DENISON, Sir William Thomas (1804-1871)


DENISON, Sir William Thomas (1804-1871)
governor of Tasmania and of New South Wales
was the son of John Denison, and was born in England in 1804. He was educated at Eton and entered the royal engineers in 1826. After serving for 20 years in various capacities, he was offered the position of lieutenant-governor of Tasmania in 1846, and arrived at Hobart on 25 January 1847. Legal difficulties prevented a meeting of the legislative council during 1847 and Denison ruled alone. He became at odds with the two judges; the power of the nominee council to levy taxes had been questioned, and Chief Justice Pedder and Mr Justice 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 omitting to certify illegality in an act before it was enrolled. 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 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 five acres of land in Hobart as a site for an unsectarian school. The colonial office announced the cessation of sending convicts to Tasmania, but reversed their policy and began sending them in large numbers. The Australasian 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, and the governor's power was now much reduced. He, however, incurred some criticism by proclaiming pre-emptive right [sic] 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.
In New South Wales Denison inaugurated the bicameral system of representative government, and showed wisdom and tact in his dealings with the problems which arose. He drew up a good constitution for the descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty on Norfolk Island, and when visiting New Zealand gave sensible advice to Colonel Gore Browne, which if followed, might have averted the Maori war. In November 1860 he received word that he had been appointed governor of Madras, and left Sydney on 22 January 1861.
In India his training as an engineer was useful in connexion with irrigation of which he was a strong advocate. In November 1863, when Lord Elgin died, Denison for two months became governor-general of India. In March 1866 he returned to England and prepared his Varieties of Vice-Regal Life, which appeared in two volumes in 1870. He died on 19 January 1871. He married a daughter of Admiral Sir William Phipps Hornby, and was survived by six sons and four daughters. He was knighted before leaving for Tasmania and was created a K.C.B. in 1856.
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.
Sir William Denison, Varieties of Vice-Regal Life; J. West, The History of Tasmania; J. Fenton, A History of Tasmania; G. W. Rusden, History of Australia; P. Mennell, The Dictionary of Australasian Biography; J. H. Heaton, Australian Dictionary of Dates.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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