AFW – The British Army…the final years

The 1840s

Men of the 99th Foot, which had been re-formed in 1824 as the Lanarkshire Volunteers, wore a red and white diced band on their forage caps. This image depicts a man of the 99th in undress around the time of the 1845 in Sydney.

The soldiers’ role in Australia as the guardians of order was not yet over. Although by 1848 New South Wales’ population was 220,000, of whom only 3% were convicts under sentence, Governor Fitzroy assured his British superiors that the presence of a strong military force had ‘much to do with the preservation of the public peace’.

During the 1840s troops in Sydney were often called out to deal with fires and riots. In 1841, when seamen of HMS Favourite battled with constables, men of the 50th fired over the heads of, and then into, a mob. Council elections in Sydney in 1843 involved the Mounted Police in riot duty during which they charged a number of whalers who were threatening supporters of a rival candidate with harpoons, while troops in Melbourne in 1847 were used to disperse sectarian riots.

The garrison reached its highest strength, around 5000 men, in January 1847, but from the mid-1840s the number of troops in Australia was reduced gradually. Following the end of transportation to New South Wales in 1840 (though it continued in a much reduced way to Tasmania until 1852 and to Western Australia until 1868) the need for a large military and commissariat establishment diminished.

The outbreak of the Anglo-Maori wars in New Zealand, calls for reinforcements for China and India and the home government’s parsimony brought a reduction in the number of troops in Australia.

Trooper of the Border Police, 1843.

By 1846 the Secretary of State for War and Colonies, Lord Grey, had informed the governor that ‘Her Majesty’s troops are not to be expected to undertake the duties of maintaining the internal tranquility of the Colony’, and he ordered ‘the whole of the disposable force’ to Wellington in New Zealand, where the Anglo-Maori wars were to sporadically occupy the British army for the next twenty years.

In 1838 Governor Gipps decided to form the Border Police. Although not a military unit the force mostly comprised army deserters transported from India and Cape Colony. Distributed in nine pastoral districts beyond the nineteen counties of New South Wale, its members wore a nondescript brown and green uniform or a version of light dragoon undress and numbered 86 men at its greatest strength.

Because its members were unpaid and unwilling recruits the force was inefficient. The ‘border crawlers as they were known, were brutal to the Aborigines, though they were enjoined in the force’s standing orders to be ‘kind and humane’. The Border Police, which was disbanded in 1846, was also suspected by the squatters of dishonesty.

The 1840s was the first decade in which troops were stationed in all of the Australian colonies. A force of about 1200 men was maintained in New South Wales with 700 men in Van Diemen’s Land, 150 in the Swan River Colony, less than 100 in the Port Phillip District (later named Victoria) and South Australia and 50 in what became Queensland. Norfolk Island, a penal settlement until 1856, retained a strong garrison of between 200 and 300 men.

Life for troops in the tiny outstations remained rigorous. Although Governor Gipps’ Border Police largely replaced the military Mounted Police on the frontier of white settlement, small detachments of soldiers remained in contact with Aborigines, contesting the possession of their land. In 1842, for example, the Moreton Bay district, largely a penal station for twenty years, was opened to free settlers.

Formed by Governor King in 1803 the Governor’s Body Guard was at first composed of ‘well behaved English convicts who [had] been light horsemen’. In 1810, now numbering fourteen soldiers of the garrison, Macquarie described it as ‘a very useful Establishment for . . conveying Intelligence from one part of the Country to the other.

Trooper, Governor’s Body Guard 1844.

Despite the British government’s misgivings about its cost the body guard remained. In the mid-1830s cost-conscious officials again attempted to have its seven members returned to their regiments, considering a body guard to be ‘a very unnecessary expense”.

Bourke re-named his troops “mounted orderlies”, because ‘body guard’ was a title ‘much too loft, for so trifling an Establishment but was eventually allowed to retain it. In the mid-1840s the body guard was amalgamated with the Mounted Police and was disbanded in 1860. Always dressed as light dragoons, in 1843 the Governor’s Body Guard apparently adopted the uniform of the 3rd Light Dragoons.

A small military guard of the 80th was stationed at Helidon, 100 kilometres west of Brisbane, to protect the drays travelling from the coast to the Darling Downs.

In South Australia a sergeant and seven privates of the 96th were sent to Port Lincoln to protect settlers on the newly-settled Eyre Peninsula.

Governor FitzRoy explained that it was ‘desirable to keep [the Aborigines] in check by a small Military force than to run the chance of collision between these people and the settlers’. Experience in the new country of the Liverpool Plains had shown that squatters and their stockmen were often unrestrained in their violence toward the Blacks; soldiers were at least a disciplined force.

In northern Australia yet another outpost, named Victoria, had been attempted at Port Essington in 1838. Royal Marines remained at Port Essington, the most successful settlement in tropical Australia to that time, until 1849. The Marines were healthy: they grew vegetables, played active games and were affected by fever only towards the end of their eleven-year stay.

For most of the garrison of Australia, however, life became, for the first time since 1788, relatively uneventful and even pleasant. A man of the 99th, which served in Australia and New Zealand for fifteen years, told one of his officers that ‘I would rather be a private in Sydney than a general in India’.

During the 1840s the British garrison’s role in the colonies became increasingly ceremonial. Here troops of the 11th Foot present arms as the governor, Sir Charles Fitzroy, enters the New South Wales Legislative Council.

Four members of the Governor’s Body Guard, which maintained a continuous existence for some fifty years, can be seen in the middle of the scene. They are dressed in the full dress uniform of British light dragoons.

Drunkenness, however, continued to be a problem and led to a short-lived protest in December 1845. From the time the First Fleet sailed British soldiers sent to Australia had regarded a spirit ration as theirs by right. In 1844 it became clear that the colonial government, ever eager to avoid expense, was losing over £3,000 each year on the existing system of issuing rum. The troops were told that they would receive a monetary allowance which would subsidise the cost of meat and bread, but when the duty on spirits fell and the government decided that it was no longer obliged to pay an allowance, men of the 99th in Sydney and the 58th in Parramatta refused to obey orders.

The fortress of Port Essington, in northern Australia, drawn by Captain Owen Stanley, RN, in 1848 or 1849. The stockade indicates the precautions taken by the settlement’s Royal Marine garrison against Aboriginal attack.

An alarmed Governor Gipps reported that they ‘even armed themselves for resistance’: ‘Give us back our grog!’ they shouted. After nine days, during which time it was rumoured that the commander of the troops, Sir Maurice O’Connell, intended to arm the convict iron gangs to suppress the unrest, the soldiers returned to duty.

News that O’Connell had summoned the 11th from Hobart convinced the men of the futility of their action. The following month Lieutenant Colonel H.K. Bloomfield arrived with 300 men, marched up George Street to the 11th’s band and entered the barracks. To everyone’s surprise the 99th turned out to cheer the regiment which had expected to suppress bloodily a mutiny.

The temptations offered by the town of Sydney were lessened when in 1848 a new military barracks, later named Victoria Barracks, was opened in Paddington, on the edge of the town. The 11th, the regiment which made the move, was unhappy at being removed to what was described as ‘the top of a suburban sand hill and its men groaned and hooted as they marched out of the old barracks in George Street for the last time.

Despite the apparent end of military action in Australia, General O’Connell resisted pressure to reduce further the army’s strength in the colonies. His decision was vindicated early in the next decade.




The 1850s -Eureka

Private soldier 12th Regiment of Foot 1854

The discovery of gold in New South Wales and Victoria in 1851 brought thousands of immigrants to Australia. The governors of New South Wales and Victoria feared the influx of what a nervous Governor Hotham called ‘mixed multitudes from more distant countries’

The need for improved police and even military protection was soon apparent. Licence fees for miners were introduced in order to deter hopeful diggers from travelling to the gold-fields, but they prevented few from mining while irritating the thousands forced to pay the fees.

By the time of the Crimean war, a measure of sense prevailed in the dress the army adopted in which to fight. The men of the 12th and 40th Regiments who charged the Eureka stockade wore the most convenient dress which the army possessed at the time. Some men wore a kind of Havelock cap-cover, possibly manufactured locally, and carried only their cartridge pouches and bayonets.

Troops once more became responsible for the maintenance of order. In 1853 a company of the 11th had been sent to the Turon River gold diggings north of Bathurst, while 125 men of the 40th were detailed to act as mounted escorts to the gold shipments sent from the Victorian diggings to Melbourne. In 1854 the Victorian gold fields were the scene of what has been described-incorrectly-as Australia’s only battle.

The miners had a number of grievances; licences were expensive, especially for miners whose claims were unproductive, and they were administered inefficiently and unfairly. Nor could the miners change this unsatisfactory arrangement, or leave mining to farm, for they could not vote and were unable to obtain land.

Gold Escort Trooper, 40th Regiment of Foot, 1855

Upon its arrival in 1852 the 40th Foot formed a Gold Escort of 125 men in order to protect shipments of gold from the diggings to Melbourne. The Gold Escort took no part in checking miners’ licence s and searching for bushrangers.

It was equipped and uniformed as the Honourable East India Company’s Bombay Light Cavalry (left). Full dress uniform for rare ceremonial parades consisted of the 40th’s Albert shako and a French grey jacket with white piping and leather reinforced overalls. (left)

Gold Escort Trooper, 40th Regiment of Foot, 1855

The escort’s working dress (right) comprised a loose-fitting red jacket, buff breeches (the 40th’s facing colour was buff), long riding boots and black leather equipment. A black shako was worn with a white Havelock cover and neck cloth in summer.

In October 1854 an apparently corrupt verdict against the murderers of a miner at the Eureka Hotel roused the men on the hitherto quiet Ballarat diggings, west of Melbourne. The miners sought reform of the administration of the goldfields and political rights, establishing a reform league to press their case.

The authorities reacted tactlessly to the diggers’ modest demands. Governor Sir Charles Hotham despatched troops and later naval guns to Ballarat and the local civil police (Joes’ or ‘traps’ as they were known) conducted aggravating licence hunts.

Late in November a company of the 12th arrived in Ballarat in vans. The commander of the detachment allowed his party to be ambushed as they arrived. Vans were overturned, ammunition was stolen and a drummer was killed. The Mounted Police galloped to their rescue.

Tension increased on the diggings. On 30 November the goldfields commissioner provocatively ordered another licence search and troops and miners skirmished among the claims. The governor had described the diggings as ‘a network of rabbit burrows-for miles the holes adjoin each other; each is a ‘ fortification’.

On 1 December about 1000 diggers swore to fight to defend their rights and liberties, pledging their allegiance under the blue Eureka flag. Companies of men were formed, pikes were manufactured and a stockade of pit slabs was created on the Eureka claim on the main road to Melbourne west of the town and the troops’ camp. The miners’ password was ‘Vinegar Hill’.

The next day only some 500 men were left in the stockade. Others slipped away, realising the hopelessness of the contest. By the evening of 2 December less than 200 diggers remained. Many were foreigners, some of whom had fought for liberty in the European revolutions of 1848. About half were Irishmen, who identified the struggle against Britain with the miners’ quarrel. A group of American diggers, the Independent Californian Rangers Revolver Brigade, manned outposts around the stockade.

That night the troops, numbering two companies of the 12th and a company of the 40th, with 100 mounted troops and police marched from their camp toward the stockade. In the half-light before dawn on 3 December the infantry assembled opposite the stockade while the mounted troops flanked it from north and south. Only the miners’ pickets saw the attackers. Both the government and the miners claimed that the other fired first.

It is likely that when the lines of infantry were 100 yards from the breastwork a few ragged shots met them. The troops replied and wavered before moving forward at the encouragement of a bugler.

Eureka miner, 1854. While the Eureka rebels had in Peter Lalor a commander in chief they were by no means organised to resist the troops sent against them. The diggers did not wear a ‘uniform’ of any sort, however, the red and blue checked flannel shirts worn by many miners and the corduroy or moleskin trousers, stout boots and a “wide awake” or cabbage-tree hat gave the insurgent diggers the appearance of military formation. 

They swarmed over the breastwork, throwing the diggers, many of whom had just awoken, into confusion. American diggers armed with revolvers were notable in the brief hand-to-hand struggle inside the stockade. An official report of the action described them dashing up towards the soldiers to ensure a better aim, and thereby preventing the riflemen and other comrades from supporting them.

Men armed with rough pikes stood their ground in the face of trained troops with Enfield rifles and bayonets, but within ten minutes the Eureka flag had been torn down, tents were aflame and those diggers not dead, wounded or captured were fleeing the stockade.

The Eureka stockade. The attack on the Eureka stockade, Ballarat, dawn December 1854. From the map by  D.S. Huyghue in Walter Withers’ History of Ballarat. Details of the attack and even the location of the stockade  itself are subject to disagreement.


In the attack, which Governor Hotham described as a ‘well concerted and able movement’, the troops suffered five killed (including Captain Wise of the 40th) and twelve wounded, while 34 diggers were killed or died of their wounds and 120 captured, some of whom were injured. The mounted police, many of whom were former convicts from Tasmania known as ‘vandemonians’. behaved with particular brutality, but all but twelve of the captured diggers were released soon after the attack.



The storming of the Eureka stockade; a vivid and reasonably accurate illustration by H.B. Henderson, who arrived at Eureka the morning after the battle. A member of the Independent Californian Rangers Revolver Brigade can be seen at right, firing his revolver at the troops swarming over the breastwork. As the artist arrived on the scene after the attack, he has depicted the troops in the shakos in which they appeared later in the day.


Martial law was declared from 6 December but was lifted three days later. The gold field was pacified largely by the good sense of General Sir Robert Nickle, the Peninsular war veteran commanding the troops in Australia.

Samuel Brees’ engraving of the 40th’s Gold Escort on the road from Bendigo to Melbourne shows the troopers on ‘active service’. They form advance rear and flank guard s for the caissons, riding in pairs. In contrast to their comrades still with the regiment these men sport moustaches.

Nickle moved among the diggers’ tents without an escort in the week after the battle and became liked and respected by the insurgents. The miners’ grievances were substantially rectified in the following year, and all but one of the men tried for their part in the rebellion were acquitted. The Eureka stockade remains as one of the most evocative symbols of Australian resistance to official repression.

For the remainder of the decade the troops stationed around the six Australian colonies endured the routine of garrison duty familiar to most regiments of the mid-Victorian army. Both the Crimean War and the Indian mutiny were of great interest to the colonists. The former stimulated volunteer military units among the colonists, while the mutiny caused the 77th to embark for Bengal in April 1858 only seven months after its arrival in Sydney.

During the 1850s old soldiers, part of the Enrolled Pensioner Force, arrived to guard convicts in Western Australia. The pensioners were a significant part of the colony’s population, comprising an eighth of its free inhabitants. The last pensioner was discharged in 1880.

In the 1850s the first Royal Artillerymen to be permanently stationed in Australia arrived in Sydney, fifty years after the first of many requests for guns had been made. In Sydney the gunners manned batteries around the harbour and Fort Denison, a martello tower in the harbour with two 10 inch and twelve 32-pounder guns, while other gunners served the batteries defending Port Melbourne.

Sydney had been defended since the first months of settlement with guns in batteries at the mouth of the cove. Macquarie fortified Bennelong Point by erecting a stone keep-named Fort Macquarie-in 1821. By the mid-1820s, though, these defences had fallen into disrepair. Several governors had expressed concern that their defences were inadequate: Darling protested in 1827 that Sydney was ‘totally destitute of every military defence’ , In 1835 Captain George Barney, a Royal Engineer officer trained in fortification, arrived-but worked mostly as a civil engineer.

Little was done to defend the colonial capitals until the 1850s: not until discovery of gold and the establishment of responsible government did the colonial middle class begin to fear for their prosperity. Imaginative governors, officials and pamphleteers considered their ports to be vulnerable to the appearance of ‘hostile cruisers’, ready to threaten them with bombardment in return for their hard-won gold. Visions of French or Russian cruisers, or even of free-booting ‘filibusters’, appearing off the heads were to haunt the rulers of the Australian colonies for the next fifty years.




Final Days

The British army’s last decade opened with the last action which it would see in Australia. Gold had been discovered at Lambing Flat, 300 kilometres west of Sydney, early in 1860. Late that year tensions emerged between the thousands of Europeans and Chinese miners who had flocked to the diggings. Rioting broke out over the summer of 1860-61 and when the police force seemed unable to protect the Chinese from European mobs, the military was called in.

A detachment of 101 men of the 12th with two naval guns from the screw sloop HMS Fawn set off in March and remained on the gold field until late May. The miners remained quiet, and men cheered the troops’ arrival. They later farewelled them with great cordiality, but in July fighting recurred.

After miners attacked the police camp and drove them back to the town of Yass, 80 kilometres away, the 12th once again marched over the Blue Mountains and across the western plains to Lambing Flat, where they remained, maintaining the peace until August 1862.

Life for the men of the regiments of infantry and the Royal Artillery in the colonial capitals was uneventful. By 1866 no troops remained at the outstations. Sydney had become, in the words of Ensign Mair of the 12th, ‘a most delightful quarter’. Only a handful of convicts remained over whom the regiments mounted guards, but the brutality and privation of the 1830s had passed. The regiments pursued the usual round of garrison life.

The first Royal Artillery unit to be stationed in . Australia, ‘Number 3 Company, 7th Battalion, arrived in Sydney in October 1856. This plate 17th depicts a member of Captain Graham’s Number 1 Battery, 1st Brigade, the last Royal Artillery unit to serve in Australia, which left in September 1870. A notable feature is the bombardier’s chevron worn on the forage cap. Image by Lindsay Cox

The troop’s health, always good in Australia, was remarked upon, and the two main barracks, in Sydney and Melbourne, were much better than many in Britain. Drunkenness, though, continued to be a problem for both officers and men. Mair recalled how the 12th’s band played so loudly on guest nights that ‘conversation was rather a difficulty’; this was no doubt the cause of so much wine being drunk after dinner.

This plate illustrates the appearance of the small Royal Marine Light Infantry detachment stationed at Somerset from 1864 to 1867. This man is depicted on guard duty, though, as he serves in so isolated a place he does appear to be as smart as a marine would have otherwise appeared.

No longer was the army responsible for public order. Indeed, in 1862 Ensign Campbell and Sergeant O’Grady of the 12th were themselves the victims of a bushranger who held up a mail coach in the west of New South Wales.

The Governor’s Body Guard, the last remnant of the once powerful Mounted Police, was disbanded in 1860. The garrison, often described as the ‘Imperial troops’ after the Australian colonies began to raise the volunteer forces which would after federation become Australia’s army, awaited a foreign invasion which never came.

During the 1860s the cost of maintaining such forces overseas became too great. For a time an arrangement was reached whereby the colonies paid for the British troops stationed in Australia, but by 1870 the British government and the colonies were unable to agree on who should pay what and the troops were withdrawn.

Hundreds of soldiers took their discharges in Australia during the 1860s; in 1870 the 14th sailed for Britain with 21 officers and only 283 NCOs and men. The 18th, Royal Irish, the last regiment to be posted to Australia, was farewelled by as many as 20,000 people when it left Melbourne for home in March 1870.

As the army’s role as the guarantor of order decreased, so its popularity had increased, and, ironically, its soldiers were never more popular than when they were leaving.

Royal Marines were the last as well as the first British troops to fire shots in anger in Australia. In 1864 a settlement was established at Somerset, close to the northernmost tip of Cape York Peninsula in Queensland.

Like Fort Dundas and Port Essington it was intended to become a second Singapore; like them it became only a tropical ruin. Twenty men of the Royal Marine Light Infantry from the paddle sloop HMS Salamander landed at Somerset in July 1864. Despite the climate and the labour of hacking a camp from the bush the men contrived to enjoy their first few months, catching huge butterflies and stuffing birds.,

In September 1864, however, the Goodang people of Cape York attacked the camp, spearing two Marines who had incautiously gone unarmed to fetch water. One died, the other suffered for months before three barbed spears were extracted from his chest. The Marines, lacking any idea of the appropriate tactics to employ against the Aborigines, thrashed about in the bush in a fruitless attempt to locate the attackers.

The 14th (Buckinghamshire) Regiment of Foot is a fine example of the line infantry regiments which served overseas for years at a time without relief or recognition. The 2nd/14th was raised in 1858, was sent to New Zealand in 1859 and arrived in Australia in 1867, the first regiment to arrive from a posting other than home service. – All drawings by Lindsay Cox

William Jardine, a bushman who later administered Somerset, abused the Marines as a ‘parcel of old women’, causing a feud with the Marines’ officer. The attack ended rambles after butterflies, and from then on the Marines went armed at all times. The lassitude which had afflicted other tropical settlements set in; the Marines sat in their tents, tormented by sand flies, eating bad pea soup, weevilly biscuit and tough salt junk, until they were relieved by civil constables and Aboriginal police in 1867.

Marines were also the last British troops to leave Australia, for they continued to serve aboard the ships of the Royal Navy’s Australian squadron. The squadron was based in Sydney until 1913, when the Royal Australian Navy replaced British warships in Australian waters. Marines could be seen, as they had been seen for 125 years, strolling about the streets of Sydney.

British soldiers had played an important part in the exploration and colonization of Australia after 1788. They had been responsible for the order, and at times the survival, of the isolated settlements which spread from the first tented camp on Sydney Cove.

Their service was rarely spectacular; no great battles were fought and their enemies were rarely as romantic as the Maoris, Sikhs or Zulus, though they were no less deadly for that. Orders for Australia, like postings to other colonies, entailed long years of separation from home, frequent hardship and conflict on what was then one of the frontiers of the British empire.




British Army Units

The British army units that served in Australia are as follows;

The Royal Marines

  • 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th,The Marines and Royal Marines  ( service ; 1788 till 1791….1803 till 1812……1824 till 1829……..1837 till 1845…….1862 till 1870).


Specially formed Regiments


Peninsular Regiments


Other British Regiments to serve


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