Friday 3 July 2020

The Identity of William Balfour

My confusion of two men with the same name and where it led me...

A new post from The Balfour Blogger #2

There is so much in the Balfour papers. One letter can lead you on a long trail to sort out the context. Like many other families, the Balfours used the same given names over and over again, sometimes in the same generation, but different branches. In my own family, my mother was Catherine, an older sister was Catherine and she named her daughter Catherine. For women in earlier generations, there was little chance of confusion as they tended to take their husband's surname when they married. However, for men the possibility of confusion is multiplied. 

On the outside of letter D2/24/1/76, there is a notation that the letter is from 'Col. W. Balfour' 

Letter referenced D2/24/1/76 from Balfour papers

I had already dealt with many letters from 'Capt. Balfour', for example D2/24/1/32.

Letter referenced D2/24/1/32 from Balfour papers

My first thought was to work out if this was the same person. The first hint was the date of receipt - 13 Nov 1824. I had already catalogued many from Captain William Balfour dated to the year 1825, so already I was suspicious. Did Capt W Balfour become Lt Col W Balfour? I assumed not: one rank was Navy and the other Army. Next, the writing was quite different. And then, the address was Sydney, New South Wales. So now to work out which of the many 'William Balfours' was sending a letter from Australia to John Balfour MP in 1824. 

William Balfour (1719-1786) had three sons, John (1750-1842), Thomas (1751-1799) and David (1754-1813) and several daughters. John had no children; Thomas had two sons and a daughter; David had one son and a daughter. One of Thomas Balfour's sons was called William (1781-1846) and one of David Balfour's sons was called William (1784-1838). So, both these William Balfours were alive in 1824. The elder William (son of Thomas) became Captain William Balfour R.N. of Elwick 4th of Trenaby, lived mainly in Edinburgh, and acted for John Balfour both as his agent and in regards to his holdings and the politics of Orkney and Shetland. The younger William (son of David) became Lieutenant Colonel William Balfour of the 82nd Regiment at Edinburgh Castle. So, now I had worked out which William Balfour had written the letter, David's son. 

The letter contains complaints about his superior officer, Colonel Thornton. In particular because he, William, his wife and young family had been turned out of their quarters for Colonel Thornton's mistress. 
"Colonel Thornton our commanding officer has arrived in as good a state of Body as he has been for some years, but I conceive somewhat impaired in his intellect. My principal reason for saying so is his having brought to this country a woman as his mistress for whose accommodation he has turned my wife and children our of the appartments we occupyed in Barracks" 

He is not too concerned because out of present evil often arises future good. In fact, he had been offered a position that could not only get him out of his present predicament, but could prove advantageous. 

"His Excellency Sir Thos. Brisbane the governor has promised to give me a command which will remove me from the possibility of the commanding officer's caprice...has promised also to reserve a portion of land for two of my boys..."

The portion of land quoted is 4000 acres. 

He hoped that "the small beginning which is only in my power to command could be of use, for by the time it would be proper for either of them to come out here there would be a great accumulation of sheep and horned cattle on the Farm..."

At the time of this letter in November 1824, Lt Col William Balfour said he was bound for India and his plan was for his wife to stay in Australia to sort out the farm, then to return to Europe and employ a "bailiff under the superintendency of a gentleman of high respectability". 

This was not, in fact, what happened. In January 1825, he arrived in Sydney with a group of prisoners on the ship Castle Forbes. He then went with a detachment to Port Dalrymple in Van Dieman's Land (now Launceston in Tasmania). He was appointed civil and military commandant in April 1825. In August 1825, his wife Charlotte died in Launceston, leaving him with 5 sons and 3 daughters to look after. In February 1826, he went to Sydney to transfer command of the regiment to Van Dieman's Land. On his return, he defeated Matthew Brady and his bushrangers, to the delight of the locals. The area was divided between civil and military commands, and he was put in charge of all the military districts. He was also granted 2000 acres of land. In Hobart Town, he was chosen as president of the committee for the public stores and civil establishment. Among his works there, he is remembered for extending the barracks at Hobart to ensure there was no overcrowding and so removing a source of disorder among the soldiers.

So, a simple letter from a man to his uncle has led me on a path of discovery of the military life of William Balfour. He entered military service as a boy-ensign and joined the 40th foot on 25th July 1799. He rose through the ranks and received a brevet lieutenant-colonelcy for service in the field in the Peninsula and south of France in 1813-1814. He received the gold medal in command of his regiment at the battle of Nivelle. He also mentioned in both the British Dictionary of National Biography and in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Wonder what my next adventure with the Balfour papers will be. 


  1. That's very interesting! I love it when others get to follow a genealogical trail triggered by letters such as these. We have had similar experiences with letters my husband inherited from his 4th-great-grandfather and descendants. Often the only clue to the existence of one of the descendants has been just one letter in the pile Mr Genknit has, and chasing down that person has taken us on many a trail similar to the one you just followed. I was reminded of a song by the Irish Rovers (hope it's ok to mention them here): The Black Velvet Band. The poor kid in the song gets sent to Van Dieman's Land. It's interesting that your William Balfour served there for a while. Thanks for another well-researched article.

    1. You're welcome, Sue. I'll pass your comments onto the Balfour Blogger #2.

  2. That line caught my attention : "In August 1825, his wife Charlotte died in Launceston, leaving him with 5 sons and 3 daughters to look after."
    I am working for the Msida Bastion Garden in Malta and we have the broken plate of the grave of Charlotte Balfour, widow of Lt. Balfour, Royal Artillery, born 1820 died at Valletta 29 March 1846 aged 26 years.
    That doesn't match with his wife mentionned above...! Could someone help me?

    1. Hi Muriel, I'll pass your comment on to our Balfour Blogger #2 and see if she can sort it out.

    2. Hi Muriel, our Balfour Blogger #2 sent me the link she used which says that "In 1810, at Dublin, [William Balfour] had married Charlotte Stanley Clarke, who died on 22 August 1825 at Launceston, Van Diemen's Land; they had five sons and three daughters." from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. So she thinks that you have a different Charlotte Balfour's grave in Malta.

  3. Thanks for that reply, but still, it isn't our CHarlotte Balfour. The track I followed was wrong and this one doesn't match either ! :(

    1. I can look into this for you further and see where the problem is. Do you have any evidence that your Lt Balfour was from Orkney? Do you know his first name? Perhaps we can continue this discussion by email. You can contact me by emailing (Lucy Gibbon, Assistant Archivist)

  4. Col W Balfour caused a little bit of mischief with our family when stationed in VdL, wherein the Gov stepped in to avoid a duel. Shortly thereafter he was “reassigned” out of australia


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