Two elopements and a colonising theory [by Professor Ernest Scott, 1 July 1939]

[Editor: This is part seven of the “Men who made Australia” series written by Professor Ernest Scott. This article is about Edward Gibbon Wakefield.]

Men who made Australia — No. 7

Two elopements and a colonising theory

By Professor Sir Ernest Scott

I have before me a shabby little brown book which was written 110 years ago by a young man who was “doing time” in Newgate prison, London. In this, its original form, it is a volume of some price, though in appearance it is not attractive.

But anyone who may care to read it without making excessive demands upon his purse may buy a cheap copy, carefully edited by Professor R. C. Mills, of Sydney University, who persuaded the publishers of the excellent “Everyman’s Library” to re-issue it.

Professor Mills is an eminent economist, the author of a first-class treatise on “The Colonisation of Australia.” In writing that book he had to study this expensive but dingy volume, which he has put forth anew in a comely modern dress.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who wrote the book entitled “A Letter from Sydney, the Principal Town in New South Wales,” had not been shut up in Newgate for any offence like pocket-picking, burglary, highway robbery, or other vulgar forms of crime. He was more original. He specialised in the art of eloping with young ladies.

The first one whom he led astray was the daughter of an East Indian merchant into whose family he inveigled himself by pretending to like cock-fighting, a fancy which the girl’s two uncles, who were her guardians, adored. Wakefield hated cock-fighting, but he had a fancy for Eliza.

Seizing an opportunity — perhaps while the uncles were watching a pair of very game birds in the pit — the hawk carried off the dove; that is to say, Wakefield whisked the lass away to Scotland, and married her according to the law of that country. Eliza was a ward in Chancery, but Wakefield managed somehow, perhaps with the connivance of the sporting uncles, to avoid the possible consequences of eloping with a young lady who was under the protection of the court.

When Eliza died, within a year, Wakefield found another heiress who was also a ward in Chancery. But this time the young man “fell in,” to speak in our vernacular. The Lord Chancellor, in one of Gilbert’s comic operas sings a description of how

“In my court I sit all day
Giving agreeable girls away.”

Naturally, that is a function which a Lord Chancellor, who is nearly always a nice, paternal old gentleman, likes to keep in his own hands. So, after Wakefield had lured Miss Ellen Turner, “a pretty, genteel girl of 16,” away from a boarding school for young ladies near Liverpool to Gretna Green, where they were married by the famous blacksmith, and was even successful in conveying his bride to France for the honeymoon, the long, strong arm of the law reached out and clutched him. The marriage was annulled by a special Act of Parliament, and Edward Gibbon Wakefield was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.


The political career which Wakefield had dreamt of pursuing in England now seemed to be made impossible. No man who had manoeuvred two elopements could have faced the free and independent electors of any constituency under the open voting system which then prevailed. Dead cats and rotten eggs were political arguments in those merry days.

But there might be a place for an ambitious and clever young man in one of the British colonies. Therefore, he began to read, while still a prisoner, all the literature about Australia that he could obtain. As he read, a new theory of colonisation began to form itself in his ingenious mind. That theory he sketched in the little book already mentioned, and it was worked out in greater detail, with elaborate argument, in the many books and articles which flowed from his facile pen in later years.

On the face of it, the “Letter From Sydney” was a glorious, superb, glittering hoax. Wakefield had never been in New South Wales. He had never set foot in any colony. He knew nothing about land settlement. But so cleverly did he produce the illusion of being an authoritative exponent of the errors of colonisation as then practised, and a clear-sighted advocate of the right way to do it, that he even persuaded clever and responsible persons that he was, as it were, a new Moses pointing from a Pisgah-peak to promised lands across the seas. Even the eminent historian Sir Spencer Walpole, in his “History of England From the Conclusion of the Great War in 1815,” Vol. VI., p. 360, says that “the Letter was written from Sydney.” Wakefield was never in Sydney at any time.

And yet, how seductive was the picture he painted of the people and the country he had not seen! “The native Australians,” said he, “bear a stronger resemblance to the modern Greeks than to any other people.” The climate had done it. “The Australian youth are neither chubby, ruddy, nor strongly knit, like the English, whose otherwise variable climate is almost constantly wet; nor fat, white, thick-skinned, like the Dutch, whose climate is one fog, dripping or frozen; nor indescribable, like the mongrel French, whose climate is neither one thing nor the other.” The young men made him feel “envious and jealous of their personal beauty.” And the girls! There are several pages of rhapsody about them from the pen of this expert. They were “lively, imaginative, enthusiastic, and very loving,” while when bathing they reminded him of the sculptor Flaxman’s sea-nymphs.

Wakefield’s masterpiece in this intriguing volume was his description of the pathetic scene when, departing from England, he bade farewell to his grandmother. “Poor old soul! she shed abundance of tears, and then became extremely curious to know every particular about the place to which I was going. I rubbed her spectacles while she wiped her eyes.” He pointed out the situation of New Holland on the map. She shook her head. “‘What displeases you, dear madam?’ said I. ‘Why,’ she answered, ‘It is terribly out of the way — down in the very right-hand corner of the world!’ Wakefield really did raise leg-pulling to the dignity of a fine art.


But the essence of the book — and it pervaded his voluminous later writings — was Wakefield’s new theory of colonisation. That theory was, in principle, simple, and apparently reasonable. It was wrong only when attempts were made to give effect to it, and in one instance it was very mischievous.

Land in a newly-colonised country, Wakefield argued, should never be given away, it should always be sold, at a uniform fixed price, or what he called the “sufficient price.” Sufficient for what? Sufficiently cheap to tempt men with some capital to emigrate, buy land, and bring laborers, but yet sufficiently dear to prevent the laborers from becoming landowners too soon. If land were given away by crown grant, there would not be a strong inducement for the owners to make the best use of it. If it were sold at too low a price, laborers would become landowners too easily, and the labor supply would run short. If it were sold at too high a price, it would be unremunerative, and nobody would want to buy it.

The “sufficient price,” then, would be one which would attract capital to the colony, and enable the landowners to make economic use of the land, and would at the same time hinder the laborers from becoming landowners themselves, because their labor was necessary for development.

The price was also to be “fixed” and “uniform.” What was a proper price would be determined by experiment, but once the price was fixed it would apply throughout the colony irrespective of the quality of the land or its situation. Thus, when under the Wakefield influence, the “fixed uniform price” was ordered to prevail in the Port Phillip District, all land was to be sold for £1 an acre. And that is why Henry Dendy obtained eight square miles in what became the suburb of Melbourne which he called Brighton; and why seven other persons at the same time bought eight square miles each in other parts of what is now the State of Victoria.

It was absurd, of course; and Dendy’s coup put an end to the lunacy. But anybody then could have bought the places hereafter to be named Ballarat and Bendigo for £1 an acre, and there was no law to prevent them from owning what lay glittering beneath the surface of those richly auriferous areas. Under the pressure of influential opinion in England, where Wakefield’s theory gained an extraordinary vogue, the Colonial Office, with Lord John Russell at the head of it, went stark, staring Wakefieldan, though one or two of the higher officials saw through the fallacy.


What happened in Western Australia was tragic. Mr. Thomas Peel had come seriously to grief with his attempt to colonise there, because his laborers deserted him. That example seemed to show that Wakefield was right. But after Peel’s failure Western Australia was getting along well enough, and would have made progress steadily as its immense resources were opened up. But when the uniform price of £1 an acre for land was imposed by the Colonial Office, that was too much to pay for the land available at that time, because an immigrant could buy to Port Phillip or New South Wales land which would give him a higher immediate return.

Consequently the “fixed, uniform price” prevented Western Australia from offering cheaper land, which would have attracted immigrants. The young colony thereupon fell on desperately bad times, and felt compelled to consent to receive convict labor after the rest of Australia had ceased to endure it. That setback was due to the enforcement of the Wakefieldian system.

It is true that the foundation of South Australia was due primarily to the exertions of Wakefieldian enthusiasts who accepted the gospel as a new, inspired evangel; and to that colony we will return in the next article of this series. Of the Canterbury settlement something may now be said.

The opportunity of playing an active part in the foundation of a new colony, and of living in one, came to Wakefield 20 years after the publication of his first famous book. The New Zealand Canterbury Settlement was formed as a Church of England colony, under the auspices of an association which had two archbishops and seven bishops among its members. The colonists were carefully selected. He assiduously watched over its interests in the early years, and in 1853, five years after its establishment, went out to New Zealand himself. The one very good thing which he did there was to bring about the provision of reserves of territory for the Maories. They have been maintained ever since. He took an active part in New Zealand politics at the time of the inauguration of responsible government and after, but was not a success as a practical politician, especially as he fell foul of that strong-minded Governor Sir George Grey. Nor was his “system” successful there either. It did not “work” in New Zealand, nor anywhere else.

Governor Sir George Gipps, a most able man, who had to wrestle with the complicated land question in New South Wales, not as an ingenious though in-informed theorist, but as a practical statesman, knocked the Wakefieldian system sky-high in the masterly “Memorandum on Disposal of Lands in Australia,” which he hurled at the Colonial Office in 1840. He showed that not one-hundredth part of the land sold by the Government to Australia was bought with the intention of cultivating it, and that to apply to a pastoral country a theory designed for a country of intense cultivation would be simply absurd.

It is strange that few of those who have written about Wakefield in recent years show any knowledge of Gipps’s Memorandum. Professor S. H. Roberts is a notable exception. He handles Wakefield and Gipps’s analysis in his fascinating book “The Squatting Age in Australia,” and leaves the colonising theorist scarcely a feather to fly with.


The importance of Wakefield lies not in his colonisation theories themselves, since they were proved to be unsound when endeavors were made to give effect to them, and since, moreover, they were not based upon knowledge of the great differences between lands in undeveloped countries, but in his power of persuasion, which induced many influential people to believe that his theories were right. Hence he became closely associated with the foundation of new colonies.

Western Australia, after the failure of Peel’s ruinous experiment, obtained a fresh start under Wakefieldian impulse. South Australia was founded largely by those who fervently believed in Wakefield’s new gospel. Otago, in New Zealand, and still more Canterbury, sprang from the Wakefieidian movement. The Earl Grey of the period, in a speech is the House of Lords, described Wakefield as “a very clever projector whose talents could not be denied, but whose cleverness was not accompanied by other qualities quite as necessary to make him a safe and trustworthy guide.’’ True; but how many wiser men in his generation accomplished as much as he did through his ingenuity, persuasiveness, and persistency? Epitaphs always exude exaltation: but if a true one were desired for this remarkable man, it might be found in one sentence written by the New Zealand statesman, Pember , Reeves — “He found information and ideas for personages who had neither, and became an adept at pulling strings and manipulating mediocrities.’’

The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Saturday 1 July 1939, page 24

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