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Sir John Bayley Darvall (1809–1883)

by R. W. Rathbone

This article was published:

John Bayley Darvall (1809-1883), by unknown photographer

John Bayley Darvall (1809-1883), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 10955

Sir John Bayley Darvall (1809-1883), barrister and politician, was born on 19 November 1809 at Felixkirk, Yorkshire, England, the second son of Major Edward Darvall and his wife Emily, née Johnson, an heiress with whom he had eloped in 1805. John was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1833; M.A., 1837). On 15 June 1833 he was admitted to the Middle Temple. He became articled to his uncle, Sir John Bayley, and was later marshal to Lord Bayley. In 1838 he was called to the Bar. On 27 September 1837 at Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, he had married Elizabeth Flora, daughter of Colonel John Shapland. In August 1839 they arrived at Sydney in the Abberton. His parents, two brothers and three sisters arrived in the Alfred in January 1840, accompanied by friends with Indian connexions. Darvall became 'intimately connected with the monied and pastoral interests of the colony', and was appointed a director of the Sydney Banking Co. and the Australian Banking Co. He was also involved with other companies which collapsed in the slump of the early 1840s. In 1842 he joined an association formed to petition for permission to introduce Indian coolies in place of convict labour. On 16 September 1839 he had been admitted to the colonial Bar and soon had a flourishing practice. In December 1846 his opposing council in a Supreme Court case was Richard Windeyer, who charged him with unfair conduct and called him a liar. Darvall promptly struck his opponent and was committed to gaol for fourteen days for 'contempt and outrage', while Windeyer received twenty days.

In July 1844 Darvall was nominated to the Legislative Council, where he loyally supported the government until he resigned in 1848, unable to reconcile his conscience with nomineeism. Later that year he was returned for Bathurst by one vote; in 1851-56 he represented Cumberland. In public speeches he seemed indifferent to what others thought of his words and actions, and often appeared eager to provoke opposition; one speech led George Macleay to comment, 'Is not Darvall an extraordinary fellow! perpetually out-Darvalling himself'. In 1851 he had become a foundation fellow of the Senate of the University of Sydney, in 1851 declined a judgeship in Victoria and in 1853 was appointed a Queen's Counsel. He was also a founding director of the Australian Joint Stock Bank, a member of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce, a trustee of the Australian Club and served on many charitable and public committees.

With his aristocratic connexions and intellectual pride Darvall was detached in colonial politics and never a strong party man. He aligned himself with Charles Cowper, John Dunmore Lang and (Sir) Henry Parkes, and the popular opposition to William Charles Wentworth's Constitution bill. In 1853 he attacked the proposal for a nominated upper house and ridiculed Wentworth's 'Botany Bay aristocracy' and the putting of legislative power 'into the hands of people yet unborn, and of merit yet untried'. He also wanted a redistribution of electorates and in 1854 moved resolutions in the council condemning the Constitution and praying for the intervention of the imperial government, maintaining that the constituents wanted 'a representative legislature and a just distribution of the elective franchise'; he also condemned the two-thirds majority clause required for constitutional amendments. The resolutions were rejected by 24 votes to 10 but later the hereditary clauses were withdrawn, the nominee appointments limited to five years and the two-thirds clause nullified by the imperial parliament.

In April 1856 Darvall was elected for the North Riding of Cumberland to the first Legislative Assembly and in June took office as solicitor-general in the first ministry under Stuart Donaldson. Condemned by the liberals for deserting their cause, Darvall claimed that an attack by the Empire 'transgressed the limits of party warfare by misrepresenting my political opinions . . . I took office to assist in carrying out those ideas at the earliest convenient period'. This letter alarmed (Sir) William Manning who warned James Macarthur: 'I am afraid that electioneering interests are leading both Donaldson & Darvall to break faith with me—and I think with you. We must be on our guard'. The ministry was reconciled but the assembly proved obstructive; urged by Darvall, Donaldson resigned on 25 August. Darvall was solicitor-general in (Sir) Henry Parker's ministry from October 1856 to May 1857, and then attorney-general until September. Darvall resigned in November but was elected for the Hawkesbury on 25 June 1859. Disturbed by the land question and the apparent results of manhood suffrage, he joined the conservative Constitutional Association. For opposition to free selection before survey he was received with hostility in the 1860 election and, taunted with inattention to 'roads and bridges', retired from the contest in disgust.

Alarmed at the democratic pressure which led Governor (Sir) Henry Young to 'swamp' the Legislative Council, Darvall was more than ever convinced that the Upper House should be elective. Pledged to its reform, he was nominated to the council in June 1861. In the debate on the Legislative Council bill in December he created a sensation with his bitter remarks on rampant democracy which would 'if unchecked, bring the fine colony to ruin', but he still demanded that the council should be representative, refrain from amending money bills and yield to the assembly in any clash of opinion. He also advocated George Holden's plan to introduce the Hare system of proportional representation for the council. Throughout 1862 Darvall sat on the select committee on the Legislative Council bill but did not attend any debates in the next session. In June 1863 he resigned to contest a by-election for East Maitland. Although he had opposed the separation of Moreton Bay and the restrictive anti-Chinese legislation which he considered 'cruel, unkind and disgraceful', and equivocated over the abolition of state aid to religion, he called himself a 'liberal' and, supported by the Maitland Mercury, was returned in June. In August he became attorney-general under Cowper. For this about-turn he was severely criticized and his ministerial re-election was fiercely contested by Parkes. Darvall maintained that 'The colony must have an Attorney General, and the Government had chosen him'. He believed that 'their policy was one which he could conscientiously uphold'. He wrote to Parkes: 'before you lend yourself to the very unusual course of opposing a reelection on taking Office I beg you to consider that you are the last man from whom I could expect such exhibitions of personal ill will'. When Darvall won the hard-fought contest by fifty-nine votes Parkes declared that his opponent and friends had solicited votes 'with the electoral roll in the right hand and the grog bottle in the left'.

Cowper's government fell in October. In November 1864 Darvall was returned for West Sydney and next February became attorney-general under Cowper. In May he outlined proposed reforms in the administration of justice but in June 1865 he resigned. A week later the Sydney Morning Herald was regretting his departure for England. He was praised for his 'inimitable charm' and 'perfect control of temper', but William Walker commented that he was 'too fond of ease and elegance, with his comfortable circumstances, to be a successful or persevering politician in a democratic country like this'. Yet to Governor Young he was 'the most accomplished speaker in New South Wales'. Certainly he was a commanding figure in the courts and legislature.

In England Darvall practised at the Bar and enjoyed 'a little of that cultured ease that the colony failed to afford'. In 1866 he became a director of the Bank of Australasia and was appointed C.M.G. in 1869 and K.C.M.G. in 1877. Almost blind in his last years, he was visited by Parkes, who described him as always a 'gallant-hearted man'. He died on 28 December 1883 at his home in London, survived by four sons and two of his three daughters. He left an estate of £60,000 in England and £20,000 in New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • R. J. Flanagan, The History of New South Wales (London, 1862)
  • G. B. Barton (ed), The Poets and Prose Writers of New South Wales (Sydney, 1866)
  • W. Walker, Miscellanies (Windsor, 1884) p 93
  • H. Parkes, Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History (London, 1892)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 July 1844, 23 Dec 1846, 2 Aug 1850, 23 Aug 1853, 18 Oct 1854, 17 June 1856, 1 Jan 1884
  • Empire (Sydney), 7 Feb 1855, 12 Apr, 10, 11, 12 June 1856, 13 Dec 1861, 15, 22 May, 22 June 1865
  • Maitland Mercury, 18, 30 June, 6, 8, 13 Aug 1863
  • Old Times, June-July 1903
  • P. Loveday, Parliamentary Government in New South Wales, 1856-1870 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 1962)
  • Cowper letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Darvall papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • S. A. Donaldson ministry letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Kater papers (National Library of Australia)
  • CO 201/518, 531, 533-34, 542, 584
  • private information.

Citation details

R. W. Rathbone, 'Darvall, Sir John Bayley (1809–1883)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 29 May 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

John Bayley Darvall (1809-1883), by unknown photographer

John Bayley Darvall (1809-1883), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 10955

Life Summary [details]


19 November, 1809
Felixkirk, Yorkshire, England


28 December, 1883 (aged 74)
London, Middlesex, England

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