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Cowper, Sir Charles (1807–1875)

by John M. Ward

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

Charles Cowper (1807-1875), by unknown photographer

Charles Cowper (1807-1875), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 18417

Sir Charles Cowper (1807-1875), politician, was born on 26 April 1807 at Dryford, Lancashire, England, the third son of William Cowper and his first wife Hannah, née Horner. In 1809 Charles was brought to New South Wales by his father, who had been appointed assistant chaplain. Educated privately, he entered the Commissariat Department at 18 and in 1826 was appointed secretary to the Church and Schools Land Corporation. As an official he was granted 1280 acres (518 ha) in the County of Argyle in 1827 and a further 1280 acres (518 ha) in 1830. By 1852 he had acquired by grant or purchase large estates in Argyle and town allotments in Goulburn; as a tenant of the Crown he held nearly 20,000 acres (8100 ha) in Argyle and 47,000 acres (19,020 ha) in the Lachlan pastoral district. In addition he owned Wivenhoe, 900 acres (364 ha) at Camden Park and had interests in Sydney real estate. In 1831 he had married Eliza, second daughter of Daniel Sutton of Wivenhoe, near Colchester, Essex. Two years later the Church and Schools Land Corporation was dissolved and he declined another official post. Cowper then farmed in Argyle, living as a country gentleman and interesting himself in sheep breeding. He was appointed a justice of the peace in 1839.

In 1843 at the first elections under the new Constitution Cowper stood for the County of Camden, announcing that his political principles were moderate and that he was a member of the Church of England. The Macarthur family, which was powerful in the electorate, supported the Roman Catholic, Roger Therry. After a bitter contest Cowper was defeated but won election for the County of Cumberland against James Macarthur. In the Legislative Council Cowper established himself as a most active man of business. When he resigned in 1850, he had sat on eighty-three select committees and presided over twenty of them. He had opposed district councils, supported bicameralism, advocated some parts of the squatters' case for land reform, argued against the financial powers of the executive, introduced bills for the registration of births, baptisms, marriages and burials, opposed the separation of the Port Phillip district, maintained the exclusive right of the Church of England to establishment in the colony (a view that he later abandoned) and supported church schools so strongly that he became known as 'Member for the Church of England'.

In 1848 Cowper was chairman of the select committee that reported in favour of railways for New South Wales. In November 1849 he was elected to the board of the newly-formed Sydney Tramway and Railroad Co., became its chairman and was appointed manager at £600 a year. His dual role provoked strong criticism and in January 1850 he had to resign from the board in order to retain the managership. Three weeks later he resigned from the Legislative Council and gave his full time to the company. Conflicts were common between him and the board to which he was restored late in 1850; disputes occurred over choice of routes, methods of construction and standards of equipment. Money ran out because investors lacked confidence in the project; the government had guaranteed interest on money invested but the necessary approval from Britain did not come until mid-1851. Cowper's salary was reduced to £400 and the chief engineer resigned. The gold discoveries raised the costs of labour, land and materials so much that, at Cowper's prompting, the company asked the government for a loan of £150,000 to complete the line from Sydney to Parramatta. In return for the loan the government appointed three members of the board; when the auditor-general, Francis Merewether, became president, Cowper resigned as a director. He had convinced himself that the government would have to take over the railway and returned to politics to plead the cause in the council. In 1854 he presided over the select committee that advised the government to make itself responsible for the railway project, which it did in 1855.

Cowper's political outlook changed in the 1840s. Originally a moderate conservative, as befitted a pastoralist with High Church sympathies, he was brought through the council and the railways into close touch with liberal Sydney merchants, such as Robert Campbell, John Lamb and Thomas Mort and professional men like Robert Lowe and James Norton. Without immediately losing his political standing with the important landholders, he found his own views becoming steadily more liberal.

As a pastoralist Cowper knew how the colony's labour problems had worsened after the abrupt ending of transportation to New South Wales in 1840. Perhaps he had never liked convict labour; certainly his associations with the liberals in Sydney helped to decide him against it. On 23 October 1846 he presided at a public meeting which condemned proposals made by the secretary of state for the colonies, W. E. Gladstone, to revive transportation in a new form. A week later, however, a select committee under William Charles Wentworth reported in favour of a limited return to transportation. The council was prorogued before this report was considered, and in May 1847 Cowper obtained a select committee to inquire into remedies for the colony's labour problems. In September he moved that the report of Wentworth's committee be disavowed. With some of Wentworth's supporters absent in the country, Cowper's motion was passed by 11 votes to 7. This victory was compromised when Earl Grey, who had become secretary of state, also proposed to renew transportation in a revised form. As Cowper's committee on labour had reported with 'feelings allied to despair' not long before Grey's proposals reached Sydney, neither he nor any other strong opponent of transportation felt able to reject convicts entirely. In April 1848 the council accepted Grey's proposals, including the important safeguard that the convicts should be accompanied by equal numbers of free immigrants at Britain's expense. When Grey sent the convicts without the free immigrants, Cowper denounced his 'injustice' and 'insolence'. On 29 May 1849 he persuaded the council to condemn Grey's actions and to request revocation of the Order in Council authorizing transportation. When Grey ignored all protests Cowper organized a large meeting in Sydney on 16 September 1850 at which the New South Wales Association for Preventing the Revival of Transportation was formed with himself as chairman. The association recognized that transportation to Van Diemen's Land as well as to New South Wales must be abolished because convicts and former convicts could pass from Tasmania to the mainland. On 2 October the council resolved that New South Wales should never again receive convicts; by this time free immigration had revived and repugnance to transportation was no longer restrained by anxieties about labour. In May 1851 Cowper became president of the Australasian League for the Abolition of Transportation, which united the opponents of transportation in New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and New Zealand. The association campaigned actively in Britain and in the colonies and took more credit than its due for the final decision in December 1852 by the Duke of Newcastle that no more convicts be transported to eastern Australia.

Despite his eminence in the transportation battle, Cowper had great difficulty in re-entering the Legislative Council from which he had resigned early in 1850. At the City of Sydney election in September 1851 he was at the bottom of the poll although his programme was thoroughly liberal apart from opposition to vote by ballot. He then tried in Cumberland without success but later won in Durham. Transportation was no longer a political issue and the prestige he had gained in that struggle was offset by the poor state of the railways project and by the superior devotion of his opponents to the arts of winning votes. In 1853 he was elected to the select committee which, under Wentworth's chairmanship, drew up the colony's new constitution. Conservatives dominated the committee and Cowper, who had little taste for their objectives or for abstract contests on forms of government, disliked the proceedings and was active only in opposing the nominated upper house and the electoral provisions that had been designed to perpetuate the political power of large landholders. When the draft bill was published he became a foundation member of the Constitution Committee formed to oppose it, but did not rouse himself to more than occasional activity on the committee's behalf.

Cowper's strongest interests were revealed in September 1854 when, with great energy, he moved an unsuccessful vote of censure against the government for weak administration and attacked the 1855 estimates as too small for the public works that the colony needed. About the same time he was active in the incorporation of the Sydney Grammar School.

At the beginning of 1856 Cowper's political ambitions were high. He was personally popular; the liberals were courting him; the watchful conservatives still regarded him as the colony's most active politician and wondered whether office would curb his democratic tendencies. Soon, however, he aligned himself openly with radical liberals like (Sir) Henry Parkes, James Wilshire and R. Campbell. His action destroyed his chances of becoming the colony's first premier under responsible government. When the governor-general, Sir William Denison, looked for a premier, preferably a conservative, he was told by the influential James Macarthur and others that Cowper was too radical, and accepted their advice to send for the Sydney merchant, (Sir) Stuart Donaldson. Macarthur suggested that Donaldson should appoint Cowper colonial secretary at £2000 a year, believing that financial embarrassment would make him accept and that responsibility would make him moderate again. When Donaldson, the 'man of piebald opinions' as Cowper called him, invited him to be colonial secretary and treasurer, Cowper hesitantly refused.

The elections for the new Legislative Assembly were a triumph for Cowper. He topped the poll for the City of Sydney and calculated that there were twenty-six men of like mind in the assembly, who would help him to overthrow Donaldson. In May he ill-advisedly attacked the measures adopted for the transition to responsible government and choice of first premier. He was defeated by 27 to 21 and mortification became despair when he learned that a son, who had been sent to England for his education, had died.

Harassed by the liberals, Donaldson resigned on 25 August and Cowper formed the new government when Denison called upon him to do so. Although 'at the head of the most numerous and influential party' Cowper could not depend on consistent support. In addition his first ministry was attacked because his attorney-general, James Martin, had not yet been admitted to the Bar. The appointment was resented by the legal profession. In parliament eager critics, some resenting the intrigues that had driven Donaldson from power, seized on Martin's lack of qualifications and poor political record to attack the government. They carried a motion of no-confidence by 26 votes to 23 and, after Denison refused a dissolution, Cowper resigned on 2 October after a month and two days as premier.

The new premier, Henry Watson Parker, invited Cowper to join his ministry but he declined and until the session ended in March 1857 remained the most effective leader of the disunited opposition. In the recess Parker announced a new electoral bill, to add forty members to the assembly, to distribute them according to population and distance from Sydney and to introduce vote by ballot. Cowper accepted vote by ballot which he had rejected in 1851, but led the attack on the bill because it did not widen the franchise. In the assembly some conservatives, led by James Macarthur, joined the opposition in voting against the bill; it was defeated and Parker resigned.

When Denison sent for Cowper again, he reformed his old ministry on 7 September. The government was defeated in December on its land bill and Denison agreed to an election. In January 1858 Cowper was returned for Sydney and remained as premier until 26 October 1859, although still without a sure majority. He was glad to strengthen the ministry by adding John Robertson as secretary for lands, particularly because Parkes and William Forster had turned against him, partly on personal grounds. In November 1858 he had to ask Martin to resign from the ministry when they clashed over collective responsibility of the cabinet, a principle in which Cowper firmly believed. Nevertheless his ministry introduced an Electoral Act providing vote by ballot, adult male suffrage, representation primarily by population and more equal electoral districts, and separate Acts for district courts and for setting up forty municipalities in New South Wales. These were remarkable achievements because Cowper ('Slippery Charley', as Parkes called him) faced such hostility in the Legislative Council that early in 1858 he pressed Denison to appoint fifteen more councillors. When Denison refused to swamp the Council, Cowper filled all the vacancies and Denison allowed him to add two other members 'on special grounds'.

Cowper's Electoral Act came into force in 1859 and at the elections in June he was returned for East Sydney. In the assembly, enlarged from 54 members to 72, he was opposed by some liberals who had supported him only until the Electoral Act became law. Despite his weak position, he proceeded with a contentious education bill. He had already quarrelled with John Hubert Plunkett, chairman of the Board of National Education. They disagreed over policy on denominational schools which Cowper favoured; Plunkett was dismissed in February 1858 and then resigned all his public offices and roused such sympathy that the assembly supported him on nearly every point and the government offered him reinstatement. Cowper escaped from his predicament by a well-known stratagem. Probably recognizing that no one else could form a government, he resigned and when his opponents failed to establish a ministry, immediately became premier again. He then survived a strong attack by Martin on the government's law officers but in October, when he persisted with his education bill, to which he was conscientiously committed, the government fell because of the opposition of some of its own supporters including Robertson.

Cowper, desperately weary, retired from public life, but Forster's ministry was short lived. In March 1860 Cowper entered the Legislative Council, where he could expect a quieter life than in the assembly, and Robertson became premier, leading a reconstruction of Cowper's old ministry. In November Cowper resigned from the council and next month was elected for East Sydney to the assembly. On 10 January 1861 he succeeded Robertson as premier with complete continuity of policy. The Robertson-Cowper ministries held office from 1860 to 1863 and their achievements included the Robertson Land Acts of 1861, the Torrens title legislation and the abolition of state grants for public worship. If the government had survived a little longer, its education bill, amalgamating the Denominational and National schools systems, might also have become law.

In 1861 Cowper had had great difficulty in maintaining his position in both the assembly and the council. To ease the problem he persuaded Parkes to go to England as government agent at £1000 a year to stimulate immigration. The difficulties with the Legislative Council were solved less readily. From 1853 Cowper had criticized the nominee principle on which the upper house was constructed and as premier he was angered by its assertion of power to amend money bills. In 1861 when the original appointments to the council were due to expire Cowper proposed an elective council, liable to be dissolved by the governor; the assembly agreed to all his proposals, including the use of the ballot and of adult male suffrage in electing the council, but not to the governor's power of dissolution. Denison had left the colony and the new governor, Sir John Young, insisted that the council consider the bill. Its rejection began a constitutional crisis that rose to fever heights when the council also rejected vital clauses in Robertson's land legislation. Cowper asked Young to swamp the council by adding twenty-one members. As the council had only a few days to run (the first appointments were for five years only), Young reluctantly agreed, rather than see legislation that had wide popular support blocked till the next session. The new members were never sworn in because the president of the council, Sir William Burton, and nineteen other members resigned in protest and the house was adjourned to the next sitting, one day after members' terms of office expired. The secretary of state, Newcastle, objected to Young's proceedings, but Cowper gained public credit for his zeal in supporting legislation that the majority of the electorate clearly desired and which the assembly had passed.

Cowper's third ministry fell in October 1863 when its financial policies were criticized for allegedly concealing a deficit. Martin became premier but his supporters were too heterogeneous for any leader to unite and the new government was overthrown at the elections of February 1865. Cowper, who had again been returned for East Sydney, then formed his fourth ministry and needed all his energies to combat Martin and Parkes, who had returned from England. Parkes refused the post of inspector-general of prisons, which would have taken him out of the assembly, and declined to join the government as postmaster-general. The ministry was highly unstable: in less than a year Cowper had two attorneys-general, two secretaries for lands and two for public works, and three treasurers, the last of them, Marshall Burdekin, 'a man of no political mark whatever'. Drought, depression, an unpopular financial policy (including ad valorem duties on imports) and the ceaseless opposition of Parkes and Martin forced the ministry from office in January 1866.

Without official remuneration Cowper's financial position had become strained. At the end of 1864 a mortgagee threatened to sell his family home, Wivenhoe. A debt of £3750 was paid by a sympathizer, who looked to public subscription for recompense. In 1866 enough was raised to settle Wivenhoe on Mrs Cowper. In February 1867 he retired from politics and joined 'the great Commercial House of Towns & Co.'. None of his business enterprises appears to have succeeded and a return to public office became as desirable as it was congenial.

In 1869 he contested East Sydney unsuccessfully but won Liverpool Plains and was called to replace Robertson as premier and colonial secretary. The arrangement was temporary and Cowper's fifth ministry, formed on 13 January 1870, was not memorable. On 6 December Cowper accepted the post of agent-general for New South Wales in London and ten days later Martin replaced him as premier. In his last years ill health hampered Cowper in the execution of his new duties. He died at Kensington on 19 October 1875, survived by his wife and three children: Mrs E. G. Wood, Mrs Hugh Robison, and Charles.

Cowper was appointed C.M.G. in 1869 and K.C.M.G. in 1871. His length of office and adroitness as a politician tend to obscure his difficulty in controlling the Legislative Assembly. According to William Forster, 'his political professions [were] in general very happily balanced by such singular powers of conciliation as well as by so remarkable an indifference to political distinctions, which indeed almost amounts to an indifference for political principles'. Sir John Young reported that he was 'fond of authority … and of the show as well as the reality of management and power'.

Select Bibliography

  • W. T. Denison, Varieties of Vice-Regal Life (Lond, 1870)
  • J. M. Ward, Earl Grey and the Australian Colonies, 1846-1857 (Melb, 1958)
  • P. Loveday and A. W. Martin, Parliament Factions and Parties (Melb, 1966)
  • R. Knight, Illiberal Liberal: Robert Lowe in New South Wales, 1842-1850 (Melb, 1966)
  • C. H. Currey, ‘The Legislative Council of New South Wales, 1843-1943: Constitutional Changes: Attempted and Achieved’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 29, part 6, 1943, pp 337-440
  • Belmore, Cowper, Denison, Hassall, Lang, Lowe, Macarthur, O'Connell, Parkes, Riley, Windeyer papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/495/274, 527/183, 237, 534/209, 535/443, 537/247.

Citation details

John M. Ward, 'Cowper, Sir Charles (1807–1875)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cowper-sir-charles-3275/text4967, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 26 September 2017.

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

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