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Sir John Young (1807–1876)

by John M. Ward

This article was published:

John Young (1807-1876), by unknown artist

John Young (1807-1876), by unknown artist

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 11604

Sir John Young (1807-1876), governor, was born on 31 August 1807 in Bombay, India, eldest son of Sir William Young, 1st baronet and East India Co. director, and his wife Lucy, daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Frederick. Educated at Eton and Corpus Christi College, Oxford (B.A., 1829), he was admitted to Lincoln's Inn in January 1829 and called to the Bar in 1834. On 8 April 1835 at Kells Church, Dublin, he married Adelaide Annabella Tuite Dalton, stepdaughter of the marquess of Headfort. He represented County Cavan in the House of Commons in 1831-55, generally supporting Sir Robert Peel and in touch with W. E. Gladstone and the fifth Duke of Newcastle. A lord of the treasury in 1841-44 and secretary of the treasury in 1844-46, he was chief secretary for Ireland in 1852-55.

In March 1855 Young was appointed lord high commissioner of the Ionian Islands and created G.C.M.G. The post was difficult because the representative assembly demanded union with Greece. In 1858 secret dispatches, in which he recommended that Corfu and Paxo be converted into British colonies, were published in the London Daily News, embarrassing the government, which had just arranged for Gladstone to report on the problem. Though recalled in January 1859, he was created K.C.B. and his administration was publicly praised.

On 18 January 1861 Young was appointed to succeed Sir William Denison as governor of New South Wales; because of intercolonial jealousy he was not given the title governor-general, borne by his two predecessors. With his wife, in the Northam, he arrived in Sydney on 21 March and immediately plunged into an angry and complicated political crisis. With the five-year term of the Legislative Council members due to expire on 13 May, the council disapproved of (Sir) Charles Cowper's proposal, accepted by the Legislative Assembly, that the council should be made elective. It also rejected two government bills and vital clauses in (Sir) John Robertson's land bills. Though Denison had advised against 'swamping' the council, Young conditionally approved Cowper's nomination of twenty-one new members to pass the land bills. But they were never sworn in because President Sir William Burton and nineteen other members resigned, and the council, deprived of a quorum, adjourned. The secretary of state for the colonies, Newcastle, disapproved of Young's action, believing that he had involved the vice-regal office in politics and encouraged the 'democratic cause'. Young considered that he had preserved the conservative character of the council, and he balanced his concessions to Cowper with an agreement for the satisfactory reconstruction of the council.

Young had to face other problems affecting the relations between his office and the cabinet. In January 1865 (Sir) James Martin, whose ministry was tottering, advised him to appoint two more legislative councillors. Young declined the request, insisting that he had a discretion to exercise and that the conditions agreed to in 1861 had not been met. The colonial secretary William Forster, who had already told his friends they should be appointed, resigned and accused Young of partiality, declaring that the 1861 agreement relating to the council could not be binding on succeeding ministries. Martin continued in office and the Colonial Office considered the governor 'quite right to resist'.

In September 1865, with Cowper again premier, Young helped to find an attorney-general to replace (Sir) John Darvall, who had resigned. Most of the colony's senior barristers were too conservative to serve with Cowper, but Young persuaded John Hubert Plunkett, with whom Cowper had quarrelled, to accept the position. Next year, when Cowper requested a dissolution, Young refused and pointed out that elections had been held only a year before and that the Opposition was capable of forming a ministry. He had shrewdly perceived that elections would not help Cowper, who was publicly blamed for the consequences of drought and depression and for unpopular import duties.

Unlike some of his successors, Young had little trouble over his exercise of the royal prerogative of pardon. Except in capital cases, he dealt with pardons without reference to his ministers; most of the colony's leading men preferred the prerogative to be beyond the reach of political influence. In 1863 he overruled his Executive Council and commuted the bushranger John Bow's sentence to life imprisonment.

Reflecting the active role which an able governor retained in the early years of responsible government, Young gave frequent advice on policy, making it a practice to see one of his ministers each day. But he missed the excitement of the House of Commons, found colonial politics tiresome and complained to Newcastle that a colonial governor was a mere 'cipher' under responsible government. His correspondence reveals close knowledge of (Sir) Henry Parkes's 1866 education reforms before they were submitted to parliament. Parkes wrote of him: 'Fully informed on political subjects, he was frank and modest in communicating to others the lessons of his experience … in intercourse with him one received instruction unawares'.

Unwilling to leave his ministers in Sydney unsupervised, Young did not travel widely or frequently in the colony, but he and his wife were keenly aware of the social responsibilities of Government House and were active in good causes. He worked diligently for the Sydney Ragged Schools, the Society for the Relief of Destitute Children, the Sydney Female Refuge Society, the Female School of Industry and the House of the Good Shepherd. A devout Evangelical Anglican, he appealed for nonsectarian sympathy and tolerance, raising the ire of some Protestants when he chaired a meeting in 1865 to organize the rebuilding of the burned St Mary's Cathedral.

Young was erect and clean-shaven, with long side-burns. He possessed an easy charm of manner and was an able public speaker; (Sir) William Windeyer described him as 'a gentleman & a scholar'. The Youngs left Sydney in the Geelong on 24 December 1867 and on his return to England he thought of re-entering politics. In February 1869 he became governor-general of Canada. Though it was a post in which he had less personal influence, his term of office was successful; Prime Minister John A. Macdonald regarded him as the ablest governor-general under whom he had served. In November 1870 he was created baron Lisgar of Lisgar and Bailieborough, County Cavan. Ill health forced him to resign in June 1872 and he died on 6 October 1876 at Lisgar House, Bailieborough, Ireland, without issue. The barony became extinct and the baronetcy descended to a nephew. Lambing Flat, a town in New South Wales, was renamed Young after him. On 3 August 1878 Lady Young married Sir Francis Turville; she died on 19 July 1895.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Parkes, Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History (Lond, 1892)
  • P. Loveday and A. W. Martin, Parliament Factions and Parties (Melb, 1966)
  • F. C. Halpenny (gen ed), Dictionary of Canadian Biography, M. La Terreur ed, vol 10 (Toronto, 1972)
  • P. Loveday, ‘The Legislative Council in New South Wales, 1856-1870’, Historical Studies, no 44, Apr 1965
  • Freeman's Journal (Dublin), 13 Apr 1835
  • Sydney Mail, 8 July 1865
  • N. I. Graham, The Role of the Governor of New South Wales Under Responsible Government 1861-1890 (Ph.D. thesis, Macquarie University, 1973)
  • Cowper papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Macarthur papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Newcastle papers (University of Nottingham Archives, England)
  • CO 201/517/20, 30, 522/23, 526/40, 542/44.

Citation details

John M. Ward, 'Young, Sir John (1807–1876)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 16 June 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

John Young (1807-1876), by unknown artist

John Young (1807-1876), by unknown artist

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 11604

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Baron Lisgar
  • Lisgar, Baron

31 August, 1807
Mumbai, Maharashtra, India


6 October, 1876 (aged 69)
Bailieborough, Cavan, Ireland

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