Ralph Darling

Sir Ralph Darling
7th Governor of New South Wales
In office
19 December 1825  21 October 1831[1]
Preceded by Thomas Brisbane
Succeeded by Richard Bourke
Personal details
Born 1772
Died 2 April 1858(1858-04-02)
Brighton, England

General Sir Ralph Darling, GCH (1772[2]  2 April 1858) was Governor of New South Wales from 1825 to 1831. He is popularly described as a tyrant, accused of torturing prisoners and banning theatrical entertainment, but he also built new roads and extended the boundaries of the colony. Local geographical features named after him include the Darling River and Darling Harbour in Sydney.

The controversy of his Australian tenure somewhat obscures his remarkable early career, in which he rose rapidly from obscure origins to high command.

Early career

Darling seems to have been unique in the British Army of this period, as he progressed from an enlisted man to become a general officer with a knighthood. Born in Ireland, he was the son of a sergeant in the 45th Regiment of Foot who subsequently gained the unusual reward of promotion to officer rank as a lieutenant. Like most of the small number of ex-NCOs in this position, however, Lieutenant Darling performed only regimental administrative duties, and he struggled to support his "large family" on a subaltern's pay.[3]

Ralph Darling enlisted at the age of fourteen as a private in his father's regiment, and served in the ranks for at least two years, on garrison duty in the West Indies. Eventually, as an "act of charity" to the family, young Ralph was granted an officer's commission as an ensign on 15 May 1793, without having to make the usual payment.[2][3] The new officer soon found opportunities to show his ability, alternating front-line activity and high-level administrative duties, and in August 1796 he was appointed military secretary to Sir Ralph Abercromby, the British commander-in-chief in the West Indies. By the time he returned to Britain in 1802, still aged only twenty-nine, the sergeant's son and one-time private soldier was a highly respected lieutenant-colonel.[3]

During the Napoleonic Wars, Colonel Darling alternated between periods of regimental command and important administrative appointments, leading the 51st Foot at the Battle of Corunna and serving as assistant adjutant general during the Walcheren Expedition, before returning to the headquarters at Royal Horse Guards in London, where he served for almost a decade as head of British Army recruiting.[3] In this role, Darling was subsequently promoted to brevet-colonel on 25 July 1810, major-general on 4 June 1813, deputy adjutant general in 1814.[2][4] General Darling was also able to further the careers of his younger brothers Henry and William, and subsequently his nephew Charles; all three of them also became generals, and both Henry and Charles also earned knighthoods.

On 13 October 1817, the 46-year-old general married the 19-year-old Eliza Dumaresq (born Macau 10 November 1798, died 3 September 1868), a deeply religious young woman whose father had been a colonel in the army and a squire in Shropshire. In spite of the difference in age and background, the marriage appears to have been a happy one, producing seven children.[3] Between February 1819[2] and February 1824, General Darling commanded the British troops on Mauritius, before serving as acting governor of the colony for the last three years of his stay. In this role, Darling again exhibited his administrative ability, but he also became very unpopular in Mauritius: he was accused of allowing a British frigate to breach quarantine and start an epidemic of cholera, and he then suspended the island's Conseil de Commune when it protested his actions; in reality, however, there was no evidence that the frigate had been carrying cholera, and the opposition to General Darling appears to have been motivated in large part by his vigorous actions against the slave trade, and the fact that British rule in Mauritius was still little more than military occupation of a proud French colony.[3] Notwithstanding the criticism from some quarters, it was largely on account of his service in Mauritius that Darling was appointed the seventh Governor of New South Wales in 1824.[2]

Governor of New South Wales

Darling initiated the construction, from 1826, of the convict-built Great North Road, linking the Hawkesbury settlements around Sydney with those in the Hunter Valley.

When Darling was commissioned as governor, the Colony’s western boundary – set in 1788 at 135 degrees east longitude – was extended by 6 degrees west to the 129th meridian. This line of longitude subsequently became the border dividing Western Australia and South Australia. To the south, everything beyond Wilsons Promontory, the southeastern ‘corner’ of the Australian continent, ceased to be under the control of New South Wales and was placed under the authority of the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen's Land. He proclaimed Van Diemen's Land as a separate government.


Darling was a professional soldier, military governor of what was still effectively a penal colony under martial law, and having lived entirely within the authoritarian structure of the army since childhood, he lacked experience in dealing with civilian society. As a result, he came into conflict with the liberal "emancipists" who wished to introduce greater political and social freedom in New South Wales.[3] Their accusations of tyrannical misrule were publicized by opposition newspapers in England and Australia (including the Australian run by William Wentworth and Robert Wardell).[2]

In keeping with official policy and the governor's own disciplinarian instincts, Darling's administration certainly strengthened the punitive aspects of transportation. Perhaps the most controversial act of his tenure was the harsh treatment of soldiers Joseph Sudds and Patrick Thompson, who had committed theft in the belief that seven years in an outlying penal colony would be an easier life than two decades of army discipline. As an example to others, the Governor had them placed in irons and assigned to a chain gang, leading to the death of Sudds. This was due to a pre-existing illness which the governor had not been properly informed about, but the incident still caused controversy.[3]

Governor Darling is also said to have "ruthlessly and implacably countered all attempts to establish a theatre in Sydney". He even introduced a law effectively banning the performance of drama. The law stated that no form of public entertainment could take place without approval from the colonial secretary, and Darling ensured that all such applications were rejected. He did permit concerts of music to take place.[5]

His departure for England, upon the ship Hooghly, was greeted by public rejoicing,[5] although his modern biographer has described this as being "orchestrated by his opponents".[3]

Less often cited are the more humane aspects of Governor Darling's tenure: he sought to ensure the education of child prisoners, improve the treatment of female convicts, and promote the use of Christian teaching as a means of rehabilitation, and he made sincere efforts to give the indigenous population the protection of British justice.[3]

Later life

Ralph Darling left Australia in 1831, returning to England in 1832. Continuing pressure from political opponents led to the formation of a select committee to examine his actions in Australia, but the inquiry exonerated him, and the day after it concluded, he was knighted by the king in a dramatic display of official favour. The controversy in Australia may have contributed to the fact that he was not given any significant new military or political assignments, but further promotion and various honorific appointments did follow, and he was happy to devote much of his time to raising his young children.[3]

He was given the colonelcy of the 90th Regiment of Foot in 1823, transferring as Colonel to the 41st (Welch) Regiment of Foot in 1837 and to the 69th (South Lincolnshire) Regiment of Foot in 1848, a post he held until his death.

General Sir Ralph Darling died in Brighton on 2 April 1858 at the age of eighty-five, survived by his widow, three sons and several daughters.[2]

Named after Ralph Darling

The following features are named after Ralph Darling or members of his immediate family:


  1. "GOVERNORS.". Portland Guardian and Normanby General Advertiser (Vic. : 1842 – 1876). Vic.: National Library of Australia. 6 January 1868. p. 4 Edition: EVENINGS. Retrieved 2 May 2012.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 "Darling, Sir Ralph (1772–1858)". Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1. MUP. 1966. pp. 282–286. Retrieved 14 August 2007.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 "Darling, Sir Ralph (1772–1858)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. OUP. 2009. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
  4. "Notes and Queries.". Australian Town and Country Journal (NSW : 1870 – 1907). NSW: National Library of Australia. 7 August 1880. p. 17. Retrieved 1 November 2013.
  5. 1 2 Eric Irvin. Dictionary of the Australian Theatre 1788–1914. (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger). 1985.


Additional resources listed by the ADB

Government offices
Preceded by
Thomas Brisbane
Governor of New South Wales
Succeeded by
Richard Bourke
Military offices
Preceded by
John Vincent
Colonel of the 69th (South Lincolnshire) Regiment of Foot
Succeeded by
Ernest Frederick Gascoigne
Preceded by
Edward Stopford
Colonel of the 41st (Welsh) Regiment of Foot
Succeeded by
Charles Ashe a'Court Repington
Preceded by
Hon. Robert Meade
Colonel of the 90th Regiment of Foot
Succeeded by
Sir Henry Sheehy Keating
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