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Robert Torrens (1780–1864)

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Robert Torrens (1780-1864), officer of marines, political economist and colonization commissioner, was born in Ireland, son of Robert Torrens of Harveyhill, County Londonderry, and his wife Elizabeth, née Bristow, daughter of a clergyman. On 1 February 1796 he joined the marines as a second lieutenant and served in the Channel Fleet and ocean convoys. He was promoted first lieutenant in 1798 and captain in 1806. In August 1810 he was given command of the marine garrison on Anholt Island in the Kattegat; next March he was wounded in 'the romantic defence' of the island and promoted brevet-major. In 1813 he was attached to the Woolwich division, in 1819 promoted brevet lieutenant colonel and in 1823 placed on half-pay. In 1830 he sought appointment as deputy adjutant general of marines; although passed over he was restored to full pay, transferred to the Plymouth division and then to Chatham, and in June 1831 promoted substantive major. On 17 October 1834 he announced that as a brevet lieutenant colonel he had retired from the service 'by the sale of an unattached majority'.

Torrens was an inveterate publicist. His active service had seldom interfered with 'those habits of patient investigation' in which he 'delighted to indulge', but it had marked effects on his prolific books and pamphlets. His controversial writings were mostly designed to correct, repeal, reform or change those political and economic policies which he believed were threats to Britain's greatness. In 1818 he contested the seat of Rochester without success but on 17 December 'as a gentleman well informed on, and much interested in, all subjects of natural philosophy' was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. In 1821 he helped to found the Political Economy Club and became a proprietor of the Whig Traveller, with which the Globe was later combined. In 1826 he was elected for Ipswich but unseated after a protest. In 1831 he was returned for Ashburton and in 1832-35 represented Bolton in the reformed parliament.

Torrens's chief influence on Australia was his promotion of emigration. In 1817 he had sent to the chairman of a select committee a paper on reducing the Irish poor rates by emigration to the colonies. A year earlier he had collected information on Botany Bay, 'having prospects of being sent out as its Governor'. In 1825 he joined a scheme for company colonization at the Bay of Islands and later offered to sell some of its land to the New Zealand Association. In 1828 he applied for land at the Swan River settlement and next year sought a government post there. In 1830 he attacked the National Colonization Society for advocating concentrated settlement in the colonies but was converted when he learnt that concentration meant 'the combination of capital and labour to give maximum production within a given area'. He then became active in seeking from the Colonial Office a charter for the South Australian Land Co. When this attempt failed in 1833 he joined the South Australian Association and, in hope of becoming governor of the proposed colony, reopened negotiations with the Colonial Office. In 1834 he chaired the committee which disgusted Edward Gibbon Wakefield by deciding that the minimum price for land should be 12s. an acre. This price was inserted in the South Australian Act, which also provided for a colonization commission to manage land sales and emigration. In May 1835 Torrens was appointed chairman of this commission and in June he published Colonization of South Australia, in reply to criticisms in the Westminster Review. By December the prescribed guarantee fund had been raised and land orders for 35,000 acres (14,164 ha) sold; on 19 February 1836 the province of South Australia and its boundaries were established by letters patent.

For the next six years Torrens worked zealously, writing and lecturing to woo capital investment in South Australia and campaigning for emigrant labourers especially from Ireland. Later he claimed that the colonization part of the project was a triumph, but admitted that the financial part had failed. To most colonists, however, his whole administration was a calamity. He did nothing to solve the vexed question of authority divided between commission and Colonial Office, and his inadequate direction and staffing of the survey expedition under Colonel William Light caused needless delays in rural production and encouraged reckless land speculation. He also abandoned the Wakefield principle of concentration; instead of limiting landbuyers to the 200 sq. miles (518 km²) around Adelaide, his promises of free choice soon required the survey of 8000 sq. miles (20,720 km²). Since special surveys of 4000 acres (1619 ha) could be selected on the best sites, land sales soared in 1839 and the number of emigrants with free passages nearly doubled. This seeming success disturbed the Colonial Office because the achievement was embittering the neighbouring colonies. Torrens had also fallen out with his unpaid colleagues on the commission in 1837 when he was given, at his own request, a salary of £600. The government's decision to form a general Colonial Land and Emigration Commission in January 1840 was therefore welcomed by Torrens, and as one of its three members his salary increased to £800.

By June the rosy prospects were dimmed. Although emigration was proceeding at a great rate, land sales had collapsed. By that time over £250,000 had been paid into the land fund but less than half of it had been used to provide free passages for 12,000 emigrants, many of whom were outside the prescribed ages of 15 to 30. The balance of the fund had been spent mainly on publicity and costly surveys; without realizing it Torrens had brought the province to bankruptcy. In July the commissioners tried to raise a loan, too late because the newspapers had the story, and in August emigration was stopped. Parliament came to the rescue with a loan, and in April 1841 a select committee on South Australia made Governor George Gawler the luckless scapegoat, although none of his bills on London had been dishonoured until October 1840. In 1842 South Australia became a Crown colony and Torrens's 'self-supporting' model of systematic colonization came to an end. Belatedly he was dismissed for violating a rule made by Glenelg in October 1835 that no commissioner was to have a proprietary interest in the colony. Although some of his colleagues had promptly resigned Torrens argued that he had only borrowed £1000 to buy land in South Australia. Since he had repaid the loan by 1838 and then transferred the land titles to his relations his continued appeals for reinstatement were unavailing.

Torrens had continued his study of political economy, for which he won wide repute. In the 1840s he also helped to reform companies to mine copper and build railways in South Australia, and in 1855 he advocated nominated upper houses in the new constitutions of responsible government. He died on 27 May 1864 in London. In 1801 at Dublin he had married Charity, daughter of Richard Chute of Roxburgh, County Kerry. Of their children, Robert Richard (1814-1884) became noted for his system of registering land titles. Torrens was also survived by his second wife Esther Sarah, née Serle, whom he had married in September 1820.  South Australia’s first governor, Captain John Hindmarsh, honoured him by naming Adelaide’s river (Kara-wirra-parri) after him in 1836.  Hindmarsh’s successor Colonel George Gawler did likewise the following year at the site of South Australia’s first quarantine station, an island adjoining the Port River, and the explorer Edward Eyre named a large salt lake in the north of the colony after Torrens in 1839.  The family was also commemorated by the naming of the districts of East and West Torrens, and the suburb of Torrensville, in Adelaide.

Select Bibliography

  • F. H. Hitchins, The Colonial Land and Emigration Commission (Philadelphia, 1931)
  • D. Pike, Paradise of Dissent (Melb, 1957)
  • L Robbins, Robert Torrens and the Evolution of Classical Economics (Lond, 1958)
  • S. A. Meenai, ‘Robert Torrens, 1780-1864’, Economica, vol 23, 1956, pp 49-61
  • F. W. Fetter, ‘Robert Torrens: Colonel of Marines and Political Economist’, Economica, vol 29, 1962, pp 152-65
  • Select Committee on South Australia, Report, Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons, Great Britain), 1841 (394)
  • S. A. Meenai, Robert Torrens (M.Sc.Econ. thesis, University of London, 1948).

Citation details

'Torrens, Robert (1780–1864)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 17 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]




27 May, 1864 (aged ~ 84)
London, Middlesex, England

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