The Dictionary of Australasian Biography/Denison, Major-General Sir William Thomas

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The Dictionary of Australasian Biography by Philip Mennell
Denison, Major-General Sir William Thomas

Denison, Major-General Sir William Thomas, R.E., K.C.B., successively Governor of Tasmania and of New South Wales, was the son of John Denison (formerly Wilkinson), of Ossington, Notts, who succeeded to the fortune made by his uncles as manufacturers in Leeds, and was for nine years a member of the House of Commons. Three of Sir William Denison's brothers rose to eminence, viz., John Evelyn, who, after being Speaker of the House of Commons, was created Viscount Ossington; Edward, who became Bishop of Salisbury; and George Anthony, the well-known Archdeacon of Taunton. Sir William, who was born in 1804, and was educated at Eton and Woolwich, entered the Royal Engineers, of which he ultimately became colonel, in 1826. In Oct. 1846 he was appointed to succeed Sir J. Eardley Wilmot as Governor of Van Diemen's Land, where he arrived in Jan. 1847. He entered on his administration under many difficulties, the bequest of his predecessor, and his reception by the colonists was not enthusiastic. Sir William Denison had had much experience of public works in England, and the object of Mr. Gladstone, the then Colonial Secretary, in sending him to Van Diemen's Land was the better disposal of the labour and the more effectual control of the prisoners; and throughout his whole period of rule he held to his instructions on these points as the sole obligation binding on him. He attempted an amicable adjustment of the claims of the Legislative Councillors, including both those appointed by his predecessor, and also the "Patriotic Six" whom Sir J. Eardley Wilmot had dismissed. Out of the whole body it was left to his discretion to select six for his own council, which was then a purely nominated body. The whole number of the existing councillors were summoned to Government House to hear the English Minister's decision, and were requested to decide among themselves who should be the half-dozen to be retained. Mutual recriminations, however, arose, and knotty points of law were raised; so that in the end Sir William Denison adjourned the Council to await special instructions from Downing Street or a royal warrant making a fresh and final nomination. The latter was only despatched from England in July. Thus during 1847 there was no Legislature sitting; but at length the Gazette announced that the Queen had reinstated the "Patriotic Six," which was regarded as a great popular triumph. Sir William Denison's next trouble was a quarrel with the judges of the Supreme Court respecting the differential duties on which a revenue of £20,000 depended, and which the judges declared to be illegal There was also a dispute over the "Dog Act," which they declared void. The Governor, determined to resist their flat, removed a judge (Montagu) against whom there were charges of personal misconduct. The Governor also recommended the Chief Justice (Pedder) to take leave of absence; but this he firmly refused to do, and was strongly backed by public opinion in this course. The next step of the Governor was to carry through the Council a Doubts Bill which set aside the ruling of the judges, and bound them to accept as law any ordinance which they did not declare to be repugnant to the Constitution or British law within fourteen days. For his conduct in these matters Sir William Denison was censured by the Home Government; but the removal of Judge Montagu from the Bench was confirmed. The struggle for constitutional government was earnestly carried on for years by the colonists, and at length the boon was gained and was cordially welcomed. It curtailed considerably the power of the Governor. The great anti-transportation struggle succeeded, and Denison took strongly the side opposed to the popular sentiment of the Australian colonies. This imprudent step involved him in years of trouble and angry contention, in the course of which his reputation for justice and fair dealing suffered severely. "His opposition to the colonial will on the subject," says West, "his injustice to the judges, and his sarcastic delineations of colonial character narrowed the circle of his friends." In 1855, after the battle of the League had been fought and won, Denison was transferred to New South Wales, with the title of Governor-General of Australia. His rule in the mother colony was free from any serious political complications, and he personally promoted many public works of a useful character, as indeed he had done in Tasmania. The fortifications of Sydney were planned by him, and bear his name. He was appointed Governor of Madras in 1861. On the death of Lord Elgin he acted as Governor-General of India pending the arrival of Sir John (afterwards Lord) Lawrence. In 1866, his term of rule having expired, he retired into private life, and died in England on Jan. 19th, 1871. He gave to the world his experiences as a governor in two volumes, bearing the title of "Varieties of Viceregal Life." Sir William married in 1838 Caroline Lucy, daughter of the late Admiral Sir Phipps Hornby, K.C.B. He was promoted to be major-general, and was created K.C.B. in 1856. Despite the personal opprobrium under which Sir William Denison laboured during the major portion of his rule in Van Diemen's Land, the colonists on his leaving presented him with £2000 for the purchase of plate, which, after a long correspondence with Downing Street, the Colonial Office authorities ultimately permitted him to accept, contrary to the usual precedent. Sir William deserves credit for the care which characterised his initiation of responsible government in New South Wales and for the conscientiousness which marked his nominations to the Upper Chamber when the bicameral system was instituted. In 1857, when the administration of Norfolk Island was vested in the Governor of New South Wales, he drew up an excellent code of government for the descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty. He also gave good advice to Governor Gore Browne, of New Zealand, which, had it been followed, might have prevented the war commenced at Waitara. Writing on the subject to Sir Roderick Murchison in 1860, he gave it as his opinion that the "treatment of the natives by the whites had been such as would naturally induce the conduct which was designated rebellion," and added, "To tell you the truth, I believe it was intended that such should be the result." In New South Wales, even after the inauguration of responsible government, he allowed himself no inconsiderable discretion in dealing with the advice tendered to him by his Ministers. In 1858 he would not allow the Upper House to be "swamped". When urged by Mr. Cowper, as Mr. Rusden narrates, to dissolve the Legislative Assembly in 1860 and to allow the public payments to be met by payments unwarranted by law, he declared that after a certain date he would sanction no disbursements unauthorised by regular Appropriation Acts. When, after correspondence about the issue of a Crown grant (promised long before by a previous Governor), he received instructions to issue it, and Mr. Cowper (then Colonial Secretary in the Robertson Ministry) refused to affix the public seal, the resolute Governor desired the Secretary to hand the seal to him, and with his own hand sealed the grant The Ministry resigned in consequence, but immediately reconstructed themselves under Cowper; and a vote of censure on the Governor mooted in the Assembly after his departure to Madras was shelved by the passing of the previous question. Sir William Denison's "Varieties of Viceregal Life" was published in London in 1870.