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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Levien, Robert Henry (1845–1938)

by M. Z. Forbes

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Robert Henry Levien (1845-1938), solicitor and politician, was born on 17 October 1845 at Singleton, New South Wales, younger son of Alfred Levien, Jewish storekeeper, and his wife Myalla Rebecca, née MacDermod. He was baptised Henry Robert at All Saints Anglican Church, Singleton, and was always known as Harry. The family moved to West Maitland and Levien was educated at Maitland High School. In 1866 he was articled to a Maitland solicitor, A. J. Robey. He was admitted as a solicitor on 27 September 1873 and practised at Tenterfield in 1874-75 before returning to Maitland. In 1876-79 he was an alderman on the West Maitland Municipal Council. At Ardessir (Patricks Plains) he married Harriet Emma Cousins on 22 October 1879 and moved to Tamworth.

Defeated by one vote for the Legislative Assembly seat of Wollombi in 1877, Levien topped the poll for Tamworth in 1880 and moved his legal practice to Sydney, where he was successful in police courts. He represented Tamworth until 1894 and in 1904-13, and Quirindi in 1894-1904. Although a determined Protectionist, Levien was a doggedly independent 'representative, not the delegate of my constituents'. He seldom spoke in debates and was often absent from the House. His supporters admired his bright, original personality, bluff and hearty manner and his generous if volatile temperament.

Levien served on many select committees and in 1883 chaired the committee that dismissed charges against Captain R. R. Armstrong. In the mid-1880s he unsuccessfully introduced bills dealing with creditors and to facilitate Supreme Court procedures. Hasty in speech, he was forced to apologize for insulting a member in 1886 and in December next year was removed by the sergeant-at-arms for disorderly conduct. Far more serious, in 1889 the Supreme Court ordered that he be struck off the roll of solicitors for one year for allowing an unqualified clerk to practise under his name. He resigned his seat but was promptly re-elected unopposed. He served on the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works in 1894-95 and 1898-1901.

In 1897 Levien successfully carried as a private member an amendment to the Australasian Federation Enabling Act to raise to 80,000 the affirmative referendum vote to be required for Federation. Next year he attracted unfavourable publicity by accusing two members, W. J. Ferguson and R. Sleath, of murder and conspiracy during the Broken Hill strike in 1892. A royal commission found Levien's charges absolutely unproved. He apologized to the House and explained that he had acted unjustly in the heat of temper. Attending diligently to the wants of his electorate, Levien strongly advocated the resumption and subdivision of the Peel River Land and Mineral Co.'s vast estate; the Wade government eventually resumed 100,000 acres (40,469 ha).

Surviving 'all seasons and all changes, all campaigns and all parties', Levien could not adapt to twentieth century political parties. In 1913 he refused to apply for Liberal endorsement and his old-time campaigning methods failed badly. Heartbroken by his defeat, he tried in vain five times to re-enter parliament.

Levien was twice grand primo of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes. He also bred and raced horses. In 1912 he chaired the royal commission into the totalisator and signed the minority report recommending its legalization. He retired from legal practice in 1933 and died on 12 July 1938; he was buried in the Anglican section of Northern Suburbs cemetery. His wife and daughter survived him, but his two sons were wounded at Gallipoli and predeceased him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Milliss, City on the Peel (Syd, 1980)
  • G. N. Hawker, The Parliament of New South Wales, 1856-1965 (Syd, 1971)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1883-84, p 1116, 1889, p 1799, 1898, p 229
  • New South Wales Law Reports, 10 (1890), p 43
  • Express (Sydney), 20 Aug 1885
  • Tamworth News, 24 June, 30 Aug 1904, 20 Oct 1909
  • Tamworth Daily Observer, 25 Oct, 11, 29 Nov, 6, 8 Dec 1913, 4, 7 July 1914
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 July 1938
  • newsclippings, vol 6, p 12 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

M. Z. Forbes, 'Levien, Robert Henry (1845–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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