George William Rusden

George William Rusden  (1904) 
by Edward Augustus Petherick

Obituary of George William Rusden published in The Atheneum 6 February 1904


FEW men were better known throughout Australia than Mr. G. W. Rusden, who died at his residence near Melbourne on December 23rd last, at an advanced age. The third son of the Rev. George Keylock Rusden, M.A.Camb., linguist and mathematician, he was born at Leith Hill Place, near Coldharbour, Surrey, in 1819. An elder son having proceeded to Australia, the rest of the family followed in 1834, the father being appointed chaplain to the Maitland district, New South Wales. Young Rusden was at first engaged in pastoral pursuits, but in the forties began to take a prominent part in politics, speaking at public meetings and writing in the newspapers. Lowe, Wentworth, the Macarthurs, Lang, and other patriots were then agitating for some measure of representative government. A man of more flexibility in his opinions than Rusden (he was too often on the unpopular side) might in time have risen to the highest offices in the State. He also interested himself in the aborigines, and wrote a poem (1851) depicting their simple life.[1]

He was appointed Inspector of National Schools in 1849, the duties of the office taking him all over the country. Railways there were none and coaches few, so Rusden once, he told me, rode overland from Brisbane to Melbourne, a distance of nearly 2,000 miles. In 1851 he was appointed Chief Clerk in the Colonial Secretary's Office, Melbourne. When responsible government was introduced in 1856, he became Clerk of the Parliaments in Victoria, a position held till his retirement in 1881. He had visited London in 1874, issued three or four small volumes, and laid the groundwork of his two histories. After a trip through New Zealand in 1882 he came to London to publish them. Already intimate with Anthony Trollope and a member of the Garrick, he was soon after elected to the Athenaeum Club, where he made the acquaintance of Froude, Kinglake, and others; more than once he smoked his pipe at Carlyle's fireside.

I was not intimately acquainted with Rusden before his 'New Zealand' was published. He then became a constant visitor at Yarra Yarra, Brixton Hill, staying sometimes for weeks at a time. Although imbued with very strong party feeling–like his model Dr. Johnson, he was a good hater!–Rusden was very good company, brimful of anecdote, a good mimic, and overflowing with boisterous fun, often amusing us with imitations of speeches which he had listened to at home and abroad. My collection of Australian literature proved to be very useful to him, and he continued to refer to it, calling whenever he chose, finding papers, or pamphlets, or books for himself. He brought the MS. of his 'Australia,' and many a hunt we had for out-of-the-way information; one item we failed in finding a clue to–the actual fate of George Bass, the discoverer of the strait. In my library he rewrote his earlier chapters, and, as events afterwards showed, was well advised to modify phrases and epithets in other parts. He might have altered more. This work was issued in 1884. It was subsequently to this that Mr. Bryce, a former New Zealand native minister, brought his action against Rusden in the London Courts for libel. Sir John Gorst was one of the counsel for Rusden, but the verdict was given against him, damages 5,000l. This amount was afterwards reduced by arrangement to 2,531l., in full satisfaction of damages and plaintiff's costs, defendant making retractation and ample apology. It was a heavy blow pecuniarily, but the author was able to sustain his reputation for general accuracy. His literary defence will be found in 'Aureretanga: Groans of the Maoris' (1888), and in 'Tragedies in New Zealand in 1868 and 1881,' printed about the same time, but laid aside, not to be published until some time after the author's decease.

Revised editions of both the 'Australia' and 'New Zealand' were issued three or four years ago in Melbourne. His last book, 'William Shakespeare, his Life, his Work, and his Teaching,' was published but a short time before his death, and copies have not yet reached this country. Rusden always took an active part in municipal affairs, being generally in office when at home, and was for many years on the Council of the Melbourne University, an institution which in all probability will be a recipient of his benefaction. A son of the parsonage, he was prominent also in Church affairs, but could not tolerate dissent in any form. He must, however, have mellowed in later years, for, not very long ago, he purchased 250 copies of one of Dr. Caird's works for presentation to ministers of all denominations in the colony.

He leaves a number of relatives, but few of his older friends now survive, for he was one of the last links with the Georgian era in Australia, when Governor Bourke reigned in New South Wales, and Lieut.-Governor Arthur in Van Diemen's Land, when these colonies were an archdeaconry only, under the Bishop of Calcutta. The year of Rusden's arrival in New South Wales was also that of the settlement of the Henty family at Portland Bay ; the year following Batman and Fawkner sailed up the Yarra and fixed their dwellings on the present site of Melbourne, now one of the finest cities in the world, possessing a population of half a million souls. He was, therefore, a colonist of nearly seventy years' standing. EDWARD A. PETHERICK

  1. 'Moyarra: an Australian Legend,' by "Yittadairn," name given to the author by the natives, reprinted London, 1891.