Bicheno, James Ebenezer (DNB00)

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BICHENO, JAMES EBENEZER (1785–1851), colonial secretary in Van Diemen's Land, and a writer on economic and scientific subjects, was the son of the Rev. James Bicheno, a dissenting minister and schoolmaster at Newbury, Berkshire, who died 9 April 1831, and was the author of 'Friendly Address to the Jews' (1787); 'Signs of the Times' (1792-4); 'A Word in Season' (1795); and other politico-theological works. James Ebenezer was born in 1786. He spent the first part of his life at Newbury, and there wrote 'An Inquiry into the Nature of Benevolence, chiefly with a view to elucidate the Principles of the Poor Laws' (London, 1817; republished in an extended form, and under the title of 'An Inquiry into the Poor Laws,' London, 1824). This was an attack on the system of poor-law administration then prevailing in England. The relief afforded by it, he said, 'multiplied instead of mitigating distress.' He gave an historical sketch of poor-law legislation, and argued in favour of a gradual change to a method of dealing with pauperism such as is now in force. He married a Miss Lloyd in 1821, but lost his wife within a year. He was called to the bar by the Middle Temple 17 May 1822.

Whilst still a student he published a work on the 'Philosophy of Criminal Jurisprudence' (London, 1819), in which, after pointing out that to defend society and improve the wretched are 'the only proper ends of punishment which reason and virtue sanction,' he urged that the penalties of the then criminal code were too severe. He proposed that the punishment of death should be restricted to a few cases, that whipping should be abolished, and that we should not 'burden the colonies with the refuse of our prisons.'

Although Bicheno, after his call to the bar, joined the Oxford circuit, he did not engage seriously in the practice of his profession, but devoted himself to economic and scientific studies. He could the more easily do this, as his father was a man of some property, and he was his only surviving son and heir. He was a member of the chief English learned societies, and in 1824 he was appointed secretary to the Linnean Society. He contributed to their Transactions as well as to those of other societies, and assisted in the publication of several works, of which Jardine and Selby's 'Illustrations of Ornithology' (Edinburgh, 1830?) may be mentioned.

Bicheno engaged for some time in mining speculations in Wales, and the better to manage them he resided at Tymaen, near Pyle, in Glamorganshire, and here he filled several local offices. He was obliged finally to withdraw, with some loss, from this undertaking. In 1829 he made, in company with Mr. Frederick Page, a deputy-lieutenant of Berkshire and bencher of the Middle Temple, a very extensive tour through Ireland. This resulted in the publication of 'Ireland and its Economy' (London, 1830), in which he records his impressions of 'this land of strange anomalies,' as he calls it. The work is valuable as a fair account of the state of Ireland at the time.

In 1833 a commission, under the chairmanship of Archbishop Whately , was appointed to investigate the condition of the poor in Ireland. Bicheno was afterwards nominated a member, and he signed its second and third reports. To the last of these, presented in 1836, he appended some remarks of his own, in which he discussed the social condition of Ireland at considerable length. In his opinion, after all that could be done for that country, 'her real improvement must spring from herself, her own inhabitants, and her own indigenous institutions, irrespective of legislation and of English interference.'

In September 1842 he was appointed colonial secretary in Van Diemen s Land, and shortly after proceeded to that country, where he fulfilled the duties of his office to the satisfaction alike of the colonists and of the home government. He was one of the founders, a vice-president, and member of council of the Royal Society of Van Diemen's Land, and a contributor to its papers. He died at Hobart Town, after a short illness, 25 Feb. 1851.

Bicheno's scientific writings took usually the form of papers contributed to the publications of the various learned bodies with which he was connected. He was elected fellow of the Linnæan Society 7 April 1812, and was secretary from 1825 to 1832. His herbarium is in the public museum at Swansea. His papers were: 'Observations on the Orchis militaris of Linnæus' (Linn. Soc. Trans, xii., 1818); 'Observations on the Linnean Genus Juncus' (Linn. Soc. Trans, xii., 1818); 'On Systems and Methods in Natural History' (Linn. Soc. Trans, xv., 1827; 'Philosophical Mag.' iii., 1828; 'On the Plant intended by the Shamrock of Ireland' (Royal Inst. Joum. i., 1831); 'On the Potato in connexion with Distress in Ireland' (Van Diemen's Land Royal Soc. Papers, i., 1851); and (to the same volume) 'On a Specimen of Pristis cirrhatus.'

[Gent. Mag. vol. xxxvi., new series; Annual Register for 1861; Nicholls's History of the Irish Poor Law (London, 1856); Report of the Royal Society of Van Diemen's Land for 1851 (Hobart Town, 1852).]

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