispatches to the Colonial Office had always been models of concise and perceptive information. On 19 September 1878 his report on the political situation was based on a confidential minute in which he analysed the paralysis of government and parliament that had resulted from the colonial practice of voting supply in instalments; he pointed out that in twenty-one years of responsible government only two Appropriation Acts had been passed on time. His remedy was to refuse dissolutions unless supply was guaranteed. As a result after Robertson's government fell in March 1877, two more ministries were formed that year before a general election was held, and it produced J. S. Farnell's stop-gap government. Robinson decided that the only way to effect a degree of stability was to induce Parkes and Robertson to coalesce. When Farnell was defeated in December 1878 he refused a dissolution and commissioned Robertson; he knew that Sir John was unlikely to succeed in forming a cabinet, but hoped that his failure would produce conditions in which Parkes might attract sufficient of Robertson's followers to arrange a viable coalition. Events fell out as the governor had predicted and the Parkes-Robertson government proved to be the strongest between 1856 and 1894.

Robinson left New South Wales on 19 March 1879 to become governor of New Zealand. In August next year he became governor of Cape Colony and high commissioner of South Africa; on his way there he called at Sydney to a rapturous welcome and a special race-meeting. In South Africa he had to contend with complex conflict between the Boers, British and native races. His comparative success led to a privy councillorship in 1883 and an extension of his term in 1887. He left the Cape on 1 May 1889 and became a director of the London and Westminster Bank and in 1891 was created a baronet. In 1895 he was recalled to South Africa and next year negotiated in Pretoria for the release of the Jameson raiders. On leave later in the year he was made Baron Rosmead of Rosmead, Ireland, and of Tafelberg in South Africa. Back at the Cape he had the difficult task of reconciling the Boers and British but ill health caused his retirement on 21 April 1897. He died in London on 28 October survived by a son and three daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Speeches Delivered by His Excellency Sir Hercules G.R. Robinson G.C.M.G. During his Administration of the Government of New South Wales (Syd, 1879)
  • H. Parkes, Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History (Lond, 1892)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1872-73, 1, 2, 4, 335, 534, 1873-74, 3, 131, 1875, 2, 1, 3, 5
  • Town and Country Journal, 3 Feb 1872
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 July 1872, 21 July 1875
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 10 Mar 1875, 10 Oct 1876
  • Australasian, 19 Oct 1878, 6 Nov 1897
  • N. I. Graham, The Role of the Governor of New South Wales Under Responsible Government, 1861-1890 (Ph.D. thesis, Macquarie University, 1973)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Governor's papers 4/874.2, 4/1166, 4/1667 (State Records New South Wales)
  • CO 201/570, 573-74, 577, 579, 583-84, 585.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Robinson, Sir Hercules George (1824–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 29 May 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

Hercules Robinson, n.d.

Hercules Robinson, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 39910

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • first Baron Rosmead
  • Rosmead, first Baron

19 December, 1824
Rosmead, Westmeath, Ireland


28 October, 1897 (aged 72)
London, Middlesex, England

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