Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wentworth, William Charles
WENTWORTH, WILLIAM CHARLES (1793–1872), ‘the Australian patriot,’ chief founder of the system of colonial self-government, born on 26 Oct. 1793, at Norfolk Island (then a penal dependency of New South Wales), was the son of D'Arcy Wentworth, government surgeon on the island, by his wife, Catherine Parry, who died at Paramatta in 1800. He claimed descent from the great Earl of Strafford (The Australian, 11 July 1827), but in Burke's ‘Colonial Gentry’ his ancestry is traced to D'Arcy Wentworth of Athlone, co. Roscommon (b. 1640), son of Michael Wentworth of York, a scion of the great Yorkshire family.
His father, D'Arcy Wentworth (1762–1827), born at Portadown, co. Armagh, in 1762, was an impoverished Irish country gentleman. ‘At an early age he held a commission as lieutenant of one of the regiments which were raised for the local service of Ireland near the conclusion of the American war’ (ib.) Arriving in New South Wales in 1790, after filling various posts in the imperial service in connection with the medical department, he was appointed, through Lord Wentworth Fitzwilliam's influence with Lord Liverpool, principal surgeon of New South Wales under Governor Lachlan Macquarie [q. v.] Under Macquarie he also became superintendent of police in the town of Sydney, magistrate of the territory, and treasurer of the colonial revenue. He had been one of the most prominent abettors in the arrest and deposition of Governor William Bligh [q. v.] (20 Jan. 1808), who had suspended and court-martialled him, but Bligh's successor, Macquarie, loaded him with honours and emoluments outside of his various professional offices, making him director of the bank of New South Wales, and granting him with two others a ‘spirit monopoly’ for building the general hospital (hence popularly known as the ‘rum hospital’). He died in 1827 (Rusden, History of Australia, p. 47).
When seven years of age, William Charles Wentworth was sent to England to be educated at Greenwich under Alexander Crombie [q. v.] Returning to Sydney, Wentworth in his twentieth year joined Gregory Blaxland and Lieutenant Lawson in their famous exploration journey across the Blue Mountains. The party started on 11 May 1813 from Blaxland's farm, South Creek, Penrith. After crossing the Nepean they lit on a spur from the dividing range, crossed the slopes of Mount York into a fertile valley, and thus opened up the vast pasture lands of the west. After the greatest hardships they reached home (6 June), and Macquarie, on behalf of the crown, presented each of the three with a grant of a thousand acres in this newly discovered country. But before this (according to Rusden) Macquarie ‘had noticed the capacity of young Wentworth.’ In 1811, when but a lad of eighteen, the governor actually made him deputy-provost marshal, ‘and as the provost marshal was in England, the duties of the office devolved entirely upon the deputy.’
In 1816 Wentworth returned to England, matriculated from Peterhouse, Cambridge, and spent several years at the university and in London, where he entered himself at the Middle Temple. The year after his arrival, on 22 April 1817, in England his restless mind impelled him to indite an appeal to Earl Bathurst (colonial secretary), which is preserved in the Record Office, begging to be sent back to Australia to explore ‘this fifth continent from its eastern extremity to its western.’ He tried to stimulate the colonial minister by a reminder that ‘a French squadron either has sailed or is on the point of sailing for the purpose of surveying the western coast of New Holland,’ darkly hinting that its true aim is to establish a rival settlement to Port Jackson. In due course the earl, through a subordinate, informed Wentworth that his services were not required.
Not being permitted to explore these vast, untrodden wastes, Wentworth set himself the task of writing a full account of the existing Australian dependencies. In 1819 he published at London in two volumes, ‘A Statistical Account of the British Settlements in Australasia, including the Colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land.’ It quickly ran into a third edition (1824) ‘respectfully inscribed’ to Sir James Mackintosh [q. v.], to which were appended diatribes against Samuel Marsden [q. v.] and Commissioner Bigge, simply because they were opposed to Macquarie's ‘emancipist’ policy. The pages are full of well-arranged facts and striking passages of narrative, while not seldom Wentworth's true imperial patriotism moved him to genuine eloquence.
At the annual commencement at Cambridge in 1823 Wentworth, doubtless attracted by the subject, competed for the chancellor's medal for the prize poem on ‘Australasia.’ The award went to Winthrop Mackworth Praed [q. v.], Wentworth being placed second out of twenty-five competitors; but Wentworth's is much the finer effort, and many of its virile lines are to this day the stock phrases of colonial orators and journalists. Nearly thirty years after it was written, Wentworth, repelling the charge of having renounced his early popular principles, declaimed in the legislative council (2 Sept. 1853), ‘amidst a storm of applause which spread from floor to gallery,’ the concluding lines of his early poem.
Called to the English bar in 1822, Wentworth returned to Sydney in company with Dr. Wardell, an English barrister. The condition of the colony was unsettled; bitter feuds and disputes were of daily occurrence and litigation prospered; so that after a few years the two young men, who were at first the only barristers, divided between them a most lucrative practice, and laid the foundations of a fortune. They took out with them from England a complete newspaper plant and machinery, and on 4 Oct. 1824 established the ‘Australian,’ of which they were the co-proprietors and joint editors. From the outset they determined to make their journal the scourge of officialism. The colony was then divided into two hostile camps, the aristocrats or ‘Exclusivists,’ composed of civil and military officials and a number of gentlemen squatters and settlers, who were called in derision ‘Pure Merinos;’ and the ‘Emancipists,’ a numerous and increasing class who, having served their term of imprisonment, or enforced servitude, had become free and in some cases wealthy. Governor Macquarie's theory was that the colony was intended primarily for the ‘emancipists,’ that New South Wales was in fact a penitentiary, and that the free emigrants were interlopers. Subsequent governors, notably Sir Ralph Darling [q. v.], who took office on 20 April 1825, treated the ‘emancipists’ as a kind of serf class who should never aspire to social recognition or political power. As these early governors were autocratic, such violent changes of policy only made the social confusion more deplorable. Wentworth constituted himself leader of the ‘emancipists,’ and exerted all his energies for the overthrow of Governor Darling (1825–1831). In the columns of the ‘Australian’ and on the public platform Wentworth claimed for this strange, mixed, chaotic community freedom of the press, trial by jury, and representative institutions. Nor did he stand alone; beside him was his able partner, Dr. Wardell, a man of force of character and courage, himself free of any criminal taint. His foremost follower was a still more notable man, Dr. William Bland [q. v.] With such colleagues Wentworth formed the ‘Patriotic Association;’ not content with stirring up opposition to the governor and his officials in the colony itself, they actively engaged in agitation in the English parliament, and men of high mark like Henry Lytton Bulwer and Charles Buller were their agents in the House of Commons. Wentworth's struggle with Darling culminated in what is known as the ‘Sudds and Thompson Case.’ In 1826 two privates of the 57th regiment had committed an act of robbery in order to procure their discharge from the army and to be enrolled as criminals, in the hope of sharing in due course in that prosperity of the emancipated convicts which had filled the soldiers with envy (Tregarthen, Australian Commonwealth). This case was by no means an isolated one; ‘the perpetration of crimes was common among the soldiery, who hoped thereby to escape further service and enter the happy ranks of the convicted.’ Governor Darling determined to put this state of things down with a high hand. Sudds and Thompson were sentenced to hard labour on the roads in irons, stripped of their uniforms, clad in convict garb, and drummed out of the garrison; nor did this severe sentence relieve them from subsequent military service. Sudds died of a fever within a few days of his degradation, whereupon Wentworth wrote a letter of impeachment to the secretary of state (20 July 1826). It fills thirty-five folio pages, and the evidence taken by the governor and by Wentworth in the colony filled another eighteen. With characteristic vehemence Wentworth set on foot an agitation in the English parliament for the recall of the governor, and, although Sir Ralph Darling was acquitted by a select committee of the House of Commons, he was eventually in October 1831 recalled in obedience to this clamour. To accept (as some writers do) Wentworth's impeachment as an historical document is to mistake the denunciations of the criminal prosecutor for the summing up of the judge. Wentworth's ablest and most thoroughgoing panegyrist, Mr. G. W. Rusden, disproves most of the charges against Darling, who, it must be remembered, was supported in his policy by the humane Saxe Bannister [q. v.], attorney-general, and by Alexander Macleay [q. v.], colonial secretary.
At the public meeting held in Sydney in honour of the accession of William IV, Wentworth carried an amendment to the customary loyal address, in which he besought his majesty ‘to extend to the only colony of Britain bereft of the right of Britons a full participation in the benefits and privileges of the British constitution.’ The succeeding governor, Sir Richard Bourke [q. v.], strove to placate Wentworth without alienating the old ruling caste. To the disgust of many, Bourke made Wentworth a magistrate and personally visited him at his estate, and at all times was greatly guided by his advice. Wentworth's old opponent Macleay was superseded by Deas Thomson as colonial secretary. The general community prospered under the régime of a governor who was wise enough to be advised unofficially by its ablest member. Bourke was succeeded by Sir George Gipps [q. v.], who originally intended to recommend Wentworth for nomination to the legislative council, but an historic dispute led to the withdrawal of that nomination. Early in 1840 seven Maori chiefs were in Sydney, and they were invited to sign at government house a declaration of their willingness to accept the queen as their sovereign. They attended and heard the necessary document read; each of them received ten pounds, and they were to return to the governor in two days to sign the declaration. They did not return. To a message sent to them, one of their English hosts replied that they had been advised to sign no treaty which did not contain full security for the natives. It appeared that Wentworth had so advised. But Wentworth had meanwhile personally entered into independent negotiations with the seven Maori chiefs who did not keep their appointment at government house. He had promised them two hundred pounds a year for life after they had nominally sold to him a hundred thousand acres in the northern, and twenty million of acres in the middle, island (Rusden, History of New Zealand, i. 224). For two days Wentworth spoke and cited authorities in favour of the claims which he had thus acquired before the governor in council, but Sir George Gipps at once pronounced the alleged purchase invalid and repugnant to the laws of the realm, and declared that all the ‘jobs done since Walpole’ sank into insignificance in comparison with that which the ‘Australian patriot’ desired him to sanction. Wentworth threw up his commission as a magistrate, while Gipps withdrew his nomination to the council, and the two men were thenceforth inveterate foes.
On 5 Sept. 1842 Lord Stanley (afterwards Earl of Derby) conferred parliamentary institutions on Australia by his Constitution Act (5 and 6 Vict. cap. 76), under which the partially elective legislative council of New South Wales was created. When the writs were issued for this, the first election in Australia, ‘a new pulse beat in the veins of the people. … That which Wentworth had worked for, after a quarter of a century had come upon the land. His name was on every tongue’ (Rusden). Wentworth and Bland were returned by an overwhelming majority for Sydney; the former's brother, Major D'Arcy Wentworth, was elected for a country borough. Richard Windeyer [q. v.], known to be friendly to Wentworth's views, was also returned. The council assembled on 1 Aug. 1843, and proceeded to elect a speaker. Even then there were limits to Wentworth's supremacy, and his old antagonist, Alexander Macleay, then in his seventy-seventh year, was elected to the chair. When it was moved that a ‘humble address’ should be presented to the governor, Wentworth expunged the word ‘humble.’ He at once attempted to remedy the financial evils of the time by a bill to regulate the rate of interest and a lien on wool bill; while he and Windeyer vigorously assailed the schedules under which the salaries of imperial officials and the cost of convict establishments were guaranteed. Sir George Gipps looked in vain among his nominees for a debater capable of meeting those eloquent reformers. Robert Lowe (afterwards Lord Sherbrooke) [q. v.] had newly arrived in the colony, and Gipps had already discussed with him in private the probable working of the new legislative machine. Having completely alienated Wentworth by the overthrow of his land claims in New Zealand, Gipps decided to nominate Lowe for the seat in the council which he had originally reserved for the ‘Australian patriot.’ In a few months Lowe, finding that the governor expected the non-official nominees to support his officials and to vote against the popular representatives on every occasion, right or wrong, resigned his seat. He was shortly afterwards elected for St. Vincent and Auckland, and joined Wentworth and Windeyer in the leadership of the opposition.
Wentworth by this time had embarked very largely in pastoral pursuits, and had become the acknowledged leader of the squatter party, among whom were many of the old imperial officials who had settled in the colony. The ‘Pastoral Association’ was formed with Wentworth at its head, and the Hon. Francis Scott (brother of Lord Polwarth) as its paid agent in the House of Commons. At first Lowe supported Wentworth and the squatters, and at a public banquet given by the Pastoral Association to Wentworth in the hall of Sydney College, 26 Jan. 1846, described him as ‘the great son of the soil.’ Subsequently Lowe declared that ‘the suppliants had become masters,’ and he and Wentworth fell into bitter conflict over the land question and the policy of transportation.
It has been the almost universal verdict of colonial writers that, with advancing years and increasing wealth, Wentworth deserted his early political convictions. This he himself denied. He asserted that his guiding political aim throughout life was to form a self-governing British state in Australasia, based on the British constitution, which, he declared, recognised all forms of personal and class distinction compatible with individual freedom and popular rights. Democracy he disclaimed and detested as based on an utterly false theory—that of human equality. When in his earlier years he so vehemently denounced all ‘set over him in authority,’ it was never on democratic grounds. He may have found it necessary or expedient to work with English liberals or colonial radicals; but he was no radical himself. His aim was to secure self-government for his native land, ‘to rid it of red-tape,’ and at the same time to form a self-governing, anti-democratic community with an Australian territorial upper class corresponding to the English landed gentry, whom he regarded as the peculiar glory of the mother-land. Nor was Wentworth conscious of any inconsistency between his early philippics on behalf of liberty and his later attempt to create for himself and others large landed estates. When twitted by a friend for his bold attempt to appropriate almost the whole of New Zealand, he is said to have replied, ‘Ralegh and Strafford, my two favourite English heroes, would have done precisely the same.’ He was never convinced by the arguments in favour of free trade, but, like the English country gentleman of Peel's time, remained to the end a staunch protectionist. With characteristic courage, in face of the rising flood of philanthropic and humanitarian sentiment on both sides, he upheld the system of sending out ship-loads of British criminals to Australia, and of utilising them as ‘assigned servants.’
At the general election of 1848 Wentworth and Bland were suddenly confronted in Sydney with the opposition of Robert Lowe, who, without his consent, was nominated at the last moment for the metropolitan constituency by the ‘anti-transportation and liberal party,’ of which (Sir) Henry Parkes was the moving spirit (Parkes, Fifty Years in the making of Australian History). It was only by the most strenuous effort that Wentworth retained his position on the poll, while his old friend and colleague, Dr. Bland, was defeated, and Lowe returned in his stead. The contest was uncompromisingly bitter from start to finish, and the two chief orators vied with one another in personal invective (Patchett Martin, Life and Letters of Lord Sherbrooke, i. 362). It shows Wentworth's acknowledged supremacy that Lowe, in the flush of his popular triumph, declared, when returning thanks after the election, that there was ‘no man in or out of Australia with whom he would be more proud to act, nor, if Mr. Wentworth would but regard public affairs from a national and not a merely personal standpoint, was there one whose leadership he should be more proud to follow’ (ib.)
On 4 Oct. 1849 Wentworth carried the second reading of a bill to found a university at Sydney; but owing to preliminary difficulties with regard to the constitution of the senate, it did not finally receive the assent of the governor, Sir Charles Fitzroy, until 1 Oct. 1850. When ‘the first colonial university in the British empire’ was formally inaugurated on 11 Oct. 1852, its founder was present as one of the fellows. Wentworth was a member of the first senate. In 1854 he gave 250l. for an annual prize for the best English essay; in 1862, 445l. towards a travelling scholarship; and in 1876 Mr. Fitzwilliam Wentworth, his eldest son, made a bequest of 2,000l. to found two bursaries in his father's honour. By royal charter (7 Feb. 1858) the same rank, style, and precedence were granted to the students at Sydney as are enjoyed by those at the English universities.
On 5 Aug. 1850 Earl Grey's Australian colonies government bill was passed (under which Port Phillip was erected into the separate colony of Victoria, and the 20l. household suffrage in the colony reduced to 10l.) Wentworth at once obtained a select committee of the legislative council to report on this measure; and on 1 May 1851 a ‘remonstrance’ was adopted and entered on the minutes. ‘The hand of the author, William Wentworth, fiercely eloquent, is visible in every line’ (Sidney, The Three Colonies of Australia, p. 176). At the election of 1851 Wentworth, though again returned for Sydney, was third on the poll; this was the result of the rapid increase of working-class immigrants, ‘interlopers,’ as he once termed them. Sir John Pakington, secretary of state, in a despatch on 15 Dec. 1852, announced that the English government had practically decided in accordance with Wentworth's ‘remonstrance’ to empower Australia to mould her own future (cf. Rusden, Hist. of Australia, ii. 503). On receipt of this despatch (20 May 1853) the council appointed a committee to prepare a constitution; of this committee Wentworth was the mover, chairman, and dominant spirit. On 28 July Wentworth brought up the report which advocated ‘a form of government based on the analogies of the British constitution,’ and urged the advisability of ‘the creation of hereditary titles, leaving it to the option of the crown to annex to the title of the first patentee a seat for life’ in the upper house, ‘and conferring on the original patentees and their descendants, inheritors of their title, the power to elect a certain number of their order to form, in conjunction with the original patentees then living, an upper house of parliament which would be a great improvement on any form of legislative council hitherto tried or recommended in any British colony.’ The opposition on the part of the rising democracy out of doors to this clause was overpowering, and Wentworth very reluctantly had to consent to abandon his scheme for creating an Australian peerage. By abandoning the clauses relating to hereditary honours, Wentworth carried his bill by an overwhelming majority, and it was ‘reserved for her majesty's pleasure,’ the governor being requested to inform the secretary of state ‘that large majorities both of the nominated and elected members’ had voted for it. Wentworth and (Sir) Edward Deas Thomson [q. v.] were deputed by the council to proceed to England to advocate the constitution bill before the imperial parliament. The leaders of the liberal opposition in the colony, through Mr. (afterwards Sir Charles) Cowper, co-operated with Robert Lowe, who was then member for Kidderminster, to modify and amend the bill in the imperial parliament. This, to Wentworth's disgust, they succeeded in doing; and to his dying day he bitterly regretted that Lord John Russell had consented to strangle the clause under which it was decreed that no change in the Australian constitution should become law without the consent of a two-thirds majority of both houses. Having been compelled to forgo his titled upper house, Wentworth regarded this clause as the sheet-anchor against the storms and dangers of the rising colonial democracy whom he dreaded, and whose leader (Parkes) he dubbed the ‘archanarchist.’ He formed in London a ‘General Association for the Australian Colonies,’ and endeavoured to induce the colonial office to inaugurate at once a federal assembly or parliament for Australia (March 1857). He may thus be regarded as the forerunner of the present ‘Commonwealth’ movement.
Wentworth was so disgusted with the democratic flood-tide and the shoals of digger-immigrants that he abandoned Australia and remained in England for some years, expressing from time to time in vigorous and uncomplimentary phrases his condemnation of the action of the new generation of colonial politicians. He spoke of Australia having been ‘precipitated into a nation by the discovery of gold;’ and at a public dinner given in his honour in Melbourne foretold the ruin of his country from this cause. In 1861 Wentworth returned to Sydney. He received a public address in the hall of the university, when his statue in the great hall, by Tenerani of Rome, was unveiled. He even consented to assist the governor, Sir John Young (Baron Lisgar) [q. v.], and Sir Charles Cowper by accepting the post of president of the legislative council. But at the end of 1862 he finally returned to England.
Wentworth died at Merly House, near Wimborne, Dorset, on 20 March 1872. By the unanimous vote of both houses of the New South Wales legislature it was fitly decreed that their founder should receive the honours of a public funeral, and his remains were removed from England and interred with great pomp and ceremony, and with marks of universal respect, at Vaucluse, Sydney, on 6 May 1872, the Anglican bishop of Sydney officiating, while Sir James Martin delivered a funeral oration. It fell to Wentworth's antagonist, Sir Henry Parkes, to second Sir James Martin's proposal for a public funeral; and as colonial secretary he made the arrangements for the ceremony. The vessel, the British Queen, that bore Wentworth's remains to Australia also carried the costly communion service bequeathed by him to St. Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney.
Wentworth was married at St. Michael's Church, Sydney, to Sarah, daughter of Francis Cox of that city, by whom he had two sons and five daughters. She died and was buried at Eastbourne, Sussex, in 1880.
In addition to Tenerani's statue in Sydney University there is a picture of Wentworth which hangs in the Houses of Parliament, and a fine medallion portrait by the late Thomas Woolner, R.A., is in the possession of the eldest son, Mr. Fitzwilliam Wentworth of Vaucluse, Sydney.[No biography of Wentworth has yet been published, but it is understood that his son, Mr. Fitzwilliam Wentworth, has for years been collecting materials for the work. All the published accounts of his career are imperfect and fragmentary, even the date of his birth is variously stated—by Sir James Martin as ‘about 1790,’ by Mr. Henniker-Heaton and Mr. David Blair as 1791, and only in recent compilations, such as Mr. Mennell's Australian Dictionary of Biography and Burke's Colonial Gentry, is the correct date, 1793, given. The writer is indebted to Mr. E. A. Petherick for access to his invaluable collection of early Australian books and pamphlets and for personal assistance. He has also had at his disposal the unpublished papers of the late Lord Sherbrooke and the writer's own notes of conversations with the late Sir George Macleay, K.C.M.G. Rusden's Histories of Australia and New Zealand; Martin's Life and Letters of Lord Sherbrooke; Heaton's Dictionary of Dates, contain the fullest published accounts of Wentworth. The Australian, the Atlas, and the Sydney Morning Herald have also been consulted.]