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Richard Atkins (1745–1820)

by J. M. Bennett

This article was published:

Richard Atkins (1745-1820), deputy judge advocate, was born on 22 March 1745, the fifth son of Sir William Bowyer, baronet, and his wife Anne, née Stonhouse. He assumed the surname Atkins in recognition of a legacy from Sir Richard Atkins, of Clapham, Surrey, England. On 3 February 1773 he married Elizabeth, née Brady, of Dublin. He procured a military commission and by the 1780s became adjutant to the Isle of Man Corps. Addicted to liquor, immorality and insolvency he led a thoroughly dissolute life. Principally to evade his creditors, he resigned his commission and sailed for Sydney in the Pitt, arriving in February 1792. He made much of the fame of his brothers, Sir William Bowyer, Lieutenant-General Henry Bowyer and Admiral Sir George Bowyer, and of being a close friend of Samuel Thornton, judge-advocate of London, and the governors were impressed by his connexions.

Soon after he arrived, Phillip made him a magistrate at Parramatta and in March 1792 appointed him registrar of the Vice-Admiralty Court; this enabled him to enhance the aura of influential prestige behind which he sheltered from existing creditors while engaging fresh credit locally on the security of his family name. It was soon commonplace knowledge that his bills were not met: Rev. Samuel Marsden considered them so doubtful that they might never be honoured. John Macarthur in 1796 declared Atkins 'a public cheater living in the most boundless dissipation' and, after exchanges of equal warmth between them, requested Governor John Hunter to prosecute Atkins for libel. The application clashed with Hunter's instructions from England to appoint Atkins acting deputy judge advocate during the absence of David Collins on leave. Hunter thought Macarthur's action an attempt 'to embarrass the civil power', and the proposed prosecution impossible, for, excepting the governor's wide jurisdiction, the judge-advocate was the senior judicial officer in the colony, the president of both the civil and criminal courts, 'committing magistrate, public prosecutor and judge'. He therefore decided to pass over Macarthur's complaint, and as time went on took Atkins increasingly into official confidence. Atkins served as registrar of exports and imports, assistant inspector of public works at Parramatta and temporary superintendent of police, all to the governor's 'most perfect satisfaction', and when Macarthur resigned as inspector of public works in 1796 Atkins took his place.

In 1798 Richard Dore arrived to take up a commission as judge-advocate but, when he died in 1800, Atkins was reappointed. Governor Philip Gidley King recommended that he take the office permanently despite his inebriate habits, for no other person in the colony was 'at all equal to that office', and the salary, then about £350 with the benefit of several assigned servants and land grants, was insufficient inducement to 'a person having some general knowledge of the law and a fair character'. Atkins, although he had neither, remained the colony's principal legal officer for years. Of commanding stature and fine presence, when sober he was impressive enough to delude creditors and governors alike; but he was ignorant and merciless, an inveterate debauchee, leading a life which Surgeon John Harris called 'worse than a Dog's' in a squalid dwelling described as 'a perfect pigstye'. Lieutenant-Governor William Paterson remarked on 'his character for low debauchery and every degrading vice as well as a total want of every gentlemanly principle'. Governor William Bligh deemed him 'a disgrace to human jurisprudence', who 'has been the ridicule of the community: sentences of death have been pronounced in moments of intoxication; his determination is weak, his opinion floating and infirm; his knowledge of the law is insignificant and subservient to private inclination; and confidential cases of the Crown he is not to be entrusted with'. Bligh found it necessary to take legal advice from George Crossley an ex-convict attorney, whom Atkins himself employed as counsellor for many years.

Records of cases before Atkins while judge-advocate reinforce contemporary criticisms of his irresolution and unfamiliarity with law. At the trial in 1801 of Lieutenant Marshall for assaulting Captain Edward Abbott and threatening Macarthur, Atkins could not advise the court whether the acts complained of were an assault in law. Nor would he express any opinion on a vote whether the governor's direction to reopen the case and consider fresh evidence be obeyed. In 1803 King ordered a court martial of three officers for publishing libellous lampoons, but their commanding officer intervened by charging the military judge-advocate before a general court martial with scandalous behaviour. Atkins, when asked by the governor if these actions were legal, replied that they involved military law of which he had no knowledge. His opinions on any branch of the law were little more substantial. Writing in 1805 on the amenability of Aboriginals to British law he contended that they should not appear in the criminal court as witnesses or offenders, lest this be 'a mockery of Judicial Proceedings, and a Solecism in Law'. The practical solution in his judgment was 'to pursue and inflict such punishment as they may merit' without any regard to the law. This might well have been his criterion for all offenders, black or white.

The most prominent of Atkins's adventures on the bench was the trial of John Macarthur in 1808, an incident having an immediate part in the deposition of Bligh. In December 1807 Atkins issued a writ against Macarthur, who was part-owner of the Parramatta, for permitting some of the crew to land contrary to regulations. Macarthur was arrested, but released on bail of £1000. He immediately demanded payment of a debt owed to him by the judge-advocate for fifteen years. Atkins, evasive at first, eventually promised payment, but the promise remained unfulfilled for a week. When the Criminal Court met on 25 January 1808 Macarthur with 'a great torrent of threats and abusive language' disclosed Atkins's indebtedness and challenged his right to adjudicate, whereupon the bench of officers adjourned to take Bligh's advice. The governor very properly declared that the court could not be constituted without the judge-advocate. Atkins, having also told the court that he was indispensable, retired hastily when the officers scoffed, but left behind papers suggesting that he, with Crossley's assistance, had prepared fabricated evidence. The officers declined to surrender these papers to the governor or to accept his opinion on the court's constitution. Bligh precipitated the end of his government in adopting Atkins's recommendation that the members be charged with treasonable practices. Major George Johnston forthwith hastened to Sydney where, urged on by a petition which Macarthur sponsored, he arrested Bligh and took command. Atkins was immediately suspended, but soon made his peace with the rebels, though it was 'from necessity alone' that in December 1808 Lieutenant-Governor Joseph Foveaux, having canvassed unsuccessfully for a replacement, reinstated him as judge-advocate. This travesty was not long lasting. Atkins's relatives besought the secretary of state to find some permanent position in the colony which would disburden them of their black sheep, but he could be tolerated in public office no longer. Castlereagh ordered his recall, censuring his 'want of professional education and practice' which had caused 'great inconveniences'. This was a mild appraisal of the decrepit old man whom Macquarie thought unlikely to survive his passage in the Hindostan when it sailed from Sydney. However, he reached England safely and went into retirement. For a time he could not be found to give evidence at Johnston's court martial but he ultimately gave his testimony in a fawning fashion demonstrating his wavering loyalties and feeble character. His attorney in 1817 offered a composition to his creditors in New South Wales, but Atkins remained insolvent until his death in London on 21 November 1820.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 1-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-7
  • R. Atkins, journal (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. M. Bennett, 'Atkins, Richard (1745–1820)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Bowyer, Richard

22 March, 1745


21 November, 1820 (aged 75)
London, Middlesex, England

Cause of Death


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