Daily Archives: June 15, 2009

‘Colonial Improver: Edward Deas Thomson’ by S. G. Foster

PortDeas Thomas2

Once you’ve got some little way into your research, it’s quite amusing to look back at the things that puzzled or amazed you right at the beginning.  For me, it was coming across so many letters addressed to ‘E. Deas Thomson’.  Who WAS this man, I wondered, who seemed to write with such authority on so many topics- and why had I never heard of him?

Edward Deas Thomson was originally appointed clerk to the Legislative and Executive Councils under Governor Darling in 1829, then went on to serve as  Colonial Secretary for Governors  Bourke, Gipps, Fitzroy and Denison between 1837-1856.   The term ‘Colonial Secretary’ is a little confusing, as it was used both  for the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies in London (e.g. Marquess of Normanby,  Lord John Russell, Lord Stanley during Judge Willis’ time in NSW) as well as for the chief adviser and second administrator to the Governor here in the colonies.  In my focus on the empire-wide peregrinations of colonial civil servants and judges as they crisscrossed between Upper and Lower Canada, Newfoundland, Cape Colony, the West Indies, New Zealand, Australia, Sierra Leone etc., I have tended to forget that their mobility was supported by an ongoing administrative structure that remained more or less stable, despite the comings and goings of Governors.   This was the case with E. Deas Thomson who served under four governors, of varying political stances and administrative habits.

E. Deas Thomson was born in Edinburgh in 1800 to a family with naval and merchant connections.  His father was  the sometime accountant-general of the Navy, and family drew heavily on the patronage of Sir Charles Middleton (Baron Barham) , First Lord of the Admiralty, and his family after Sir Charles’ death.    His mother was from South Carolina, where Thomson’s father had worked as a plantation agent for his uncle.  After marriage, the couple moved back to Scotland but Deas Thomson’s mother seems to have not settled well and returned alone to South Carolina after suffering a period of paranoia, leaving the 5 year old Edward with his father.  Edward was educated at Harrow, then spent two years in France,  returning to London for a period before travelling to America, then Canada after attending  to business arising from his mother’s death in 1826-7.  The French and American connections, though not necessarily out of the ordinary, do suggest a broader experience than many other civil servants may have been exposed to.

Through his contacts with Sir Charles Middleton’s family, he appealed to Huskisson, then Secretary of State for War and the Colonies for a position in the colonial civil service.  At first he was offered the position of registrar of the Orphan Chambers in Demarara, then a second offer of Clerk of the Council of New South Wales, which he accepted, despite the lower salary, on account of the healthier climate.  This consciousness of the tropical climate, and its deleterious effects, is an ongoing theme in the English imagination of Empire.

He came to his position as Clerk of the Councils via a circuitous route.  The previous incumbent, Henry Grattan Douglass had been removed from the position, and Darling tried to replace him with his own brother-in-law Henry Durmaresq. However the appointment was vetoed by the Colonial Office after complaints of nepotism and Darling was warned against the appointment to public office of  ‘any relative or near connection’.  The position was then open for Thomson’s appointment.

Thomson was not particularly impressed with the drought-striken New South Wales during his first year in 1829, but his perceptions improved as the drought lifted and his friendship with Governor Darling developed.     He maintained a good relationship with Darling’s replacement, Richard Bourke ,and dined frequently with him, despite differences in political stance.  He married Bourke’s daughter Anna, which then placed him in a similar position to his predecessor Dumaresque when Bourke recommended Thomson (his son-in-law) as a replacement Colonial Secretary in place of Alexander Macleay– an erstwhile friend whose nephew ended up marrying Thomson’s own daughter in 1857- ah, the tangled intermarriages amongst colonial ‘gentry’ family!

Despite Bourke’s qualms about nepotism, the appointment went ahead, and as it was, Thomson remained Colonial Secretary for twenty years, long outlasting his father-in-law’s stay in New South Wales.   As such, he acted as confidant, advisor and spokesmen for the succession of governors.  His role changed after the 1842 Constitution introduced a partially-elected Legislative Council, and again with 1856 responsible government when, relucant to engage with electoral politics, he became a life appointee of the Legislative Council where he came to be aligned with the conservative element.

My own awareness of E. Deas Thomson, however, arises from his position as medium between Governor Gipps (the governor in charge during Judge Willis’ time in Port Phillip) and official and individuals in the community at large.   The protocols of communication were an important means of control:  individuals and government officials were instructed to direct all communication with the governor through his Colonial Secretary, and all communication with the Secretary of State in the Colonial Office in London also had to be channelled through Governor Gipps in Sydney (and hence, his Colonial Secretary E. Deas Thomson).   Certainly individuals could, and did, circumvent this process by writing directly to the undersecretary at the Colonial Office , but by Judge Willis’ time this practice, overtly encouraged by Undersecretary Robert Hay in the mid 1820s, had been regularized by the new undersecretary  Sir James Stephen.   Likewise,  there was an off-record back channel of communication within the colonies as well:  Gipps wrote personally to Superintendant La Trobe, and Thomson himself maintained long-standing communications with Denison in Van Diemen’s Land who was later to become Governor of New South Wales.   Indeed,  Thomson became increasingly critical of Governor Gipps’ carelessness in communications with local politicians,  and his inability to recognize when to speak and when to remain silent.  At the same time, leading members of the community recognized that it was better to sound out Thomson before approaching the Governor directly. (Foster, p. 62).

E. Deas Thomson himself has been cast as ‘conservative’ in his politics, particularly when he became a political actor in his own right after representative and then responsible government was granted to the colonies.  Certainly he came to be  seen to represent the interests of the squatters,  and expressed wariness and distaste for universal suffrage and wanted the constitutional backstop of a conservative upper chamber on a restricted franchise.  However, other aspects of his politics are less clear-cut.  He was a lifelong Free Trader, right from his time back in Scotland where he attended lectures by J. R. McCulloch.   He supported the idea of ‘improvement’- a theme picked up on in Foster’s title to his book- through schooling, universities, postal communications, railways, and his involvement in a range of benevolent societies and educational instutions including the Australian Museum and Sydney University.

The lives of E. Deas Thomson’s surviving children illustrate major themes in Thomson’s own life.  His eldest son suffered an ‘unstated ailment’ and could not hold down a job and drew on large sums of his father’s money- shades, perhaps, of Thomson’s mother’s ‘instability’; or maybe just colonial waywardness??? A second son became heavily involved in the Church of England and the temperance movement- the ultimate ‘improvement’ activity.  His three daughters’ marriages are a microcosm of empire: one married a nephew of Thomson’s own predecessor as Colonial Secretary, Alexander Macleay; another married a member of the Indian civil service, and the other married a naval officer.

Thomson’s own early career demonstrates once again the importance of patronage in embarking on a colonial role.   Patronage seemed to make the world go round, but it’s easy to overlook its infantalizaing aspects.  Thomson’s own father, dismissed from his position as accountant-general in the Navy by the incoming Whig Government, turned his attention to a rich widow.  To his son he wrote:

The party I have had in view and still have, if it can be accomplished is a Mrs C a person about 50, being neither (of course) young nor handsome but with more good temper than falls to the lot of most people in life- She is the widow of an army surgeon who has been dead about 7 years- Her father left her about 15,000 pounds which has not been decreased but rather added to… Lord and Lady [B]arham approve the Match  & have visited & paid the necessary attention (quoted Foster p. 36)

Shades of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice??  I suspect, but am not certain, that by now the Barham influence rested with 1st Earl of Gainsborough– or perhaps Lord and Lady Barham are a different branch of the family?  Ah, it’s hard to shake my 21st century perception that there’s something rather demeaning in all this deference and condescension.

Foster paints a picture in this biography of a public servant who was not just a cipher for the Governor but who had influence in his own right.  He was in the mould of 19th century gentlemen improvers: he was concerned to ‘maintain balance’ between the forces in society, and he embraced technology, communications and education as a way of improving society.  His efficiency as public servant and administrator in many ways blunted the calls for responsible government: had the position of Colonial Secretary been filled by someone less capable, there would possibly have been more political agitation for constitutional change, much earlier.


S. G. Foster Colonial Improver: Edward Deas Thomson, Carlton Vic. Melbourne University Press, 1978