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The bumptious lord we have to thank for Sydney

3 March 2012 5,281 views One Comment

BORN in London on February 24, 1733, educated at Eton and Clare Hall, Cambridge, and elected unopposed for the family seat of Whitchurch, Tommy Townshend entered the House of Commons when he was just 21.

At 49 he became secretary of state for home affairs with ministerial responsibility for the peace negotiations with the Americans. Although he had expressed some sympathy for the rebellious Americans during their war of independence, as a negotiator he held fast to what he perceived to be British interests, especially in what is now Canada.

Physically beefy and psychologically combative and determined, in many ways Townshend was a figure resembling the legendary John Bull: full of bumptious self-confidence and an unceasing will to serve his country. Indeed, when it came to promoting his own and England’s interests, he was extremely pushy and hardworking.

These days, Lord Sydney, as the rambunctious Townshend became in March 1783, is best known by the two cities named after him: the Sydneys of Nova Scotia and NSW.

Intriguingly, although he slightly changed the spelling, Townshend chose for his barony the name Sydney. This was in memory of his distant relative, the influential political rebel Algernon Sidney, who, as Andrew Tink writes, was beheaded in 1683 for “proselytising that the people of England . . . may change or take away kings”.

In fact, the ambitious Lord Sydney never set foot in Australia. But what he did do, as Tink usefully explains, was in 1786 select Captain Arthur Phillip to be the first governor of the convict colony of New South Wales. In part, this was because Sydney had been deeply impressed by Phillips’s previous work in the Royal Navy as a part-time spy collecting intelligence, especially about the French.

Although the first lord of the Admiralty made it clear he would not have chosen Phillip, Sydney never doubted that he had made the correct decision. Indeed by 1784, as Tink puts it, he already knew “that Phillip was one of the most talented and versatile officers ever to wear a Royal Navy uniform”.

Hence Lord Sydney, as secretary of state for home affairs, instructed British Treasury and other relevant officials to provide for the so-called First Fleet. He put it thus: “I signify to your Lordships His Majesty’s Pleasure, that you do forthwith take such Measures as may be necessary for providing a proper number of vessels for the conveyance of 750 Convicts to Botany Bay.”

In what proved to be sage advice, Lord Sydney also instructed Phillip that, should Botany Bay not measure up to expectations, he could choose another site for the colony, which indeed he did.

On January 23, 1788, Phillip named Sydney Cove, around which the city of Sydney later grew, in honour of his great supporter. “It has the best spring of water. And ships,” Phillip presciently wrote, “can anchor so close to the shore that, at a very small expense, quays may be made at which the largest ships may unload.”

As this fine biography makes clear, Lord Sydney’s faith in Phillip was amply vindicated.

Accompanied by the Aborigine Bennelong, whom he had originally kidnapped in December 1789 so he could learn the native language, Phillip arrived back in England in May 1793. After being presented to King George III, Bennelong spent considerable time with Lord Sydney and his family before returning to Sydney Cove in 1795. As Tink explains, “Bennelong was the first Australian-born adult to make this return trip”.

Although by no means exhilarating, Tink’s prose style is serviceable and solid, and the research that underpins this first full-length biography of Lord Sydney is exemplary. What is particularly fascinating about this book is the way in which Tink documents how, after the war of independence, the British had no choice but to halt the transportation of convicts to America. Instead, the government in England had decided to confine them in ship-hulks moored on the Thames.

By 1779 one-quarter of British convicts were dying in cramped and filthy conditions. It was up to Townshend, as home secretary, to solve the pressing problem as to where to send the increasing number of felons housed in the hulks and in the crowded county jails.

Soon realising that Africa was quite unsuitable for transporting large numbers of convicts, he decided on New South Wales. Although, at the time, Lord Sydney’s decision to send convicts to the Antipodes, under the supervision of Phillip, was ridiculed by many, it is now hard to deny that he made the right choice.

Lord Sydney: Life and Times of Tommy Townshend
By Andrew Tink
Australian Scholarly Publishing, 315pp, $39.95

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 35 books.

The Weekend Australian March 3 -4, 2012 , REVIEW Books p.25

One Comment »

  • TheTruth said:

    There are two types of people living in Sydney: one type were born in Sydney and the other were born elsewhere. What some boring old duffer thinks about Sydney is as insignificant as it is pointless. And by the way, next time you have a headache, don’t phone anyone asking them to fetch you some aspirin. It’s hardly in the man code.