From colonial council to Parliament: the career of John Dunn MP

How Victorian Britain exported a Westminster system of politics to its colonies, both in terms of parliamentary structures and personnel, has been a recurrent theme of much recent historical work. Our own project has also helped shed new light on some of these impacts, not least by exploring the formative years of MPs who went on to become colonial governors. By contrast, influences coming the other way, such as reforms trialled in the colonies before being implemented in the UK, get less attention – Australia’s use of the secret ballot being an obvious exception. One interesting find in our ongoing research, however, has been the number of backbench MPs with a political background in colonies. Just as municipal politics after 1835 began to offer a new training ground for aspiring MPs, so too many of the newly emerging colonial legislative councils seem to have provided another type of apprenticeship that could also pave the path to a parliamentary seat. One MP who followed this route was John Dunn (1818-60), Conservative MP for Dartmouth.    

Dunn’s father, the son of a humble Scottish weaver, had emigrated to the convict colony of Tasmania (Van Diemen’s land) in 1821, setting up a successful shop before establishing a lucrative banking operation. Although Dunn, his eldest son, was born in Aberdeen, he was said to have been ‘native reared’ and ‘native educated’ in the colony. Dunn later recalled how ‘at the early age of 15 he was placed in an office’ and ‘from that time … constantly employed in business’.

Legislative Council Building (Parliament House), Hobart

In 1845 he was appointed in lieu of his father to the colony’s legislative council by the controversial governor Sir John Eardley-Wilmot, a former MP, three of whose sons had married Dunn’s sisters. Despite their personal ties and a similar ‘Tory’ outlook, Dunn opposed Eardley-Wilmot ‘tooth and nail’. Like many colonists, he believed that the British government, rather than the settlers, should bear the costs of running the colony’s probation system for managing convicts.

Dunn emerged as a leading campaigner against transportation, believing it to be a ‘system so palpably fraught with evil’, particularly to the ‘moral welfare’ of the community, that any material benefits from cheap labour were outweighed. He also took issue with the Australasian Anti-Transportation League, of which he was a member, for discouraging settlement in Tasmania because of its alleged ‘immorality’, much of which stemmed from reports about homosexuality among convicts and unfounded allegations about Eardley-Wilmot’s ‘licentious’ sexual behaviour. 

Following the introduction of legislative council elections in 1851, Dunn was elected for Hobart as a ‘bold, uncompromising opponent of transportation’ and a supporter of tax reductions and better education. Hailed as one of a new breed of ‘Young Tasmanians’, he became a key member of the Anti-Transportation League’s South Tasmanian Council, signing a steady stream of protests to the colonial secretary Lord Grey against the continuing influx of convicts. These eventually included threats to ‘sever these colonies, with their newly discovered wealth, from the parent state’. 

The campaign culminated successfully with the end of transportation in 1853. The following year Dunn left for England, becoming a ship-owner and a partner in one of London’s ‘leading commercial houses’ dealing with Australia. In 1857 he was part of a deputation from the General Association for the Australian Colonies who lobbied the colonial secretary Henry Labouchere for a federal assembly for Australia.

Dunn’s political experience in the legislative council and role in ending transportation featured heavily in his UK election campaigns of 1859. Proclaiming himself an ‘independent’, he promised to ‘support liberal measures brought forward on either side’, including the abolition of church rates and an extension of the franchise. However, he doggedly refused to back the secret ballot, which had recently been introduced into South Australia.

The Castle Hotel, where Dunn celebrated his election

Ultimately, however, what seems to have mattered most in getting him elected was his ‘considerable wealth’. After unsuccessfully contesting the notoriously venal borough of Totnes at the  1859 general election, where he made a spectacular entrance by arriving in a fine yacht, Cissy, he stood at a by-election in neighbouring Dartmouth. Again arriving by sea, and clearly willing to spend copiously, he made much of his ability as a ‘ship-owner’ to represent the naval port’s commercial interests. His opponent, coincidentally another Australian merchant who was the former premier of New South Wales, withdrew at the last minute, allowing him to be returned unopposed. The Australian and New Zealand Gazette, in a report widely reproduced in the British press, celebrated his return under the heading ‘Colonists in Parliament’.

Other than a few contributions to debate on naval issues, Dunn rarely spoke as an MP, describing himself as ‘a working man rather than a speaker’ at a Devon Conservative dinner. But he was a regular presence in the voting lobbies, siding with the Conservatives on most issues, including against franchise extension and the removal of church rates, despite everything he had said on the hustings. Other notable votes, perhaps indicative of his religious convictions, included his support for restricting Sunday licensing hours and ending funding for art schools that showed ‘females wholly unclothed’, 15 May 1860.

Dunn’s political career came to an abrupt end in 1860. Travelling back to Tasmania with his new wife, a wealthy heiress, he died from ‘terrific heat’ in the Red Sea on board the unfortunately named Nemesis. His widow promptly returned to England leaving his remains to be interred in a grave at Aden.

For details of how to access the full biographies of MPs being researched for the 1832-68 project, including Dunn and Eardley-Wilmot, please click here.

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