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Adam Turnbull (1803–1891)

by Lex Finlay

This article was published:

Adam Turnbull (1803-1891), medical practitioner, public servant and Presbyterian minister, was born on 4 November 1803 at Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh, the eldest son of Dr Adam Turnbull, who served as a surgeon in the 57th Regiment in the American wars and in 1800-10 was medical officer at Edinburgh Castle under the command of his friend, Earl Moira, and his wife Susan(na), née Bayne, who went to New South Wales as a widow in 1819 and to Van Diemen's Land in 1823.

Adam Turnbull junior was educated at Edinburgh High School and obtained the degree of M.D. in that city before he was 21. He married Margaret, daughter of George Young, of Tolcross, Edinburgh. In 1824 the Colonial Office promised him a land grant in Van Diemen's Land, and with his wife and three brothers he arrived at Hobart Town in the City of Edinburgh on 13 April 1825. With them were members of his wife's family and mutual friends, the Murrays. They all settled in the Campbell Town district, where Turnbull named his property Winton, after the estate of a relation, Sir James Sandilands, whose bequest had provided the capital which entitled him to a grant.

In 1827 he became a partner of James Reid in a whisky distillery near Campbell Town, but the partnership was dissolved late in 1828 when Turnbull entered the Colonial Medical Service as assistant surgeon in the Richmond district, leaving a younger brother, Francis Moira, in charge of Winton. Late in 1829 Turnbull began private practice in Campbell Street, Hobart. In 1831 when John Montagu returned from England and was moved from post to post by Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur, Turnbull was appointed assistant surgeon, for which he received half-pay while he also acted temporarily as private secretary to Arthur, clerk of the Legislative and Executive Councils and colonial treasurer, sharing the salary of these offices with Montagu. Under Sir John Franklin's administration Turnbull continued to fill vacant positions in the public service, and he was responsible for writing many of the lieutenant-governor's dispatches. In the events leading to Montagu's dismissal in 1842 Turnbull had the invidious task of mediating between him and Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin, and although unsuccessful he retained the personal confidence of both parties.

Turnbull was recommended to the Colonial Office by Arthur and Franklin for permanent public employment but notions of retrenchment prevailed in the 1840s, although in 1847 he was appointed a member of the Land Commission and chairman of the Caveat Board. He also continued to act from time to time as clerk of the councils and colonial treasurer. Outside his official duties he became a vice-president of the Mechanics' Institute, where he lectured on chemistry and other subjects. On 15 January 1845 he chaired the inaugural meeting of the Hobart Savings Bank and became an original member of the board. In 1847 he was an elder of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church and superintendent of its Sunday school.

In 1851 when the Legislative Council became part-elective Turnbull was appointed an official member and also acted as clerk of the Executive Council. Like many other colonists he was deeply exercised over the need for free immigration, the continued transportation of convicts, and the shortage of labour caused by the Victorian gold discoveries. The activities of the Anti-Transportation League ensured the return of several members to the new Legislative Council, although Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison was bitterly opposed to their views. In September 1852 some of the elected members gave notice of motion of an address to the Queen requesting the cessation of convict transportation to the colony. Turnbull informed Denison that he favoured the motion and with another nominee, Henry Samuel Chapman, tendered his resignation from the council. The lieutenant-governor refused the resignation, and in due course Turnbull voted for the motion, which was carried. Denison angrily maintained that Turnbull as a public servant had no right to vote against the government. In spite of his vigorous defence in memorials, in the Executive Council and at the bar of the Legislative Council, and authorization from London of his appointment as colonial secretary Turnbull was deprived of all his offices and of his right to a pension after twenty years' service.

This was a severe material blow to Turnbull and his family, but less than two years later he was in service again, having been ordained a Presbyterian minister and inducted to the charge of Campbell Town-Tunbridge. Through his energy and help, and with the backing of his congregation, the fine St Andrew's Church was built in Campbell Town. As its minister 'the Doctor' showed the same zeal for truth and courteousness as he had displayed in the public service. He had high moral principles and a sincere Christian faith. After a controversy in the Tasmanian Presbytery in 1863 had been carried to the Supreme Court and a ministerial colleague, Rev. J. Storie, had been dismissed, Turnbull pleaded his case before the presbytery each year until 1870 when Storie was reinstated. The chief justice, Sir Lambert Dobson, feelingly recorded Turnbull's calm, dignified and unruffled bearing throughout the case.

Turnbull resigned from the ministry in 1875 and in his retirement could look back on a full and fruitful life. He was still interested in the land, for as well as owning Winton, he had other Tasmanian properties by grant and lease, and in Victoria he held Dundas, Mount Koroite and Winnimburn stations in the name of Adam Turnbull & Son. In 1884 he and his wife celebrated their diamond wedding. He died in Campbell Town on 17 June 1891.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 3, vols 4, 5
  • J. Heyer, The Presbyterian Pioneers of Van Diemen's Land (Launceston, 1935)
  • W. A. Townsley, The Struggle for Self-Government in Tasmania 1842-1856 (Hob, 1951)
  • CSO 1 & 5 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Lex Finlay, 'Turnbull, Adam (1803–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 21 June 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]


4 November, 1803
Buccleuch, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


17 June, 1891 (aged 87)
Campbell Town, Tasmania, Australia

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