Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Eagar, Edward (1787–1866)

by N. D. McLachlan

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

Edward Eagar (1787-1866), lawyer and merchant, was born near Killarney, Ireland, the second son of Richard Eagar, an Anglo-Irish landowner, and his wife Frances. In 1804 Eagar was apprenticed to a solicitor and subsequently admitted as a solicitor and attorney in Dublin, but in 1809 he was sentenced to death at the Cork Summer Assizes for uttering a forged bill. Possibly as a result of family influence or his spectacular death-cell conversion his sentence was commuted to transportation for life. He arrived in Sydney in the Providence in July 1811 and was assigned to Rev. Robert Cartwright to teach his children. He was soon organizing bible classes around Windsor. Conditionally pardoned by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1813, Eagar set himself up as a law-agent and attorney in Sydney, but his prosperous practice was crippled in 1815 by the decision of Jeffery Hart Bent that Eagar was not eligible to practise in the courts under the new Charter of Justice. So he turned to commerce, and the commissariat receipts show his importance. In 1818 the governor gave him an absolute pardon, but Eagar found that he could not even then maintain a legal action because, like other former convicts, his name had not been inserted in any general pardon under the Great Seal. Next year he joined in partnership with F. E. Forbes, and soon afterwards tried to secure a monopoly of trade with King Pomare II of Tahiti; a court decision on the Tahitian trade in August 1821 caused him substantial losses.

These bitter experiences help to explain Eagar's political energy for the emancipist cause. In 1819 he was secretary of the committee which drew up the colonists' petition to the Prince Regent on the subject of their civil and commercial disabilities. In sending a copy of this document to Commissioner John Thomas Bigge, who was then in the colony, Eagar supported it with a long memorandum of his own in which he argued eloquently for a legislative council and assembly. In 1821 when the emancipists drew up a petition concerning their grievances Eagar and Dr William Redfern were appointed to take it to London.

In London Eagar proved a persistent advocate of the emancipists' cause. The validation of pardons and the modest instalment of trial by jury granted in 1823, and the comprehensive recognition of ex-convicts' rights included in the Transportation Act of 1824 probably owed much to his zealous lobbying and correspondence with the Colonial Office. In 1824 he published his anonymous Letters to The Rt. Hon. Robert Peel in which he argued that transportation had proved a successful punishment and was quite compatible with free settlement. William Charles Wentworth included Eagar's pamphlet in the third edition of his A Statistical Account of the British Settlements in Australasia (London, 1824). In 1826 Eagar was an important witness before Wilmot Horton's select committee on emigration.

Contrary to his friends' expectation Eagar never returned to New South Wales. In 1827 the genuineness of a power of attorney he held, entitling him to the dividends of the estate of a former convict, Burke Jackson, was upheld in the Vice-Chancellor's Court but next year Eagar was arrested for debt and spent several weeks in the Fleet prison. In 1829 a commission of bankruptcy was issued against him and apparently was never discharged. Despite these vexations Eagar was active during the discussions on the 1827 and 1828 Constitution bills, and printed and circulated among members of parliament a pamphlet in which he advocated a more representative legislature. In 1838 his admonitory letters to the Patriotic Association, printed in the Sydney Monitor, alerted the colonists to the implications of the select committee on transportation, the proceedings of which Eagar vividly described. It was evidently on Eagar's recommendation that Charles Buller was selected to replace Lytton Bulwer as the association's parliamentary agent. In 1838, while Buller was in Canada, Eagar worked strenuously for the appointment of liberals to the Legislative Council and continued to keep the association informed of political developments in London until 1842 when he was able to send out a copy of the Act providing at last for an elective system. For this outcome Eagar was probably justified in claiming some credit. In 1839 the association apparently voted him £200 for his services, but it is not clear whether he was ever paid.

From about this time Eagar was referred to variously as an accountant, as a solicitor's managing clerk, and even, despite his felony, as a solicitor. In his last years he seems to have regained the Eagar family status of gentry. He died at Kensington on 2 November 1866; no will has been traced.

Whatever reservations may be felt about Eagar's character, and it is hard to dismiss his reputation for sharp practice as wholly unfounded, his contribution to the course of constitutional reform in New South Wales in this period was as important as that of any other inhabitant or former inhabitant. He was also a pioneer of the Methodist Church in Australia, and helped to found the Bank of New South Wales and the Benevolent Society.

In 1815 at St Philip's Church, Sydney, Eagar married Jemima, who was born at Windsor, daughter of John McDuel and Margaret Maloney. Their four children included Geoffrey (1818-1891), politician and banker. Jemima also had a son by W. C. Wentworth in 1830. By Ellen Gorman, whom Eagar met soon after his arrival in London, he had ten more children. Jemima died in New South Wales some two months after her husband; Ellen Gorman went to the colony after his death and died there in 1870.

Select Bibliography

  • N. McLachlan, ‘Edward Eagar (1787-1866): A Colonial Spokesman in Sydney and London’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 10, no 40, May 1963, pp 431-56.

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Citation details

N. D. McLachlan, 'Eagar, Edward (1787–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/eagar-edward-2013/text2467, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 18 September 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Birth

1787
Killarney, Kerry, Ireland

Death

2 November 1866
London, England

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation