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William Spain (1803–1876)

by J. Bach

This article was published:

William Spain (1803-1876), attorney, was born on 14 March 1803 at Cowes, Isle of Wight, England, the son of George Spain, master mariner and shipowner. Educated for the law, he was admitted to the King's Bench as an attorney in 1823. In May 1825 he married Mary Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Henry White, mayor of Portsmouth. He took an active interest in politics, once acting as private secretary to Lord Palmerston, by whom he appears to have been admired. Sir George Staunton and Lord John Russell also spoke well of him, the latter being responsible for his appointment, in January 1841, as commissioner to examine the land claims of the New Zealand settlers under the recently signed treaty of Waitangi. Leaving England with thirteen members of his family, Spain reached New Zealand in December after a hazardous voyage which included a mutiny and a shipwreck. For three years he carried out his duties as commissioner, but his thorough and careful methods aroused opposition from both the New Zealand Co. and some of the Maori sympathizers. The latter believed his procedures were too slow to meet the immediate difficulties arising from disputed claims.

Leaving New Zealand for Sydney he practised as a solicitor from 1845 to 1851 when he accepted the newly created position of inspector-general of police and entered the Legislative Council of New South Wales. In his endeavour to create an adequate police force, as empowered under 14 Vic. no 38 NSW, he aroused much criticism from the press and from some members of the council, who attacked him for his apparent delay in organizing the outer police districts. His determination to master the facts of a confused situation before making vital decisions again told against him; furthermore the discovery of gold in New South Wales soon after he had taken office placed an impossible burden upon his resources and created 'difficulties of a most extraordinary nature'. On the grounds that hostile public criticism had destroyed his influence over his subordinates, Spain resigned his office on 11 December 1851, although both Governor Sir Charles FitzRoy and (Sir) Edward Deas Thomson expressed their complete confidence in him. The 1862 Police Act, which established the present system, owed much to Spain and his successor Captain William Colburn Mayne. Spain then returned to private practice in Sydney. In 1856 Governor Sir William Denison appointed him to the new Legislative Council, set up under the Constitution Act, a position he held until 1858. Upon his retirement he built a family home at Waverley, which he named Palmerston after his former patron. He died on 5 April 1876.

William's eldest son, David, joined the navy and reached the rank of rear admiral after service which included a period in New Zealand during the Maori war. William Spain's descendants have continued to provide active members of the legal profession in Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 26
  • J. S. Marais, The Colonisation of New Zealand (Lond, 1927)
  • J. Miller, Early Victorian New Zealand (Lond, 1958)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Oct, 2, 20 Nov, 8, 15, 20 Dec 1851
  • New Zealand papers, 1838-46 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Spain papers (privately held).

Citation details

J. Bach, 'Spain, William (1803–1876)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 14 April 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

Life Summary [details]


14 March, 1803
Cowes, Hampshire, England


5 April, 1876 (aged 73)

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