Parliament of Tasmania
Parliamentary History

Colonial Secretary: the office and its occupants

by Terry Newman

This information explores and explains the origins of the office of Premier, which began its existence as Colonial Secretary.

The Office

In 1810 NSW Governor Lachlan Macquarie argued that the work load of his personal assistant (ie Secretary) was such that the position should be entitled Colonial Secretary. While official permission was not immediately forthcoming Macquarie treated the occupant as such, and the British effectively permitted it. Approval for a 'Secretary' was finally made explicit to Macquarie in September 1815. Macquarie's role is relevant because Van Diemen's Land (later Tasmania) was a dependency of NSW until 1825 and answerable to the British Colonial Office in London.

From 1804 until 1812 Tasmania was administered as two separate territories divided at the 42nd parallel; the North of the Island was known as Cornwall and the South as Buckinghamshire. In 1812 the island was declared a single administrative unit under Colonel Thomas Davey as Lieutenant-Governor. While still a dependency of NSW, Davey applied for bureaucratic help in the form of a Private Secretary. The first appointee was Thomas Allen Lascelles, and by the 1820 under Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur practically all government business was channeled through the Secretary. On a formal basis, in November 1824 Arthur described his Private Secretary as his 'Colonial Secretary'. However, the Colonial Office still controlled such appointments, and in December 1825 Earl Bathurst advised (and reiterated in January 1826) that the occupant would merit a salary of  1,000 pa, but if no house was available for him an additional 200 to rent suitable accommodation was required. Except that the 200 was to be paid locally by Arthur, who had to also continue to pay his Private Secretary, albeit just 10 shillings per day.(HRA SIII Vol. 5 p.716)

In 1826 the combined role of Private Secretary and Colonial Secretary were being separated, and by February 1827 the Private Secretary was given a salary of 400 p.a. because of his 'arduous and confidential duties.'  Even before this the distinct duties of the Colonial Secretary were described in an official order, which was published in the Hobart Town Gazette on 6 May 1826.

The public correspondence of the Colony is to be carried on generally through the medium of the Colonial Secretary. The Heads of Departments and Commandants of Stations (except where the subject relates to the Military Branch of the Service) will address their applications and reports to this Officer, for the information and decision of the Lieutenant-Governor.

On 2 March 1827 the Colonial Times reviewed the structure of government. In the article it critically examined the various 'public functionaries' involved, namely; The Lieutenant Governor, Chief Justice, Attorney-General and Colonial Secretary. On the latter's role the newspaper postulated that the occupant 'should not interfere with politics at all.'  Leaving such wishful thinking aside, the Times concluded that:

Plain simple matter of fact is his peculiar  province; and, as a
fine writer [Markus Welser,1604] very justly has it 'Truth lies
at the bottom of a well, and questions are the bucket by which
it is drawn up.' We may add that the Colonial Secretary  is the
hand by which the bucket is to be moved ; ... [he] stands
between the Governor and the people.

In August 1834, as explained in A. G. L. Shaw's biography of Sir George Arthur, when Burnett was succeeded by John Montagu, who was in fact Arthur's nephew, he was issued with detailed instructions (Shaw p.162);

* He was to go through all papers in detail,and show the exact nature of the decision required from the Governor, indicating the relevant precedents
* He was to make himself master of every case on which instructions were necessary
* He was never to commit the government
* He was to watch the convict administration most carefully
* He was to investigate every requisition
* And to sanction no expenditure without the Governor's authority

As if this were not enough, from 1843 the increasing complexity of government saw the creation of separate divisions within the Colonial Secretary's office. Namely; Colonial Secretary, Comptroller-General (of Convicts) and Colonial Auditor. With these new appointments the Colonial Secretary in theory became less involved in day-to-day operations of the 'hived-off' sections of government, but the occupant remained the principal officer of the administration. One particular occupant - Peter Gordon Fraser - was simultaneously Colonial Secretary, Colonial Treasurer and Collector of Internal Revenue.

Gradually, in the initial years after self-government in 1856, the position of Colonial Secretary eventually became known as Premier. In 1863 a Royal Commission into the Accounts and Departments of Government [PP 11/1863] examined the Colonial Secretary's office and 'arrived at the conclusion that no reduction in the numerical strength of this Department can be attempted.' This was because, not least, 'several other departments ... may be considered dependent upon it.' The staff at this time included: the Colonial Secretary - with Clerk - the Assistant Colonial Secretary and three Clerks. That is, a total of six administrative staff, whereas in 1843 eight persons had worked in the office.

Regarding the tasks of the Colonial Secretary's Department the Royal Commission recorded that 'the duties of its Chief are now of a twofold character, Political and Executive.' However, the report went on to explain that the Colonial Secretary's 'Executive' duties were overwhelming the 'importance to the public of his political duties.' Therefore, the 'suggestion we have made is that he (the Assistant Colonial Secretary) should relieve the Colonial Secretary of all routine business.' At the time the Assistant Colonial Secretary was a certain Thomas Jean, who - according to the Statistics of Tasmania (PP 17/1863) - had occupied the position since October 1857, having been a public servant since December 1835. The Royal Commissioners concluded that 'we deem it so important that the Chief Political Officer should be at all times free to devote his time and energies to the higher functions of his office.'

Prior to the introduction of self-Government in December 1856 William Champ chose to relinquish his public service position as Colonial Secretary and contest the forthcoming election. Before which he was formally appointed  by the Governor as Colonial Secretary so that the voters would have a decision to make at the polls. Finally, the title of Premier was formally recognised in 1882 when legislation (46 Vict. No.9) provided an additional salary of 200 for the occupant 'during the time he continues to hold such position in conjunction with a Ministerial Office (to which a salary of 900 attached).

The Occupants

J. Montagu*
J. E. Bicheno  H. S. Chapman W.T.N. Champ

This list excludes two names. As noted above, the Colonial Office in London controlled official appointments, but for some reason when the first formal appointee Dudley Montagu Percival stopped off at Cape Town, he decided to stay. Therefore, a replacement named Charles Ellis was appointed, but he went so far as to decline to even leave England. In the interim Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur nominated John Montagu. Eventually a British appointee arrived, namely W. H. Hamilton. As outlined above, Montagu subsequently re-occupied the position of Colonial Secretary and his tenure extended into the administration of Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin, with whom he clashed.

Period of Office
Lascelles, Thomas Allen
April 1813 - 16 November 1816
Ross, William Alexander
12 April 1817 - 17 January 1818
Hood, Samuel
17 January 1818 - 30 June 1818
Robinson, Henry Edward
1 July 1818 - 14 May 1824
Montagu, John
14 May 1824 - 22 April 1826
Title of office gradually, then officially,  changed
from Secretary to Colonial Secretary
  Hamilton, William Henry
22 April 1826 - 9 December 1826
Burnett, John 
[first commissioned as Col. Sec.]
9 December 1826 - 8 August 1834
Montagu, John
8 August 1834 - 1 February 1842
Boyes, George Thomas William Blamey
2 February 1842 - 20 April 1843
Bicheno, James Ebenezer
20 April 1843 - 25 February 1851
Fraser, Peter Gordon
1 March 1851 - 5 April 1852
Chapman, Henry Samuel
5 April 1852 - 1 November 1852
Champ, William Thomas Napier
1 November 1852 -  1 November 1856 (Premier)

dapted from P. R. Eldershaw
Guide to the Public Records of Tasmania; Sections One Colonial Secretary's Office Hobart: Archives Office of Tasmania, 1957 (revised 1988)

Link to Succesion of Private Secretaries
Link to List of Governors
Link to Premiers of Tasmania

Images of the early occupants are few and far between: See C. R. Joel A tale of ambition and unrealised hope : John Montagu and Sir John Franklin
[For other images and biographies see Australian National Biography and various websites.]

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Last Update:  March 2012