Du Cane, Edmund Frederick

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by Peter Conole and Diane Oldman

This article first appearing as ‘The Stormy Petrel – Edmund Du Cane of the Royal Engineers’, Western Ancestor Vol 13, No 6 (June 2016), pp162-164, has been edited for this Website.

Lieutenant Edmund Frederick Du Cane of the Royal Engineers was one of the most talented of Sir Edmund Henderson’s junior officers in Western Australia. Du Cane’s finer qualities included high order intelligence, professional skill, personal charm and both artistic and literary talent. Less positive things emerged in the course of Du Cane’s long and sometimes strife-torn career.


Edmund Frederick Du Cane [Hasluck]
Edmund Frederick Du Cane [Hasluck]

Early Life and Career
Edmund Du Cane, a descendant of the Huguenot dissident Jean Du Quesne, was born at Colchester on March 23, 1830, just two years before his father Major Edmund Du Cane died. He entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in November 1846, graduated at the head of his class and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant of Engineers at Chatham on December 19, 1848 followed by service in a company of sappers and miners from December 1850.

The Royal Sappers and Miners played a major role in the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. Du Cane excelled as an assistant superintendent of juries in the enterprise. Over 270 RSMs received a medal from Prince Albert and an array of rewards and presents; 38 of these men were soon to leave for the Swan River Colony.



Western Australia
Du Cane and fellow officer Henry Wray accompanied sixty-five 20th Company RSMs leaving Woolwich on the Anna Robertson on September 9, 1851 arriving Fremantle on December 18. In the course of the voyage Edmund developed a talent for painting and drawing. Satirical caricatures became one of his trade marks in the colony. Letters to his mother give us the first inklings of another ‘talent’: one for writing entertaining and sometimes venomous chit-chat about other folk. For example, Bishop John Brady was very oily and sly, Colonial Secretary Sandford weak and gentlemanly and future police commissioner John Conroy not overstocked with principle I suspect.

Du Cane’s first job in Western Australia involved an early 1852 expedition to check out conditions around Champion Bay. Governor Fitzgerald led the party and Du Cane took his artistic gear with him, with happy results for posterity. He was no Leonardo da Vinci but his sketches and water colours were always well done. After that adventure Edmund Henderson assigned him to duty as the engineering officer responsible for the Eastern Districts. Du Cane was based at Guildford and took care of the Avon Valley and Toodyay settlements. He spent four years in the area, creating and designing infrastructure and arranging tasks for the sappers and convict labourers who did the building work on public roads, barracks and bridges – not to mention a comfortable house for himself. He also acted as a visiting magistrate among the various convict stations of the district.

DuCane House Guildford [Hasluck]
Du Cane House, Guildford [Hasluck]
He was happy at Guildford, as it ensured access to Perth social life, but tended to look down on many of the locals. In short Edmund was class conscious. As his biographer Alexandra Hasluck wrote: at this stage the young man loved himself not a little. Artistic endeavours were not neglected and Du Cane developed a gift for satire. It was just as well his daubs and sketches were not circulated back then: some were grossly insulting.

Du Cane’s December 1853 report to Henderson on work on the Eastern Districts listed numerous achievements. By then he was supervising the work of sappers and miners, colonial prisoners, ticket-of-leave men and convicts. In passing it is worth noting that (like many colonists) he used his personal income to dabble in land investments, with mixed results. Edmund won promotion to 1st Lieutenant on February 17, 1854.

Romance entered Du Cane’s life some time in 1854, possibly during a social event held at Henderson’s house. He met Mary Dorothea Molloy, daughter of Waterloo veteran Lieutenant Colonel John Molloy and Georgiana, nee Kennedy, of the Vasse District. Edmund and Mary were married at St John’s Church Fremantle on July 18, 1855. By all accounts it was a perfect match. The couple had a similar sense of humour and shared various intellectual pursuits. Edmund also admired and respected Mary’s father, who stimulated the younger man’s interest in the Napoleonic Wars.

The Crimean War was in progress and the army ordered officers Du Cane, William Crossman and mainly single RSMs back to England for active service. The group embarked on the Esmeralda on February 25, 1856. It was ironic that this was the very day the peace conference in Paris opened. After a short service of just over four years Du Cane left, never to return. Governor Arthur Kennedy had already sent a fine testimonial about him to the War Office in London, expressing a high opinion of his capacity, steadiness, energy and activity. Lieutenant Du Cane’s time in WA showed him to be a young man of promise.

Staddan Point Battery & Bovisand Fort
Du Cane’s Fortifications at Staddan Point Battery & Bovisand Fort

Fortification Work
Du Cane spent the next seven years of his career designing and costing new defence works for key dockyards and naval bases in England, which resulted in the building of several major forts around Dover and Plymouth. His patron Edmund Henderson, who now held high rank in the prison system, kept an eye on him. During a dispute over current prison controversies, in 1862 Du Cane published a sarcastic article in the journal Bentley’s Miscellany criticising Sir Joshua Jebb (Chairman of the Board of Directors of Prison Systems) for maintaining a scheme for the propagation of vice. That piece of folly could have wrecked his career, but in the event Jebb died in June 1863.


Prison Reformer
Henderson succeeded Jebb as Chairman and also to the other vital positions of Surveyor General of Prisons and Inspector General of Military Prisons. He recruited Edmund for the Board as a Director and Inspector of Military Prisons at the same time: the young man spent the rest of his career in the civil service. However, he remained on the army strength, received slow but steady promotion from Captain up to Colonel and retired as an honorary Major General on the last day of 1887.

He later wrote this incredibly frank comment on his career: I have never done a day’s ordinary duty during the whole of my (military) service having always been on some special employment. Edmund boasted that was probably a record and admitted asking for retirement so he could call himself a general. The conditions for conferring some honorary ranks were altered just one day later. Edmund drew no army pay while otherwise employed, just a civil service salary. He also asked for and often got special gratuities for work he did which exceeded expectations, improved administration and resulted in financial savings. McConville suggests his claims for gratuities were sheer avarice!

In 1869 Henderson was appointed Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police and the relatively junior Edmund Du Cane moved into all three of Henderson’s former vital positions in the English prison system. He threw himself into a vigorous programme of reform, based on the humanitarian ideal that efforts to change criminals by offering them training and craft skills were better options than long-term incarceration. He also backed the Government of the day’s decision to end endemic bad management in county and local borough prisons. The Prison Act of 1877 brought the prisons under central control. Du Cane was enabled to eliminate much of the waste and neglect and gradually reduced the rate of incarceration. Rewards came Edmund’s way. He was made a Companion of the Bath in 1873 and then knighted four years later.

Artisans' Workshop Wormwood Scrubs
Artisans’ Workshop Wormwood Scrubs – rehabilitation not punishment – a Du Cane innovation

A Legacy of Innovation
There is no doubt of his sincerity and good intentions and he went into print on numerous occasions, most notably in his 1886 book The Punishment and Prevention of Crime. Edmund also took an interest in criminology and was responsible for compilation of the ‘Black Book’, a huge annotated register of 12,000 habitual criminals. To balance that he worked hard to improve the lot of juvenile offenders (no locking them up in ordinary prisons!) and supported the use of scientific methods of crime detection, including finger printing. All told we can identify forty or more of his publications, including at least five books and many articles on a variety of topics, such as military history and antiquarian studies.

During the course of a prolonged official investigation into the prison system – which Du Cane largely evaded by taking ‘tactical sick leave’ and the like – he decided to retire as of March 23, 1895. Sir Edmund was not in disgrace and spent the last years of his very productive life studying, writing and indulging his love of art by way of painting excursions around Europe. Biographer Alexandra Hasluck pointed out that West Australian experiences conditioned his later career and led him to realise harsh confinement was no way to transform the lives of felons. Edmund Du Cane came to believe that punishment was less important than efforts at crime prevention and redemption.

All Saints Parish Chuch Great Braxted
All Saints Parish Church, Great Braxted


Edmund and Mary raised three sons and five daughters in their Surrey family home, all of them lively and intelligent; Mary Dorothea died in 1881. Du Cane married Florence Grimston, an army widow, two years later. He died of appendicitis at his London residence on June 7, 1903 and was buried in Great Braxted churchyard not far from the family estate.




Du Cane, E F Statement of Service, WO25/3913/221, National Archives, Kew.
Unpublished notes on the Du Cane family of Essex (British Library 1876).
Vetch, R H, Dictionary of National Biography (1912 supplementary edition).
Connolly, T W J, History of the Royal Sappers and Miners, Vol II (Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans and Roberts, London, 1857).
Hasluck, Alexandra, Royal Engineer:a life of Sir Edmund DuCane (Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1973).
McConville, S, English Local Prisons 1860-1900 (Routledge, London and New York, 1995).
Du Cane, Captain E F, ‘The Convict System in the Colonies’, Bentley’s Miscellany, May 1862, p.527.
Porter, W, The History of the Corps of Royal Engineers Vol.2 (Longman, Green and Co, London 1889).


© Diane Oldman 2016