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Sir Frederick Aloysius Weld (1823–1891)

by T. S. Louch

This article was published:

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Frederick Aloysius Weld (1823-1891), by unknown photographer

Frederick Aloysius Weld (1823-1891), by unknown photographer

State Library of Tasmania, PH30-1-4123

Sir Frederick Aloysius Weld (1823-1891), governor, was born on 9 May 1823 at Chideock, Dorset, England, third son of Humphrey Weld of Chideock Manor, and his wife Christina Maria, daughter of Lord Clifford of Chudleigh. The Weld, or Wylde, family was one of the leading Roman Catholic families of England; his uncle Thomas Weld was the first Englishman to be created a cardinal after the Reformation. A second cousin Roger Vaughan became archbishop of Sydney.

Weld was educated at Stonyhurst, a Jesuit school founded by his grandfather, and at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, where he studied philosophy, chemistry and law. In November 1843 he sailed for New Zealand to join two cousins Charles Clifford and William Vavasour; he had a modest sum of sovereigns and orders for town and country land. He assisted his cousins to drive 500 sheep to a 30,000-acre (12,141 ha) lease at Wharekaka, east of the Ruamahanga River near present-day Martinborough. None of the partners knew how to manage sheep, but Clifford engaged a border Scot with experience in New South Wales who saved Wharekaka from disaster and gradually transformed Weld into a first-rate sheep-farmer. Impressed by his enthusiasm and energy, Clifford offered Weld a quarter-share in the venture; he later managed the property. The partners eventually transferred their interests to two South Island stations, Flaxbourne near Blenheim, Marlborough, and Stonyhurst near Cheviot, Canterbury. In London in 1852 Weld published his Hints to Intending Sheep Farmers in New Zealand.

He was very sensitive about political privilege. In 1848 Weld joined the Wellington Settlers' Constitutional Association, and in 1852 won Wairau in the Legislative Assembly. He was appointed to the Executive Council in the first session but the fiasco of the attempt to obtain responsible government left him disillusioned and restless.

With J. F. S. Wortley he explored the interior of the North Island in October 1854. In August next year they sailed for England via America and stopped at the Sandwich Islands to observe the eruption of the volcano, Mauna Loa. They climbed the crater and returned to New Zealand in November; Weld's account was published in the Journal of the Geological Society of London, December 1856. In England on 10 March 1859 he married a distant cousin Filumena Mary, daughter of Ambrose Phillips of Grace-Dieu Manor, Leicestershire, who later added de Lisle to his name. They reached New Zealand in February 1860 and he became minister for native affairs in the Stafford ministry (1860-61). In November 1864 Weld accepted Governor Sir George Grey's invitation to form a ministry, on condition that the British troops engaged in the Maori war be withdrawn and replaced by local militia. After raising a small force of white settlers and friendly Maoris which routed the insurgents, he carried the Native Rights Act, 1865, which removed many Maori grievances. In October, upset at parliamentary quibbling about defence, he resigned for medical reasons and in 1867 returned to England.

In December 1868 he was appointed governor of Western Australia and with his wife and six children arrived there in September 1869. The free settlers welcomed him as a family man with practical experience of pioneer farming. In his first six months of office he travelled 1200 miles (1931 km) on horseback, and visited every district of importance except the far north. He enjoyed getting about and seeing the country. In 1871 he rode to Albany and, with two white men and a native, made his way through partly unexplored country to Cape Leeuwin and back to Perth. Later that year he went by sea to inspect the pearling fleets at Nickol Bay (Roebourne) and the sheep stations inland; in 1873 he travelled 1000 miles (1609 km) in the Geraldton district. A keen observer and an accomplished correspondent, his letters and dispatches vividly depicted life in the colony. One of his first acts was to send John Forrest to find a possible route for a telegraph line to Adelaide. He also ordered the installation of 900 miles (1448 km) of internal line.

In April 1870 Weld considered a petition for representative government which had been presented to his predecessor. He realized that the main obstacle was the predominance of ex-convicts. Among the free settlers there were some educated men of substance who could be trusted to govern, but Weld doubted the next generation. In an oddly worded dispatch he saw no reason to suppose that the colonists would ever become more fitted for self-government, and that if its introduction was deferred they would become less fitted; he then introduced a bill for twelve elected members to sit in the Legislative Council with the official and nominated members; it was passed on 1 June 1870.

The new council met in December and the elected members soon asserted themselves. They passed legislation establishing municipalities and road boards; but they objected to Weld's education bill, which was inopportune, as bigoted Protestants had been disturbed by the Vatican Council and detected a Popish plot in every clause. A modified bill was passed but Weld was soon at odds with the Catholic clergy. He suspected that Irish clergy and Irish police were plotting the escape of Fenian prisoners held in Fremantle gaol, and remonstrated with them. The priests complained to the Vatican that at an official dinner party Weld had asked the Anglican bishop to say grace. After hearing his version of the story, the Pope made him a Knight of St Pius. He again clashed with the Legislative Council in August 1871 when he vetoed a protective tariff on flour and meal. He dissolved the council but gave way when the election showed a substantial majority for the duties.

Weld annoyed the convict community by revoking a ticket-of-leave, and thereafter suffered constant ribald attacks by the Herald. Some would have smiled on reading 'Poor dear cigar-lovin, claret-sippin, long-letter-writing Weld', but he was not amused. In 1871 the Colonial Office sought files of the local newspapers but he refused to supply the Herald. The contents of his dispatch leaked and to Weld's mortification he was directed by the Colonial Office to apologize to the owners of the paper. In 1872 he refused to commute the five-year sentence of the son of a leading colonist who had been convicted of the manslaughter of an Aboriginal. The Colonial Office reduced it to one year. Weld's correspondence shows how deeply distressed he was by these humiliations, and it was small consolation when Secretary of State Kimberley commended him privately on his solicitude for the welfare of the natives. His reaction was typical: 'How I wish that I could have a day with the hounds, or after partridges', he wrote to his brother; but instead he took a holiday at Rottnest Island with 'Mr. Howard — a Lincolnshire parson — one of the good old school', where they shot quail and pigeons in the mornings, went sea fishing later in the day, and had 'a very jolly week'.

Weld's last two years in Perth, 1873-74, were happier; people were ready to give him credit for his able administration and good qualities. The Constitution was again under consideration, and in August 1874 the Legislative Council asked him to bring down a bill for responsible government. True to his belief that this was the only satisfactory form of government, he complied and it passed easily. He then dissolved the council so that everyone, including the secretary of state, might have time for consideration. He was later rebuked in a dispatch to his successor, for having moved in the matter without first referring it to London, and the bill was shelved.

Early in 1874 Weld had been offered the governorship of Tasmania. Although the salary was lower, he consoled himself with the thought that Government House at Hobart Town was larger and better suited for his increasing family. Mrs Weld was expecting another child, and did not accompany her husband in January 1875. She was to follow in a suitable ship, but it was sold before she was ready. Without consulting him she chartered a vessel to convey her to Hobart with nine children and their nurses. The passage was rough and the deck cabin was constantly flooded. Weld wrote: 'The captain turned out to be an ex-convict who drank like a fish, and knew so little about his work that Mena had to give directions to the crew when to reef the sails'.

Weld's term in Tasmania, 1875-80, was a quiet interlude. The colony had had responsible government for twenty years; his main duty was to chair the weekly Executive Council but he travelled widely, performed his social duties and advocated the formation of rifle clubs and militia units for defence. War with Russia was thought to be imminent, and he feared invasion at either Albany, Western Australia, or Hobart. His efforts led later to the fortification of these ports. After a change of government in 1877 Weld wrote to his brother that he was no longer a roi fainéant and had been able by his advice to help the new and politically inexperienced cabinet. He said that if his late ministers had taken the hints he had given them, they might still have been in office. There was some excitement over his remission of the sentence on a woman convicted of arson in 1873, but he had no differences with the Colonial Office and at the end of 1879 was appointed governor of the Straits Settlements.

Weld went to Singapore in April 1880 and with his wealth of experience found the fullest scope for his talents. For seven years he ruled directly and, by quasi-diplomatic activities among the still-independent Malay States, succeeded in extending British influence. His work was done through a hand-picked group of young men, the most notable of whom was Sir Frank Swettenham.

When Weld's health broke down he retired in 1887 and returned to Chideock. He made a short pilgrimage to the Holy Land, provided advice and support for the Western Australian constitutional delegation of 1890 and died at Chideock on 20 July 1891. He was survived by six sons and six daughters. After his death his widow withdrew to a convent of which her daughter Edith Mary was prioress, and died there on 9 April 1903. Weld was devoted to his wife and children, and spent much time with them and members of his personal staff, who were usually relations. He was honourable and an able administrator, but lacked the common touch and did not make friends easily except amongst people of his own class. Though wedded to democratic principles he was inclined to be autocratic. His portrait hangs in the hall of the Weld Club, founded in Perth in 1871, to which he gave his name and of which he was the first patron. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1875, K.C.M.G. in 1880, and G.C.M.G. in 1885. Mount Weld, 30 kilometres south of Laverton in the eastern Goldfields, and the Weld Range in the east Murchison, were named by the explorer John Forrest during his expeditions of 1869 and 1874. The range contains the Wilgie Mia ochre deposit, an ancient Aboriginal trading resource thought to be Australia’s oldest mine working, while at Mount Weld, mining began in the 21st century of one of the world’s largest rare earth deposits.

Select Bibliography

  • A. M. Fraser (Lady Lovat), The Life of Sir Frederick Weld (Lond, 1914)
  • T. S. Louch, The First Fifty Years: The History of the Weld Club (1871-1921) (Perth, 1964)
  • K. G. Tregonning, ‘Frederick Weld's place in Australian and Malaysian history’, Hemisphere, Feb 1965
  • Herald (Fremantle), 4 Feb 1971
  • West Australian, 25 June 1889, 24 July 1891
  • J. Williams, Frederick Weld: A Political Biography (Ph.D. thesis, University of Waikato, New Zealand, 1973)
  • Weld papers (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

T. S. Louch, 'Weld, Sir Frederick Aloysius (1823–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Frederick Aloysius Weld (1823-1891), by unknown photographer

Frederick Aloysius Weld (1823-1891), by unknown photographer

State Library of Tasmania, PH30-1-4123

Life Summary [details]


9 May, 1823
Chideock, Dorset, England


20 July, 1891 (aged 68)
Chideock, Dorset, England

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