Robert Torrens

Born1780 (1780)
Hervey Hill, Derry, Ireland
Died27 May 1864(1864-05-27) (aged 83–84)
Occupation(s)Political economist; politician; Royal Marines officer; publisher; writer
Notable workEssay on the production of wealth, 1821
Essay on the production of wealth, 1821

Robert Torrens FRS (1780 – 27 May 1864) was a Royal Marines officer, political economist, part-owner of the influential Globe newspaper, and a prolific writer. He also chaired the board of the London-based South Australian Colonisation Commission created by the South Australia Act 1834 to oversee the new colony of South Australia, before the colony went bankrupt and he was sacked in 1841. He was chiefly known for championing the cause for emigration to the new colony, and his name lives on in Adelaide's main river, the Torrens, the suburb of Torrensville and a few other places.

He is sometimes referred to as Colonel Robert Torrens, but his final army rank is disputed in various sources. His son, Sir Robert Richard Torrens, spent many years in South Australia, even serving for a short time as the state Premier, and became known for his land reform.

Early life and family

Torrens was born in Hervey Hill, Derry, Ireland, the son of Robert Torrens of Hervey Hill and his wife Elizabeth, née Bristow.[1]

The Torrens family, thought to be descended from a Swedish officer in the service of William III of England, were a large and prominent Derry family. Among his numerous cousins were Sir Henry Torrens, the distinguished military adviser, and another Robert Torrens, a judge of the Court of Common Pleas (Ireland).[citation needed]

Torrens married Charity, daughter of Richard Chute of the townland of Roxborough in County Kerry, in 1801 at Dublin.[1] They divorced in 1819, and Torrens went to England.[2] He married Esther Sarah, née Serle, in September 1820.[1]

Torrens' son Robert Richard Torrens, administrator and politician in South Australia, invented the Torrens title system of registering land titles, which is widely used in the British Commonwealth and other states (e.g. Iowa) and countries.[3][4]

Military career

Torrens entered the Royal Marines in 1796. He achieved renown in 1811 by overseeing the defence of the Baltic island of Anholt against superior Danish forces[5] in the Walcheren Expedition, during which he was severely wounded and was awarded the title of brevet major for his bravery. On the 200th anniversary of the battle of Anholt, the sword presented to Torrens was purchased by the Royal Marines Museum.[6]

After divesting the island in August 1812, the garrison was redeployed to Northern Spain in the winter of 1812 with Major James Malcolm, alongside Spanish forces. Torrens returned to London on 31 August, however, and was ordered to report to Woolwich Divisional Headquarters.[7] Although the Dictionary of National Biography (1885-1900)[8] makes reference to his being "appointed Colonel of a Spanish Legion", this claim has yet to be substantiated by other sources. There is a letter dated 16 January 1813, co-signed by Torrens and Edward Nicolls, requesting that Torrens not be seconded to the Spanish army, but that Nicolls should take his place.[9] The outcome is unclear, but it appears that a Capt. Baillie went instead.

Torrens was subsequently appointed the officer commanding the Marines on HMS Blenheim, and performed this duty from 23 June 1813 to 11 January 1814.[10] His final deployment was off the Low Countries during the winter of 1813–1814, at the siege of Antwerp. He was back in Portsmouth in March 1814.[11]

Confusion about rank

According to DNB, Torrens was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in 1819, and to that of Colonel in 1837; however, he had retired on half-pay in 1835.[8] According to the provenance of a sword presented to Torrens in an auction catalogue, Torrens saw no further active service but he remained in the Royal Marines until 1834, spending the period 1823–30 on half-pay. This says that the rank of lieutenant-colonel in 1819 was only a brevet, and that he spent 1823 to 1830 on half-pay, being promoted to major in the Marines in 1831 and selling out in 1834.[12][13][14]

He is referred to as "Colonel Torrens" in Hansard from November 1826[15] to August 1832,[16] and in the report of the 1831 parliamentary select committee on steam carriages, on which he sat (published in 1834).[17] He is similarly named in an 1832 piece in Cobbett's Political Register, opposing his policies.[18]

The DNB entry for his son, Sir Robert Richard Torrens, refers to the elder Torrens as "Lieutenant-Colonel".[19]


Torrens was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in December 1818.[20]

He was an independent discoverer of the principle of comparative advantage in international trade, which principle is usually attributed to David Ricardo although Torrens wrote about it in 1815, two years before Ricardo's book On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation was first published. He was a strong advocate of Catholic Emancipation, publishing a tract and a novel on the subject.

Torrens was a founder member of the Political Economy Club. He was also one of the first to theorise about the optimal tariff, predating J. S. Mill's thoughts on the subject by 11 years. His advocacy of reciprocity rather than unconditional free trade in the 1840s was highly controversial, and he was later cited as a precursor by supporters of Joseph Chamberlain's tariff reform campaign.

Torrens was a strong advocate of state-sponsored emigration to relieve population pressure in the United Kingdom (particularly in Ireland; he argued that Irish living standards could only be improved by making Irish agriculture more profitable, but that at the same time this would lead to massive short-term displacement of labourers who must somehow be supported during the transition period).

South Australia

He had earlier been interested in a plan to found a settlement in New Zealand, in 1825 becoming a director of the New Zealand Company, a venture chaired by the wealthy John George Lambton, Whig MP (and later 1st Earl of Durham), that made the first attempt to colonise New Zealand.[21][22][23] He was also interested in Thomas Peel's Swan River Colony (1829), but he only became personally involved in actual emigration schemes with the South Australian Land Company in 1831. After the failure of the SALC, he joined the South Australian Association, possibly hopeful of being appointed as Governor of South Australia.[24]

This did not eventuate, but he was appointed chairman of the South Australian Colonization Commission, becoming one of 14 South Australian colonial commissioners, all but one of whom were based in London. This board was set up to oversee the new colony of South Australia, and Torrens put considerable time and energy into writing and lecturing potential emigrants and investors to the colony. However, his financial administration was lacking in almost every respect: he spent money on promotional schemes; ordered costly surveys which disrupted William Light's work of surveying the colony; gave preference to those who professed to have substantial means, but set up no mechanism to check their supposed wealth; and provided free passages in an unregulated way. He made little effort to help George Gawler, who had been appointed Resident Commissioner and Governor after John Hindmarsh's departure, with little financial assistance from England. This mismanagement, along with other factors such as too much immigration too fast leading to unemployment, saw South Australia go bankrupt. Torrens was sacked in 1841 (although at the time, Gawler was made the main scapegoat for the province's woes) and the South Australia Act 1842 brought the colony under the direct rule of the Crown.[24][1]


He represented Ipswich, Suffolk as a Whig in the House of Commons in 1826, Ashburton, Devon in 1831 and, as its first MP, the new constituency of Bolton, Lancashire from 1832 to 1835.[citation needed]


The Annual Register says: "He was an indefatigable writer; the productions of his pen, which include a great variety of tracts on subjects of political economy, some able pamphlets on the currency, and some literary efforts of a lighter class, extend over a period of fifty years. For some time Colonel Torrens was a part proprietor and editor of the Globe newspaper. He was a skilful and lucid writer, and succeeded in throwing considerable light upon some of those abstruse questions connected with monetary science which are the stumbling block of economical students."[5]

Death and legacy

Torrens died 27 May 1864, aged 84,[5] in London. He was survived by his second wife.[1]

He was admired for his treatises on political economy and other political ideas.[1]

Despite his energy and tireless advocacy for the colony of South Australia, Torrens was the man who effectively bankrupted it through his poor administration of its finances, leading to its becoming a Crown Colony in 1842.[24] However, in the 1840s he helped to reform companies which mined copper and built railways in South Australia.[1]

The River Torrens (Kara-wirra-parri), which runs through Adelaide, was named by Governor Hindmarsh in his honour in 1836, and Governor Gawler named the site of the first quarantine station, Torrens Island, in 1837.[1][25][24] The explorer Edward Eyre named the large salt lake in the north of the colony Lake Torrens in 1839, and the suburb of Torrensville and the districts of East and West Torrens also commemorated Robert Torrens.[1]

Torrens Park, however, was named after his son, Sir Robert Torrens.[24]


His works number 36 on Allibone's list:

Military promotions and distinctions

Rank Unit Date of appointment Notes
Second Lieutenant H.M. Marine Forces 1 February 1796
Lieutenant 18 November 1797
Captain Royal Marines 26 July 1806
Brevet Major 12 April 1811
Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel 12 August 1819 On half-pay of the reduced Establishment of the corps 1823–30.[26]
Major 4 June 1831 [27]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Torrens, Robert (1780–1864)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 2. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. 1967. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 10 November 2019.
  2. ^ Moore, Peter (14 October 2014). "Sir Robert Richard Torrens". Adelaidia. Retrieved 10 November 2019. This entry was first published in S.A.'s Greats: The men and women of the North Terrace plaques, edited by John Healey (Historical Society of South Australia Inc., 2001).
  3. ^ Colonel Robert Torrens, 1780–1864 Archived 9 July 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Leigh Rayment's Peerage Pages [self-published source][better source needed]
  5. ^ a b c Webb, Alfred (1878). "Torrens, Robert". A Compendium of Irish Biography. Dublin: M. H. Gill & son. pp. 534–35. Retrieved 6 April 2010.
  6. ^ "Precious sword bought". Archived from the original on 7 June 2011. Retrieved 7 June 2011.
  7. ^ Letters from Marine Field Officers (Lieutenant Colonels and Majors) 1807–1814 ADM 1/3318 folio 582
  8. ^ a b Stephen, Leslie (1885–1900). "Torrens, Robert (1780-1864)". Dictionary of National Biography. Volume 57, 1899. MacMillan. p. 66. Retrieved 9 November 2019.
  9. ^ Letters from Commandants at Woolwich 1812–1814 ADM 1/3308 folio 540
  10. ^ HMS Blenheim Ship Muster 1813 June – 1814 Sep ADM 35/3340
  11. ^ Letters from Marine Field Officers (Lieutenant Colonels and Majors) 1807–1814 ADM 1/3318 folio 695
  12. ^ "Lot 85: A fine presentation sword to Major Robert Torrens". Invaluable. Retrieved 9 November 2019.
  13. ^ Fetter, Frank Whitson (1990). "New Light on the Military Career of Robert Torrens". History of Political Economy. 22 (3): 545–549. doi:10.1215/00182702-22-3-545.
  14. ^ Fetter, Frank Whitson (1962). "Robert Torrens: Colonel of Marines and Political Economist". Economica. 29 (114): 152–165. doi:10.2307/2551551. JSTOR 2551551.
  15. ^ "Corn Importation Acts—Order in Council. (Hansard, 24 November 1826)". United Kingdom Parliament. Retrieved 21 June 2021.
  16. ^ "QUALIFICATION UNDER THE REFORM ACT. (Hansard, 15 August 1832)". United Kingdom Parliament. Retrieved 21 June 2021.
  17. ^ Report from the Select Committee on Steam Carriages, Parliament of the United Kingdom, 1834, p. 227, Wikidata Q107302733
  18. ^ Cobbett, William (1832). Cobbett's Political Register. William Cobbett. p. 633.
  19. ^ Stephen, Leslie (1885–1900). "Torrens, Sir Robert Richard (1814-1884)". Dictionary of National Biography. Volume 57, 1899. MacMillan. p. 68. Retrieved 9 November 2019.
  20. ^ "Library and Archive Catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 28 October 2010.
  21. ^ Adams, Peter (2013). Fatal Necessity: British Intervention in New Zealand, 1830–1847. BWB e-Book. Bridget Williams Books. p. 197. ISBN 978-1-927277-19-5. Retrieved 9 December 2020. ...first published in 1977.
  22. ^ McDonnell, Hilda (2002). "Chapter 3: The New Zealand Company of 1825". The Rosanna Settlers: with Captain Herd on the coast of New Zealand 1826-7. Retrieved 9 December 2020. including Thomas Shepherd's Journal and his coastal views, The NZ Company of 1825. ((cite book)): |website= ignored (help)
  23. ^ Wakefield, Edward Jerningham (1845). Adventure in New Zealand, from 1839 to 1844: With Some Account of the Beginning of the British Colonization of the Islands. John Murray. p. 4. Retrieved 9 December 2020. Digitised 22 July 2009
  24. ^ a b c d e "The House Of Commons: Constituencies Beginning With "I": Ipswich: Robert Torrens, MP for Ipswich 1826-1827, Ashburton 1831-1832 and Bolton 1832-1834; and his son, Sir Robert Richard Torrens, MP for Cambridge 1868-1874". Leigh Rayment. 31 July 2018. Archived from the original on 18 September 2018. Retrieved 9 November 2019.((cite web)): CS1 maint: unfit URL (link) − reproduces an article which appeared in the Australian magazine Parade, January 1972 issue. (Index Cobden, Vera (1988). Parade magazine: Index to know your ancestors, 1970-1980. Heraldry and Genealogy Society of Canberra. ISBN 978-0-949543-03-5. Retrieved 9 November 2019.)
  25. ^ PlaceNames Online – South Australian State Gazetteer Archived 17 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine Searchable database. Retrieved 3 April 2012.
  26. ^ Philippart, John, ed. (1820). The Royal military calendar, or Army service and commission book. Vol. V (3rd ed.). London: A. G. Valpy. p. 164.
  27. ^ Navy List June 1833


Further reading