Edward Gibbon Wakefield

Portrait of Edward Gibbon Wakefield sitting with his three dogs

Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Image courtesy of SLSA: B63785.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796-1862)  is generally credited with first developing the concept of ‘systematic colonisation’ that underpinned the development of South Australia.

Wakefield was the second of nine children born to Edward and Susanna Wakefield. He was educated at Westminster School and Edinburgh High School, before being admitted to Gray’s Inn in 1813 to study law. In 1814 he instead became secretary to the British envoy at Turin. Back in England in 1816 he eloped with Eliza Ann Frances Pattle, an heiress and a ward in Chancery. The marriage was subsequently approved by Parliament and Wakefield returned to Italy with a marriage settlement of 70,000 pounds (a substantial fortune) and the promise of more when his wife reached 29 years of age. Eliza bore Wakefield two children, a daughter Susan (Nina) born in Italy on 4 December 1817 and a son Edward Jerningham born on 25 June 1820 in London. Eliza died on 5 July, leaving Wakefield a substantial life income, but without the additional fortune he had perhaps expected.

The success of his first elopement seems to have encouraged Wakefield to try again. In March 1826 he abducted another wealthy heiress, 15 year old Ellen Turner, after luring her from school. They fled to Gretna Green, where they were married, and then to Calais. But this time Wakefield had misjudged the anger and determination of his bride’s family, for they pursued him to Calais, where they persuaded Ellen to return to her family. The marriage was annulled by Parliament and Wakefield was charged with abduction, along with his brother, who was tried as an accomplice. Both were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in Newgate prison. Since the age of consent for girls was then 12 years of age, Wakefield escaped the more serious charge of carnal knowledge, but he was effectively disgraced. He then attempted unsuccessfully to overturn his former father-in-law’s will to gain access to his dead wife’s money. Suspicion that he had committed both forgery and perjury in pursuing his case further compromised his reputation.

While in Newgate Wakefield turned his attention to colonisation, perhaps assuming that this might be the remedy for his loss of reputation. He published Sketch of a Proposal for Colonizing Australasia in June 1829 and then A Letter from Sydney, the principal town in Australasia in association with Robert Gouger. His concept of systematic colonisation argued for concentrated free settlement, sale of land at a sufficient price to deter labouring emigrants acquiring it immediately (and thus assuring a sufficient supply of labour without convicts) and directing the income from land sales to supporting assisted emigration of labouring families. It is perhaps ironic that the founding principal of the free settlement of South Australia was devised by a convicted felon while in prison.

Wakefield advocated his ideas at every possible opportunity and inspired a number of followers, notably Robert Gouger and initially Robert Torrens. He also helped to draft the 1834 South Australia Act. However by the time the South Australian Colonization Commission was created Wakefield had distanced himself from the venture, disapproving of the low price set for land. He was later involved in colonising ventures in New Zealand, and lived and worked for some years in Canada, where he was an elected member of the Canadian General Assembly. He eventually emigrated to New Zealand, where he was elected to the first New Zealand General Assembly. He died in Wellington in May 1862.

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