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Sir Edward Deas Thomson (1800–1879)

by M. E. Osborne

This article was published:

Edward Deas Thomson (1800-1879), by Freeman Studio

Edward Deas Thomson (1800-1879), by Freeman Studio

State Library of New South Wales, ON 6/25x30/Box 24

Sir Edward Deas Thomson (1800-1879), public servant and parliamentarian, was born on 1 June 1800 in Edinburgh, the youngest son of Sir John Deas Thomson, sometime accountant-general of the navy, and his wife Rebecca, the daughter of John Freer of South Carolina. He was educated at Edinburgh High School and at Harrow, and for two years at a college at Caen, Normandy, where he gained a facility in French which he kept throughout his life. Thomson returned to London to become a clerk in the firm of Inglis, Forbes & Co. He assisted his father in the Navy Office in a variety of ways, including the introduction of double entry book-keeping. He also attended lectures on political economy by the Scottish writer, J. R. McCulloch, whose ideas on free trade were important in forming Thomson's attitude to the question.

Late in 1826 Thomson went to the United States to attend to business arising out of his mother's death in South Carolina. He travelled widely in the United States and Canada and did not return to England until the autumn of 1827. At his father's request he kept a detailed journal on matters concerning the United States navy and army, as well as on affairs of more general interest. His detailed and perceptive comments were circulated by his father among influential acquaintances in London, including Huskisson, with a view to advancing Thomson's career. An attempt to have him appointed British consul in New York failed, but later he was appointed registrar of the Orphan Chambers in Demerara, West Indies, at a salary of £900. In May 1828 his appointment was altered to clerk of the council in New South Wales, largely through the patronage of Huskisson who thought the condition of New South Wales demanded that the post be filled by someone from England. On 24 January 1829 Thomson took up his appointment in New South Wales as clerk to the Executive and Legislative Councils at £600 a year. Thomson soon won Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling's approval by his competence and industry. He had not expected the dual appointment and, finding the duties arduous, he sought relief through an increased salary which would permit him to employ a clerk. His own work did not flag and it acquainted him with many activities of the colony. He was also a member of several boards concerned with the control of convicts and found particular satisfaction on the Convict Assignment Board, where he suggested the chief regulations introduced in 1835 for the assignment of male convicts.

Thomson established harmonious relations also with Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke, whom he admired as an administrator and as a man. The link became closer when he married Bourke's second daughter, Anne Maria, on 18 September 1833. Some colonists thought this family association prejudiced Thomson's right to promotion as colonial secretary in place of Alexander McLeay as Bourke recommended. Although the critics did not attack Thomson's capacity Bourke hesitated before he threw his support behind him officially, as well as unofficially through connexions in England. Despite McLeay's reluctance to vacate his post Thomson was appointed colonial secretary of New South Wales and registrar of the records on 2 January 1837. His new position carried with it membership of the Executive and Legislative Councils. Whatever the propriety of Bourke's relations with McLeay, there can be no doubt that Thomson was the logical choice for the office both for experience and ability. As colonial secretary he became the governor's chief adviser, the second executive officer of the administration, and the channel through which all the governor's correspondence flowed.

Under Governor Sir George Gipps Thomson was faced from 1843 with the particularly difficult task of representing an unpopular government in the part-elected Legislative Council. At first he had doubts that he could work happily with Gipps. He was privately critical of the governor's manner and capacity, and uncertain of his role as the chief civil officer of the government if policy and his principles should clash. He accepted Bourke's advice and in 1844 testified to the select committee on general grievances that, although the colonial secretary had a moral responsibility to the legislature, he also had a legal responsibility to the governor whose instructions he was bound to carry out. However, in the Executive Council he did not hesitate to express a contrary opinion whenever the majority view differed from his own. His conservative cast of mind was revealed in other evidence before the same committee when he asserted that responsible government in the colonies was incompatible with the imperial connexion.

Thomson's early doubts about Gipps did not prevent him from serving the governor loyally, and they soon became close friends. Thomson was equally respected by his opponents and supporters in the council, where in stormy debates over land and transportation he ably argued the government's case. He also strove to enforce the highest standards in the public service, giving particular attention to the newly introduced statistical returns. His wife's private letters often mentioned his long hours at his office and in council in these troubled years. By the end of Gipps's term in 1846 Thomson had clearly established himself as an efficient administrator, forceful on the government's behalf and, although conservative, fair-minded in considering all points of view. By this time he had also shown special interest in intercolonial trade, education and steam communication with England.

When Governor Sir Charles FitzRoy arrived he showed himself ready to lean on the advice and experience of his chief civil officer, and soon commended Thomson's zeal. During FitzRoy's governorship Thomson continued to strive for high administrative standards. He had little sympathy for inefficiency and frequently received too little support from other senior public servants such as Campbell Riddell and William Lithgow. Further afield he saw the problems of intercolonial relations and recognized the dangers inherent in the nascent protectionist attitudes of some colonies. Thus he was probably responsible for FitzRoy's recommendation in September 1846 that the British government should appoint a 'superior Functionary' in Australia with a right to review and veto colonial legislation. Thomson renewed his support for some central intercolonial authority when in May 1848 he presented to the Legislative Council Earl Grey's proposals for a federal union. Although bound to support Grey's views Thomson himself was clearly convinced that some such body was necessary.

Feeling the strain imposed on his health by his duties and aware that Port Phillip would soon become a separate colony, Thomson asked his father-in-law to pursue the possibility of an appointment there as governor. However, no immediate prospect of the position emerged and with some concern for the future of his growing family, Thomson decided to stay in New South Wales. He thus became closely associated with the two most exciting events of the 1850s: the movement for responsible government and the gold discoveries. At the same time he continued firmly to advocate free trade among the Australian colonies and the establishment of a university in New South Wales. In 1849 he was a member of Charles Wentworth's select committee on Sydney University, and after its report won parliamentary approval he was appointed one of the sixteen original members of the university senate in December 1850, and remained a member until his death.

In December 1851 Thomson introduced a bill which he claimed would be beneficial to New South Wales and yet not inhibit intercolonial trade. The bill was modelled closely on views expressed by Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison of Van Diemen's Land, with whom Thomson maintained a close personal correspondence. By proposing reduced duties on some goods, a free list of commodities most commonly exchanged between the colonies, and a 5 per cent ad valorem tariff on all other merchandise he claimed to be serving the interests of free trade. The bill was administratively complex and its provisions were attacked in council by John Lamb, a Sydney merchant and president of the Chamber of Commerce, who sought even greater freedom of trade. Under this criticism Thomson did not press his bill, but next year he welcomed the advice of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce, which had consulted its Melbourne counterpart, since he was anxious to see as little variation as possible in tariffs between the colonies. His new bill, which proposed the abolition of ad valorem tariffs and the retention of duties only on such items as wine, spirits and tobacco, became law in August 1852. It was later known as the Deas Thomson tariff, despite his acknowledgment of help from others.

The gold rush in 1851 strained the capabilities of Thomson and his assistants in the public service. He and the governor were the only civil members at the first five meetings of the Executive Council which discussed the discoveries before regulations to control the diggers were framed in May. He visited the major diggings in August and September. Although ultra-conservatives like James Macarthur wanted to discourage workers from going to the diggings, Thomson advocated no arbitrary official action, such as high licence fees, that might regulate the way in which men chose to work. He was opposed to such tactics on principle and doubted their efficacy in practice. More clearly than others he recognized the immense effect which gold would have on the colony's future. The additional work brought by the discovery of gold and the spread of population impelled him to apply in June 1851 for a salary increase of £500. FitzRoy supported him heartily and the Colonial Office recommended it to the New South Wales Legislative Council. This gave the council an opportunity to record its admiration of Thomson's work by voting the increase and making it retrospective to 1846. Praise for Thomson was unanimous in the council but did not mean that he was without detractors. He was criticized by John Dunmore Lang and was personally disliked by Sir Thomas Mitchell who resented taking orders from an official sometime his junior.

In a colony moving towards responsible government Thomson's political outlook invited attack whatever the respect for his character. His conservative view was reaffirmed in his bill for the colony's electoral divisions in 1851. He had discussed the general principles of this bill with FitzRoy but the details were his own work. In the Legislative Council Thomson defended the principle that representation should be based not only on population but also on property, supporting his argument by reference to the practice of the imperial parliament and to the fact that two-thirds of the colony's exports came from the pastoral districts. To strengthen his case he published Corrected Report of the Speeches of the Honourable Edward Deas Thomson … in the First Session of 1851. In 1852-53 Thomson played an important part in the two committees on the new Constitution for New South Wales. Although W. C. Wentworth was largely responsible for the final report in 1853, Thomson supported it in the Legislative Council, where he spoke without the governor's control; particularly approving the conservative nature of the upper House but doubting the practicability of the proposed general assembly to settle intercolonial matters. With Wentworth, he was chosen by the Legislative Council to watch over the progress of the Constitution bill in the British parliament. Before his selection for this task he had been granted leave to travel to England to restore his health, which continued to be affected by the heavy strain of his duties. Before his departure a committee under the chairmanship of Sir Charles Nicholson presented him with a testimonial of more than £2000; half of it was invested in a piece of plate and the balance, at Thomson's request, was given to the University of Sydney to found a Deas Thomson scholarship for study in natural sciences.

In England ill health prevented Thomson from taking as active a part as Wentworth in watching over the Constitution bill. He did, however, combine with Wentworth to produce a draft on how the bill should be introduced by Lord John Russell. He deeply regretted that these suggestions were not all adopted and that the British parliament rejected the principle that the right of imperial interference should apply only when imperial interests were involved. At the Colonial Office he discussed many questions with Sir William Molesworth, on whose recommendation he was appointed C.B. in February 1856.

Thomson returned to Sydney in 1856 and reassumed office as colonial secretary on 14 January. A week later Governor Denison asked him to form the first ministry under responsible government. Although Thomson's long association with the colony's government merited that honour, the general opinion seems to have been against him because of his connexion with the old order. This was revealed when he failed to gain sufficient support from those he asked to join him. An attempt by Stuart Donaldson to form a ministry failed too, and Denison decided to await the results of the first elections before trying again. Thomson declined an invitation by some electors from West Camden to stand for the Legislative Assembly, and after the elections Denison again asked him to form the first ministry assuming that he would occupy a seat in the Legislative Council. Thomson accepted when he found the results of the elections more conservative than he had expected but again failed to gain sufficient support; of the four men he approached, John Hubert Plunkett, Sir William Manning, Donaldson and Henry Parker, only Manning agreed to join him. Hurt by these refusals, he rejected an invitation to a place in Donaldson's ministry, the first under responsible government. In April 1856 he had resigned from the Executive Council, but at the governor's request remained as a caretaker colonial secretary until the new ministry was sworn. In May he accepted nomination to the Legislative Council, but refused to accept nomination as its president since he believed that office was too political. His services as colonial secretary were officially terminated on 6 June 1856, and in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution Act he was granted a pension of £2000. So ended his intimate connexion with the government of New South Wales although he remained a member of the Legislative Council until his death.

Immediately after the introduction of responsible government Thomson and others were asked to make suggestions for the administration of government departments. Thomson's recommendations, although not followed completely, were influential in determining the responsibilities and administrative arrangements of the ministers and their departments; one important suggestion, not accepted, was that there should be a minister of Public Instruction with general responsibility for all educational institutions in the colony, a proposal that revealed Thomson's anxiety for the advancement of education and for the firm control of institutions receiving government finance but administering themselves.

Although briefly entertaining the idea of accepting nomination as a candidate for the city of Sydney to the Legislative Assembly in August 1856, Thomson declined on the grounds of ill health. He did, however, agree to join the Parker ministry in October, and was then appointed vice-president of the Executive Council. As representative of the ministry in the Legislative Council, he called in August 1857 for a select committee to consider the expediency of establishing a federal legislature. A few months earlier he had proposed that seven administrative areas, including tariffs, land and railways, were susceptible to federal control; now he pointed to the United States senate as a possible model. As accepted by the council, the committee's report recommended the establishment of 'a Federal Assembly with the power to discuss and determine on all questions of an intercolonial character arising out of the Australian colonies generally'. When the Parker ministry fell in September 1857 the matter lapsed, but throughout his long membership of the Upper House Thomson never abandoned his advocacy of some federal organization and for the maintenance of free trade.

In the crisis over the Robertson land bills he joined those members of the Legislative Council who resigned rather than remain in a council swamped with Robertson's supporters. Although he strenuously opposed the nomination of members under any precondition, he agreed that the land bills should not be obstructed and accepted nomination to the council for life. However, the swamping tactics and other experiences gradually convinced Thomson that the council would be better constituted by election under a conservative franchise than by nomination.

Freed from public office Thomson was able to pursue his other interests. Foremost among these was the University of Sydney. He was elected vice-chancellor in 1863 and chancellor in 1865, holding office until forced to retire through ill health in 1878. He maintained that university education should be broad in scope, with a foundation of classical knowledge augmented by training in practical scientific subjects. He was always interested in natural science, had become a fellow of the Linnean Society in London in 1828 and sent specimens to England from time to time. As chancellor he probably influenced William John Macleay, who had married his daughter Susan, to give the Macleays' natural history collection to the University of Sydney in December 1873. Particularly in the early years of his chancellorship Thomson faced situations in which the university was poorly financed and often the target of public criticism. At such times his prestige and administrative experience were of great service to the young institution.

The range of Thomson's interests is indicated by the number of institutions of which he was a leading member. At various times he was president of the Sydney Infirmary, the Benevolent Society, the Society for Destitute Children, the Australian Jockey Club, and the Australian Club. In 1866 Thomson was asked by Governor Sir John Young and the colonial secretary, Henry Parkes, to act as commissioner for the New Zealand government to assist in reorganizing its civil service and to advise on methods of taxation. He declined this request probably because of his health, but accepted the less arduous appointment as a member of the commission that collected and classified specimens for the Paris International Exhibition in 1867. In 1874 his long record of public service was recognized when he was appointed K.C.M.G., an honour which many in the colony felt had been too long delayed. He died in Sydney on 16 July 1879, survived by his widow, two sons and five daughters. He was buried at St Jude's Church of England, Randwick, where he had worshipped for many years. His home, Barham, in Forbes Street, Darlinghurst, in which he lived for most of his colonial life, became part of the Sydney Church of England Girls' Grammar School.

A portrait by Capalti and a marble bust by Fantacchiotti are in the Great Hall of the University of Sydney; another portrait, thought also to be by Capalti, is in the Mitchell Library.

Thomson's career in the public service and in parliament spanned many changes in the colony and his influence was strong through continuity alone. As colonial secretary, particularly under FitzRoy, his detailed knowledge of local conditions and his readiness to assume responsibility gave him great power, although contemporaries may have exaggerated his share in such legislation as the tariff amendments in 1852. Probably his greatest contribution was not in his initiation of particular measures but in his continuing concern for efficient administration. This belief enabled him to face and overcome the difficulties posed by the discovery of gold and by the problems of a developing colony. He was important as one of the early proponents of Australian Federation, although his arguments were prompted more by the fears of an administrator than by any great belief in a national identity. However conservative in his political beliefs, he also had a truly liberal reluctance for unnecessary government interference in an individual's affairs. His great probity and tact carried more than one governor through stormy interludes. In 1851 he summarized his aims in simple words, 'Throughout the long career I have pursued in the public service of this colony it has ever been my study to promote the public welfare; to deal with every public measure without favour or affection to any man; to conduct myself alike to all of whatever party, creed or denomination; to do justice to the poor man as well as to the rich'.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 14-26
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 1856, 17 July 1879
  • J. A. La Nauze, ‘Merchants in Action: The Australian Tariffs of 1852’, Economic Record, vol 31, 1955, pp 77-89
  • Bourke papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Deas Thomson papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

M. E. Osborne, 'Thomson, Sir Edward Deas (1800–1879)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 16 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

Edward Deas Thomson (1800-1879), by Freeman Studio

Edward Deas Thomson (1800-1879), by Freeman Studio

State Library of New South Wales, ON 6/25x30/Box 24

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Deas Thomson, Edward

1 June, 1800
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


16 July, 1879 (aged 79)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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