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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Armstrong, Richard Ramsay (1831–1910)

by H. J. Gibbney

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Richard Ramsay Armstrong, by Barroni & Co, 1901

Richard Ramsay Armstrong, by Barroni & Co, 1901

National Library of Australia

Richard Ramsay Armstrong (1831-1910), naval officer and public servant, was born at St Peter, Jersey, in the Channel Islands, sixth son of Francis Wheeler Armstrong and his wife Esther Françoise, née Quett(e)ville. He joined the navy in 1847, became a midshipman in H.M.S. Howe under Sir James Stirling and then served on the West African coast. In H.M.S. Vesuvius he saw much action in the Crimean war, was wounded three times, promoted for conspicuous gallantry and decorated by France and Turkey. On 20 August 1857 at St Helier, Jersey, he married Eliza Susannah Mallet. He retired in 1871 as lieutenant-commander, migrated to Canterbury, New Zealand, and was appointed chief immigration officer and inspector of ships.

After an unsuccessful planting venture in Fiji, he went to New South Wales about 1878 and was commissioned by the government to report on Lord Howe Island about 400 miles (644 km) north-east of Sydney. Soon afterwards he settled on the island intending to cultivate tropical produce, and was appointed registrar of births, marriages and deaths, resident magistrate and postmaster; he also became a hero by saving a wrecked ship.

In December 1881 the government rejected an indefinite petition from the islanders for his removal but in January 1882 while Armstrong was visiting Sydney, Charles Moore, director of the Sydney Botanic Gardens, accused him of embezzling £30 provided for the supply of seeds. The charge was upheld by Edmund Fosbery, inspector-general of police, after a hasty investigation. The Department of Public Instruction then complained that Armstrong refused to account for money provided to build a school, and in March the government appointed John Bowie Wilson to investigate the charges: Wilson visited the island early in April and collected other charges, the most important of which concerned illegal liquor trading; he then held a short inquiry but none of the witnesses was sworn and no cross-examination was permitted. On 17 April he reported that three of the main charges were fully proven and, since he also asserted that the post of magistrate was redundant, Armstrong was dismissed on 31 May.

Aroused by what seemed a manifest injustice, Armstrong began a vigorous campaign of letters to the press and representations to members of parliament; he also published a pamphlet, The Removal of Captain Armstrong from the Government Service. In February 1883 the government appointed a select committee which condemned Wilson's methods, questioned the character of the accusers including Moore and virtually cleared Armstrong. The bias of the committee was so obvious that the report was received with some scepticism, and because Wilson had died before it was submitted the assembly's decision was complicated by respect for his memory. Seeking peace with honour, the government offered alternative employment but Armstrong preferred to seek public vindication by compensation; to support his claim he published Captain Armstrong, R.N., re Lord Howe Island.

In June 1884 another committee recommended £1000 compensation but settlement was delayed by strong opposition from Sir John Robertson, a friend of Bowie Wilson, and led to another pamphlet, Capt. Armstrong … and Sir John Robertson. On 20 April 1886 Armstrong's case was expounded at the bar of the House by his counsel, David Buchanan, but on 18 June a motion for £3000 compensation was rejected as excessive. In April 1887 Armstrong's protagonists reluctantly agreed to a compromise offer of £1500. Armstrong invested the money in station property in New South Wales but later moved to Tasmania where he volunteered for service in the Boer war. In 1902 he moved to Western Australia where he attempted to develop commercial sponge fisheries. He died in Perth on 26 June 1910. He was survived by two sons and a daughter.

The Lord Howe Island case was a cause célèbre which aroused all the liberals in New South Wales including Sir Alfred Stephen. Armstrong was probably guilty of at least serious indiscretion and but for Wilson's extraordinary procedure would have received little support. Bowie Wilson, who was near to death and influenced by Moore, saw the case not as an inquiry but a crusade against immorality. His friends sought to protect his memory; Armstrong's party sought to assert his right to natural justice; the island beachcombers sought only the removal of interfering authority and succeeded.

Select Bibliography

  • A. and V. Finch, Lord Howe Island (Adel, 1967)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1882, 1883, 1883-84, 1885 (2nd S), 1885-86 (2nd S), 1887 (2nd S)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1883, 1883-84, 1885-86, 1887
  • West Australian, 27 June 1910.

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Armstrong, Richard Ramsay (1831–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Richard Ramsay Armstrong, by Barroni & Co, 1901

Richard Ramsay Armstrong, by Barroni & Co, 1901

National Library of Australia