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William Sorell (1775–1848)

by John Reynolds

This article was published:

William Sorell (1775-1848), by unknown artist

William Sorell (1775-1848), by unknown artist

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H22229

William Sorell (1775-1848), soldier and lieutenant-governor, was born probably in the West Indies, the son of Major-General William Alexander Sorell and his wife Jane. His official correspondence shows both a cultivated mind and a competence in writing. As the son of a senior officer and a suitable candidate for a commission in keeping with the common practice of the times, he joined the army and in August 1790 was appointed an ensign in the 31st Regiment. Promoted lieutenant in 1793, he fought in the West Indies, where he was severely wounded. In 1795 he was promoted captain and acted as aide-de-camp to Lieutenant-General Sir James Pulteney. He took part in the expedition to North Holland in 1799 and next year was present at minor attacks on Spanish naval ports. When war against Napoleon was renewed Sorell served at home. Promoted major in 1804, he took part in the special training of Sir John Moore's Light Brigade. In 1807 he went to the Cape of Good Hope with the rank of lieutenant-colonel and was deputy adjutant general of the British forces there until 1811.

He married Louisa Matilda, daughter of Lieutenant-General Cox, and had seven children, but in 1807 arranged a separation from her. While at the Cape he commenced a liaison with the wife of Lieutenant Kent, who was stationed there, at the same time as he earned a well-deserved professional reputation as a very able administrator amid the confusion that followed the British capture of the colony from the Dutch. After his return to England he was promoted major in the 46th Regiment in 1812 but next year resigned from military service.

On 3 April 1816 Sorell was appointed to replace Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Davey as lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen's Land in the hope that he would be able to restore order and bring direction and organization into the government of that colony. He sailed in the transport Sir William Bensley and reached Sydney on 10 March 1817. During a brief stay there Sorell impressed Governor Lachlan Macquarie before going on to Hobart Town.

On 9 April he assumed office and at once proceeded to try to reform the abuses prevalent on the Derwent. He found much disorder in the administration, government activities were not co-ordinated and peculation was common. The convicts were under little control; bushranging had almost reached the proportions of open armed revolt against authority. Sorell knew that his powers were severely limited and his authority in most matters was confined to carrying out instructions received from Macquarie; he was not allowed to allocate land to settlers or to employ government funds or prison labour without sanction and he was required to submit details of public expenditure to Sydney. Colonel Gilbert Cimitiere, the commandant at Port Dalrymple, shared with him the power to grant prisoners tickets-of-leave and, although Sorell was lieutenant-governor and Cimitiere had to report and make returns to Hobart, the latter also acted under direct instructions from Macquarie. By 1820 Cimitiere had so obstinately resisted Sorell's orders that there was an open quarrel between the two. When Commissioner John Thomas Bigge investigated charges of corruption against Cimitiere, he suggested that the controlling power of the lieutenant-governor in Hobart should be strengthened.

Sorell firmly met the challenge of Michael Howe, the leader of the bushrangers and self-styled 'Governor of the Woods'. Well planned and executed military operations quickly ended Howe's career and sent most of his followers to the gallows. The stern warning was not lost on those runaway convicts who sought to emulate Howe. The 'Old Man', as Sorell was known, probably on account of his white hair, was rightly feared as nobody in the colony before him. Sorell's 'campaign' did not end when his captives swung on the public gallows as a warning to others. He knew that large-scale bushranging was only made possible by help given by outwardly law-abiding free colonists, and told Macquarie that he was doing his utmost to detect Howe's accomplices and abettors. In less than eighteen months after taking office Sorell had arrested all the known sympathizers of the bushrangers and those who assisted them.

With law and order restored, Sorell was able to carry out the reforms and plans he had formed for the development of the colony. Organizing a proper personal staff and successfully employing his considerable diplomatic skill, he secured the essential co-operation of the newly appointed Deputy Judge Advocate Edward Abbott, the senior chaplain and the commanding officer of the troops. The duties of each public officer were clearly defined and a proper system of accounts, records and correspondence installed, so that Sorell can be regarded as the founder of sound administrative systems in the colony.

From 1817 onwards free colonists began to arrive in increasing numbers. Sorell personally carried out investigations of land which seemed suitable for grants. His journeys into the unknown country in the upper Derwent valley and along the Clyde River give him a place in the history of the island's inland exploration. Although there are no records of his having been engaged in farming in England, he showed a very practical concern in expanding production from the land. All through his letters and dispatches are references to the care of livestock, the proper selection of seed for grain crops and their proper harvesting and storage. A community which ten years earlier had faced famine became a producer of surplus crops which were exported to Sydney and even abroad. Sorell recognized the value of the Midland plains for pastoral production. With Macquarie's co-operation he was able to arrange for the importation of several hundred merino sheep from the famous Camden flock, and these laid the foundations of the Tasmanian fine-wool industry. Commerce increased as a result of stable conditions and land development, but the chaotic condition of the currency was a source of embarrassment and loss to all concerned with trade. Sorell could not withdraw the debased coins and promissory notes in circulation, or abolish the custom of the use of rum for exchange, but 'he constantly endeavoured to keep all official values expressed in sterling, despite the fact that the Spanish dollar was the commonest coin', and he made an important contribution to commerce by taking steps, with the aid of leading merchants, to establish a bank, the Bank of Van Diemen's Land.

Recognizing that the British government regarded the colony principally as a community for the reception, punishment and wherever possible the reclamation of prisoners, Sorell was at pains to organize governmental agencies for these purposes. Over the convicts he established a 'system of perpetual reference and control', through regular musters, the strict issue of passes and a full series of registers. He built convict barracks in Hobart which were first occupied in 1822. He tried to assign prisoners only to reputable employers and to guard against the lax granting of tickets-of-leave by restricting them to convicts who gave evidence of good behaviour, apart from a few with special skills. For reconvicted prisoners he established the penal settlement on Sarah Island in the then remote Macquarie Harbour. Later generations, with small knowledge of the conditions of the times and the lack of humanity in his generation's attitude to crime and punishment, have severely criticized Sorell for the conditions there. However, he had no funds or authority to establish a proper penal settlement or to build costly prisons, and he had to deal with many desperate men whom other gaolers had gladly sent to Tasmania.

Sorell's policies were so successful that the colony's conditions and prospects became well known and favourably regarded in Britain. The ready availability of land suitable for sheep-breeding and wool-growing and of cheap assigned labour attracted a considerable number of former army and navy officers who brought their families, household goods, agricultural implements and in many cases substantial capital with them. Sorell was also extremely mindful of his social responsibilities. The plight of the Aboriginals who were losing their hunting grounds and their fisheries troubled him and he did what he could to prevent their exploitation by the settlers. He took firm steps to prevent the enslavement of native children. The plight of abandoned white orphans, an early problem in the colony, attracted his notice; before leaving office he took steps to establish an institution for their care, although many years were to pass before this humane intention was carried out. Such was the satisfaction with Sorell's government that in 1821 the free settlers took the most unusual step in early Australian affairs of presenting him with plate valued at 500 guineas.

Unfortunately Sorell's private affairs never ceased to intrude upon his public duties. In July 1817, a few months after assuming office in Van Diemen's Land, he had to pay £3000 damages to Lieutenant Kent for criminal conversation with Kent's wife. Next year Bathurst admonished him for leaving his own wife and family of seven young children in England without support. Sorell explained that this was partly due to his wife's refusal to agree to reasonable proposals for the children's education, but in January 1819 he instructed that an allowance of £200 a year be paid to her 'out of the Moiety of my salary issued in England'. He did not deny his responsibility but pleaded that 'pressure of affairs alone prevented that claim being put upon a footing beyond contingency at an earlier period'.

Meanwhile Mrs Kent, who bore Sorell several children, went to Tasmania and took up residence at Government House. This situation did not long escape the attention of Anthony Fenn Kemp, who had played an unworthy part in the deposition of Governor William Bligh and was living as a farmer and merchant in Tasmania. When Kemp found Sorell would not defer to his unreasonable demands he commenced a vindictive campaign against him. He complained of Sorell 'now living in open Adultery with Mrs Kent, publicly parading about in the Government carriage, and introducing her … as Mrs Sorell … the Lieutenant Governor living in a public state of concubinage to the evil example of the Rising Generation'. Macquarie seems quite properly to have ignored Kemp's charge, but Bathurst asked Commissioner Bigge to investigate it. Bigge examined Kemp in Hobart. He stated that Kemp's charge 'is founded in Truth' but added the opinion of Deputy Judge Advocate Abbott, who did 'not admit that it has produced any restraint upon the limited circle of their society'; his examination of Major Thomas Bell, the commanding officer in the colony, shows that Kemp's attacks had been made only after he had been convicted by a bench of magistrates for refusing to make police returns of persons in his employ. Bigge clearly had little patience with Kemp and paid Sorell the unusual tribute of telling Bathurst how impressed he had been by Sorell's 'great and distinguished merit'. Bigge felt that in the circumstances he could not visit Government House socially, but Sorell never allowed this 'to have the slightest effect upon our private or public intercourse'. After Bigge's inquiry Sorell wrote directly to Bathurst about 'an Accuser who has been incessantly employed in traducing my acts and my administration, and The Judges, The Magistracy and public Functionaries of The Settlement'. He referred to Kemp's character in New South Wales and his arrest of Governor Bligh and said that as Kemp proposed as a magistrate to call a public meeting of free settlers to discuss Sorell's acts, he suspended him. 'With regard to myself', concluded Sorell, 'I am conscious that if … I can lay claim to unimpeachable Conduct in the discharge of my publick duty, and to guarded and prudent Demeanour, I have yet to interest, Your Lordship's indulgent Consideration, because I did in one instance incur the Censure of The World'.

Bigge also reported that the lieutenant-governor, who received only £800 a year, was grossly underpaid, and in 1823 his salary was raised to £1500. This was a short-lived benefit to Sorell, for in August Bathurst wrote that he had decided to recall him. 'In communicating to you the painful necessity, under which I have found myself placed, of appointing a Successor to you in Van Diemen's Land, I shall not feel it necessary to detail the reasons, which you will know, have compelled me to a measure which, on other accounts, I should have wished to avoid', he said, thus evading the cause of what amounted to dismissal. When this became known unofficially in the colony a representative meeting of protest was held at Hobart. A memorial was prepared and signed by all the free settlers of standing, including his erstwhile accuser, Kemp. It did not reach London in time to be considered by the secretary of state, but it is unlikely that it would have altered the government's decision. However, Under-Secretary Horton wrote to assure Sorell 'that his Lordship fully appreciates the zeal and ability with which you administered the Government of Van Diemen's Land and that it will afford his Lordship much satisfaction whenever circumstances may permit of his availing himself of your further Services', and the British government authorized the payment to him of £500 out of colonial revenue so long as he remained unemployed in any public capacity.

Sorell's term of office ended on 14 May 1824. Whilst waiting to leave the colony he wrote for his successor, Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur, a lengthy, well-balanced, lucid and valuable report on the state of Van Diemen's Land. When he reached England he was well received at the Colonial Office, a fact which might be thought to raise the question why he was relieved of his post; but Bathurst clearly distinguished between Sorell's administrative ability and the effect the example of his private life would have on colonial society. Sorell was not employed again as an administrator and died at Marylebone, London, on 4 June 1848. His small estate was left to his widow. His son William remained in Tasmania, where his descendants became prominent.

No evidence has yet been produced to refute the contemporary judgments that Sorell was a wise and unusually capable civil and military administrator. To his task of restoring order and encouraging progress in settled social conditions he allied an unshakeable firmness with skill, tact and patience. Contemporaries recorded his 'personal charm' and 'friendly manner' which made official relations easy between governor and governed. No Tasmanian governor has received the public marks of esteem and affection shown to Sorell. There was a long-lived legend, perhaps based on fact, that Sorell used to spend some of his day standing at the Government House gate, Macquarie Street, Hobart, talking to passers-by and listening to their views and petitions; however, it must be remembered that his popularity was perhaps enhanced in retrospect on account of the widespread dislike of his successor.

His character was complex. In official dealings he was just and honourable, and unlike many of his gubernatorial contemporaries he made no attempt to avail himself of legal opportunities to add to his private fortune. He was negligent in his family obligations, and his failure to recognize the social conventions was by deliberate choice. For this he was apparently prepared to pay. He damaged the official career to which he was certainly dedicated, but the majority of the influential free Tasmanian colonists of his period seemed to have overlooked unconventional conduct or impropriety and saw Sorell as a wise, fatherly ruler.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 9-11, 13, series 3, vols 2-6, series 4, vol 1
  • R. W. Giblin, The Early History of Tasmania, vol 2 (Melb, 1939)
  • R. M. H. Garvie, ‘The Journal of William Sorell’, Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), 9 (1961).

Citation details

John Reynolds, 'Sorell, William (1775–1848)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 13 July 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

William Sorell (1775-1848), by unknown artist

William Sorell (1775-1848), by unknown artist

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H22229

Life Summary [details]




4 June, 1848 (aged ~ 73)
Marylebone, London, England

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