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Townshend, Thomas (Tommy) (1733–1800)

by Andrew Tink

Viscount Sydney, n.d.

Viscount Sydney, n.d.

City of Sydney Archives, 006261

Thomas (Tommy) Townshend, first Viscount Sydney (1733-1800), politician, was born in London on 24 February 1733, the eldest son of Thomas Townshend (1701-1780), politician. He was educated at Eton (1748) and later at Cambridge, graduating with an MA in 1753. 

As a grandson of Charles (Turnip) Townshend, a one-time leader of the all-powerful Whig Party, Tommy Townshend was well connected politically and became MP for Whitchurch in 1754. Under the patronage of his great uncle, the Duke of Newcastle, who was prime minister from 1754 to 1762, Townshend progressed steadily through the ranks of the junior ministry, becoming a clerk of the board of green cloth in 1760. On 19 May that year, he married Elizabeth (1736-1826) the eldest daughter of Richard Powys of Hintlesham, Suffolk. They were to have six sons and six daughters. 

During the political instability which followed Newcastle’s fall in 1762, Townshend found himself moving between opposition and government, until he was dismissed as Paymaster of the Forces in 1768. Thereafter he remained out of office for fourteen years, mostly in opposition to Lord North’s government, which dominated Parliament as Britain and her American colonies descended into all-out warfare. 

Out of a House of 558 MPs, Townshend was one of just 20 who actively supported the revolting colonists’ cause. In May 1776, the press reported Townshend warning the House: ‘Parliament was at length degraded into a mere engine of government, one day to bully, another to conciliate, and the next he foresaw would be to sue for terms with America’. Following a British army’s defeat at Yorktown in October 1781, Townshend played a prominent role in bringing down the North Government. And on 10 July 1782, he became Home Secretary, responsible for concluding a peace treaty with America, and for easing Britain’s prison overcrowding caused by her former colonies’ refusal to receive any more transported convicts.       

Accepting that Britain owed a duty of care to the so-called ‘Loyalists’, those Americans who had fought for their king, Townshend was concerned that Britain’s chief negotiator, Richard Oswald, who at one stage contemplated ceding Canada to the United States, needed some toughening up. As Townshend saw it, Canada had to remain in British hands to provide a safe refuge for the Loyalists. He therefore dispatched his confidential secretary, Henry Strachey, to support Oswald. The Americans’ lead negotiator, John Adams, described Strachey as ‘the most eager, earnest, pointed spirit who…pushes every point as far as it can possibly go’. Thanks to Strachey, the Americans eventually agreed to a boundary line running through the middle of the Great Lakes, rather than further north, through Lake Nipissing. As a result, the modern city of Toronto is located in Canada rather than in the United States. 

After convincing the British cabinet to support the draft articles of peace with the Americans, Townshend defended the resulting treaty in the House. Nathaniel Wraxall, a prominent MP who voted against this treaty, was nevertheless unstinting in his praise: ‘Mr Townshend as Secretary of State excelled himself in his defence of the peace and may really be said to have in some measure earned on that night the peerage which he soon after obtained. I never saw him display so much animation nor hear him manifest such ability’. So it was that Townshend became Lord Sydney, and in 1785, grateful Loyalists named their settlement on Cape Breton Island, ‘Sydney’, after him. 

To relieve prison overcrowding, Lord Sydney favoured finding an alternative place of transportation, rather than the penitentiaries advocated by the prominent social reformer, Jeremy Bentham. And in 1784, Sydney sponsored the Transportation Act which transferred responsibility for choosing such an alternative place, from Parliament to the Ministry. That same year, James Matra, who had been to Botany Bay in 1770, noted his conversation with Lord Sydney during which ‘it was observed that New South Wales would be a very proper region for the reception of criminals condemned to transportation’. However due to the extreme distance involved, other options including a number in Africa, were considered first. Through a process of trial and error, they were progressively ruled out. And in July 1786, the British cabinet came to accept Sydney’s recommendation that convicts be transported to Botany Bay.    

Transporting 750 convicts and 250 marines half way around the world to a place where there was no settlement to receive them, was unprecedented. And Sydney’s choice of commander nonplussed the First Lord of the Admiralty. ‘I cannot say…[that]the little knowledge I have of Captain Phillips [sic] would have led me to select him for a service of this complicated nature’ Admiral Howe wrote to Sydney. ‘But…[I see that] you are satisfied of his ability and conclude that he will be taken under your direction’. To Howe’s consternation, Sydney and Phillip agreed that the ordinary criminal law rather than military law would apply to the convicts, that a civil court would be established, that well behaved convicts could be emancipated, and that Phillip would ‘open an intercourse with the natives and…enjoin all subjects to live in amity and kindness with them’. 

Eleven relatively modern ships were selected to undertake the voyage and two years’ supplies were provided. Although just 23 people died during the First Fleet’s passage of 16,000 miles, the financial cost of 58,000 pounds was widely viewed as excessive and Sydney was replaced as Home Secretary in June 1789. His successor, William Grenville, then organised the Second Fleet to transport 1006 convicts for a total cost of just 22,370 pounds, resulting in 267 deaths, later confirmed as the highest in the history of transportation. 

Lord Sydney kept in touch with the convict settlement which by now bore his name, at one stage receiving the visiting Aborigine, Bennelong, as a house guest. One of the last letters Sydney received before his death from a stroke on 30 June 1800, was from the former First Fleet officer Henry Waterhouse. ‘The colony is in a very flourishing state…Benalong [sic] is well…and he constantly desires to be remembered to your Lordship and family’.

Bibliography
Andrew Tink, Lord Sydney: The Life and Times of Tommy Townshend (2011)

Original Publication

  • People Australia, 14 February 2019

Additional Resources

Citation details

Andrew Tink, 'Townshend, Thomas (Tommy) (1733–1800)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/townshend-thomas-tommy-29588/text36474, accessed 22 April 2019.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Viscount Sydney, n.d.

Viscount Sydney, n.d.

City of Sydney Archives, 006261

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Sydney, First Viscount
  • Sydney, Lord
Birth

24 February 1733
London, Middlesex, England

Death

30 June 1800
London, Middlesex, England

Cause of Death

stroke

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation
Legacies