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Dry, Sir Richard (1815–1869)

by John Reynolds

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Sir Richard Dry (1815-1869), landowner and politician, was born on 20 September 1815 at Elphin Farm near Launceston, Van Diemen's Land, the elder son of Richard Dry and his wife Anne, née Maughan. He was educated at Kirklands, the boys' school conducted by Rev. John Mackersey at Campbell Town. At 21 he made a voyage to Mauritius and British Indian ports, and on his return devoted himself to farming the fine Quamby property left him by his father in 1843. He had been placed on the Commission of the Peace in 1837 by Sir John Franklin, who was impressed with Dry's personality and steady character. On 8 February 1844, Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Eardley-Wilmot nominated him a non-official member of the Legislative Council.

Dry began his political career in the turmoil of an economic depression deepened by instructions to Wilmot to reduce expenditure and to make up deficiencies in funds from colonial revenue. On the introduction of the estimates in August 1845, Dry called for the appointment of a committee to inquire into expenses incurred by the colony through the maintenance of convicts. Wilmot employed his casting vote to defeat the motion but, pressed by the opposition, postponed further consideration of the estimates until October. When they were brought up again, Dry a second time demanded a committee to inquire into the Convict Department, intending to prove to the British government that the colony's decline was due to the expense of the convict system which caused free labour to leave the colony. Wilmot resented the attempt of the council to control the government and question Colonial Office instructions, and used his casting vote to defeat the motion. Opposition attempts at adjournment failed, the appropriation bill passed two readings and protests from Dry and Thomas Gregson were quashed. On the third reading of the bill on 31 October 1845, Dry and the five other unofficial members left the chamber and resigned. This action of the 'Patriotic Six', as they came to be known popularly, for the first time united the cause of representative government with the cry for cessation of transportation. Whilst Gregson and others received various evidences of public approbation, 'Dicky' Dry was given one of the greatest receptions ever organized for a citizen of Launceston, and maintained the popularity he achieved by his stand against Wilmot's administration for the rest of his life. In 1847 Sir William Denison, Wilmot's successor, persuaded Dry and his five colleagues to accept reappointment to the council. There were, however, few controversial issues before 1851 and Dry was often absent. At this time he took a leading part in the newly-formed Anti-transportation League, and it was with the support of this body that Dry was returned for Launceston at the elections to the new council in October 1851, easily defeating Adye Douglas. At the first meeting of the new council Dry was unanimously elected Speaker, and retained the position for four years.

On 27 April 1853 Dry married Clara, the daughter of George Meredith of Cambria, Swanport, at All Saints' Church, Swansea. They had no children, and lived until 1856 at Quamby where their hospitality made the colonial-period house a notable centre. Their Waterloo ball was an event in the colony's social calendar, attended by the lieutenant-governor and leading citizens. Dry, however, did not neglect his public responsibilities: as Speaker and chairman of the electoral committee he used his influence to speed up legislation for holding the first elections for the new parliament, although he did not become a candidate. A fall from a horse in 1854 seriously affected his health, and forced his retirement. After receiving an address from Launceston voters, who commissioned his portrait, and selling his library and about 6000 acres (2428 ha) of his land, he and his wife went for an extended visit to England and Europe. Whilst abroad he was knighted by Queen Victoria, the first Tasmanian-born citizen to be so honoured, and one of the first Australians.

His popularity lost nothing in his absence. In November 1859, some months before his return to the colony, admirers nominated him for the Devon seat in the House of Assembly, but he did not stand. In 1862 Dry was elected for Tamar to the Legislative Council. Whilst overseas he had interested himself in the railway developments in Great Britain and Europe. On his return he vigorously entered the campaign for a north-south railway, and one between Launceston and Deloraine. He became chairman of the Launceston and Deloraine Railway Association and president of the Northern Tasmanian Railway League, by his personal efforts helping to overcome opposition to the scheme and financial problems involved. When in 1866 the Whyte ministry was defeated on the question of direct taxation, Dry, although still in poor health and not a member of the House of Assembly, was persuaded to become premier. The ministry of three, smallest in the history of Tasmanian politics, was nevertheless strong. After the customary re-election Dry became colonial secretary and registrar of records of the territory of Tasmania, with Thomas Chapman, a skilful public financier, as colonial treasurer and William Lambert Dobson, an able young barrister, as attorney-general and government leader in the House of Assembly. Dry successfully steered through the upper house the government's bills for retrenchment and the appropriation of the land fund surplus, despite strong criticism of the latter expedient. More positive legislation established the finance of the railway company on a sound footing, arranged for the survey of the main line, the building of roads, and the creation of a Board of Education.

Towards the middle of 1869 Dry's health deteriorated and he died on 1 August 1869 at his Hobart house, Holbrook. His death brought unprecedented tributes of sorrow from all classes and his funeral cortège was followed by large processions through all the towns from Hobart to Launceston.

His place as the most popular and widely esteemed public man of his day rested on personal qualities as much as political achievements. One of the island's most colourful squires, he was yet an equalitarian in social relations and free of condescension. But his championship in the political causes of his day, his extravagant way of living and lack of ability as a business manager reduced his fortune to the point of embarrassment. He was a devout member of the Church of England and at his own request was buried at St Mary's, Hagley, which he had built and endowed.

A portrait in oils of Dry in the robes of Speaker of the Legislative Council, by Conway Hart, commissioned by public subscription in 1855, hangs in Parliament House, Hobart. Two later portraits by Robert Dowling are in the possession of the Queen Victoria Museum, Launceston. Two exhibition prizes perpetuate his memory at the University of Tasmania, and there is a window to his memory in St David's Cathedral, Hobart.

Select Bibliography

  • A. D. Baker, The Life and Times of Sir Richard Dry (Hob, 1951)
  • W. A. Townsley, Struggle for Self-Government in Tasmania (Hob, 1951)
  • F. C. Green (ed), A Century of Responsible Government 1856-1956 (Hob, 1956)
  • L. L. Robson, Press and Politics (M.A. thesis, University of Tasmania, 1954)
  • Examiner (Launceston), 13 Aug, 6 Dec 1855, 24 Nov 1859, 3 Aug 1869
  • GO 33/53/931, 33/57/1327 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

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Citation details

John Reynolds, 'Dry, Sir Richard (1815–1869)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dry-sir-richard-1999/text2439, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 23 March 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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