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Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

1769 – 1852

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), army officer and hero, was the prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1828 to 1830. Born Arthur Wesley, he was an unpromising boy and was removed from school at the age of fifteen. A military career was judged best for him; through the influence of his brother, by late 1792 he had held five commissions in six different regiments. Having participated in the unsuccessful battle with the French at Flanders he embarked for India, taking hundreds of books, including many on military tactics and history, to read at sea. In 1803, at the rank of major general, he enjoyed the first significant victory of his career in western India. Returning to England, he became MP for Rye in 1806 and chief secretary for Ireland in 1807. That year, the Spanish revolted against French occupation and in 1809 Wellesley, as he was by then known, became overall commander of British forces in the Iberian Peninsula. At the beginning of 1812 he led troops into Span; he reached Salamanca in June and defeated the French there in July. Napoleon abdicated, and Wellesley was created Duke of Wellington. He moved to Paris as ambassador to France and was present at the Congress of Vienna, at which European countries were redistributed. In February 1815 Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France, where he rallied supporters. On 18 June, in Belgium, Wellington defeated Napoleon once and for all at Waterloo. In England, he determined to advance his political career, undeterred by scandal (he had many mistresses), putting much energy into opposing popularly-demanded political reforms to do with support for the sick, old and impoverished, child labour in mills, mines and chimneys and food prices affected by tariffs which benefited the rural population but not the urban poor. In 1828, with the populace still demanding reform, he accepted the position of Tory prime minister from George IV. In the face of rising agitation on the part of the common people he looked more and more like the wrong man for the times until finally, in November 1830, he resigned (although he retained his post as commander in chief of the armed forces and did not retire from public life until in 1846). After his death in 1852, more than one and a half million people lined the streets as his coffin was taken to St Pauls for burial.

Although Wellington had little direct influence on Australian affairs, he was the great hero of the British empire through the early years of the colonies, and settlers read about him avidly in early newspapers such as the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. The Hobart Town Gazette reported in November 1816 ‘A new Bridge of Brick is now building over that part of the Town rivulet running though Elizabeth-street . . . We understand it is to be named WELLINGTON BRIDGE, after our victorious Countryman.’ Countless Australian places are named after Wellington including towns in New South Wales and South Australia, Wellington Point in Queensland and Mount Wellington in Tasmania. The Duke of Wellington is the name of Melbourne’s oldest pub and there are also Duke of Wellington hotels in Hobart and Newcastle. The Hero of Waterloo pub has stood in the Rocks, Sydney, since 1843, and other locales and establishments are named for Wellington’s victories, including Salamanca Place in Hobart and the suburb of Waterloo in Sydney. The Lord Wellington came to Australia with 87 convicts on board in 1819 (the year of the Peterloo massacre, with its profound political ramifications). The vessel was still plying the seas in 1849, when it brought free settlers to South Australia. Wellington is commemorated in Wellington Square, Adelaide, because he is credited with the passing of the South Australia Foundation Act in the House of Lords.

Updated 2018