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John Clements Wickham (1798–1864)

In the "Home News" received by the mail, we find the following brief record in the obituary:—

January 6, at Biarritz, France, Captain John Clements Wickham, Royal Navy, formerly Government Resident at Brisbane, New South Wales.

The death of a gentleman so intimately connected with the early history of this colony, calls for something more than a mere passing record of the event. There are thousands of our readers who will not know the name, and there are many more who are only cognizant of it by repute; but there are not a few among the older residents whose memories will recall circumstances in connection with it which now belong to the history of the past. In endeavoring to recite a few particulars relative to the career of the departed we shall have to rely principally upon memory, and if there should be any glaring inaccuracies in this brief notice, our readers must excuse them on that ground.

In the year 1839, Captain Wickham was engaged as commander of H.M.S. Beagle, in making a survey of the north-western and other portions of the Australian coast, the particulars of which survey were published some years since by Lieutenant Stokes, (Captain Wickham's subordinate officer,) who is said by some to have claimed the credit which was justly due to his superior. It was during this trip that the gallant captain discovered the Adelaide and Victoria Rivers, and furnished several other particulars of the coast of Arnhem Land and thereabouts, to the hydrographers of the Admiralty. The estuary now known to be the embouchure of the Burdekin, in Upstart Bay, was named after him, and there are many points along the coast which were carefully and accurately laid down by him. It was while engaged in the survey of the coast, we believe, that Captain Wickham wooed and married a daughter of Hannibal Macarthur, Esq., but it was not until the year 1842 that he became identified more particularly with this district. In the month of January, in that year, the pioneer steamer of the A.S.N. Company paid a visit to this port, and brought the intelligence that Moreton Bay was no longer a penal settlement, the government having determined to throw it open to free immigrants. Two months afterwards, Lieutenant Gorman, the last of the old regime of commandants, handed over the control of affairs to Dr. Simpson, who was appointed acting Police Magistrate for the district; and on the 14th of November in the same year, that gentleman was succeeded by the subject of the present memoir. The worthy captain was thus placed at the head of affairs in this district at a time when much tact and judgment were required. The "convict era" was at an end, and the influx of a class of free immigrants was about to effect a radical change in the position and circumstances of the district. The official designation of Captain Wickham's office was as follows:—"Police Magistrate of the district of Moreton Bay, charged with the general interests of government within it, and the Representative of the Governor within its limits." The salary attached to this office of high-sounding title was not more than £300 a year, at which status it remained up to the 1st of January, 1853, when the designation of the worthy captain's office was changed to that of Government Resident, at a salary of £500. Previous to this date, however, Captain Wickham had performed some important services. Before his arrival as Police Magistrate it must be recollected that the few free residents in Brisbane were left to the tender mercies of "ticket-of-leave" constables — men who, having served a portion of their time in the then penal settlement, were considered by the military authorities quite capable of maintaining "Her Majesty's peace." A chief constable (the late Mr. Fitzpatrick) and a small posse comitatus arrived with the captain, and the vigilance of the new regime soon made Brisbane too hot to hold many of the loose characters by whom it had been infested. A marked change soon became apparent; courts of petty session, courts of request, and other necessary details were brought into successful operation by the Police Magistrate, and the then embryo city became a model of good order, and the abode of a thriving and industrious community of free settlers. Captain Wickham also undertook, in the year 1846, the survey of Moreton Bay,—a work in which the government of the day gave no assistance whatever. Steamers and coasters trading to the port were compelled to make use of the southern entrance,—the dangerous character of which was demonstrated in a most melancholy manner in the succeeding year by the loss of the steamer Sovereign; and the inhabitants themselves moved in the matter, and importuned Captain Wickham to undertake the survey. The gallant officer consented, and spent several weeks in the performance of this task—which was quite beyond his legitimate sphere of duty, and the expense of which was defrayed by a body then in existence, called the "Moreton Bay District Association."

Soon after becoming Government Resident in 1853, or about that time, Capt. Wickham had to suffer the loss of his partner in life, who had been removed to Sydney for change of air and medical treatment. The unfortunate lady died just about the time that her husband was entering Sydney harbour, and he arrived too late to witness her departure from this world, the vessel he sailed in having been detained by severe weather on the coast. Previous to separation, the worthy captain was relieved from the performance of the duties pertaining to the office of Police Magistrate, and was succeeded by the late William Anthony Brown, Esq., who had for several years acted in the capacity of Clerk of Petty Sessions.

At the date of separation, the 10th December, 1859, Captain Wickham's rule ceased, the arrival of the first Governor of the new colony being the signal for his retirement. The well-known and comfortable looking "sociable" ceased its daily trips from Newstead (the captain's residence) to the present Colonial Secretary's office, and after sixteen years of a somewhat humdrum kind of official life, the deceased gentleman found his "occupation gone." Sir George Bowen performed what was but an act of grace and courtesy by inviting Captain Wickham to take the office of Colonial Treasurer. The public had anticipated that the late Government Resident would be one of the first ministry, but Captain Wickham declined the office. The reasons urged for his thus declining the proffered honor were not known until some time afterward, when a letter addressed by him to the Secretary of State for the Colonies was laid before the local parliament, and a claim for a pension founded thereupon. In that letter Captain Wickham stated that he declined the Treasurership because "the expenses of a contested election were beyond his means, more especially as a change of government might any day throw him again out of employment." The friends of the gallant officer regretted this statement, because his election as one of the members for Brisbane would have been almost a matter of certainty, and the expense would not have exceeded £5, at the most. On the 21st June, 1861, Mr. R. Cribb moved a resolution in the House of Assembly which had for its object the bestowal of a pension of £300 a-year upon Captain Wickham, as compensation for loss of office. Mr. Mackenzie (who was then Treasurer) moved an amendment for giving a lump sum of £2000, but both propositions were ultimately negatived by the casting vote of the Speaker, the division list showing 11 to 11. During the debate, full credit was given to the gallant captain for his services, but it was considered objectionable—and rightly, we think—to commence a system of pensions. From that time we have heard nothing of Capt. Wickham—saving occasional reports as to his state of health—until we yesterday received the melancholy intelligence of his death, which occurred on the 6th January, at Biarritz, in France, whither, we presume, he had gone to recruit himself. The disease of which the gallant captain died was apoplexy—a complaint he always dreaded, from the fact of his father having been taken off by it; and his death was sudden in the extreme. He was sixty-two years of age, and leaves a rather numerous family to mourn their loss. His second wife, to whom he was married in Brisbane in 1857, was a Miss Deering, the daughter of a Calcutta barrister.

As a public officer, the deceased has been blamed for maintaining a merely negative position, but the charge is hardly just. It must be recollected that, while his office was one of honor and responsibility, he acted merely as the servant of the New South Wales government. Though nominally rated as representative of her Majesty's vice-regent in these districts, his powers were limited to the mere carrying out of the instructions he received from headquarters. In fact, he was often placed in a rather painful position, for, while he invariably manifested a desire to further the wishes and interests of the inhabitants, his representations were received in the most frigid style of official rigidity, and we can remember more than one instance in which he bewailed to us the apathy of the government, and lamented the limited range of his own authority. In private life he was a worthy and estimable gentleman,—keeping himself very much to himself,—and charged often times with acts which people chose to consider mean, but to which he was doubtless impelled by his anxiety to provide for a rising family. On the whole, however, he was held in the highest respect by the inhabitants, and when he left Brisbane for Europe in the early part of 1860, an address was presented to him couched in highly complimentary language. As a magistrate, he was inflexibly just and honorable; as a public officer, he was strictly punctual, mathematically exact, and always industrious. We had hoped to see his kindly face amongst us once again, and that he would have been spared to compare the Brisbane of 1864 with the "settlement" of 1843, but inexorable Death has laid him low upon a foreign soil, and he sleeps the "sleep which knows no waking."

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Wickham, John Clements (1798–1864)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 28 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

John Wickham, n.d.

John Wickham, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 8997

Life Summary [details]


21 November, 1798
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


6 January, 1864 (aged 65)
Biarritz, France

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

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