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.
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.
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.
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.
Surprisingly, it was some time before his 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.
In 1812 Charles Bigge had built an enormous mansion in Northumberland called Linden Hall. One possibility is that he borrowed from his bachelor brother John 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.
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.
FOR MORE BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS ON JOHN BIGGE, CLICK HERE
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