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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Sir John Hay (1816–1892)

It is with regret that we have to chronicle the death of Sir John Hay, President of the Legislative Council, which took place at his residence at Rose Bay at 3 o'clock yesterday morning.

Sir John Hay was identified with the politics of New South Wales for 36 years, and took a lively interest in every movement to assist the progress of the colony, or improve the condition of the people. The earlier years of his public life were marked with some of the most striking of the experiences of that period of political strife and turmoil, during which the colonists were endeavouring through their representatives in Parliament to establish upon a firm foundation the blessings of responsible government, and when he ceased to take the active part in politics which characterised his entrance into public life, and which continued in his political career for a number of years, he carried to the Speaker's chair in the Legislative Assembly, and subsequently to the office of President of the Legislative Council, matured abilities, a large experience, a well-established reputation, and the general respect of the community. He was a man whose name did not appear upon the Statute Book, and yet his public services were exceedingly useful by reason of his long Parliamentary career and the constant interest he took in every question connected with public legislation. One man may serve his country well by originating and carrying through Parliament laws which are of great benefit to the community; another may be equally serviceable by his efforts to assist in having those laws passed in the beet form possible. Sir John Hay belonged in great measure to the latter class of public benefactors.

He first came forward for political honours at the general election in 1850, when he was a squatter possessing a station called Waleregang, in the Murrumbidgee district. In this election he appeared as a candidate for the electorate of Murrumbidgee, in opposition to Mr. George Macleay, who had previously represented the district in the Legislature. Mr. Hay, as he stated in the speech he made on the occasion, had come into tho district when just emerged from boyhood, and the whole of his mature years had been spent there. He recognised the fact that in the elections at that period the people were inaugurating free institutions in this country, and that according to the way the electors exercised their suffrages responsible government would be a curse or a blessing. Government of the people by the people he behoved to be the most glorious achievement of the mind of man, but it could only be carried out where there were wisdom and virtue among the people themselves. He declared that he would take with him into Parliament honesty of purpose and an unprejudiced mind, and trust to those to steer him safely through the eddies and currents of political life. “Merely to please the electors he would do nothing. When he could not please them by doing his duty, and so satisfying his conscience at the same time, he would give back the trust he had received at their hands untarnished by any vile subserviency." He approved of the provisions of the new Constitution which was then coming into operation, with the exception of that which related to a nominee Upper House, and this is singular when considered in relation to his subsequent connection with the Legislative Council. A nominee Chamber, he maintained, would be inoperative for any good end, and at the very best would be a useless encumbrance, and the farthest thing possible from ornamental. To have the whole of the members nominated by the Ministry he thought especially objectionable, because of the probable frequent change of Ministries, and the equally frequent appointment of members to the Upper House in order to preserve the balance of influence in that chamber as each Ministry retired from office. "Was it not palpable," he was reported to have said, "that such a body as this must become could never establish any prestige, that it would become, instead of a council of grave and reverend seigneurs, judges, and men of mark, a mob - an unwieldy mob without consistency, character, or weight, to which no man who respected himself would content to belong, and only fit to perish amidst ignominy and contempt?" Entertaining these views at that time he desired, if two Houses were indispensable, to substitute for the proposed nominee Chamber an elective body limited in number and formed on the principle of double election, possessing "real power, real influence in legislation, and to which it would be felt the very highest honour to belong." This body, he considered, whether it were called Senate or Council, would be the cream of the deliberative wisdom of the country, would have a high prestige, and would really possess that valuable conservative character which a nominee House never could possess. Like many other public men, the opinions of the earlier years' of his public life - and particularly that relating to the constitution of the Legislative Council - became modified or changed as they wore put to the test of experience and practical results. One other point in his maiden political speech which calls for notice was that he showed himself to be a warm advocate for the federation of the colonies, as he clearly saw how injurious the want of such a union was upon the postal system of communication with the mother country and upon intercolonial traffic. When Mr. Hay came to Sydney, after his election, with the intention of assisting, to the best of his ability, in the establishment of the new order of things, he found political matters in a very disordered state. Personal feeling, party rancour, and factious opposition brought about a very unsettled condition of affairs, which, for a time, raised doubts in the public mind as to whether the colony had advanced so far as to justify the granting to it of a Constitution which gave the community the great advantages of self-government. Shortly after Mr. Hay's return to the Legislature the administration under Mr. Cowper, and in which Mr. James Martin (the late Sir James Martin) was appointed to the office of Attorney-General, was formed. To this appointment of Mr. Martin the member for the Murrumbidgee, in common with others, strongly objected, and on the 17th September, 1850, Mr. Hay moved a resolution declaring that the formation of the Ministry under circumstances which precluded the prospect of its obtaining the confidence of the representatives of the people was calculated to obstruct the public business, and was most reprehensible. A more sweeping motion of censure has never been moved in the Assembly, and, of course, it affected the existence of the Ministry. Mr. Hay moved the resolution in a very lengthy speech, which declared that the motion was not a factious one, nor moved without consultation with others, but that it was put forward in the interests of responsible government, and in the desire to have a Ministry which could command the confidence of a majority of the House and the country, and therefore sufficiently strong to carry on with advantage the business of the country. Mr. Martin, who was chiefly concerned in the result, gave Mr. Hay credit for having brought forward his resolution on grounds which he conceived to be for the good of the country, though he would not allow the same justification of the course pursued in the cases of those who supported Mr. Hay in the action he was taking, and the newspaper comments the next morning upon Mr. Hay's speech were very complimentary. "The calm, gentlemanly, and effective speech of Mr. Hay," said one, "did him infinite honour. He showed the metal of which public men are made who stamp with dignity the senate of a country. Undaunted by interruptions as rude as they were ridiculous, he said what he intended, and he will not have reason to be ashamed of his first prominent appearance in the House." Years afterwards, when Mr. Hay was raised to important positions in Parliament, opinions of a similar complimentary nature were expressed by leading members in both Houses of the Legislature. Mr. Hay's motion of want of confidence in the Cowper Government was carried, and a new Ministry was formed under the leadership of Mr. Henry Watson Parker (afterwards Sir Henry Watson Parker), Mr. Hay becoming Secretary for Lands and Public Works. That Ministry was defeated on the question of Electoral Reform, and was succeeded by the second Ministry in which Mr. Cowper was Colonial Secretary and Premier, and Mr. John Robertson (afterwards Sir John Robertson) Minister for Lands. The question of the public lands at this time became a matter of great interest; but it was not till the reconstruction in 1800 of the Robertson Ministry, which merged into the third Cowper Ministry, that the famous Crown Lands Alienation Act of 1861 was brought forward by its author. The free selection clause of the measure excited great opposition on the part of all who were interested in pastoral pursuits, and on the 25th October, 1860, while the bill was in committee, Mr. Hay moved an amendment of the 13th clause, or that which permitted free selection before survey, with the object of providing for a survey before any land was selected. He was opposed to the principle of free selection on the ground that it would destroy the pastoral interest and injure the revenue by diminishing the value of pastoral property, and doubtless his opposition was to some extent influenced by his connection with pastoral pursuits; but he argued very justly that survey before selection was necessary for reasons of economy, certainty of title, and security of tenure. There appeared to be two parties in the House at this period of our political history, and as an hon. member very suggestively put it at the time, one party were open to the objection that they were endeavouring to retain more than they ought to hold, and the other, that they were endeavouring to obtain more than they ought to get. Mr. Hay, however, repudiated the idea of leading the pastoral interest in his opposition to the free-selection clause - a charge that was levelled at him by the author of the bill - and contended that his past conduct would show that his judgment on any public question had never been warped by self-interest. He had always deprecated anything like the formation of a pastoral party, and in dealing with this question he had endeavoured to act for the host interests of the whole community. After an animated debate, which continued for two nights, the amendment was passed on a division of 33 to 28; the Governor, in accordance with the advice of his Ministers, dissolved the Assembly, and the Government went to the country with the cry of "Free selection before survey." During the discussions on the bill in committee Mr. Robertson had challenged Mr. Hay to contest before the electors upon the principle in the bill with reference to which they differed, and had threatened the event of the Government being defeated and Parliament being dissolved to resign his seat for the Hunter and oppose Mr. Hay in the Murrumbidgee electorate. This threat was not carried out, but the general election resulted so fortunately for the Ministry that a large majority were returned pledged to support the clause upon which the Government had met with defeat. After this Mr. Hay took no further part in the Government of the country, but simply performed his duties in the Assembly as an independent member rather than as a member of the Opposition. He applied himself carefully to the study of the usages of Parliament, brought to the debates in the House a tone of courtesy and a dignified demeanour which were far from being unrecognised or without their value, and proved himself on all occasions to be an able debater and a man of extensive information. It was the possession of these qualities which on the retirement of Mr. Terence Aubrey Murray (afterwards Sir Terence Aubrey Murray) from the Speakership of the Legislative Assembly in 1862 pointed to Mr. Hay as the member best fitted to fill the vacant chair. He was appointed Speaker of the Legislative Assembly on the motion of Mr. Piddington, seconded by the late Dr. Lang. In a former Parliament, when the Speakership was resigned by Sir Daniel Cooper, it was proposed to Mr. Hay that he should allow himself to be nominated for the chair, but on that occasion he declined for the reasons that the appointment was not congenial to him, and because it appeared to him the position was one that should be considered as a fitting reward for the long Parliamentary labours of the gentleman whom he afterwards succeeded. In 1862, when the position was offered to him, it appeared to be the spontaneous and unanimous wish of the House that he should become the Speaker, and he then consented. The onerous duties of this office he performed for three years, at the end of which time, in consequence of failing health, he resigned, and was succeeded by the late William Munnings Arnold. He continued a member of the Assembly after his resignation of the Speakership for about a year and a half, and then was summoned to the Legislative Council, of which House, on the decease of Sir Terence Aubrey Murray in 1873, he became President. No higher encomiums could be passed upon any man raised to a high official position than those which fell from the lips of the leading members of the Legislative Council, whoso duty it was to congratulate the new President upon his appointment, and the subsequent career of Sir John Hay in the Upper House fully justified the confidence that had been placed in him. His long Parliamentary and official experience, his firmness, and his dignified manner eminently qualified him for presiding over such a body of gentlemen as those in the Legislative Council, and while his ruling from the chair was always respected, his opinions upon any questions of legislation invariably carried great weight. Outside Parliament he gave much of his time in assisting any movement which had for its object the public good. As one of the vice-presidents of the New South Wales Agricultural Society, he shared in the labour of the managing body of that organisation for promoting the pastoral and agricultural interests in the colony, and for the encouragement of industrial enterprise; and took an active part in the duties performed by the International Exhibition Commission. In 1877 he was knighted, receiving the order of K.C.M.G., and, as President of the Legislative Council, he stood next to the Lieutenant-Governor (Sir Alfred Stephen) as the person charged with the duties of Administrator of the Government whenever the appointment of Administrator became necessary. Sir John's administration of the office of President of the Legislative Council has been generally recognised as impartial and dignified.

The deceased gentleman, it will be remembered, had the degree of LL.D. conferred upon him some time ago by tho University of Aberdeen. In September, 1889, the members of the Chamber over which he presided procured a marble bust of Sir John Hay, which now adorns the hall of the Legislative Council. The deceased gentleman occupied the presidential chair for the last time on the 24th September, 1891. Early in that month he was suffering from an attack of influenza, which was so marked in its character that he was absent from the House on the 9th and 10th September last. Whilst becoming convalescent the President made a visit to the Murrnmbidgee, in the hope of recruiting his health, but influenza had made such serious inroads into his constitution that he never fully recovered his former strength. He resumed the chair on the evening of the 16th, and as he fell asleep, it was supposed that death had taken place. Some medical members were about to approach to see whether that was really so, and all the members had the gratification of seeing Sir John open his eyes and resume the duties of his office. It transpired afterwards that he had performed a long journey by train and was simply suffering from exhaustion. After the 24th September the deceased gentleman, acting upon tho advice of his medical attendants, remained at home, and during the period that has intervened the presidential duties have been for the most part fulfilled by the Chairman of Committees, Mr. A. H. Jacob. On three occasions, however, during the absence of Mr. Jacob, due to illness, the chair was filled by Mr. W. J. Trickett.

Sir John Hay was attended during his illness by the Hon. Dr. Mackellar, Dr. Scott-Skirving, and Dr. McCormick.

On Monday night Lady Hay was seized with paralysis, and she is now lying an insensible condition, from which it is feared she will not recover.

The Government have decided that the funeral of Sir John Hay, which is to take place at half past 3 o'clock on Friday afternoon, shall be a public one. A Gazette Extraordinary issued yesterday afternoon contains the subjoined announcement :-"Colonial Secretary's Office, Sydney, 20th January, 1892. His Excellency the Governor announces to the public, with feelings of regret, the death of the Honourable Sir John Hay, K.C.M.G., President of the Legislative Council, which melancholy event took place this morning. His Excellency the Governor, with a desire to show every respect to the memory of the deceased, invites all the Civil officers of the Government to attend the funeral, which will move from his late residence, Rose Bay, on Friday, the 22nd instant, at 3.30 p.m. By his Excellency's command, George R. Dibbs." We are informed that carriages will be provided for such members of the Legislative Council as may wish to attend the funeral; carriages to be opposite Parliament House at half-past 2 o'clock to-morrow afternoon.

Original publication

Citation details

'Hay, Sir John (1816–1892)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Sir John Hay, 1892

Sir John Hay, 1892

State Library of Victoria, IAN01/02/92/20

Life Summary [details]


22 June, 1816
Little Ythsie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


20 January, 1892 (aged 75)
Rose Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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