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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fraser, Peter Gordon (1808–1888)

by R. L. Wettenhall

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Peter Gordon Fraser (1808-1888), colonial treasurer, was born on 31 March 1808 in Scotland the fourth of thirteen children of Donald Fraser, minister of Kirkhill, and his wife Jane, née Gordon. He joined the staff of the Colonial Office as a clerk about 1835, was appointed sheriff of Van Diemen's Land in 1838, arrived in the colony in May 1839, and took up duty next January. He was promoted colonial treasurer and collector of internal revenue in January 1843, thereby becoming a member of the Executive and Legislative Councils. Apart from acting as colonial secretary in 1851-52, he remained colonial treasurer until responsible government in 1856. On retirement he was given a pension of £600 for life (18 Vic. no. 17). He had also served from time to time as commissioner of the Caveat Board.

He returned to England on leave in 1847, partly to pay court to a lady he had met in the colony: Mary, second daughter of John Bisdee. They were married at Hutton, Somerset, on 11 October 1848, just before their return to the colony; two sons and a daughter were born at Hobart. Fraser finally returned to England with his family in 1860 to settle in Somerset. Though not in robust health, he survived another twenty-eight years, dying at Weston-super-Mare on 27 April 1888. One son was then a medical practitioner at Totnes, Devon.

Three things stand out about Fraser's life in Van Diemen's Land, two of them providing a rather unusual contrast: his unquestioned integrity and solid respectability on the one hand, and his self-abnegation and reluctance to accept responsibility on the other. The third feature of note was his enthusiasm as an amateur landscape painter. That Fraser could enjoy a relatively uneventful occupancy of the Treasury for some fourteen years and retire from it honourably was unusual for a period in which lapses of conduct by self-seeking officials so often led to dismissal. Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison praised his methodical and business-like habits, and noted that he had conducted himself to the satisfaction of all the governors under whom he had served. Yet his popularity was to a large extent a product of his retiring nature. He had not even wanted promotion as treasurer, but felt unable to decline without giving offence to Sir John Franklin; he twice unhesitatingly vacated his seat on the Legislative Council to make way for other officials; and he refused the high office of colonial secretary. He did his job well but unimaginatively, and liked nothing better than to associate with the members of Hobart's lively artistic community. He was a frequent companion of John Skinner Prout and later of the colonial auditor, George Boyes, who had at first despised him for his 'want of energy and resolution'. He was a leading member of the committee which organized Australia's first art exhibition in the Tasmanian Legislative Council chambers in January 1845, and he exhibited his own work at this and later exhibitions. Some of his paintings, of historical interest if not artistic brilliance, are preserved at his wife's Tasmanian family seat, Hutton Park, Melton Mowbray.

Select Bibliography

  • W. A. Townsley, Struggle for Self-Government in Tasmania, 1842-1856 (Hob, 1951)
  • G. T. W. B. Boyes diary (Royal Society of Tasmania, Hobart)
  • correspondence file under Fraser (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

R. L. Wettenhall, 'Fraser, Peter Gordon (1808–1888)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 25 November 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

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