Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Denison, William Thomas

DENISON, Sir WILLIAM THOMAS (1804–1871), lieutenant-general, colonial and Indian governor, third son of John Denison, esq., of Ossington, Nottinghamshire [see Denison, John Evelyn, and Denison, Edward, D.D.], was born in London on 3 May 1804. He was educated at a private school at Sunbury, at Eton—where he spent four years—and under a private tutor, the Rev. C. Drury. In February 1819 he entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, and passed for the royal engineers in 1823, but did not receive his commission until 1826, spending a portion of the interval in working at the Ordnance Survey. After going through the usual course of instruction at Chatham he was sent in 1827 to Canada, where during the following four years he was employed with a company of sappers in the construction of the Rideau Canal, having his headquarters at Ottawa, now the capital of Canada. While engaged upon this duty he made a series of experiments for the purpose of testing the strength of the various kinds of American timber, the results of which he subsequently communicated to the Institute of Civil Engineers, which voted him the Telford medal, and appointed him an associate. Returning to England at the end of 1831, he was for a time quartered at Woolwich. In February 1833 he was appointed instructor of the engineer cadets at Chatham, where he established a small observatory. In the summer of 1835 he was appointed a member of the corporation boundary commission. In the following year he was employed at Greenwich in making observations with Ramsden's zenith sector. In the autumn of 1837 he was placed in charge of the works at Woolwich dockyard, and from that time until June 1846, when he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen's Land, he was employed under the admiralty, first at Woolwich and afterwards at Portsmouth, visiting in the summer of 1842 Bermuda, where he was sent to inspect the admiralty works in progress there. He was also a member of a government commission upon the health of towns. During the whole of this period he paid considerable attention to scientific and professional studies. While serving at Woolwich in 1837 he originated the publication of the professional papers of the royal engineers, which he edited until his departure for Van Diemen's Land. In 1846, for his services under the admiralty, he was knighted on the recommendation of Lord Auckland, the first lord.

The appointment of Denison, then a captain of engineers, to the government of Van Diemen's Land was due to Sir John Burgoyne, who had been requested by the colonial secretary, Mr. Gladstone, to nominate an officer of engineers qualified for the post. Owing, however, to a change of government, the appointment was actually made by Lord Grey. Denison reached Hobart Town early in 1847. The colony was in a somewhat disorganised condition. There was very little money in the colonial treasury, and a good many debts. There had been a serious difference of opinion between the late lieutenant-governor, Sir Eardley Wilmot, and the unofficial members of the Legislative Council on the question of the transportation of convicts to Van Diemen's Land. The system of transportation, though abandoned in New South Wales, was still in force in Van Diemen's Land. There was an erroneous impression at the colonial office, that the number of convicts in the colony was largely in excess of the demand for their labour, the fact being that every available convict had been hired, and that there was a deficiency of hands to carry on the ordinary government work. Denison was soon able to convince many of the settlers who had been opposed to transportation that a hasty discontinuance of that system would be injurious to their interests. The system was, however, finally abolished in 1853.

The differences between the late lieutenant-governor and the unofficial members of the council had culminated in the resignation of six out of eight of the latter. The vacant seats had been filled up, but the home government, not approving of the action of the late lieutenant-governor, had instructed Denison to make fresh appointments, selecting six from the six who had resigned and from the six members recently appointed. The legality of this arrangement was questioned by the judges of the supreme court, and the sittings of the council had to be adjourned until the appointments of the new members had been formally ratified by the crown. Soon after Denison's arrival he was obliged to suspend the puisne judge of the supreme court for taking advantage of his judicial office to repudiate a debt. He also came into collision with the chief justice on the subject of certain colonial legislative enactments, which the judges had pronounced to be illegal, after having previously certified that there was no objection to them. His action in this last matter was disapproved by the secretary of state. The censure was, however, accompanied by an expression of confidence in his zeal and ability. Denison's attention had been drawn before he left England to the introduction of a system of representative government. The inherent difficulties of the question were not diminished by the publication in London of a confidential despatch written by Denison regarding the establishment of a second chamber, portions of which were held to convey reflections upon the colonists. The unfavourable impression thus produced was speedily removed by his tact and frankness. The factious conduct of some of the members of the council entailed considerable difficulty in passing the necessary acts; but on 1 Jan. 1852 the first session of the new representative assembly was formally opened by the lieutenant-governor.

The establishment of an effective system of popular education, public works, the question of making more adequate provision for religious services among the scattered colonists, and other cognate questions, occupied much of Denison's time. His views upon education were extremely liberal, although he objected to a purely secular system, and thought that the system which he found in operation had given undue advantages to the presbyterians and protestant dissenters, who formed only one-sixth of the population. He advocated the establishment of local rates and of local governing bodies for the support and management of the schools, and in church matters he was strongly in favour of a more extensive use of lay agency. He was not only the real director of his own public works department, but his advice was often sought on questions relating to public works by the authorities in the neighbouring colonies. When the Crimean war broke out he constructed some batteries for the defence of the harbour of Hobart Town, and trained the police to act as gunners.

Towards the close of 1854 Denison was appointed governor of New South Wales, with the title of governor-general of Australia. This title was nothing more than a name. Denison was himself opposed to the retention of the title, which was abolished after his retirement. He was also opposed to any attempt to establish a federal system in Australia. He left Van Diemen's Land much regretted by the colonists, who had learnt to value his manliness, zeal, and ability.

Denison retained the government of New South Wales until 1861. Many of the questions which occupied him were very similar to those which had engaged his attention in Van Diemen's Land. Shortly after his arrival he was called upon to introduce constitutional government into New South Wales, where in 1855 a parliament was established composed of two houses, an upper house nominated by the governor, with the advice of his responsible ministers, and a lower house elected. It is evident from Denison's letters that he was by no means enamoured of the new system. He complained that during three years and a half he had had five sets of ministers, by whom ‘not one measure of social improvement had been passed, and the only acts of importance that had stood the ordeal were those of very questionable advantage.’ He thought that some of the evils of a low qualification might be diminished by the division of the country into large electoral districts, each returning several members, combined with the limitation of the right of voting to one vote. By this means more scope would be given for the representation of various interests and of property under a low electoral qualification than by any other plan. He emphatically deprecated the disposition to regard the colonies rather as an encumbrance than as a benefit to the empire. He was opposed to the formation of a colonial military force as likely to be expensive and ill disciplined. Denison entirely disapproved of the ticket-of-leave system. Holding that the prevention of crime was the main object of punishment, he considered that sentences should be fully and strictly enforced, and that imprisonment should invariably, even in the case of prisoners awaiting trial, be accompanied by labour. Denison's views on this subject were adopted by the government of New South Wales. During his government the Pitcairn Islanders, the descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty, were removed to Norfolk Island, a measure in which he took much personal interest, twice visiting Norfolk Island and investigating various matters connected with the well-being of the islanders. In 1856 he was created a civil K.C.B.

On leaving Sydney Denison was appointed to the government of Madras, which he assumed in March 1861. He found on his arrival several very important questions pressing for decision. One of these was the question of reorganising the native army. Denison speedily came to the conclusion that the plan of officering the army from a staff corps was radically unsound. He predicted that under the plan proposed, which involved promotion according to length of service, the proportion of field officers would in the course of a few years be excessive, while the irregular system, depending for its efficiency on exceptional capacity in the officers, was utterly unsuitable for an entire army. He was also opposed to the retention of separate armies for Bengal, Madras, and Bombay. Denison's predictions in regard to the staff corps have been fully justified. On the question of presidential commands his views were in substance followed in the report of the Indian army commission, though not adopted by the home government. He also disapproved of the establishment of legislative councils in the minor presidencies and provinces, and the introduction of the native element into those councils. He held that these measures would lead to demands for representation, and that they were not really desired by the natives. He deprecated the cry of ‘India for the Indians,’ and the attempt to govern by and through them, emphatically condemning ‘the theory that we are acting as tutors to teach the Hindoos to govern themselves,’ which he characterised as ‘sentimental trash, good enough for Exeter Hall, but too absurd to be uttered in the House of Commons.’ Denison speedily formed and retained what most persons well acquainted with the natives of India would regard as an unduly low opinion of the native character. He was entirely opposed to the recently introduced system of open competition for admission into the covenanted civil service. ‘If,’ he wrote, ‘there is one quality which is more required in India than elsewhere, it is that which makes a man a gentleman.’ In the matter of the relations between the government of India and the local governments he advocated changes which have since been introduced in principle by Lord Mayo and his successors.

In Madras, as in the Australian colonies, Denison gave much attention to public works. He recognised the great value of irrigation works and of improved communications, although he deemed the lines of railway, then under construction in India, to be needlessly expensive. He carried out a reorganisation of the public works department, which, however, has been more than once altered since. He disapproved of the employment of officers of the royal engineers upon civil duties, recommending that in India, as elsewhere, the military organisation of the corps should be restored to it. The improvement of Indian agriculture, and the question of the principles upon which the land revenue should be assessed, were also matters in which he evinced a keen and practical interest.

On the death of Lord Elgin, in the latter part of 1863, Denison was called upon to assume temporarily the office of governor-general, and on that occasion he rendered a valuable service by procuring the recall of an order for the withdrawal of the troops then engaged upon the Sitána expedition, a measure which, following, as it did, a temporary check sustained by the British force, could not have failed to affect injuriously our military prestige, and would probably have set the whole frontier in a blaze.

Denison retired from the Madras government in March 1866. Shortly after his return to England, he, being then a colonel of engineers, was offered and at once accepted the command of the engineers at Portsmouth; but on further consideration it was deemed inexpedient, with reference to the high offices which he had filled, to employ him in that capacity, and the appointment consequently was not made. In 1868 he was appointed chairman of a royal commission to inquire into the best means of preventing the pollution of rivers, and acted in that capacity until his death at East Sheen on 19 Jan. 1871. In 1838 he married Caroline, daughter of Admiral Sir Phipps Hornby. He left several sons and daughters. In addition to his onerous official duties, Denison devoted much of his time to the study of religious and scientific subjects. When at Sydney he published an essay upon ‘The Church as a Social Institution.’ Essays on systems of education, on ‘Essays and Reviews,’ on ‘The Antiquity of Man,’ and on the ‘Results of a Series of Experiments for determining the relative Value of Specimens of Gold’ also proceeded from his pen. He was a man of strong religious convictions, singularly warm-hearted and generous, and was much beloved in his family and in private life.

[Varieties of Viceregal Life, by Sir William Denison, K.C.B., London, 1870; Ann. Reg. 1871; Memoir of Lieut.-general Sir William Denison, K.C.B. Excerpt Annual Report of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, 1872; Sitána, by Colonel John Adye, 1867; unpublished memoir; manuscripts, letters, and official papers; personal information.]

A. J. A.