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Birnie, Richard (1808–1888)

by Ann-Mari Jordens

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Richard Birnie (1808-1888), barrister and journalist, was born on 16 January 1808 in London, son of Richard Birnie (1760-1832) and his wife Louisa. His father, chief magistrate at Bow Street, was knighted after leading the police officers who arrested the Cato Street conspirators in February 1820, but 'died poor and his widow was refused all assistance'. For all that Birnie was educated by a private tutor and at 18 entered Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1830; M.A., 1837). Called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1833, he practised as a special pleader in London, Middlesex and Westminster Sessions and at the Central Criminal Court. However, he did not prosper and in 1853 with excellent testimonials from sympathetic barristers he applied successfully to the Colonial Office for appointment to the Crown Law Department in Western Australia. With his wife Ellen he arrived in the Isabella Blythe at Perth in January 1854.

Appointed advocate-general and magistrate of territories at a salary of £400, Birnie constantly applied for promotion, even to the South Australian Supreme Court, and in August 1857 he became acting-commissioner of the Civil Court in Perth. There he fell foul of the legal fraternity by misleading Governor (Sir) Arthur Kennedy over the 'sufficiency' of the colony's Juries Ordinance and his power to call special sessions for murder trials. At first Kennedy sided with Birnie, knowing of the domestic troubles that led to his wife's death from a heart complaint on 12 September 1858. But next year after further indiscretions his resignation was accepted by Kennedy, who reported to the Colonial Office his 'absolute want of principle and rectitude'. The Executive Council gave him £200 to quit the colony.

Birnie went to Melbourne, was admitted to the Victorian Bar on 13 October 1859 and set up as a barrister. Although he officiated as crown prosecutor at Sandhurst in 1861 and at Portland in 1862, his legal practice was not successful, and he was in dire poverty when in 1870 James Smith, a prominent Melbourne journalist, had him appointed as an essay writer on the Australasian. For the next eighteen years his column 'The Essayist' and his frequent public lectures made him one of the best known literary figures of his day. He had been a friend of Thackeray and was prominent in the lively literary coterie of Melbourne in the 1860s and 1870s, and a member of the short-lived literary society known as the Cave of Adullam. He was respected by his colleagues for his keen intelligence, well-stored mind and witty conversation, although his personal habits were somewhat eccentric. In August 1877 he wrote to George Gordon McCrae: 'To the infirmities of age or any other cause I plead not guilty. Head, stomach, liver, biceps and instep are in fettle to control whiskey-toddy, digest a haggis, confront life's troubles and cads, with spirits that brave adversity'.

His writings were generally craftsman-like reflections on a very wide range of topics which made pleasant reading if second-rate literature. In Melbourne he published a lecture, Gambling; or, The Evil Effects of the Thirst for Gold, in 1868, and in 1879 Essays: Social, Moral, and Political. He died in Melbourne on 16 September 1888.

Birnie was an Anglican of liberal inclinations, and was described in his obituary as a man of 'geniality and courtly manners, which were those of an English gentleman of a past generation'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. T. Reilly, Reminiscences of Fifty Years' Residence in Western Australia (Perth, 1903)
  • J. L. Forde, The Story of the Bar in Victoria (Melb, 1913)
  • H. McCrae, Story-Book Only (Syd, 1948)
  • B. Elliott, Marcus Clarke (Oxford, 1958)
  • G. G. McCrae, ‘The Golden Age of Australian Literature, 1860-1870’, Southerly, vol 5, no 4, 1944, pp 39-46
  • Inquirer (Perth), 14 Sept 1859
  • Argus (Melbourne), 18 Sept 1888
  • manuscript catalogue under R. Birnie (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CSO 1854-59 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • CO 18/78.

Citation details

Ann-Mari Jordens, 'Birnie, Richard (1808–1888)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/birnie-richard-2997/text4385, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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