William Thomas Denison


The triumphal arch erected in Hobart to welcome Denison in 1851 (ALMFA, SLT)

William Thomas Denison (180471), governor, was born the third son of John Denison and his wife Charlotte (née Estwick). He was educated at Eton and was commissioned in the Royal Engineers. After engineering experience in Canada, Bermuda and England, Denison was knighted and appointed lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen's Land in 1847. From 1847 to 1853 Denison, in the face of strong opposition from free colonists, maintained the convict system. Accepting the Colonial Office decision to end transportation, he laid the basis for self-government in Tasmania. He also established the colony's essential infrastructure.

Promoted to Governor-General of Australia and Governor of New South Wales in 1854, Denison guided the colony through its first years of responsible government, adroitly managing a succession of short-term ministries. In his administration of Norfolk Island, Denison retained autocratic control. From 1861 to 1866, Denison was Governor of Madras, covering much of South India. There he enjoyed personal responsibility again. Briefly Acting Viceroy of India, Denison returned to England in 1866 and died in 1871 after publishing, with the aid of his wife Caroline, his Varieties of vice-regal life.

The Denisons were renowned for their strong sense of family values and their nine children. To JB Walker, despite Denison's 'questionable' convict policy 'he was one of the most enlightened, progressive, and able governors the colony has ever had'. Thomas Arnold the younger agreed: Denison was 'one of the best and bravest of men' and 'better hated and more warmly loved' than most other governors.

Further reading: W Denison, Varieties of vice-regal life, London, 1870, and Hobart, 2004; J Bertram (ed), Letters of Thomas Arnold the younger, Auckland, 1980; ADB 4.

Richard Davis