William Charles Wentworth

William Charles Wentworth (1790-1872) was an Australian statesman and writer who achieved repute as an explorer.

In the 1820s William Wentworth came to typify the spirit of the radical native-born Australians, conscious of their difference from the "English ascendancy, " exulting in their love of country, and determined to obtain civil rights and representative institutions and control the development of what they claimed was their country.

By 1830 the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of New South Wales were convicts, former convicts, or the children of convicts, collectively, if loosely, known as emancipists. They were opposed by the exclusives, the civil and military officers and the free settlers, not numerous, but generally rich. The exclusives adopted a conservative political stance, being relatively happy to cooperate with the governor and coming to seek a measure of constitutional reform that would place them in positions of power commensurate with their wealth and their view of their social worth and that, at the same time, would leave the emancipists politically and socially inferior.

Most of the native-born Australians were among the emancipists, but there were also some among the exclusives. Both groups also shared in the wealth that was accumulating as New South Wales developed a pastoral-commercial economy. By the mid-1830s the emancipist-exclusive conflict was blurred.

Wentworth's mother was Catherine Crowley, a convicted thief who arrived with her infant son at Norfolk Island on Aug. 7, 1790. She died at Parramatta in 1800. D'Arcy Wentworth, who acknowledged him as son, had aristocratic connections but had been accused, and found not guilty, of highway robbery in 1787 in England; he had come to New South Wales as an assistant surgeon on the ship with Catherine Crowley.

William was educated in England and returned to New South Wales in 1810. In 1813, with a growing reputation as a headstrong and fearless young man, he accompanied William Lawson and Gregory Blaxland in the first crossing of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Wentworth received 1, 000 acres for the exploit but, although a relatively large landholder, was unacceptable to the exclusives because of his father's dubious background. His resentment was softened by the exercise of a great talent for satire and invective and later by the writing of poetry.

Originally intended for an army career, Wentworth returned to London in 1816 and read for the bar. In 1819 he published A Statistical Description of the Colony of New South Wales …, an influential emancipist analysis of the settlement that revealed a sound grasp of economic principles. Wentworth was made aware for the first time of his father's misadventures, and his developing radicalism was consolidated by 1822, when he was called to the bar. After studying for some time at Cambridge, he returned to Sydney in 1824.


Emancipist Leader

With William Wardell, Wentworth soon founded the Australian, which became an insistent and effective champion of the emancipists' aims. Attacks on Governor Sir Ralph Darling led to Wentworth's prosecution for seditious libel; his vindication strengthened the freedom of the colonial press. In 1829-1830 Wentworth's support of the campaign for reform of the jury system was successful. By this time his fierce patriotism had made him a colonial hero.

Wentworth had led the movement that had gained important civil concessions connected with the press and juries, and he was now one of the chief leaders of the growing impetus for self-government. But by 1840 his wealth was tending to place him with a new group of conservatives, some of whom were also native-born. In the 1840s his conservatism took a liberal form, and he helped to prepare the way for more constitutional change. The emphasis of his campaign changed: he sought self-government but not a democracy. In 1842 he contributed to the establishment of a partly elective legislative council. In the council in the 1840s he fought for further constitutional and social advances, especially in education, and supported the interests of the great pastoralists, to whom he now belonged.

Wentworth's plan of responsible government was not so radical as that of several younger reformers in the early 1850s, but his great reputation and skill played an essential part in the advent of the new system in 1855. He spent the rest of his life in England, where he died at Dorset on March 20, 1872.


Further Reading on William Charles Wentworth

There is no biography of Wentworth. His life is sketched in all histories of Australia. The most complete and satisfying portrait is in Charles M. H. Clark, A History of Australia (2 vols., 1962-1968). A.C.V. Melbourne, William Charles Wentworth (1934), gives an account of Wentworth's constitutional work, and Arthur Jose, Builders and Pioneers of Australia (1928), an outline of his career. Wentworth's keen insight into the early colonial economy is analyzed in G. J. Abbott and N. B. Nairn, eds., Economic Growth of Australia, 1788-1821 (1969).

Additional Biography Sources

Liston, Carol, Sarah Wentworth: mistress of Vaucluse, Glebe, N.S.W.: Historic Houses Trust, New South Wales, 1988.