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Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke (1843–1911)

by Sally O'Neill

This article was published:

Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke (1843-1911), politician and author, was born on 4 September 1843 in London, son of Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke and his wife Mary, née Chatfield. He was educated privately and at Trinity Hall, Cambridge (LL.B., 1866; LL.M., 1869). He was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in April 1866 but never practised. He planned to enter politics but first made a world tour, which he hoped would yield material for his work on radicalism and his interest in ideal commonwealths. He left England in June 1866 for America, then went to New Zealand and arrived at Sydney on 1 January 1867. After a brief visit to Queensland, he returned to Sydney via Newcastle, and in February went to Melbourne. Despite soaring summer temperatures he considered Victoria the 'most attractive as well as the most energetic' of the colonies, and visited Ballarat, Sandhurst, Echuca and Geelong. He liked Tasmania but saw it as the 'Ireland of the South', blighted by its convict past. In Melbourne again for the end of the Intercolonial Exhibition, he went on to Adelaide and Kapunda, and then to Western Australia. After his return to England his Greater Britain: A Record of Travel in English-Speaking Countries During 1866 and 1867 (London, 1868) was published; it ran to eight editions and its short title became a catch phrase in imperialist debate. In 1869 he succeeded to the baronetcy and proprietorship of the Athenaeum and Notes and Queries.

Dilke represented Chelsea in the House of Commons in 1868-86. Earlier he had expressed republican views, which he later modified; in parliament he was leader of the radicals in Gladstone's government in 1880, under-secretary to the Foreign Office in 1880-82 and served in cabinet as president of the Local Government Board in 1882-85. Many saw him as a future premier but his career was cut short when he was cited as co-respondent in the spectacular divorce suit Crawford v. Crawford and Dilke in 1885-86. Although he strongly protested his innocence, public opinion was against him; he lost his seat in parliament in July 1886 and turned to writing. His works referring to Australia include The British Army (1888), Problems of Greater Britain (1890), Imperial Defence (1892) written in collaboration with Spenser Wilkinson, and The British Empire (1899). In 1875 he had contributed to Cobden Club Essays. Local Government and Taxation edited by J. W. Probyn.

Dilke visited China and Japan in 1875, Greece and Constantinople in 1887-88 and India in 1888-89. In 1892-1911 he represented the Forest of Dean in parliament where he often spoke on foreign and imperial affairs. He had married Katherine Mary Eliza, née Sheil, in 1872; she died in 1874. On 3 October 1885 he married Emilia Francis Pattison, née Strong, who died in 1904. Dilke died in London on 26 January 1911, survived by a son of his first marriage.

Greater Britain established Dilke's reputation as an expert on colonial questions. The Australasian, 28 January 1911, praised the 'grasp the radical statesman had upon empire politics'. His assessments of colonial democracy showed some weaknesses, but his interest in the Australian colonies persisted: in 1884 he urged Gladstone to annex New Guinea, taking what he said was 'the Australian view'. He corresponded with Alfred Deakin who described him as 'more ambitious than most of his rivals, more industrious, more teachable and more versatile … one of the most trustworthy and intellectual of radicals … knowledge was his forte and omniscience his foible'. In speeches Dilke often referred to Australian experiments in labour and social legislation. As an exponent of imperial defence, he advocated a strong navy, a general staff at the War Office to operate on an imperial as well as a national level, and a regular army of high quality. Occasional articles by him appeared in the Australian press and in the 1890s he invested in Western Australian mining and newspapers.

Select Bibliography

  • S. L. Gwynn and G. M. Tuckwell, The Life of the Rt. Hon. Sir Charles W. Dilke (Lond, 1917), R. Jenkins, Sir Charles Dilke. A Victorian Tragedy (Lond, 1958)
  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story, J. A. La Nauze ed (Melb, 1963)
  • Mahon papers 937/3, 4 (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Sally O'Neill, 'Dilke, Sir Charles Wentworth (1843–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 June 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

Life Summary [details]


4 September, 1843
London, Middlesex, England


26 January, 1911 (aged 67)
London, Middlesex, England

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