In support of the Commandants: subaltern officers of the Moreton Bay settlement, 1824 – 1850
Rod Pratt, Harry Gentle Visiting Fellow 2021

Subaltern military officers

(Above: Moreton Bay Settlement New South Wales in 1835 Image: JOL SLQ No. 3944-1v000r001)

Think of the military officers posted to Brisbane Town during its convict period of 1824 to 1841, and names such as Henry Millar, Patrick Logan, James Clunie, Foster Fyans, Sydney Cotton and Owen Gorman immediately spring to mind. Yet these commandants could not have fulfilled all their duties without the support of their staff of subaltern officers. When both Logan and Clunie commanded the settlement from 1826 to 1835, it was usual for the most recently arrived subaltern at Brisbane Town to hold the post of either Superintendent of Works or Assistant Engineer, although none of these officers would have possessed the skills or knowledge for the role, and hence relied upon overseers for guidance. This practice appears to have begun with Lieutenant John Ovens 57th Regiment, before the role transferred to Lieutenant Joseph Innes 39th Regiment, and thence to Lieutenant Thomas Bainbrigge, Lieutenant George Edwards, Lieutenant William Hervey and finally Lieutenant John Nagel, even though Captain Clunie was strongly opposed to the appointment of the latter.

For the most part, the subalterns’ duties were mundane and this in turn led to boredom. Assistant Surgeon Dr Fitzgerald Murray described the military officers he encountered at Brisbane Town as ‘desperate grog drinkers and cigar smokers’, although he was prepared to consider Lieutenant George Edwards an exception to this rule. On rare occasions these subalterns attracted attention, such as when Lieutenant Charles Otter of the 4th Regiment went north to rescue Eliza Frazer, or Lt Frederick Browne Russell of the 28th Regiment who searched for two sailors from the Duke of York shipwreck in 1837, only to learn they had both been murdered by the Huon Monday (Eumundi) Aborigines. Even Lt George Hilliard of the 28th Regiment received considerable public acclaim and presentations when he led a Mounted Police detachment directly after his Moreton Bay posting and was responsible for the capture of notorious bushrangers.

(Above: Captain Logan Image: Courtesy National Library of NSW, Call Number ML13, Room 2, North Wall, no. 128)

Part of this neglect of the Moreton Bay subalterns was due to the fact that many were posted to Moreton Bay only briefly, such as Lieutenant Thomas Kirkley of the 39th Regiment who was present less than two months. These brief postings stand in contrast to the commandants whose tenures were much longer and saw several subalterns pass under their command. Captain Logan might have had the longest stay but it was cut short by his murder after 4 years 7 months and was eclipsed by Captain Clunie, whose posting was the longest at 4 years 8 months. Of course, the number of subalterns under a commandant’s command was determined by the number of soldiers forming the detachment, and the size of this detachment was in turn determined by the number of convicts kept under guard. The usual ratio of convicts to soldiers across Australian penal stations was roughly maintained at 10 convicts to each soldier. Likewise, an ensign (when assisted by an able NCO) took charge of approximately a dozen soldiers, while a lieutenant commanded around thirty soldiers, and a captain was usually appointed over a force no greater than a hundred redcoats.

(Image courtesy of Rod Pratt)

This paper refers to these officers as subalterns rather than junior officers, because of the 40 officers who served at Moreton Bay during 1824 to 1850, only seven were below the age of twenty-one, while the average age of a subaltern was 36.5 years. When taken together, these ‘junior officers’ were seldom junior in age and there were other discrepancies as well, such as the oldest subaltern (Lt William Bell RNSWVC aged 55) and the youngest (Lt Patrick Johnston 99th aged 18) both held the same rank even though separated by an age gap of 37 years. All this tends to demonstrate how slow promotion could be in a peace-time army when one lacked the financial means to purchase one’s advancement. This leads to the subject of the purchase system of attaining rank.