The Strange Story of Commissioner Bigge’s Will

THIS ARTICLE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE LITERARY MAGAZINE, QUADRANT. IT HAS SINCE BEEN REVISED AND EXTENDED.

JOHN BIGGE; REGIME CHANGER

Commissioner John Thomas Bigge (1780-1843) arrived in New South Wales in September 1819. He  had been appointed to conduct a wide ranging inquiry into governor Lachlan Macquarie’s administration. Bigge was highly critical of the Governor’s championship of ex-convicts, and his ‘wastefully expensive’ building programme.   The resulting report contributed to Macquarie’s resignation. The old Governor died in London in 1824, while trying to defend himself against the Commissioner’s charges.

Commissioner John Bigge, thought to ne holding a copy of his damning report on Governor Macquarie.

Commissioner John Bigge, thought to be holding a copy of his damning report on Governor Macquarie.

When John Bigge left Sydney for England on February in 1821 he travelled aboard the Dromedary, coincidently the same ship that had brought Lachlan Macquarie to New South Wales in 1809. Bigge was subsequently appointed to head a similar inquiry at the Cape of Good Hope. While there, he seriously injured his leg in a fall from a horse, and never fully recovered. A report in an English newspaper (June 16 1825) mentioned that the Cape Inquiry had been delayed due to Bigge’s ‘illness’.

* John Bigge was treated  at the Cape by Dr James Barry, still  referred to  as  ‘a quack’ in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.  The quack charge was  definitely untrue. Dr Barry studied medicine at Edinburgh University and became a military surgeon. However,  the doctor was a little unorthodox in that ‘he’ was actually a woman. The adoption of a male persona  appears  to have been  driven by ambition rather than any gender confusion.  It would have been impossible at that time for a woman to enter university and qualify as a doctor.  One would presume that keeping a low profile  might have been a good idea, but the irascible Dr Barry got into all sorts of  disputes with military  authorities and even fought in a duel.

Dr James Barry fights a duel

John Bigge was one of the doctor’s  active  supporters. The truth about  Dr Barry’s gender only came out  after her death in 1865. *This paragraph was added July 22 2017

Dr James Barry

Dr Barry

John Bigge was a lifelong bachelor. He retired to England in 1829 and settled in the port of Dover, where he no doubt hoped the sea air would be beneficial.   His entry in The Australian Dictionary of Biography states that he died in an unexplained ‘accident’ in 1843, while a guest at a London hotel. But what sort of accident? Did he fall downstairs, hampered by his old wound? Or could there have been a fire?

WILL MAKER EXTRAORDINAIRE

I eventually found the answer in an account published by the London Times (February 27 1845) of a court case involving Bigge’s will. He had amassed a fortune of some ₤40,000, and apparently filled his days worrying how to dispose of it after his death. As the Times reported; ‘He had, at various times, made different wills, being in the language of these courts, a ‘willmaker’.

Between July and December of 1843 Bigge was constantly in touch with his solicitor   about changing the will he had made less than three years earlier . On December 16 he travelled to London to confirm the final details. He was staying at the prestigious Grosvenor Hotel and it was here he died, though not as a result of an accident.   On December 20 he   was suddenly taken ill, passing away two days later at the age of sixty three. Appropriately for the man famous for accusing Governor Macquarie of unwonted extravagance, Bigge asked to be buried ‘without ceremony or superfluous expense’. Nor did he show the slightest sentiment over the disposal of his remains, asking to be buried in the churchyard or burial ground nearest to where he should happen to die. Accordingly, he was interred in All Saints Cemetery, London, one of the city’s first private cemeteries.

It is interesting to compare Commissioner Bigge’s will with that of Lachlan Macquarie (dated 1815). Macquarie’s greatest concern was to make provision for his only son, and to ensure the name of Macquarie was perpetuated. He also instructed that if he should die in New South Wales his remains were to be ‘preserved in a leaden coffin or spirits’ and transported to his estate on Scotland’s Isle of Mull. Like John Bigge, the old Governor died in London (1 July 1824). Following a grand funeral procession, Elizabeth Macquarie fulfilled her husband’s wish by taking his body back to Mull for interment.

Surprisingly, it was some time before John Bigge’s will could be found. Eventually it turned up in a red document box, along with an unfinished draft of the revised will. The box was described as ‘one of the official ones’, traditionally used to convey important government documents. It is intriguing to think it may previously have held papers relating to the inquiry into Macquarie’s administration .

Under the provisions of the 1840 testament, John Bigge’s sister was named as the main beneficiary. His elder brother Charles (a banker) received no benefit except the cancellation of considerable debts, owed by him to John.

Charles Bigge

Charles Bigge

In 1812 Charles Bigge had built an enormous mansion in Northumberland called Linden Hall. One possibility is that he borrowed from his bachelor brother to help finance the project. Charles too, had suffered a fall from a horse, resulting in an unnamed but ‘agonizing and disturbing complaint’.   Nevertheless, he left his wife and family at Linden Hall in 1843 and set off on a two year world tour. It was during this long absence that his brother John died. Charles returned in 1844, having purchased a king’s ransom of souvenirs.

Linden Hall, Which a spendthrift Charles Bigge filled with treasures.

Linden Hall, which a spendthrift Charles Bigge filled with treasures.

If Charles was financially embarrassed, he would have been disappointed by the terms of John’s will. However, close inspection of both the 1840 and 1843 documents gave him hope that he may yet inherit the bulk of his brother’s estate. Managing to overcome his grief and physical ills, he took legal action.

It appeared that the 1840 will had been torn in half. Charles contended that his brother had deliberately destroyed it, and that since the new will was unsigned, he had died intestate. This being the case, John Bigge’s personal property would be divided three ways. Charles and his sister would each receive ₤15,000. The final   portion would be divided between another (deceased ) brother’s children.   According to the laws of inheritance at that time, Charles Bigge would also have inherited John’s considerable freehold real estate.

The case was heard in February 1845. Lawyers supporting the legitimacy of the 1840 will argued that the paper was brittle and glossy and that it had merely ‘parted asunder by wear and frequent unfolding ’   The impression is of a rather pathetic and lonely John Bigge worrying interminably over his estate. The lawyers also commented that Bigge had been a professional man, and that if he had intended cancelling the will he would have avoided any ambiguity by removing its seal or erasing his signature.

Charles Bigge’s lawyers maintained that the deceased had effectively cancelled the old will by intentionally tearing it in half.

The judge was not convinced, stating in his conclusion ‘…it is probable that the deceased had this paper frequently under his consideration…I do not think it a natural presumption that the paper was torn by the deceased intentionally for the purpose of revoking it. I think it more probable that its condition was the result of wear and tear.

 The validity of the torn will was thus upheld. Charles Bigge, who John may have considered an even worse ‘spendthrift’ than Governor Macquarie, had to be content with the cancellation of his debts. Two other beneficiaries under the will were the sons of John’s late brother Thomas. At the time of their uncle’s death Francis and Frederick Bigge were graziers on a property called Mount Brisbane, in Queensland.

There was an interesting reference to New South Wales in John Bigge’s will. One of his lifelong friends was Lord Colborne, who had an impressive art collection at his home in London’s Berkeley Square. Bigge bequeathed Lord Colborne; ‘a picture which I caused to be drawn of the native dog of New South Wales.’   The ‘native dog’ was of course a dingo. The artist was not named, although one possibility is the ex-convict Joseph Lycett, employed by Bigge to make drawings to accompany his report.   An embittered Governor Macquarie might have described the picture as a self portrait of his old adversary! The drawing was the only item specifically mentioned in Bigge’s will. Lord Colborne bequeathed eight of his most valuable artworks to London’s National Gallery, but sadly the whereabouts of the Australian picture is a mystery.

AFTER THE REGIME CHANGE IN SYDNEY

So what happened back in Sydney after Governor Macquarie was ousted in the wake of the Bigge report? Here is  an interesting extract from an article published in  the News (Adelaide) in 1954;

The gentry rejoiced at the downfall of their enemy. The day Macquarie departed, John Macarthur ordered 500 lashes on the bare back of a one-armed convict who had cheeked his young son, Thomas.

It was the first such cruel sentence since Macquarie took office, and it began a new reign of terror, which culminated in proclamation of martial law.

Botany  Bay’ regained its old, fearsome reputation. The clock had been set back many decades. John Thomas Bigge, Australia’s first Royal Commissioner and her evil genius, had accomplished his task.’

HERE IS ANOTHER STRANGE STORY ABOUT THE SHIP DROMEDARY.

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8 Comments
  1. Fascinating story. Wills continue to divide families, but I’m sort of pleased that the ‘spendthrift’ Charles didn’t get more than ‘his outstanding debt to John cancelled’. No doubt, that was more than he deserved. John had amassed a considerable sum, but it didn’t sound like it had richly enhanced his life. Strange to think of all those accidents and subsequent demise of Gov. Macquarie and the two Bigge brothers. I hadn’t realised that Macquarie had died in England or that he was interred on Mull. This is the sort of story like many others that can go under the heading ‘Strange but True’

    • Pauline

      Marcia, there is another intriguing story about a court case over the will of Governor Macquarie’s son, Lachlan Jnr. I will post it soon.

  2. Thanks for this story. Poor old Governor Macquarie. He was such a good governor for posterity and so unappreciated by his contemporaries. I to am pleased that Charles didn’t win the case. For a while I feared it might turn out to be a Bleak House sort of case.

    • Pauline

      Macquarie is a great hero of mine Jane, research into his extended family led to me writing my first book. Ha ha, Bleak House is one of my favourite Dickens novels.

  3. Interesting. I remembered studying the Bigge report back when I did Australian history in Sixth Form (Year 12) and we sided with MacQuarie.

    About MacQuarie when you referred to him wanting his name being perpetuated, didn’t his son died relatively young and unmarried?

    • Pauline

      Thanks for your comment, Helen. You are right, Lachlan Junior died at just 31. He was married, but he and his wife Iabella had no children. There was another fascinating legal dispute over young Lachlan’s will. I will post the story soon.

  4. Loving these historical stories Pauline. You really bring the characters to life. I wish you had been my history teacher at school – I would’ve paid a lot more attention!

    • Pauline

      Oh, what a lovely thing to say Christine. I always enjoyed history at school, but wish I had paid more attention in French!

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