Robert Torrens (economist)

For his son, the colonial Premier of South Australia, see Robert Torrens.
Essay on the production of wealth, 1821

Colonel Robert Torrens FRS (1780, Hervey Hill, Derry 27 May 1864, London) was a Royal Marines officer, political economist, MP, owner of the influential Globe newspaper and prolific writer. Born in Derry, Ireland, he was the son of Robert Torrens of Hervey Hill. 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).

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.[1] On the 200th anniversary of the battle of Anholt, the sword presented to Torrens was purchased by the Royal Marines Museum.[2] 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.[3]

Although the Dictionary of National Biography 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 is not to be seconded to the Spanish army, but that Nicolls should take his place.[4] The outcome is unsure, 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.[5] His final deployment was off the Low Countries during the winter of 1813–4, at the siege of Antwerp. He was in Portsmouth in March 1814.[6] Torrens saw no further active service but he remained in the Royal Marines until 1834, spending the period 1823–30 on half-pay.[7][8][9]


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 theorize 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 laborers who must somehow be supported during the transition period.) He took a prominent role in the foundation of South Australia as a colony, and chaired the first commissioners set up to oversee it; he was sacked in 1841 for financial mismanagement and conflict of interest (he had bought land in the colony). The River Torrens, which runs through Adelaide, is named after him.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in December 1818.[10]


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.


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."[1]


He died 27 May 1864, aged 84.[1]

His son Robert Torrens, the colonial Premier of 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.[11][12]


His works number 36 on Allibone's list:

Military promotions and distinctions

On half-pay of the reduced Establishment of the corps 1823–30


  1. 1 2 3 Webb, Alfred (1878). A Compendium of Irish Biography. Dublin: M. H. Gill & son. pp. 534–35. Retrieved 6 April 2010.
  3. Letters from Marine Field Officers (Lieutenant Colonels and Majors) 1807–1814 ADM 1/3318 folio 582
  4. Letters from Commandants at Woolwich 1812–1814 ADM 1/3308 folio 540
  5. HMS Blenheim Ship Muster 1813 June – 1814 Sep ADM 35/3340
  6. Letters from Marine Field Officers (Lieutenant Colonels and Majors) 1807–1814 ADM 1/3318 folio 695
  8. 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.
  9. Fetter, Frank Whitson (1962). "Robert Torrens: Colonel of Marines and Political Economist". Economica. 29 (114): 152–165. JSTOR 2551551.
  10. "Library and Archive Catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 28 October 2010.
  11. Colonel Robert Torrens, 1780–1864
  12. Leigh Rayment's Peerage Pages
  13. 'The Royal military calendar, or Army service and commission book' edited by John Philippart, Third edition, Volume V, AG Valpy London 1820 pg164
  14. Navy List June 1833


Wikisource has original works written by or about:
Robert Torrens
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Thomas Barrett-Lennard
William Haldimand
Member of Parliament for Ipswich
With: William Haldimand
Succeeded by
Charles Mackinnon
Robert Adam Dundas
Preceded by
Sir Lawrence Palk
William Stephen Poyntz
Member of Parliament for Ashburton
With: William Stephen Poyntz
Succeeded by
William Stephen Poyntz
Second seat abolished
New constituency Member of Parliament for Bolton
With: William Bolling
Succeeded by
William Bolling
Peter Ainsworth
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