William Denison : biography
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 20 January 1855 to 22 January 1861, and Governor of Madras from 1861 to 1866.
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.
Rideau Canal, Upper Canada
Lt. Denison was one of the junior Royal Engineers who worked under Lt. Colonel John By, RE 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.Legget, R. Rideau Waterway. 174 – 175.
Governor of Van Diemen’s Land
Denison was offered the position of Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land in 1846, 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. This meant the 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 tax laws that were subsequently found to be faulty. He became at odds with the two judges; the power of the Council to levy taxes had been questioned, and Chief Justice Pedder and Judge Montagu concurred in holding that the Council had no right to levy a tax for other than local purposes. 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.
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 of land in Hobart as a site for an unsectarian school.
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. 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 last ship with convicts for Tasmania sailed towards the end of 1852.
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. One of his last official acts was to support the Legislative Council’s request that the colony’s name be changed to Tasmania.