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Wentworth, William Charles (1790–1872)

from Sydney Morning Herald

William Charles Wentworth, by James Anderson, 1872

William Charles Wentworth, by James Anderson, 1872

State Library of New South Wales, ML 411

Amongst the items of recent news received from England by the Suez mail, and transmitted to us by the agency of the telegraph from Adelaide on Saturday, is the notice of the decease of William Charles Wentworth, who died at Merleigh House, Wimborne, in Dorsetshire, on the 20th of March, at an advanced age of 80 years. This distinguished orator and statesman is considered to have been a native of this colony, having been born, about the year 1792, at Norfolk Island, where it was (as it is at present) a free settlement, and one of the dependencies of New South Wales. His father, Darcy Wentworth, an Irishman by birth, was for many years at the head of the medical staff of the colony, and towards the close of his life held the office of Principal Superintendent of Police. Some obscurity seems to hang over the youthful career of young Wentworth, but it would seem that he resided with his father in this colony until he was upwards of twenty years of age,— receiving such an education as could then be procured for him, and manifesting, under ever disadvantage, a very remarkable degree of intellectual energy.

He is understood to have visited England about the year 1822, and to have matriculated at Cambridge; but whether her ever graduated at that University is not so certain. It appears, to have been there, however, that William, Charles Wentworth wrote his well known and most admirable prize-poem on Australia, in which, it will be remembered, he speaks of the land of his birth as destined to be "a New Britannia" in the southern world. Remaining in England for several years, being disgusted with, and indignant at, the ignorancce of every body about his native land, Mr. Wentworth wrote A Statistical Description of the Colony of New South Wales, and its Independent Settlements in Van Diemen's Land. This book, although somewhat carelessly written, contained a considerable amount, of valuable information, and dispelled much of the darkness which at that time rested upon many minds as regarded Australia. It was published by G. and W. B. Whittaker, Ave Maria-lane, London, in the year 1819, and is preceded by a preface, written by the author, yet more interesting than the book itself. Remaining in England for some few years longer (doubtless engaged in rectifying the disadvantages of a somewhat imperfect education), Mr. Wentworth proceeded to the Bar, and returned in the flower of his age to Sydney, about the year 1824. In September in that year, he and Dr. Wardell, both being barristers, were admitted by the Supreme Court to the practice of their profession in the colony, and the first action taken by Mr. Wentworth and his friend was to move that the gentlemen then practising as solicitors should be compelled to confine themselves to their own province in the profession. At that time Mr. Wentworth made, in support of the view he took, a speech before the Court of two hours' duration; but although the forensic ability herein displayed at once firmly established his position as a barrister, the Chief Justice ruled against him, in the point contended for, under the then existing Charter of Justice. The discussion, so initiated by Mr. Wentworth, was the most severe and interesting contest of the kind which had up to that time occurred in the colony.

On the accession of William IV., in 1830, Mr. Wentworth, at the head of the patriotic party in Australia, adroitly availed himself of the occasion to bring the wants and wishes of his fellow-colonists before the Home Government. An address full of the stereotyped congratulations, praises, and prayers, then common to all such documents, was moved by Mr. Sydney Stephen, and seconded by Sir Edward Parry. Wentworth, present at the meeting which was held, boldly avowed his belief that that was the fitting time forcibly to press the urgent wants of the colonists upon the King's attention. He concluded by moving that the address be amended by the insertion of a new paragraph expressive of a hope that his Majesty would "extend to the only colony of Britain bereft of the rights of Briton's a full participation in the benefits and privileges of the British Constitution." The amendment was seconded by Mr. Lethbridge (another eminent colonist), and the meeting, with a prompt compliance that significantly proved the great personal influence of the mover, adopted the suggestion of Mr. Wentworth. The address thus changed, at "that iron time," into an unassuming but most effective memorial to the Crown, was transmitted to London, where it attracted public attention and made a deep and salutary impression on the minds of those who then were charged with the conduct of colonial affairs.

The next act that history records of Mr. Wentworth is the gallant stand made by him, in July, 1833, against the appropriation of any portion of the colonial revenue to the payment of salaries and pensions for services not performed in the colony. At a public meeting, in Sydney, Mr. Wentworth successfully disputed the assumed right of Mr. Sheriff McQuoid to preside, and insisted that his friend, Sir John Jamison, should take the chair, as elected. Wentworth on that memorable occasion sharply denounced the profligate expenditure of the Government of that period; and he did so in a speech which recalls the days of John Hampden and other great patriots in the seventeenth century. He sternly demanded that the population of New South Wales, being almost exclusively Britons, should possess and freely exercise all those rights for which their fathers had fought and died. He did not confine himself to mere abstract statement, but gave clear and specific reasons for maintaining that the colonial expenditure was exorbitant and utterly indefensible. The result was that a petition to Governor Bourke was adopted, on the motion of Mr. Wentworth, which gave great offence, but which was not without its potent use.

Still pursuing his distinguished career as a public man and a barrister in active practice, Mr. Wentworth indirectly became an advocate in the defence of eight unhappy men who were charged in 1839 with murdering a number of aboriginals near Myall Crreek, at a station belonging to Mr. Henry Dangar, beyond what were then the most distant limits of this colony. The prosecution of the accused in this case (better known in history as "the Gwydir Massacres") was conducted by the Attornoy-General (Mr. John Hubert Plunkett) and Mr. Roger Therry; the defence, in Court, being in the hands of Messrs. R. Windeyer, Foster, and A'Beckett. The men principally concerned in this lamentable affair—in which foul and cruel deeds were most cruelly avenged—were eventually hanged in March 1840; but the Crown was thought by Mr. Wentworth, and by many more, to have strained the law against those who slew the savages. The execution of these men was, at the time, bitterly and even fiercely resented by Wentworth, and was perhaps, never forgiven or forgotten. Many long years afterwards, on a casual allusion to this matter in the Legislature—when the action of the Crown was referred to with an unqualified approval—Mr. Wentworth, in a speech lasting for some hours, electrified the House by a grand burst of indignant eloquence, in which law, facts, and invective were successively hurled at Mr. Plunkett for the course he had taken and upheld. Mr. Wentworth sat in our Colonial Legislature for many years, and always warmly identified himself with liberal principles, although he was not perhaps disposed to go to such extreme lengths as some of our legislators. He was long the leader of the Liberal party, but his political ideas were latterly thought to be somewhat modified by his sense of the great local importance of pastoral pursuits.

The next time that Mr. Wentworth prominently reappears in our history is in 1840, in the matter of his claim for land purchased from the native chiefs in New Zealand—ten millions of acres in the Southern Island, and 200,000 acres in the Northern Island. This land had been bought by Mr. Wentworth (and others acting with him) for about £400, with the promise of some comparatively small annuity to the chiefs who ceded the land. In supporting this cession, Mr. Wentworth was naturally brought into collision with Sir George Gipps, who conscientiously and successfully resisted the claim. Mr. Wentworth, at the bar of the House of Legislature, asserted the individual rights of the claimants herein, as laid down by Blackstone and other constitutional authorities. But although these rights were thus forcibly urged they were disallowed, as likely to form an inconvenient and dangerous precedent. In July, 1848, a new Constitutional Act having been duly proclaimed, the first general election of Members to serve in the Legislative Council took place. There was a sharp contest in the election of Members for Sydney, the candidates being Mr. Wentworth, Dr. Bland, Captain O'Connell, Mr. Hustler, and Mr. R. Cooper. Mr. Wentworth and Dr. Bland were returned; but at the next election an attempt was made by some of the Liberal party to unseat Wentworth and his veteran friend William Bland. Mr. Wentworth's speech on that occasion (as reported by the late E. K. Silvester) concluded with these noble words:—"But whatever your verdict may be with regard to myself, if it be the last public service I am to render you—I charge you never to forget your tried, devoted, indefatigable friend William Bland. (Cheers.) No man has ever served a country in a purer spirit of patriotism—no man over more deeply deserved the gratitude of a generous people than he has. (Cheers.) You may cause it to be written on the tombs of my friend and myself, 'Here lie the rejected of Sydney.' But I 'will venture to prophecy that in juxtaposition with these words posterity will add. 'Who gave to those who deserted them the liberty of the Press, trial by jury, and the constitutional right of electing their own representatives.' (Tremendous cheers.) You may put it out of my power to serve you again—you cannot erase from memory the services of the past (Cheers.) I can truly say the love of my country has been the master passion of my life. No man's heart has ever beat with a more ardent love of his country than mine, and it is on my native soil I here stand. From boyhood up to manhood I have watched over its infant growth as a mother over her cradled child. Its welfare through life has been the object of my devoted love and affection, and now when my days are in the autumn of their cycle, that welfare is the object of my highest hopes and most hallowed aspirations. I thank you for your patient hearing, and will only add the repetition of my charge—deal with me as you think fit, but respect my friend."

Mr. Wentworth was returned at the head of the poll, but Dr. Bland was one of the 'rejected,' and the angry statesman and offended friend did not hesitate to give expression to a very strong opinion on the occasion—one that was, perhaps, more frank and straightforward than strictly politic.

In the same year (1848) Mr. Wentworth introduced his celebrated resolutions on the subject of convictism. These resolutions led to an important and protracted debate, but were ultimately passed; a copy of the "resolutions" (to be found in Flanagan, vol. 2, page 178) being ordered to be forwarded to his Excellency for presentation to her Majesty, for the information of her Government. On the 6th September, 1849, Mr. Wentworth obtained a committee of the "Legislative Council" to report on the best means of instituting a University in Sydney, "for the promotion of literature and science," to be established and maintained at the public expense. He took this step because "he foresaw" (to use the words of Silvester) "that, the reign of ignorance in New South Wales would be, as it had been in all countries, and in all ages, an intolerable despotism." The committee (of which Mr. Wentworth was the chairman) reported favourably on the proposed measure on the 22nd; and on the 28th of September, Mr. Wentworth obtained leave to bring in the bill. In advocating the second reading of the bill, on the 4th of October, Mr. Wentworth made an eloquent speech, which has become part of the history of this country. The bill was read a second time, but did not become law for some time afterwards. The Act of Incorporation of the Sydney University was finally passed on the 24th September, 1850, and assented to by Sir Charles Fitzroy on the 1st of October in that year. The members of the University of Sydney, not without good reason, look upon William Charles Wentworth as the founder of that institution.

In August, 1852, Mr. Wentworth moved his famous proposition for stopping the supplies, or rather for postponing their consideration. That proposition was lost by a majority of 28 to 17. The Opposition on that occasion, and subsequently (in September in that year) resulted, however, in the important fact that the gold revenue was unreservedly placed at the disposal of the colonial Legislature. He was also active in framing the present Constitution Act, the second reading of which he moved on the 16th of August, 1853, delivering a speech which confirmed his reputation as one of the first orators of his age. The second reading of this measure (under which this colony is still governed) was carried by a majority of 34 to 8. The bill was "committed'" on the 6th of December, and subsequently became law. Mr. Wentworth's "Declaratory Resolutions" regarding this bill form a most important, and interesting page in our colonial history. The Constitution Bill was passed by the colonial Legislature early in 1854. As the author of this great measure, Wentworth was specially appointed (with the Hon. E. Deas Thomson) to proceed to England with a view of conciliating for the bill the favour of the Imperial Parliament. A large sum of money was, moreover, subscribed for the erection of a statue in honour of Mr. Wentworth, and that statue (sculptured by an eminent artist at Home) now adorns the Great Hall of the Sydney University. At the same time there was a life-size portrait painted of this great statesman. It has been very appropriately placed in that Legislative hall which once resounded with his Parliamentary eloquence.

Mr. Wentworth went to England, and there, as desired by his countrymen, he performed his mission—the Act ultimately receiving the approval of the Imperial Parliament. The now aged statesman remained in Europe for some years, and returned to this colony only for a short time, during which he sat as President of the Legislative Council. His reception on his return to his native land was more like a public triumph than the arrival of a private citizen. Resigning the Presidential office, which he had filled with honour and with dignity in the Upper House, Mr. Wentworth finally returned to his family whom he had left in England, and of late years he resided in Dorsetshire. He was offered a baronetcy by her Majesty, but respectfully declined the honour, choosing rather to continue to the end plain William Wenworth. His remains are to be interred at Vaucluse—where he always said he should wish to be buried—one of the fairest spots in the land he loved so well.

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'Wentworth, William Charles (1790–1872)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/wentworth-william-charles-2782/text24492, accessed 20 April 2014.

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