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Cowper, Charles (DNB00)


COWPER, Sir CHARLES (1807–1875), Australian statesman, was born at Dryford, Lancashire, 26 April 1807. His father, William Cowper [q. v.] (1780–1858), was an archdeacon of New South Wales, and is separately noticed. Charles Cowper, like his younger brother, James Macquarie Cowper, dean of Sydney, who graduated at Oxford, spent his boyhood under the paternal roof. He entered the commissariat department under Commissary-general Wemyss, and in 1825 was appointed commissariat clerk. The year after he was appointed by Governor Darling secretary of the Church and School Lands Corporation, to which a very large area of the best lands in the colony had been granted by royal charter, in trust to the church of England, for the promotion of religion and education. He performed this duty until 1833, when, in pursuance of a condition in the original charter, the corporation was dissolved, and the trust lands applied to less exclusive purposes. In 1831 Cowper married Eliza, second daughter of Daniel Sutton of Wivenhoe, near Colchester, England, by whom he had six children. When the lands above referred to reverted to the government, with a trust, as the authorities contended, for general religious and educational purposes, Cowper was offered the post of agent for these lands by Governor Bourke, which he declined, partly on the score of health, preferring farming pursuits. He removed to Argyll county, occupied some sheep-runs on the Murray, and applied himself to sheep and general farming. For a good many years he pursued the life of a country gentleman; was an active churchman and magistrate, and did well in his grazing and farming transactions. In 1843 Cowper stood for Camden county, as a candidate for the Legislative Council of the colony, then a mixed body consisting of crown nominees and elected representatives. He was defeated by the attorney-general, Therry, by a majority of ten votes; but was afterwards returned for Cumberland county, by a large majority over his opponents, Lawson and James Macarthur. In 1846 he took up the subject of colonial railways, and was appointed chairman of a committee formed to carry out the scheme. In the Legislative Council he exerted himself with good effect to secure various reforms, notably the more humane treatment of lunatics. In 1850 he took a leading part in the organised opposition to further transportation of convicts from the mother country to New South Wales, and was chairman of the meeting of delegates convened at Sydney for that purpose. During the next few years he introduced the bill for incorporating Sydney grammar school and its affiliated colleges; he also was an active supporter of the volunteer force, which was started in 1854, and of the project for forming a naval brigade for colonial defence. In 1856—in which year responsible government was established in New South Wales—Cowper was returned at the head of the poll as one of the representatives for Sydney, and was expected to be the first premier. He had previously resigned his post as chairman of the railway company, when the railways were handed over to government, and a service of plate valued at 500l. had been voted to him. He had also been offered by Sir Charles Fitzroy the post of civil commissioner at Sydney, with a salary of 1,000l. a year, which he declined. On the advice, apparently, of Sir George Macleay, Governor Sir William Denison sent for Mr. Donaldson to form a ministry. Donaldson offered Cowper the post of colonial secretary, which he declined. The Donaldson ministry resigned after a few months, and Sir W. Denison then sent for Cowper, and he took the post of colonial secretary, but resigned after being six weeks in power. The succeeding Watson-Parker ministry resigned in September 1857, when Cowper came into office a second time. The difficulties and manifold absurdities of these early days of responsible government are noticed under date in the first volume of the late Sir William Denison's ‘Varieties of Viceregal Life.’ The second Cowper ministry had a longer spell of office than its predecessors, and carried many important measures. In 1858 universal suffrage and the ballot were established. The same year the Municipalities Act was passed establishing some forty municipalities in the colony. In 1859 Cowper was defeated on his Education Bill, and resigned, being succeeded by Mr. Forster, who resigned in March 1860, when the Robertson ministry came in, with Cowper as colonial secretary, but resigned in 1863. In 1860 a land bill was introduced, and carried the year after, and in 1862 Cowper introduced a bill for prohibiting further grants for purposes of public worship. Although himself a staunch churchman, Cowper always steadily upheld the political principle that all denominations should be on an equal footing in relation to the state. All the measures thus carried settled for the time questions which were agitating the public mind. In February 1865 Cowper again came into office. The administration was embarrassed by serious financial difficulties, and to save the credit of the colony Cowper introduced and carried a bill for the imposition of ad valorem duties, which cost him his popularity, and in June 1865 he retired into private life; but at the beginning of 1870 took his place, for the fifth time, at the head of the administration, in the Robertson cabinet, which had come into power in 1868. Changes again followed, and in December 1870 Cowper was appointed agent-general for New South Wales, the duties of which office he discharged with much advantage to the colony until a long and serious illness disabled him from further work. He died 20 Oct. 1875. Four years before his death Cowper was made K.C.M.G. His country estate, named Wivenhoe, after Lady Cowper's native place, had previously been settled on that lady by public subscription, in recognition of the eminent services of her husband to the colony of New South Wales.

[The biographical details here given are from Heaton's Handbook of Australian Biography. Braim's Hist. New South Wales, and Governor Sir William Denison's Varieties of Viceregal Life (London, 1870), vol. i., may be consulted. Particulars of the fruits of Cowper's public measures must be sought in the Colonial Statistical Returns.]

H. M. C.