Private correspondence can play an important role in understanding the past by providing personal observations and opinions on contemporary events and people. One such interesting letter dating from 1839 was recently acquired by the Library. The letter, from Sir John Franklin (Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land) to Captain John Washington (a founding member of the Royal Geographical Society), reveals Franklin’s opinions on several key figures in Australia’s history.
When the letter was written on 15 February 1839, Franklin was Lieutenant-Governor, and as such was the highest ranking official in Van Diemen’s Land. In this letter, he seeks Washington’s help in gaining speaking engagements for John Montagu (then Colonial Secretary of the Legislative Council in Van Diemen’s Land) during his extended leave in England. Despite describing Montagu here as a ‘…gentleman of considerable talent’, a mere 3 years later Franklin dismissed Montagu from his position after they clashed over several issues. Montagu in turn appealed to London to have Franklin recalled from his position in 1843.
Franklin also mentions his former private secretary, Alexander Maconochie, whom he had dismissed for writing a paper criticising Van Diemens Land’s penal system and outlining the poor treatment of convicts. In this private letter, Franklin says that he ‘… can say nothing but what is painful about Maconochie and will therefore be silent’. Maconochie’s concepts of penal reform have since become the foundation of modern penology, and Canberra’s prison is named after him.
Finally, this letter provides interesting context on the visit to Van Diemen’s Land of English ornithologist John Gould and his wife Elizabeth. Franklin thanks Washington for introducing Mr and Mrs Gould to him, commenting that he and his wife ‘… found them very interesting companions’. Franklin jokes in this letter ‘… I should think Mr Gould has left little for the ornithologists that may follow him’.
These 4 individuals all played important roles in Australia during Franklin’s term as Lieutenant-Governor and this letter expands our understanding of their lives, providing insight into the political landscape of Van Diemen’s Land.