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Romilly, Hugh Hastings (1856–1892)

by Robert Langdon

This article was published:

Hugh Hastings Romilly (1856-1892), administrator, author and explorer, was born on 15 March 1856 in London, son of Colonel Frederick Romilly and his wife Elizabeth Amelia Jane, née Elliot, daughter of the earl of Minto. Educated at a Winchester private school and Repton College, he entered Christ Church, Oxford, in 1874 but left without taking a degree to join Melly & Co. of Liverpool.

Prompted by Lady Gordon, in 1879 he joined the staff of Sir Arthur Gordon, governor of Fiji and high commissioner for the Western Pacific. A voyage to Tonga and Rotuma provided material for his first book, A True Story of the Western Pacific (London, 1882). He later served in Fiji as a magistrate and private secretary to Gordon. Following Britain's decision to annex Rotuma, Romilly went there as deputy commissioner in September 1880. In March 1881 he began 'an ambulatory mission of inspection of British beachcombers' in New Britain, New Ireland and New Guinea but soon returned to England dangerously ill.

On a second cruise in May 1883 one of his duties was to explain what the islanders could expect if they went to work in Queensland. In October 1884 Romilly went to Port Moresby in H.M.S. Harrier to help to establish a British protectorate in New Guinea. He mistakenly hoisted the flag prematurely and the ceremony was later repeated by Commodore Erskine. Romilly was administrator until Sir Peter Scratchley arrived in August 1885 and again for three months after he died in December. On sick leave Romilly supervised the New Guinea exhibits at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London and published his second book The Western Pacific and New Guinea … (London, 1886). In July 1887 Romilly, now C.M.G., returned to New Guinea as deputy to John Douglas, bitterly disappointed at having been passed over for the top post. With naval help he patrolled the Papuan coast in the yacht Hygeia investigating and punishing murderers and wrote From My Verandah in New Guinea … (London, 1889).

After Sir William Macgregor proclaimed the colony of British New Guinea in September 1888 Romilly became British consul for the New Hebrides, but in January 1890 the office was abolished and he returned to England. Offered no further employment, he resigned from the Colonial Office to lead a prospecting expedition to Mashonaland, Africa. On contracting fever, he returned to London where he died unmarried on 27 July 1892. Romilly's Letters from the Western Pacific and Mashonaland, written between 1878 and 1891, were published by his brother Samuel in 1893. In an introduction Lord Stanmore (Sir Arthur Gordon) described Romilly as an 'attractive personality' with a quick intelligence, great physical strength, an easy temper and the ability both to obey and command.

Select Bibliography

  • D. A. Scarr, Fragments of Empire (Canberra, 1967)
  • British New Guinea, Annual Report, 1884-89
  • Town and Country Journal, 6 Aug 1892.

Citation details

Robert Langdon, 'Romilly, Hugh Hastings (1856–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 15 August 2022.

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

View the front pages for Volume 6

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