SORELL, William (1775-1848)

SORELL, William (1775-1848)
third governor of Tasmania
was born in England in 1775, the eldest son of Lieut.-general William Alexander Sorell. He joined the army in August 1790 as an ensign, was promoted lieutenant in August 1793, and saw active service in the West Indies. He became a captain in 1795. In 1799 he was aide-de-camp to Lieut.-general Sir James Murray in the abortive expedition to North Holland, and in 1800 took part in the attacks on Spanish naval stations. After the peace at Amiens, Sorell was captain in the 18th or Royal Irish regiment, and in 1804 was promoted major to the 43rd regiment. In 1807 he was made deputy-adjutant-general of the forces at the Cape of Good Hope, and was promoted brevet lieutenant-colonel. He returned to England in 1811 and on 4 February 1813 retired from the army. He had married, but had separated from his wife before going to South Africa. There he formed a connexion with the wife of a Lieutenant Kent serving in one of the regiments, and it is believed that this was the reason for his being retired. On 3 April 1816 he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Tasmania, arrived in Sydney on 10 March and at Hobart on 8 April 1817. In the meanwhile Lieutenant Kent had brought an action against Sorell "for criminal conversation with the plaintiff's wife", and on 5 July 1817 was awarded £3000 damages.
The first problem Sorell had to deal with was the suppression of bushranging. He at once instituted a system of passports for assigned servants and ticket-of-leave men, rewards were offered for the apprehension of bushrangers, and a few months later, on 12 December 1817, Macquarie (q.v.) reported in a dispatch that the bushrangers had been "almost entirely extirpated through the active and energetic measures of Lieut.-governor Sorell". Sorell also issued a manifesto relating to the protection of aborigines stating that "any persons charged with killing, firing at or committing any act of outrage should be sent to Sydney to take their trial". However well-meant this might be it quite failed in its purpose. In 1819 he issued a government order, admirably phrased, warning settlers of the causes of the outrages and giving suggestions how to avoid their occurrence. He especially ordered that the aborigines should not be deprived of their children, as he found young natives were being kept by stock-keepers and pastoralists in a kind of semi-slavery. Another ordinance brought in regulations for the effective branding of cattle, a necessary precaution in a country with comparatively few fences. Sorell also developed education by increasing very much the number of schools. The population was increasing, there had been some emigration of free settlers from New South Wales, and in 1820 the colonial office considerably increased the issue of official permits to would-be settlers from England. Until then everything Sorell did had to be referred to Macquarie, but he was now informed that letters from the colonial office respecting land grants would be directed to him so that he could deal with them without the former delay. In this year about 200 stud sheep arrived from New South Wales which led to a considerable improvement in the quality of the flocks. In April 1821 Macquarie visited Tasmania, and in a dispatch to Earl Bathurst dated 17 July enclosed a government and general order he had published in which he more than once highly commended Sorell for the work he had done. The years from 1821 to 1824 were years of quiet progress, during which Sorell, after consultation with the leading business men, succeeded in getting the first bank founded, the Van Diemen's Land Bank, and there was great expansion in trade. Various grammar schools in which secondary teaching was given were started, and in addition to those of the Church of England, clergy from the Roman Catholic and Methodist churches also began to do duty. Sorell also began dividing the convicts into different classes, sending the worst of them to Macquarie Harbour. About October 1823 Sorell heard privately that he was likely to be recalled. He had become very popular, and in December 1821 a general meeting of the inhabitants had decided to present him with a service of plate of a value not less than 500 guineas. When the news of his impending recall leaked out another meeting of the colonists was held on 30 October 1823, and an address to the king was prepared praying that he should not be removed. Similar resolutions were passed at Launceston. But it was too late for these meetings to have any effect. The dispatch intimating Sorell's recall was dated 26 August 1823 and arrived a few weeks later. His successor, Lieut.-governor Arthur (q.v.), arrived on 12 May 1824, and Sorell left for England on 12 June. He was given a pension of £500 a year and died on 4 June 1848. (Death notice, The Times, 8 June 1848.) There were several children of his marriage, one of whom, William Sorell, junior, was appointed registrar of the supreme court at Hobart in 1824, and held this position until his death in 1860. His daughter married Thomas Arnold and became the mother of the novelist Mrs Humphrey Ward (q.v.)
Sorell was an excellent administrator. Coming to Tasmania after a discredited governor and finding everything in confusion, he speedily set to work to put things in order and win the respect of everyone in the community. He was thoroughly honest, active, wise, and intelligent. Courteous to all, he could be determined when it was necessary. Much exploration was done during the period of his rule, the population was quadrupled, and the wealth of the colony much increased. His recall was thoroughly unpopular, and it was unfortunate that the same cause which led to Sorell's leaving the army should have been brought to the notice of the colonial office, and made an end of the career for which he was so eminently fitted.
Historical Records of Australia, ser. III, vols. II to V. ser. I. vols. IX and X: R. W. Giblin, The Early History of Tasmania, vol. II; J. West, The History of Tasmania; J. Fenton, A History of Tasmania; The Gentleman's Magazine, August 1848, p. 204.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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