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Kenneth Snodgrass (1784–1853)

by E. J. Lea-Scarlett

This article was published:

Kenneth Snodgrass, n.d.

Kenneth Snodgrass, n.d.

State Library of Victoria, 54219093

Kenneth Snodgrass (1784-1853), soldier and administrator, was born in Paisley, Scotland, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He became ensign in the 90th Regiment in 1802 and lieutenant in the 52nd in August 1804. In 1806 he accompanied the regiment to Sicily and two years later to Sweden. He was promoted captain on 20 October 1808 and from 1809 to 1814 fought in the Peninsular war, entering the Portuguese army in which he was appointed a major in November 1812. He commanded a corps of 400 grenadiers at the battle of Vittoria.

At the siege of San Sebastian he distinguished himself on 30 August 1813 by fording the River Urumea at night and eluding the French sentries in order to reconnoitre the scene of the next day's successful assault. In the course of storming the convent redoubt and outworks of the fortress he was himself wounded and two-thirds of his 'forlorn hope' were killed within fifteen minutes. He was again wounded during the battle of the Nive on 11 December 1813, and suffered a severe head wound in the battle of Orthes in February 1814. He received decorations for his part in five major actions and was appointed C.B. in 1815. On 21 June 1817 he was promoted lieutenant-colonel; he remained in the Portuguese army until 1822.

When an army medical board, considering his old head wound, ruled him unfit for service in the East or West Indies, which was tantamount to retiring him from active duties, he decided to accept appointment as major of brigade in Sydney, in the hope of settling in Australia. With his wife and six children he reached Sydney in December 1828.

On 1 January 1829 he was appointed commandant of the mounted police and placed in charge of the Ordnance Department. He applied for a land grant and an allotment in Sydney, but both applications were rejected as regulations forbade grants to serving military officers, and from this time on he complained increasingly, although governors continued to praise his devotion to duty. He pointed out that he had come to New South Wales fully expecting to be able to settle his family comfortably and had performed extra duties without payment. The refusal of his requests was the harder to accept as civil officers were being granted town allotments while he had been forced to devote one-eighth of his salary to the rent of an unsuitable house.

Although he gave up command of the mounted police in October 1830, he continued to occupy unpaid offices as a member of the Executive Council from July 1832 and of the Legislative Council from November 1833. With the departure of Colonel (Sir) George Arthur from Van Diemen's Land he was selected to be lieutenant-governor until the arrival of Sir John Franklin, from 28 October 1836 to 5 January 1837. He was acting governor of New South Wales from 5 December 1837 to 23 February 1838, between the departure of Governor Sir Richard Bourke and the arrival of Governor Sir George Gipps.

In Van Diemen's Land he had successfully pursued his professed desire 'to continue the state vehicle in its due and regular motion, free from upsets on one side or the other'. In Sydney, however, he was condemned by John Dunmore Lang when he withdrew the salaries of six Presbyterian ministers who supported Lang's establishment of a synod free from the Church of Scotland. The payment of stipends depended on a certificate from the moderator and this had not been granted, but Lang saw in the act a proof of previous 'obtuseness of moral feeling'. Adverting to the fact that the acting governor had employed as tutor a convict transported for attempted murder, Lang concluded that it was an outrage upon the Presbyterian community, to entrust their interests to a man 'who had spontaneously delivered over his own children to the guardianship of an assassin'. Gipps, on arrival, found that Snodgrass had been drawing the full salary allowed to the governor and it was then realized that the same had occurred in Hobart Town a year earlier. The Colonial Office ruled that in both cases he was entitled to only half the salary, but Snodgrass refused to repay anything, claiming instead that he should be paid for the earlier duties which he had performed for nothing. After more than two years the controversy was settled only by the grant of £755 for the extra duties, the money being retained by the government in satisfaction of its own claims.

In 1839 Snodgrass sold his commission and retired to his estate, Eagleton, near Raymond Terrace. There he soon became involved in a dispute with his neighbour, James King of Irrawang, over the breaking of a boundary fence which King had erected. When Snodgrass finally wrote a hot letter, offering to 'give the usual explanation', he was charged with attempting to provoke a duel and fined £100 in the Supreme Court in July 1842. The fine was remitted by Gipps in consideration of his important services and honourable career. A series of disputes between the neighbours continued. At one stage, King claimed, Snodgrass instituted an attempt to open an unfenced public road through Irrawang, and in 1851 he sought to use a proposed National school as a further means of gaining a right-of-way through King's property.

Meanwhile Snodgrass had been elected to the Legislative Council in 1848 as representative for the Counties of Gloucester, Macquarie and Stanley, an area stretching from Raymond Terrace to Brisbane. His policy, following the middle course of his Tasmanian administration, was so framed that it was impossible to define what he supported. In the council he played no very active part and resigned in 1850.

By his wife Janet, née Wright (1790-1845), whom he had married in Scotland in May 1814, he had a large family which included Peter, who became a member of the Victorian Legislative Council, and John, an officer in the 96th Regiment. Snodgrass died at Raymond Terrace on 14 October 1853.

Snodgrass was at his best as a soldier, and achieved little outside active service. He had the affection of his military colleagues: to them his gallantry and devotion made him 'a friend of sterling merit, never mentioned by those who knew him but with united esteem and respect'. To civilians he could show contempt and intransigence, which were partly attributable to the head wound which had incapacitated him. James King's opinion of him was that military men should hold no civil appointment and were 'utterly dangerous' when they added 'cunning and intrigue to their other qualities'.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 14-21, 24
  • Maitland Mercury, 7, Sept 1850
  • Examiner (Launceston), 3 Dec 1853
  • Supreme Court records (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

E. J. Lea-Scarlett, 'Snodgrass, Kenneth (1784–1853)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Kenneth Snodgrass, n.d.

Kenneth Snodgrass, n.d.

State Library of Victoria, 54219093

Life Summary [details]


5 November, 1784
Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland


14 October, 1853 (aged 68)
Raymond Terrace, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

stomach complaint

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.