BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
WILLIAM CHARLES WENTWORTH: Australia's Greatest Native Son, by Andrew Tink
, May 1, 2010
Founding father of modern Australia?
WILLIAM CHARLES WENTWORTH:
Australia's Greatest Native Son
by Andrew Tink
(Sydney: Allen & Unwin)
Hardcover: 376 pages
Rec. price: $49.95
Reviewed by Michael Daniel
One of the dates of history that had to be memorised by Australian schoolchildren for generations was that, in 1813, Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson were the first Europeans to find a route through the Blue Mountains. In so doing, they opened up the territory beyond this mountain range to European settlement.
Often largely forgotten, though, is the significant role of one of these men, William Charles Wentworth (1790-1872), in establishing in early colonial Australia trial by jury and responsible government. In this first modern biography of Wentworth, Andrew Tink (a former New South Wales parliamentarian and shadow attorney-general) puts up a good case as to why Wentworth should be regarded as the most significant "native born" Australian.
Wentworth's life spanned the period of Australian history almost from its beginnings as a penal colony to the inception of responsible government. The illegitimate son of a convict mother Catherine Crowley and surgeon D'Arcy Wentworth, he was born aboard a ship en route from Sydney to Norfolk Island in 1790, two years after the foundation of NSW. His father was nominally a free man, but this was only because English courts were prepared to drop several charges of highway robbery against him on condition he migrated to Australia.
As a youth, William was sent to England to be educated, and in 1810 returned to Australia. In 1816, he travelled again to England to study law. In 1819, he wrote and published a book advocating emigration to New South Wales. In 1822, he was called to the English bar, but failed to establish himself as a successful lawyer there. In 1824, he returned to Australia. Upon his return, he not only launched his legal career in New South Wales but also the colony's first privately-owned newspaper, The Australian (which has no connection with the newspaper of the same name, launched in 1964 by Rupert Murdoch).
Wentworth soon made a name for himself advocating freedom of the press, and the establishment of trial by jury. On both scores he clashed with the autocratic Governor Ralph Darling. The death of Private Joseph Sudds, after he had undergone extreme punishment sanctioned by Darling, afforded Wentworth the opportunity to attack the colonial governor. However, in order to do so, he had to relinquish his shares in The Australian. The public furore and subsequent court cases eventually forced Darling to allow for civilian juries under certain circumstances.
Wentworth also championed the cause of the "emancipists", arguing that ex-convicts should be allowed to sit on juries. This pitted him against the "exclusivists", led by James Macarthur (Australian-born son of John Macarthur).
Wentworth also became prominent in the movement for self-government, and it is this largely forgotten facet of his life which is arguably his most significant contribution to the development of Australia's political system.
As vice-president of the Australian Patriotic Association, founded in 1835, Wentworth drafted two alternative parliamentary models: a bicameral (two-chamber) system, similar to that lately granted to Canada; and a unicameral (single-chamber) legislature of 50 members, four-fifths of whom would be elected, and one-fifth nominated.
A modified version of the second model was eventually adopted, with two-thirds of the members elected and one-third nominated. While Wentworth proposed a wide franchise, he still advocated a property ownership qualification as the basis of it.
Although Wentworth and Macarthur were rivals as respective leaders of the emancipist/exclusivist factions, changes in New South Wales society were to see them settle their differences and unite. As squatters (rich pastoralists) who held extensive properties, both wanted to maintain their security of tenure on leased crown land. Similarly, Wentworth was also anxious that the British should not abandon transportation, since he feared it would deprive squatters such as himself of a ready source of cheap labour, as immigrants were often unwilling to accept lonely jobs on isolated squatting runs.
The advent of a new player on the political scene, Henry Parkes, who advocated extending the franchise even further, solidified the nexus between men such as Wentworth and Macarthur.
Wentworth's greatest political contribution was probably in his role as chairman of the committee that drafted the 1853 constitution for responsible government in NSW. Tink argues that Wentworth should be credited as the father of federation, as he also advocated a General Association of Australian Colonies out of which he hoped a federal body would emerge that would legislate on national matters.
Wentworth also took a keen interest in education, playing a key role in the establishment of the University of Sydney.
Prominent though Wentworth was in NSW public life, it was many years before he and his mistress (later wife) Sarah were fully accepted into Sydney society. This was partly because Sarah had borne some of his children before they married. The couple resided at Vaucluse House for many years. However, much of the last two decades of Wentworth's life was spent in England, where he died in 1872. His body was returned to Sydney and, in recognition of the significant contribution he had made to New South Wales, he was accorded the colony's first state funeral.
Tink's readable biography is highly recommended. It is hoped it will serve to resurrect the memory of an outstanding Australian who made a seminal contribution to the development of our nation.