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Sir George Gipps: Ninth Governor of NSW

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6 min read
Portrait of Sir George Gipps (undated) by Henry William Pickersgill, Mitchell Library (State Library of New South Wales)
During his eight-year term as the Governor of New South Wales (1838-1846), Sir George Gipps withstood criticism and took a stand against ‘squattocracy’. He was also instrumental in the establishment of a prison at Cockatoo Island. In this DigiTale, volunteer researcher Michele Harper canvasses the life of the statesman who possessed “a fine sense of justice” but was not always popular.

Gipps was born the son of a reverend in Kent, England in 1790 and received his education at the King’s School, Canterbury and, later, the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich in south-east London.

Gipps entered the army as a second lieutenant in 1809, aged 18, and served in both the Peninsular War and the West Indies. In 1834, he became the Private Secretary to the First Lord of the Admiralty (the political head of the Royal Navy). He was subsequently knighted and rose to the the rank of Major. 

A highly anticipated appointment

Gipps was appointed the ninth Governor of New South Wales on 5 October 1837 and arrived in Sydney on 24 February, the following year. A fortnight before his arrival, the Commercial Journal and Advertiser published a statement, conveying the momentuosness of the occasion to its Sydney Readership:

“The arrival of His Excellency Sir George Gipps is anticipated every hour. The Government boats are kept in readiness night and day in expectation of the event. There cannot he a doubt that the assumption of the reins of Government by Sir George will form an important era in the history of this Colony. At all events, it is so anticipated on all hands.”

Ultimately, Gipps would serve at a very turbulent time in Australian history; namely, the transition of New South Wales from a penal colony to a representative government. During his governorship, Gipps also briefly governed New Zealand as, for a short period, the country was included in the boundaries of New South Wales. New Zealand became a separate Crown colony in May 1841.

Equal application of the law

While in office, Gipps sought to address ‘squattocracy’ within the colony of New South Wales and endeavoured to ensure squatters remained within the defined boundaries of their properties. In the wake of the Myall and Waterloo Creek Massacres, Gipps resolved to address the way in which Aboriginal People were treated by squatters and settlers.

Relevantly, he sought to impress upon Aboriginal People that the laws of the colony would provide them with protection against wrongdoing, equal to that of any settler. In response to the Myall Creek Massacre of June 1838, Gipps pursued justice for the 28 Aboriginal men, women and children who had been killed. In December that year, seven settlers were hanged for the brutal murders.   

A prison at Cockatoo Island

In 1839, George Gipps advised the Imperial Government that he would establish a new penal colony at Cockatoo Island for re-offending criminals to alleviate overcrowding at Norfolk Island Prison.

He reasoned that Cockatoo Island was separated from the main settlement, surrounded by deep water to prevent escape, and that prisoners could be put to work quarrying the island's sandstone for use in the colony's ambitious building projects. 

In 1843, the transportation of convicts to the colony of New South Wales ceased.  The decision was not popular with landowners as they lost their source of cheap labour.  The loss of cheap labour and a three-year drought resulted in a recession in the colony, and land prices fell.

Declining health and legacy

Gipps was unpopular with landowners due to his actions regarding the squatters and the fall in land prices and his health was affected by overwork and the animosity he received from the landowners. 

Gipps’ tenure as Governor was extended by the Colonial Office for two years, but due to ill-health he left Sydney in July 1846, before his successor, Governor Charles Fitzroy arrived.  Gipps arrived back in England in November 1846 and died three months later, on 28 February 1847, of a heart attack.

On 30 July 1847, the Colonial Times (Tasmania) published an extract from the Naval and Military Gazette eulogising Gipps. The authors described Gipps as a “gallant and honourable soldier” who had displayed “an acute intellect, extensive information, and integrity” throughout his career and possessed “a fine sense of justice”. Nevertheless, they deemed Gipps’ career as Governor a “failure”, explaining:

“This was owing in part to a somewhat proud and peremptory disposition, and in part to his having been sent, without any previous acquaintance with colonial affairs, to govern a colony the internal relations of which were extremely delicate and complicated…

“… we admit that the circumstances of the colony during his term of office were such as might have bewildered and baffled a statesman of the highest order.”

References

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Gipps served during a very turbulent time in Australian history.

– Michele Harper

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