Queensland’s 4th governor: Sir William Wellington Cairns


Sir William Wellington Cairns Queensland Governor
Image: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

In 1876, the Porpoise steamed into Trinity Bay, carrying officials tasked with establishing a port. They named the new settlement for then governor of Queensland, Sir William Wellington Cairns.

But the fourth governor of Queensland never saw the settlement that bore his name. Indeed, he departed from his post within six months of the founding of Cairns. His departure much delighted entrenched Queensland political figures. They worried his very British political views and humanitarian concerns might block their road to riches. Unable to directly attack the Queen’s representative, they resorted to rumour and innuendo.

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The Cairns governorship marks the first known, but by no means last, use of homophobia as a weapon in Queensland politics.

William Wellington Cairns

Born in Ireland in 1828, Cairns, as a younger son, could not expect an inheritance. However, an older half-brother was one of Britain’s most influential politicians. William Wellington Cairns took advantage of the family connection to obtain a position in the British civil service.

Choosing to work in the empire’s tropical colonies, Cairns worked his way up to the rank of governor. In recognition of his ability as an administrator, Queen Victoria appointed him a CMG.

The new Queensland Governor “still a bachelor”

He took up an appointment as Governor of Queensland in January 1875. The Queensland Times thought he presented a real catch.

“It will probably interest the ladies of Queensland to know that he is still a bachelor.”

However, the Mackay Mercury hinted strongly that an unmarried man of 47 probably did not seek marriage.

“Speculation has been freely indulged in as to Mr. Cairns’ personal characteristics… He is insensible to the influence, or at any rate… invulnerable to the charms, of the fairer portion of creation.”

The new Queensland Governor arrived in Brisbane accompanied by two young men. The Rockhampton Bulletin took note that they too remained unmarried.

“It is remarkable that his Excellency’s private secretary and aide-de-camp are also unmarried men, or have left their wives behind them.”

Then, in his first vice-regal act after being sworn in as governor, Cairns dismissed the housemaids at Government House, leaving him with an all-male household.

C. A. Bernays: recollections of Governor Cairns

As the son of an officer of the parliament, the writer C.A. Bernays grew up in a cottage in the Queensland parliamentary precinct. Decades later, he recorded his observations of the governor he saw often during his teenage years.

He described Cairns as “stiff, starchy, proud, dignified, haughty, and ruling his life by etiquette and punctiliousness.”

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Bernays thought the governor something of a toff, wearing a tall white silk tophat everywhere. He wore it on his morning walks, on frequent shopping trips in the company of his young private secretary, and even in his carriage.

The governor’s notorious tophat betrayed his presence among the shoppers in Fortitude Valley. He apparently visited the Valley often, in pursuit of ‘jam’. Strangely, both times Bernays wrote the word ‘jam’, he enclosed it in quotation marks as though to signify its use as code.


One saw the hat in the distance… and then a brown paper parcel which contained “jam,” a commodity that could be bought cheaper in Fortitude Valley than elsewhere. Ah, well, we all have our little peculiarities.


Bernays noted that Cairns “took [his youthful aide-de-camp and private secretary] under a wing as a father.” He subjected them to the “most rigid discipline’ including not allowing them out after 10 pm.

Albert Maudslay

With the governor unmarried, Albert Maudslay as his private secretary accompanied Cairns to most of his engagements as well as on those shopping trips.

Albert enjoyed his own moment in the sun during a fancy dress ball thrown by the governor for Brisbane’s social elite. The newspapers universally declared him the highlight.

“The most attractive dress was worn by the Governor’s private secretary. It was a brilliant personification of a Mexican chief.”

However, Albert tired of either Queensland or its governor. In August 1875, Sir Arthur Gordon visited Brisbane on his way to take up the position of Governor of Fiji. Albert decamped with him to the distant islands.

The Mexican dress he wore to the ball turned out to indicate his real passion in life. He later became an archaeologist and one of the first Europeans to study Mexico’s Mayan ruins.

Politics

Despite the struggles of its formative years, Queensland seemed on surer footing by the time Cairns arrived in the colony. Rich mineral discoveries and the opening up of farmland promised to make wealthy men of the leading citizens.

But Cairns threatened some of their more deplorable business practices. Despite his fervour for the British Empire, Cairns abhorred any mistreatment of colonised peoples.

He opposed the murder and dispossession of First Nations peoples. He condemned the injustices meted out to indentured South Sea Islanders and criticised the restrictions placed on Asians and Africans on the goldfields. But those actions benefited the fortunes of the politicians of the day.

The newspapers relied on the patronage of the businessmen so they generally reflected the opinion of the business elite.

They denigrated Cairns as a sickly, unmarried, beardless toff. In addition to everything else, Cairns was beardless in an era when men sported hirsute countenances as proof positive of their masculinity. He wore whiskers (sideburns) but no beard.

Illness

Also, he was constantly ill. Though C. A. Bernays thought him a hypochondriac.

“The melancholy and gloomy appearance of Governor Cairns was suggestive of hypochondria in an acute form. It was well known… that the state of his health obsessed him. It was said that like all hypochondriacs he became in course of time his own medical attendant and that he consumed quantities of potions and pills vast enough to sink a ship.”

When the governorship of South Australia became vacant, Cairns seized the opportunity to depart. The official statement spoke of consideration for “his health which might benefit from his removal to a cooler climate.”

Queensland’s opinion of Cairns arrived in Adelaide ahead of him. The South Australian newspapers printed stories of his ‘marked peculiarities’. One noted that “the most prominent of his traits have been microscopically treated so that he has been magnified into an absolute woman-hater.”

The article went on to complain about the lack of a Mrs. Cairns saying because of his bachelorhood, he failed to sustain “the prestige and dignity of Government House.”

After only two months in Adelaide, he resigned because of insomnia and the “effects of his long tropical residence on his nervous system.” He returned to Britain.

Contrary to Queensland’s low regard for her former governor, the British regarded him as an exemplary administrator. Victoria appointed him a KCMG prior to his death in 1888 at the age of 60.

Even after his death, Queensland remained unforgiving. The local Figaro newspaper described him as “a sickly, peevish man of a stingy disposition, and unpopular.”

With thanks for information from Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns by Ian Byford. Available from Ian.Byford@bigpond.com

william wellington cairns

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