William Denison

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Sir William Denison
William Denison.jpg
7th Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen's Land
In office
25 January 1847 8 January 1855
Preceded by Sir John Eardley-Wilmot, Bt
Succeeded by Sir Henry Young
11th Governor of New South Wales
In office
13 January 1855 21 January 1861
Preceded by Charles Augustus FitzRoy
Succeeded by Sir John Young, Bt
27th Governor of Madras
In office
Preceded by William Ambrose Morehead
Succeeded by The Lord Napier
Personal details
Born 3 May 1804
London, England
Died 19 January 1871(1871-01-19) (aged 66)
East Sheen, Surrey, England
Spouse(s) Caroline Hornby
Education Eton College
Alma mater Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst

Sir William Thomas Denison, KCB (3 May 1804 – 19 January 1871) was Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen's Land from 1847 to 1855, Governor of New South Wales from 1855 to 1861, and Governor of Madras from 1861 to 1866.

Order of the Bath series of awards of an order of chivalry of the United Kingdom

The Most Honourable Order of the Bath is a British order of chivalry founded by George I on 18 May 1725. The name derives from the elaborate medieval ceremony for appointing a knight, which involved bathing as one of its elements. The knights so created were known as "Knights of the Bath". George I "erected the Knights of the Bath into a regular Military Order". He did not revive the Order of the Bath, since it had never previously existed as an Order, in the sense of a body of knights who were governed by a set of statutes and whose numbers were replenished when vacancies occurred.

Governor of New South Wales vice-regal representative of the Australian monarch in New South Wales

The Governor of New South Wales is the viceregal representative of the Australian monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, in the state of New South Wales. In an analogous way to the Governor-General of Australia at the national level, the Governors of the Australian states perform constitutional and ceremonial functions at the state level. The governor is appointed by the queen on the advice of the premier of New South Wales, for an unfixed period of time—known as serving At Her Majesty's pleasure—though five years is the norm. The current governor is retired judge Margaret Beazley, who succeeded David Hurley on 2 May 2019.


According to Percival Serle, Denison was a man of high character and a good administrator. In his early days in Tasmania he spoke too frankly about the colonists in communications which he regarded as confidential, and this accentuated the feeling against him as a representative of the colonial office during the anti-transportation and responsible government movements. He showed great interest in the life of the colony, and helped to foster education, science and trade, during the period when Tasmania was developing into a prosperous colony. In New South Wales his task was easier, and he had no difficulty in coping adequately with the problems that arose during the early days of responsible government in Australia. [1]

Percival Serle Australian writer

Percival Serle was an Australian biographer and bibliographer.

Tasmania island state of Australia

Tasmania is an island state of Australia. It is located 240 km (150 mi) to the south of the Australian mainland, separated by Bass Strait. The state encompasses the main island of Tasmania, the 26th-largest island in the world, and the surrounding 334 islands. The state has a population of around 526,700 as of March 2018. Just over forty percent of the population resides in the Greater Hobart precinct, which forms the metropolitan area of the state capital and largest city, Hobart.

New South Wales State of Australia

New South Wales is a state on the east coast of Australia. It borders Queensland to the north, Victoria to the south, and South Australia to the west. Its coast borders the Tasman Sea to the east. The Australian Capital Territory is an enclave within the state. New South Wales' state capital is Sydney, which is also Australia's most populous city. In September 2018, the population of New South Wales was over 8 million, making it Australia's most populous state. Just under two-thirds of the state's population, 5.1 million, live in the Greater Sydney area. Inhabitants of New South Wales are referred to as New South Welshmen.

Early life

Denison was the third son of John Denison, of Ossington, M.P. for Chichester and his second wife Charlotte Estwick, [2] his brothers were Evelyn Denison (1800–1873), the future Speaker of the House of Commons, and clergymen Edward Denison (1801–1854) and George Anthony Denison (1805–1896). He was born in London and studied at a private school in Sunbury before going to study at Eton College and the Royal Military College (February 1819 – 1823) and entered the Royal Engineers in 1826 after spending some time in the Ordnance Survey. In November 1838 he married Caroline Hornby. [3] [4]

Edward Denison (bishop) British bishop

Edward Denison the elder (1801–1854) was an English bishop of Salisbury.

Eton College British independent boarding school located in Eton

Eton College is an English 13–18 independent boarding school and sixth form for boys in the parish of Eton, near Windsor in Berkshire. It was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI as Kynge's College of Our Ladye of Eton besyde Windesore , as a sister institution to King's College, Cambridge, making it the 18th-oldest Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference school.

Royal Military College, Sandhurst British Army military academy

The Royal Military College (RMC), founded in 1801 and established in 1802 at Great Marlow and High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, England, but moved in October 1812 to Sandhurst, Berkshire, was a British Army military academy for training infantry and cavalry officers of the British and Indian Armies.

Rideau Canal, Upper Canada

Lt. Denison was one of the junior Royal Engineers who worked under Lt. Colonel John By on the Rideau Canal in Upper Canada (1826–1832). Of note, Denison carried out experiments under the direction of Lt. Col. By to determine the strength, for construction purposes of the old growth Canadian timber in the vicinity of Bytown. His findings were published by the Institution of Civil Engineers in England who bestowed upon him the prestigious Telford Medal in silver. [5]

John By British military engineer

Lieutenant-Colonel John By was an English military engineer, best remembered for supervising the construction of the Rideau Canal and founding Bytown in the process, which would become the Canadian capital, Ottawa.

Rideau Canal Canal in Canada

The Rideau Canal, also known unofficially as the Rideau Waterway, connects Canada's capital city of Ottawa, Ontario, to Lake Ontario and the Saint Lawrence River at Kingston, Ontario. It is 202 kilometres in length. The name Rideau, French for "curtain", is derived from the curtain-like appearance of the Rideau River's twin waterfalls where they join the Ottawa River. The canal system uses sections of two rivers, the Rideau and the Cataraqui, as well as several lakes. The Rideau Canal is operated by Parks Canada.

Upper Canada 19th century British colony in present-day Ontario

The Province of Upper Canada was a part of British Canada established in 1791 by the Kingdom of Great Britain, to govern the central third of the lands in British North America, formerly part of the Province of Quebec since 1763. Upper Canada included all of modern-day Southern Ontario and all those areas of Northern Ontario in the Pays d'en Haut which had formed part of New France, essentially the watersheds of the Ottawa River or Lakes Huron and Superior, excluding any lands within the watershed of Hudson Bay. The "upper" prefix in the name reflects its geographic position along the Great Lakes, mostly above the headwaters of the Saint Lawrence River, contrasted with Lower Canada to the northeast.

He returned to England in 1831 and worked at Woolwich and as an instructor at Chatham from 1833. He worked at Greenwich observatory with Ramsden's zenith sector and in 1837 he was engineer in charge of Woolwich Dockyard. He was promoted to captain in 1841 and he visited Bermuda in 1842. In 1844-5 he worked with the royal commission on the health of towns. Denison was knighted for his work in the Admiralty in 1846. [4]

Governor of Van Diemen's Land

Denison was offered the position of Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land in 1846 on the recommendation of Sir John Burgoyne, and arrived at Hobart on 25 January 1847. Six members of the nominee Legislative Council had resigned in protest over the costs of the prison system, which was partly borne by Tasmanians, and increased by the suspension of transportation to New South Wales. There had been a strong protest from members of the Anti-Transportation League and Sir John Eardley-Wilmot had been recalled for his failure to administer. Denison was told that no convicts would be sent so that he could fix the problem. The Tasmanian Legislative Council had no quorum. Due to difficulties in appointing replacements, Denison chose to rule without a functioning Council, even though this meant he could not pass legislation, including that needed to amend some local tax laws that were subsequently found to be faulty. [3] He became at odds with the two judges; the power of the Council to levy taxes. This had arisen after a case of dog tax that John Morgan, the editor of Britannia had refused to pay. The case was taken to the Supreme Court where Chief Justice Pedder and Judge Montagu ruled that the local Act was contrary to the imperial statute which required the revenue to be set aside for use to specific local purpose. [6] Denison thereupon charged the judges with neglect of duty in failing to identify the faults in the laws before they were enacted. He suggested that the Chief Justice should apply for leave of absence, and also found an opportunity to dismiss Montagu who was threatened with an action by a creditor. Denison was afterwards reprimanded by the Secretary of State, Earl Grey, for his conduct towards Pedder, but the dismissal of Montagu was confirmed. [1]

Van Diemens Land British colony, later called Tasmania

Van Diemen's Land was the original name used by most Europeans for the island of Tasmania, part of Australia. The name was changed from Van Diemen's Land to Tasmania in 1856.

John Fox Burgoyne British Army officer

Field Marshal Sir John Fox Burgoyne, 1st Baronet was a British Army officer. After taking part in the Siege of Malta during the French Revolutionary Wars, he saw action under Sir John Moore and then under the Duke of Wellington in numerous battles of the Peninsular War, including the Siege of Badajoz and the Battle of Vitoria. He served under Sir Edward Pakenham as chief engineer during the War of 1812. He went on to act as official advisor to Lord Raglan during the Crimean War advocating the Bay of Kalamita as the point of disembarkation for allied forces and recommending a Siege of Sevastopol from the south side rather than a coup de main, so consigning the allied forces to a winter in the field in 1854.

Hobart City in Tasmania, Australia

Hobart is the capital and most populous city of the Australian island state of Tasmania. With a population of approximately 225,000, it is the least populated Australian state capital city, and second smallest if territories are taken into account. Founded in 1804 as a British penal colony, Hobart, formerly known as Hobart Town or Hobarton, is Australia's second oldest capital city after Sydney, New South Wales. Prior to British settlement, the Hobart area had been occupied for possibly as long as 35,000 years, by the semi-nomadic Mouheneener tribe, a sub-group of the Nuennone, or South-East tribe. The descendants of these Aboriginal Tasmanians often refer to themselves as 'Palawa'.

A report made by Denison to the Secretary of State, in which he spoke unfavourably of the colonists as a whole, was printed as a parliamentary paper, Denison naturally became very unpopular, and this unpopularity was not lessened by his attitude to the anti-transportation movement. He, however, succeeded in conciliating some of the citizens by granting 5 acres (20,000 m2) of land in Hobart as a site for an unsectarian school. [1]

In 1846, Grey's predecessor, Gladstone had suspended transportation of males to Tasmania for two years, and Grey had erroneously given the impression in dispatches to Denison that it would not be resumed, and Denison had passed this view on to the Legislative Council. [3] Subsequently, the British Government began sending convicts in large numbers. The Anti-Transportation League formed to oppose transportation had the support of nearly all the leading colonists of Tasmania, and as the other colonies took the same stand success became certain. The discovery of gold in Australia, reduced crime in England and the construction of prisons in England led to a decline in the convict transport and in 1852 Lord Stanley stopped the transport of prisoners to Van Diemen's Land and Denison closed the penal settlement on Norfolk Island. [1] [4]

While this movement had been going on, the question of granting responsible government had come much to the front. In 1850 an act for the better government of the Australian colonies was passed, which provided that the existing nominee councils should frame electoral acts for new elected councils. A council of 16 members was elected in Tasmania, all supporting the Anti-Transportation movement, and the governor's power was now much reduced. He, however, incurred some criticism by proclaiming pre-emptive right land regulations before the new Council met. The proclamation was intended to help to keep small holders of land in Tasmania, but the large graziers and speculators defeated this by taking up large tracts of land. Denison, however, became more popular towards the end of his term. In September 1854 he received word that he had been appointed Governor of New South Wales, and when he left Hobart on 13 January 1855 he received a cheque for £2000 from the colonists to purchase a piece of plate as a memento of his sojourn among them. After correspondence with the Secretary of State he was allowed to accept this. [1] One of his last official acts was to support the Legislative Council's request that the colony's name be changed to Tasmania. [3]

Governor of New South Wales

Denison was appointed Governor of New South Wales on 20 January 1855. In 1856, he became both Governor of New South Wales and "Governor-General in and over all our Colonies of New South Wales, Van Diemen's Land, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia", a new title, which implied a role in encouraging co-operation between the colonies. In response to the Crimean War, he strengthened Sydney's defences, strengthening the batteries on Dawes Point and building Fort Denison. He inaugurated the bicameral system of representative government in New South Wales, and showed wisdom and tact in his dealings with the problems which arose, including the handing of executive power to the new Parliament. He successfully opposed the Colonial Office's initial decision to put New England and the Clarence Valley in the new colony of Queensland. In 1859, he appointed Queensland's first Legislative Council and began the process of electing a Legislative Assembly, inaugurated on 22 May 1860. While he opened the colony's first railway in 1855, he ignored the problem of different rail gauges despite his role as Governor-General, although he was more active in developing arrangements for paying for postal connections with the United Kingdom, ameliorating inter-colonial tariffs and co-operation over the provision of lighthouses. [3]

Denison was responsible for closing the penal colony on Norfolk Island and for resettling the mutineers of the Bounty from Pitcairn Island. He initially instructed that the Island, except for certain public reserves would be vested in the Pitcairners, and was then forced by the Colonial Office to withdraw the vesting of land, leading to a lasting grievance. [3] When visiting New Zealand gave sensible advice to Colonel Gore Browne, which if followed, might have averted the New Zealand land wars. In November 1860 he received word that he had been appointed governor of Madras, and left Sydney on 22 January 1861. [1]

Governor of Madras

Denison's first work was to reorganize the Sepoy army after the 1857 rebellion. He opposed separate armies for Bengal, Madras and Bombay and the introduction of Indians into the legislative councils in the presidencies and provinces. He condemned any ideas of self-rule and representation by Indians. He also opposed competition for the civil services and insisted that officers were above all to be "gentlemen". [4]

In India his training as an engineer was useful in connexion with irrigation and public works of which he was a strong advocate. He passed a town improvement act in 1865 and revised the land revenue assessment principles. In November 1863, when Lord Elgin died, Denison for two months became Governor-General of India. During this period he recalled an order for the withdrawal of troops involved in the Sitana campaign. [4] [7]

Denison's barb was named after him by Francis Day Akwa18 puntius2.jpg
Denison's barb was named after him by Francis Day

In March 1866 he retired and returned to England and prepared his Varieties of Vice-Regal Life, which appeared in two volumes in 1870. In 1868 he chaired a royal commission to study the pollution of British rivers and held the post until his death. He died in East Sheen, Surrey and was survived by his wife Caroline Lucy, daughter of Admiral Sir Phipps Hornby, who he had married on 29 November 1838 (she died in 1899), six sons and four daughters (of thirteen children). [1] [4]

Denison took an interest in science and supported studies on the natural history of India. He corresponded with Sir Roderick Murchison but was a staunch Anglican Christian, anti-Darwinian and wrote an essay on the antiquity of man and a critique of Essays and Reviews . [4]


The Institution of Civil Engineers in England bestowed upon him the prestigious Telford Medal in 1837 for his paper on his experiments testing the strength of Canadian timber. He was one of the first recipients of this prize.

Denison was knighted before leaving for Tasmania and was created a K.C.B. in 1856. [1]

The federal electoral Division of Denison and the Tasmanian Division of Denison are named for Denison. Port Denison (off the coast of Bowen, Queensland) was named after him. [8]

Taxa named in honour of Denison

Two Indian species are named after William Denison: a fish, the Denison barb (Sahyadria denisonii ), from the Western Ghats; and a plant, Impatiens denisonii , from the Nilgiri hills. [9]

A genus of Australian venomous snakes, Denisonia , is named in honour of William Denison. [10]

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Parliament of Tasmania Bicameral parliament in Tasmania

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Thomas Bock was an English-Australian artist and an early adopter of photography in Australia. Born in England he was sentenced to transportation in 1823. After gaining his freedom he set himself up as one of Australia's first professional artists and became well known for his portraits of colonists. As early as 1843 he began taking daguerreotypes in Hobart and became one of the earliest commercial photographers in Australia.

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Australasian Anti-Transportation League organization

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The Colony of Tasmania was a British colony that existed on the island of Tasmania from 1856 until 1901, when it federated together with the five other Australian colonies to form the Commonwealth of Australia. The possibility of the colony was established when the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the Australian Constitutions Act in 1850, granting the right of legislative power to each of the six Australian colonies. The Legislative Council of Van Diemen's Land drafted a new constitution which they passed in 1854, and it was given Royal Assent by Queen Victoria in 1855. Later in that year the Privy Council approved the colony changing its name from "Van Diemen's Land" to "Tasmania", and in 1856, the newly elected bicameral parliament of Tasmania sat for the first time, establishing Tasmania as a self-governing colony of the British Empire. Tasmania was often referred to as one of the "most British" colonies of the Empire.

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Serle, Percival. "Denison, Sir William Thomas (1804–1871)". Dictionary of Australian Biography . Project Gutenberg Australia. Archived from the original on 28 March 2016. Retrieved 14 July 2016.
  2. "OBITUARY". The Mercury . Hobart, Tasmania. 17 February 1871. p. 2. Archived from the original on 14 July 2016. Retrieved 2 May 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Currey, C. H. "Denison, Sir William Thomas (1804–1871)". Australian Dictionary of Biography . Australian National University. Archived from the original on 18 February 2011. Retrieved 21 April 2007.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Arbuthnot, A. J. (revised by A. G. L. Shaw) (2004). "Denison, Sir William Thomas (1804 1871)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/7492.
  5. Legget, R. Rideau Waterway. 174 – 175.
  6. Howell, P. A. Howell (1967). "Pedder, Sir John Lewes (1793–1859)". Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography. Australian National University. Retrieved 23 October 2016.
  7. Adye, John (1867). Sitana: A mountain campaign on the borders of Afghanistan in 1863. London: Richard Bentley. pp. 79–81.
  8. "Port Denison (entry 9741)". Queensland Place Names. Queensland Government . Retrieved 9 January 2016.
  9. Day F (1865). "On the fishes of Cochin, on the Malabar Coast of India. Part II. Anacanthini". Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. 1865: 286–318.
  10. Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN   978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Denison", p. 69).

Further reading

Government offices
Preceded by
Sir John Eardley-Wilmot, Bt
Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen's Land
Succeeded by
Sir Henry Young
Preceded by
Sir Charles Augustus FitzRoy
Governor of New South Wales
Succeeded by
Sir John Young, Bt
Preceded by
William Ambrose Morehead
Governor of Madras
Succeeded by
The Lord Napier
Preceded by
Sir Robert Napier (acting)
Viceroy of India, acting
Succeeded by
Sir John Lawrence