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William Bede Dalley (1831–1888)

by Martha Rutledge and Bede Nairn

This article was published:

William Bede Dalley (1831-1888), 'patriot, scholar and statesman', was born in George Street, Sydney, on 5 July 1831, son of John Dalley, store-keeper, and Catherine Spillane, who were both convicts. Educated at St Mary's seminary where he formed a lifelong friendship with Archbishop John Bede Polding he left in 1845 intending to work in Hordern's drapery shop, but Polding persuaded him to resume his studies at the Sydney College. After working as clerk in Thomas Burdekin's office, in 1853 he was articled to Frederick Wright Unwin and on 5 July 1856 was admitted to the Bar. He spent the first £20 he earned on a dinner that cost £25. Virtually unknown in the early 1850s, his stirring street-corner speeches on the Constitution bill had thrust him into prominence while his natural geniality and generosity endeared him to most colonists. In 1856 at a banquet for Charles Duffy he stamped his reputation as an orator by replying in place of Daniel Deniehy to the toast 'Our Native Country'. In December Dalley was nominated by (Sir) Henry Parkes for the seat of Sydney, and won after stressing the rights of the native-born to an active political career.

In parliament he supported the liberal policies of Charles Cowper and John Robertson, and introduced six public bills, including one to amend the licensing laws and one to abolish the death penalty for rape, but only his amendment, abolishing the religious test in the Affiliated Colleges Partial Endowment Act, was passed in 1858. He also introduced six private bills, three of which were carried. To help Cowper in the 1858 elections he sacrificed his own chances for Sydney, but won Cumberland Boroughs. From November 1858 to February 1859 he was solicitor-general under Cowper. In 1859 he won Windsor, but in February 1860 resigned his seat to visit England, Ireland and Europe. At a farewell banquet he paid tribute to his political opponents, and Rev. John Dunmore Lang hoped that he would return 'better prepared to fight the great fight for the liberties of the people of this country'. After his return Dalley was nominated to the Legislative Council on 10 May 1861 but was not sworn in. The same year Dalley was appointed an immigration commissioner with Parkes and returned to London. They toured Great Britain and published several pamphlets but it was 'a matter of controversy in the colony whether they actually sent out one solitary emigrant or not'. In 1862-64 Dalley represented Carcoar in the assembly.

Short and thickset, with a jovial and often glowing countenance, Dalley set trends in colonial dress: colourful cravats and buttonholes reflected his unique flair and style. He saluted friends and acquaintances alike as 'Old boy' and found it virtually impossible to resist any appeal to his generosity. In 1860 he was guyed as 'little tiptop' in Deniehy's sparkling The Attorney-General of New Barataria, but quickly recovered his poise. He helped Deniehy in many ways and cherished his friendship along with that of other colonial connoisseurs, including Professor Charles Badham, Sir Alfred Stephen, Henry Kendall and Nicol Stenhouse. By the mid-1860s he was renowned as the most scintillating conversationalist and after-dinner speaker in the colony.

Over many years Dalley made editorial and other contributions to the Freeman's Journal; in 1865 he was its editor and part proprietor and improved both its tone and appearance. The next year George Barton wrote that 'Fortunately, or unfortunately Dalley has withdrawn from political life, the asperities of which are foreign to his nature; and could we be certain that Literature would gain what has been lost to Politics, we should have infinite reason to rejoice'. He supported financially the Sydney Punch and wrote consistently for it, including a masterly series of satirical political biographies. He wrote many articles, reviews and letters for the Sydney Morning Herald; in 1881 the Bulletin considered that his Herald review of Lord Beaconsfield's Endymion 'should alone entitle him to rank amongst the most subtle and refined critics of the age'. His patronage of the arts extended to many young and struggling painters and writers.

At the Bar Dalley's eloquence and instinctive grace charmed juries, winning him many victories, particularly on the criminal side. In two notable cases, however, he did not succeed. One was his defence in 1864 of the bushranger Frank Gardiner, whom he had probably known as a boy, the other in 1868 of Henry O'Farrell for shooting of the Duke of Edinburgh. He commanded some of the highest fees taken in criminal matters, his affluence being augmented in 1871 by a substantial legacy from his father. Financial independence and demand for his services encouraged him to accept only important cases. Dalley could hold his place with any barrister, not only in advocacy but in legal argument, and at his peak he was briefed in many fields of the law. He became a Q.C. in 1877.

But Dalley found in politics the best medium for his versatile talents. If by 1865 he had tired of electoral campaigning he still revelled in the excitement of parliament and the political power it provided to complement his social prestige and legal eminence. In 1870-73 he was a member of the Legislative Council. On 20 May 1872 he excoriated Parkes for his 'entire, absolute and unqualified falsehoods' designed to arouse 'bitter sectarian animosities' after the attempted assassination of the Duke of Edinburgh; with Edward Butler in mind, he deplored Parkes's 'dishonest and scandalous alliance' with the Roman Catholics, and derided his financial delinquencies: 'If Parkes lives long enough he will rule over a nation, not of admirers and friends, but of—creditors'. He also berated the other members of Parkes's cabinet and his reference to George Lloyd, 'I fancy silence is an eulogium—and a courtesy', revealed the latent snobbery that sometimes laced his luminous wit.

On 15 June 1872 at St John's Church of England, Darlinghurst, he married Eleanor Jane, daughter of William Long, merchant. The union brought him great happiness and strengthened his friendship with Sir James Martin, whose wife was Isabella Long, though it strained temporarily Dalley's relations with his Church. But he had always been an essentially loyal and devoted Catholic, although disdainful at times of the confusion of many clerics about divine and worldly affairs and their failure to adapt charitably to the Australian environment: his nativism led him to seek a Roman Catholic Church that was Australian rather than Irish in sentiment, a goal accentuated by his Benedictine training and some misgivings about the zeal of many Irishmen; but he was outnumbered, and despite his religious liberalism and social enlightenment became in effect a prize exhibit of the Irish. He remained as tolerant of the gaucheries of many of his co-religionists as of the philistinism of many of his fellow colonists. In 1879 when opposing publicly Parkes's education bill, he stressed that 'We will not give [our opponents] the luxury of supposing that they have been able . . . “to freeze the genial current of the soul” '.

In 1872 Dalley strongly supported a petition to the governor to exercise the prerogative of mercy and set Gardiner free. The bushranger's release in 1874 led to the fall of Parkes's government, and on 9 February 1875 Dalley became attorney-general under Robertson and returned to the council. Although the Illustrated Sydney News thought that to 'crush the leader of that Opposition seems to be Mr. Dalley's special mission—his sole reason for returning to political life', in his two and a half years in the cabinet he revealed his capacity for concentrated hard work; his legal opinions filled five volumes. In 1876 Dalley declined a Supreme Court judgeship and persuaded Sir William Manning to accept it. He served as attorney-general in Robertson's short-lived ministry in 1877.

In April 1880 Dalley retired from the Legislative Council. He told Stephen that 'The severance of my connection with it was a painful effort, but it was one I felt it absolutely necessary to make in the interests of my family and of my own repose'. Parkes wrote a 'sympathetic letter' and Dalley replied, 'I too, like yourself, have a keen and consoling remembrance of times when you and I enjoyed other relations than those in which circumstance and conviction have more recently placed us towards each other. I shall not willingly let the recollection to be tarnished and shall I trust always think of you, however we may be fated to differ from each other, as one whose friendship it was my privilege to possess when I was accumulating the first honours of my life'. By this time Dalley was active in a wide range of public affairs. He was a member of the committee of the Australian Club, vice-president and honorary counsel for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a trustee of the Public Library, and fellow of St John's College. He was a steward of the Australian Jockey Club, a member of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron and a member of Southern Cross Masonic Lodge. He was also a magistrate of the City of Sydney and a fellow of the Senate of the University of Sydney.

Leaving six young children, his wife died of typhoid fever on 17 January 1881. Grief-stricken, Dalley withdrew from public life, sold his house, Clairveaux, at Rose Bay and lived at Sutton Forest, devoting himself to his children. When he returned to Sydney he built a 'castle', Marinella, at Manly. On 10 August he was briefed by prominent Chinese to protest against the stringency of the Chinese restriction bill. He was permitted to speak from the floor of the council and argued that the measure was against the spirit of English legislation and 'at direct variance with the liberal spirit of the age'. The council modified the most objectionable clauses.

Yielding to his political instinct and his sense of duty and affection for Sir Alexander Stuart, Dalley returned to public life on 5 January 1883 as attorney-general. The Goulburn Herald contrasted Dalley's intellect with his indolence and thought him likely to prove more 'ornamental than useful'. But the next three years were to be his most active. Not only was he required to give legal opinions on many complicated issues such as the legality of summoning parliament to legalize the running of steam tramways, and three appeals to the Privy Council, he was also responsible for government legislation in the Legislative Council. The complicated Criminal Law Amendment Act, first drafted by Stephen and introduced by Edward Butler in 1873, was finally carried by Dalley in 1883. He failed in his attempts to simplify bankruptcy proceedings and to restrict the power of the judges in contempt of court cases, but carried the Prisoners' Labour Sentences Act. He amended the Matrimonial Causes Act by altering court procedure: he had also aimed to extend the grounds of divorce to desertion after five years and for injury or attempted murder, or for administering poison, but dropped the relevant clauses when he saw that opposition to them would delay the urgently needed procedural reforms.

Dalley was a leading New South Wales member of the Intercolonial Convention held in Sydney in December 1883. His native-born bias stressed the imperial authority of England as the mother country and the local primacy of New South Wales as the mother colony and led him, with his fastidious urbanity, to look askance at James Service's crude annexation plans and to reflect his colony's lack of interest in a Federal Council; but he helped the convention to reach reasonable compromises, and later explained his government's sensible policy in a gruelling series of banquets from Grafton to Albury.

The long parliamentary session of 9 October 1883 to 1 November 1884 concentrated on the land bill amendment and was a serious physical strain on the ministry. The tumultuous late night sittings broke the health of Stuart, and Dalley became acting colonial secretary as well as attorney-general from 7 October 1884 to 11 May 1885. He adroitly averted a collision between the two Houses over the land bill, and on 12 February 1885 electrified Australia by offering Britain a New South Wales contingent to help in the Sudan campaign.

Dalley was a discerning imperialist able to judge nicely the often incongruous pressures of colonial and empire needs. In early 1885, at a critical period of the federation movement, he assessed majority opinion exactly and strengthened both Australian nationalism and the imperial connexion. His object in offering the troops for the Sudan was 'to testify to the readiness of the Australian colonies to give instant and practical help to the Empire . . . conceiving that such a course cannot be without a beneficial effect upon those who may, in dealing adversely with the Imperial interest, fail to recognize the esteem, the sympathy, and the adherence of the Colonies'. A significant minority, led by Henry Parkes, did not reduce Dalley's enthusiastic public support. The soldiers left on 3 March and parliament overwhelmingly approved in April. But the exertions weakened his health further and the Sydney Morning Herald tried to postpone his retirement by remarking that 'During the last three years he has been more indefatigable and more brilliant than ever . . . it will be much to be regretted if he cannot be persuaded to sacrifice his inclination for repose'. The ministry resigned on 6 October and Dalley declined a commission to form a new cabinet. In 1888 he told Robert Burdett Smith that he had 'only tasted suffering and the grossest misrepresentation' over the Sudan contingent and that 'I now scarcely ever open my mouth about a subject in which I thought I should have shared in the glory of our country in its achievements'.

In 1886 Dalley was twice honoured; a bust of him by Achille Simonetti was placed in the Legislative Council and he became Australia's first privy councillor. The same year, saddened by Martin's death, he declined the vacant chief justiceship, but prevailed upon Frederick Darley to accept it.

Always opposed to the death penalty, on 20 January 1887 Dalley joined Parkes, Bishop Alfred Barry and Cardinal Francis Moran in a deputation to the governor for clemency in the Mount Rennie rape case. Seriously ill that year, Dalley's public appearances were limited to those connected with Church affairs. His last great political effort was to modify the Chinese restriction bill of 1888. Despite failing strength Dalley still enjoyed the pleasures of life. On 24 June 1888 he wrote to Stephen 'I have a decent cook, a few bottles of dear old Martin's best wine—and I could send any day . . . a pair of charming gentle horses well driven to bring you out to lunch'. At the centennial celebrations, he represented the laity and offered an address to the seven governors at St Mary's Cathedral; he also spoke at the opening of St Vincent's Hospital's new wing and the installation of Dr O'Brien as rector of St John's College. He died on 28 October 1888 at his house, Annerly, Darling Point, from cardiac disease, renal disease and uraemia, and was survived by three sons and two daughters. Buried in Waverley cemetery, he was mourned throughout the continent as a great Australian patriot. Many leading newspapers carried eulogistic editorials as well as long obituaries. Sir John Robertson quickly organized public meetings and a subscription to erect in Hyde Park a statue of Dalley, where it stands today looking down Macquarie Street to the Law Courts and Parliament House. There is a stained-glass window and commemorative plaque in St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, and a plaque in St Paul's Cathedral, London. He made for himself a unique position in society, in literature, and in the law and was described by the Argus as 'one of the pioneer statesmen of the new world'. Sir Alfred Stephen perceived him as 'the loveable William Bede Dalley, himself a lover of romance, and in whose company no man could feel dull'.

Select Bibliography

  • G. B. Barton, Literature in New South Wales (Sydney, 1866)
  • J. A. Froude, Oceana, or England and her Colonies (London, 1886)
  • W. Blacket, May it Please Your Honour (Sydney, 1927)
  • A. B. Piddington, Worshipful Masters (Sydney, 1929)
  • B. R. Penny, ‘The Age of Empire: An Australian Episode’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 11, no 41, Nov 1963, pp 32-42
  • Empire (Sydney), 24 Feb 1860, Illustrated Sydney News, 10 Mar 1875
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Aug 1881
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 14 Oct 1882, 3, 7, 10 Nov, 15, 22 Dec 1888
  • Bulletin, 26 Feb 1881, 28 Nov 1891
  • Goulburn Herald, 9 Jan 1883
  • Sydney Mail, 27 Jan 1883
  • J. Henniker Heaton, ‘The Right Hon. W. B. Dalley, M.L.C.’, Times (London), 5 Nov 1888, p 4
  • Catholic Weekly (Sydney), 9 Jan 1958
  • letters to Lord Augustus Loftus (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under W. B. Dalley, W. M. Manning, Sir Alfred Stephen, R. Town & Co, and W. Windeyer (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/598-611.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge and Bede Nairn, 'Dalley, William Bede (1831–1888)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 19 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Bede Dalley, n.d.

William Bede Dalley, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 207262

Life Summary [details]


5 July, 1831
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


28 October, 1888 (aged 57)
Darling Point, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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