Christopher Rolleston (1817 – 1888), born in Nottinghamshire, Englalnd, arrived in Sydney in 1838 and purchased land on the Hunter River. In 1842, he was appointed as Commissioner of Crown Lands for the Pastoral District of Darling Downs. Rolleston held this position until 1853 when he sought to return to England. After marrying Katherine Leslie, the couple returned to New South Wales where he was appointed Registrar-General in 1856. He was promoted to the newly created post of Auditor-General, a position he held until his retirement in 1883. Rolleston died in 9 April 1888 in Sydney.
Christopher Rolleston was a career public servant who filled many roles both in the New South Wales government where he worked tirelessly to ensure the orderly development of responsible government in the colony and also in many not-for-profit organizations. For his dedication to the public service and to the improvement of living conditions in urban settlement, he was made a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George in 1879.
Rolleston was one of eight children born to John Rolleston, the Anglican vicar of Barton-Joyce in Nottinghamshire and his wife Elizabeth (née Smelt). Two of his six brothers followed their father into the Anglican ministry but Christopher went to work for a Liverpool merchant before sailing to New South Wales in search of greater opportunities. He arrived in Sydney in 1838 and purchased land on the Hunter River which he farmed, with only limited success, for almost five years. In 1842 he abandoned farming and applied for a government position. In December of that year Governor George Gipps appointed Rolleston as Commissioner of Crown Lands for the Pastoral District of Darling Downs which had been officially proclaimed in May 1843.
During his time as Crown Lands Commissioner, Rolleston was based at the Border Police Depot at Cambooya, 20 kilometres south-west of Toowoomba. As sole representative of the government, he had control over an area greater than 26000 square miles (7 million hectares). When it was first gazetted, the District was bounded by the Great Dividing Range in the east and the Clarence River in the south but its northern and western boundaries were undefined. Rolleston had only a small unit of Border Police under his control and so he found it impossible to protect those who chose to settle on the northern fringes of the District. An examination of his Record Books reveals that Rolleston’s duties included, but were not limited to, the collection of licence fees, the issuing of pasturing and business licences, maintaining law and order and sending statistical reports to the Colonial Secretary.
Rolleston held this position until February 1853 when he sought leave to return to England. The following year he married Katherine Leslie, a relative of the Leslie Brothers who had purchased Canning Downs near Warwick. Not long after their marriage, the couple returned to New South Wales. Rolleston’s success as Commissioner of Crown Lands had been duly noted by his superiors and so he had little difficulty in securing a position as private secretary to the Governor-General, Sir William Denison, in January 1855. His future career in the public service was assured when, in 1856, Governor Denison appointed him as first Registrar-General of New South Wales. In this role he was responsible for the publication of the first Statistical Register and for the introduction of compulsory registration of births, deaths and marriages as well as for conducting the Census. When the registration of land deeds was transferred to Rolleston’s department under the Real Property Act of 1863, he was promoted to the newly created post of Auditor-General, a position he held until his retirement in 1883. He kept a tight rein on government expenditure and produced accurate annual accounts for presentation to the New South Wales Parliament thus contributing to the financial stability of the colony.
Apart from his government duties, Rolleston was heavily involved in a number of leading private institutions. He was appointed Director of the European Assurance Society, Director of the Mercantile Bank of Sydney and Director of the Australian Gaslight Company. His interests also extended to not-for-profit organisations. At various times he served as Trustee of the Australian Museum, Chairman of the Government Asylums Board for the Infirm and Destitute, President of the Philosophical Society and Commissioner for the Philadelphia International Exhibition and the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition.
During the 1860s and 1870s, Rolleston, with his business partners Louis Hope and Alfred Denison, acquired pastoral properties in Queensland. He bought ten blocks of land on the Comet River in the Leichhardt District, 336 kilometres south-west of Gladstone. The town which was later established near his property now bears his name.
Throughout his career as public servant and as a member of community organisations, Christopher Rolleston worked tirelessly to ensure the efficiency of the colonial government and to enhance its ability to meet the challenges inherent in the administration of the rapidly developing regions of northern New South Wales.
Margaret Shield, ‘Christopher Rolleston (1817 – 1888)’, Harry Gentle Resource Centre, Griffith University, 2018, https://harrygentle.griffith.edu.au/life-stories/christopher-rolleston/.
Queensland State Archives, Diary, 1 Jul 1845 to 21 Sep 1852, Item ID ITM269673.
Map of a portion of south-east Queensland, showing official district boundaries of Wide Bay, Burnett, Moreton, Darling Downs, Maranoa and the County of Stanley. Creators: John Arrowsmith, lithographer, and Sir Thomas Mitchell. Publication details: London: J. Arrowsmith, 1848.
Death Notice, Argus, 10 April 1888, p. 8.
Portrait of Mr. Christopher Rolleston, Australian Town and Country Journal, 7 June 1879, p. 17.
Chronicles of Queensland, Truth, 28 May 1911, p. 10.
The Government Gazette (Appointment Rolleston), The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 6 Jan 1863, p. 3.
Commissioner Rolland, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 November 1851, p. 2.