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Officer, Sir Robert (1800-1879)
Article by
Murdo MacLeod


Medical officer and politician, was born on 3 October 1800 near Dundee, Scotland, the son of Robert Officer, of Jacksbank, and his wife Isabella, nee Kerr. In 1821 he obtained his diploma as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, London. As ship's surgeon in the Castle Forbes he arrived at Hobart Town in March 1822. By May he was a supernumerary assistant surgeon at 3s. a day. On 25 October 1823 at St David's Church he married Jemima, daughter of Myles Patterson of Hunterston on the Shannon River. In 1824 Officer was moved to New Norfolk, allotted a district 'seven miles [11 km] along the Derwent River', and given a forage allowance. By 1827 his district had increased to 'thirty five miles [56 km] through populous districts'; he also acted as surgeon to the military garrison and their families and had charge of the New Norfolk Hospital, of convicts on many public works and of the goal where he attended all corporal punishments. For these duties his pay was increased to 7s. a day and he was promoted district surgeon and appointed a magistrate. In 1831 he was criticized for sending convicts from road-gangs to New Norfolk for treatment, thereby interfering with their discipline; his reply was that he had 'no desire to be known as a mere slave driver'.

In 1826 Officer had been given a grant on the River Clyde. Soon afterwards he made a home for his family at Bothwell, where much property was held by the Pattersons and by Captain Patrick Wood, who had married Jane Patterson after resigning from the East India Co.'s service. In 1835 Officer moved with his family to Hobart, where he found time to distill oil from gum leaves; he recommended it to the lieutenant-governor as an article of export and was authorised to build a larger still and to provide samples of the oil for sending to England. In 1838 he sought promotion and was appointed to inspect the entire Colonial and Convict Medical Department. His report was well received by the Executive Council and the Colonial Office. Next year, when the military branch was separated on his recommendation, he was temporarily made colonial surgeon but his pay was not increased pending confirmation from London.

In 1838, against his wife's wishes, Officer had become infected by 'the mad Port Phillip transactions', and in partnership with his brother-in-law, Captain Wood, planned to send 3000 sheep to Geelong as a speculation. The first shipload left George Town in February 1839 but Officer thought it unwise to settle close to Geelong and engaged John Patterson and Matthew Gibb to find a run further afield. By August Officer was having an eight-roomed wooden house prefabricated for the new venture. In October he had 6500 sheep under offer at 22s. a head with a station thrown in, but did not buy because his wife was reluctant to move to the mainland. In November when she appeared to yield Officer and Wood ordered their agents to buy sheep and cattle, mostly on terms. On Gibb's advice Officer had also bought land and acquired the rights to several runs, some in conjunction with Wood. Granted leave to visit Port Phillip in December, Officer took his ready-made house, intending to settle permanently. Although Wood pleaded caution Officer continued to buy livestock at boom prices and because competent labour was scarce he undertook to pay 500 to bring workmen from Scotland. In 1840 he paid several visits to Port Phillip, but most of his business was left to the discretion of Patterson and Gibb. Suddenly the prospects became gloomy. He claimed land as bounty for importing labourers but was not permitted to locate it where he wished. When his workmen arrived they proved intractable and he braved his wife's wrath by sending for their two sons who were being educated in Edinburgh. In December he found that Gibb was exploiting him, for his wool had sold badly through poor preparation, so he resigned from the Medical Department intending to manage his own affairs. With the onset of depression he had begun to sell his livestock and some land. Through backing his brother-in-law John Hugh Patterson, he was left with bills for at least 3000 but escaped insolvency and later salvaged enough property to establish his sons as pastoralists in Victoria.

In April 1841 Officer had tried without success to rejoin the medical service in Van Diemen's Land, but in June he was appointed health officer at Hobart with a salary of 150. He held this position until 1850. Each year he censured the city's insanitary condition, though with little effect; as Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison commented, 'foul smell is indeed a nuisance but many people consider it a much greater nuisance to be made to pay for the remedy'. Among many other duties Officer served in the Immigration Department, the Court of Medical Examiners, the committee for placing children from the Queen's Orphan Schools in jobs, and as a trustee of the Infant School. In 1850 he resigned and retired to Hall Green, his home at New Norfolk. There he built up a private practice which he soon sold to his partner Dr James Agnew.

As an active supporter of Rev. John West on the anti-transportation issue Officer had become interested in politics. In October 1853 he was elected for Buckingham to the Legislative Council and next year shared in drafting the colony's Constitution for responsible government. In 1856 he was elected unopposed for Glenorchy to the new House of Assembly and after five years as chairman of committees was chosen as Speaker in 1861. He held this office with dignity and tact until forced by ill health to retire in April 1877. By that time he had also served as chairman of the New Norfolk Lunatic Asylum Commission, president of the Council of Education, member of the Hobart High School Committee, vice-president of the Royal Society of Tasmania, and a founding member and second president of the Tasmanian Club. As chairman of the Acclimatization Society and of the Salmon Commission he had shared in establishing Salmon Ponds near New Norfolk, which he showed to the Duke of Edinburgh in 1868. In January 1869 he was knighted. With the years he acquired scattered property and when he died at Hall Green on 8 July 1879 he left an estate worth 6200. His widow died on 28 September 1881; they had six sons and seven daughters.

Officer's obituaries made much of his unostentatious benevolence to the poor, his earnestness and his personal piety. According to the Anglican Church News 'he was a Presbyterian who knew nothing of Presbyterian prejudices'. At Bothwell he had been a churchwarden and at New Norfolk he worshipped in the Church of England. He had often praised the Wesleyan missionaries for their work among the convicts and subscribed to various chapel funds in remote districts. In Hobart he was an elder of St Andrew's Church and treasurer of St John's, and a close friend of many Presbyterian ministers. In the Hobart Presbytery he was a prominent figure and at his death the oldest office-bearer. Officer College was established in Hobart in his memory.

Select Bibliography

Historical Records of Australia, series 3, vol 4; P. L. Brown (ed), The Narrative of George Russell (Lond, 1935); J. Heyer, The Presbyterian Pioneers of Van Diemen's Land (Launceston, 1935); P. L. Brown (ed), Clyde Company Papers, vols 1-5 (Lond, 1941-63); correspondence file under Officer (Archives Office of Tasmania). More on the resources

Print Publication Details: 'Officer, Sir Robert (1800 - 1879)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, Melbourne University Press, 1967, pp 297-298.


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