Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Roberts, Charles James (1846–1925)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Charles James Roberts (1846-1925), publican and politician, was born on 29 March 1846 at Oxford Street, Sydney, eldest son of Charles Warman Roberts, publican, and his wife Annie, née Marsden. He was educated at St James's Grammar School and in 1857-62 was one of the first pupils at the Sydney Grammar School under W. J. Stephens, where he excelled at classics. He preferred business to a legal career and became a licensed victualler. On 9 April 1867 at St James's Church he married Lucretia Abrahams, daughter of a well-known chemist. That year Roberts bought from his father the Crown and Anchor Hotel on the corner of George and Market streets. In 1888 he demolished it and built the five-storied Roberts' Hotel on the site. He also developed a wholesale wine and spirits business.

In 1877-80 Roberts was an alderman for Macquarie Ward on the Sydney Municipal Council. He was mayor in 1879 and became a justice of the peace and a metropolitan transit commissioner. With the council bankrupt he persuaded the government to guarantee an overdraft of £75,000 and stressed the urgency of increased endowment and powers for it. He presided over most council meetings, reorganized and reduced the staff but completed more work and co-operated zealously with the health officer to improve the city's sanitary system. As mayor, Roberts and his wife entertained on a grand scale, with a fancy dress ball in the Exhibition Building for 2000 guests, and banquets for J. J. Casey, John Lucas and Governor Loftus. A commissioner for the Sydney International Exhibition, he fêted the visitors it brought to Sydney. He could boast that 'no man ever departed from an entertainment of his sober who wanted to be otherwise'.

Roberts wrote to Sir John Robertson in August 1880 asking for his support at the forthcoming general election. A free trader and supporter of the 1880 Education Act, Roberts lost after opposing the influx of Chinese and any tax on wool or coal. In December 1882 he won the Hastings and Manning seat; in 1885 he was re-elected though in England. He spoke seldom in parliament but was known for his common sense and courtesy and was 'apt to absent himself when an adherence to party duties would cause him to sit up all night'. As postmaster-general in Parkes's fourth ministry (1887-89) he showed much administrative ability; in Sydney in January 1887 he chaired the Intercolonial Postal Conference; he arranged the ocean mail service contract with the Peninsular and Oriental and the Orient steamship companies, and reduced telegraph rates with South Australia. In 1888 he apologized for seeming to disregard Parkes's 'strict injunction' that only the premier should communicate with the premier of another colony.

In 1879-86 Roberts was a director of the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary (Sydney Hospital from 1882) and a committee-man of the Industrial Blind Institution and the City Night Refuge and Soup Kitchen. In 1880-81 he had been a commissioner for the Melbourne International Exhibition and in 1882 was created C.M.G. He was a commissioner for the Amsterdam Exhibition in 1883, the Calcutta Exhibition in 1883-84, the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1886 and the Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, in 1888. On 13 March 1890 he resigned from parliament to visit England and in London that year was appointed a commissioner for the International Exhibition of Mining and Metallurgy, and also for the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. In April 1890 he had been appointed to the Legislative Council and in 1894-98 was a member of the parliamentary standing committee on public works. In 1895 he helped Parkes against George Reid in the election for Sydney-King.

Roberts was a director of the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd and its chairman in 1909-25. In 1919 the Roberts' Hotel was sold to Farmer & Co. and was demolished, but Roberts acquired the premises of Smart's Hotel on the corner of Pitt and Market streets, and renamed it Roberts' Hotel. Genial and even-tempered, he enjoyed cricket, sailing and rowing and was patron and president of numerous sporting clubs. He and his wife entertained 'on a princely scale' at their home Chatsworth, Potts Point. A diabetic, Roberts died of cerebral arteriosclerosis and uraemia on 14 August 1925 and was buried in the Anglican section of the South Head cemetery. Predeceased by his wife in 1922, he was survived by their only son and five daughters. His estate was sworn for probate at over £70,500.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Plummer, A Mayoral Year (Syd, 1885)
  • Ex-M.L.A., Our Present Parliament, What it is Worth (Syd, c1886)
  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1889, 1, 8, 130
  • Sydney Mail, 27 Feb 1879
  • Town and Country Journal, 1 Mar 1879, 29 Jan 1887, 14 June 1890
  • Bulletin, 21 Feb, 16 Oct 1880, 7 Dec 1889
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6, 11, 16, 18 Nov 1880
  • Australian Worker, 19 Aug 1925
  • James Inglis letter-books (held by Inglis & Co., Sydney)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • newspaper cuttings, vol 166 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Roberts, Charles James (1846–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/roberts-charles-james-4487/text7331, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 30 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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