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Sir Roger Therry (1800–1874)

by C. H. Currey

This article was published:

Roger Therry (1800-1874), by Richard Read, 1834

Roger Therry (1800-1874), by Richard Read, 1834

State Library of New South Wales, Original : ML 180

Sir Roger Therry (1800-1874), judge, was born at Cork, Ireland, and educated at Clongowes College and Trinity College, Dublin. In 1822 at Dublin he became secretary of the National Society for the Education of the Poor in Ireland; he was called to the Irish Bar and actively associated with Daniel O'Connell in the campaign for Catholic emancipation. In 1827 he was called to the English Bar. In the next year he edited The Speeches of George Canning, and wrote a memoir on the life of that statesman. On 9 August 1827 at Dublin he married Mrs Ann Reilly, née Corley. In April 1829 he was appointed commissioner, with the right of private practice, of the Courts of Requests (small debts) in New South Wales. He arrived in Sydney with his wife in November.

To his commissionership Therry brought a thorough knowledge of law and legal procedure, good humour, and an understanding of the mainsprings of human action. In 1834 Chief Justice (Sir) Francis Forbes testified that he had 'formed a high opinion of [Therry's] knowledge as a lawyer and of his talents as an advocate'. Mr Justice James Dowling bore witness that, in his conduct as a barrister, Therry 'sustained that gentlemanly carriage and high tone of honourable integrity, which ever distinguished the British Bar'. From March 1841 to August 1843 he acted as attorney-general and, as such, sat in the Legislative Council. In June 1843 he stood for election to the new part-elective Legislative Council as the representative of Camden. His opponent was Charles Cowper, a staunch Anglican. The religious issue was raised. James Macarthur, who on principle rejected the contention that a man's religion should, in itself, be a disqualification, threw his weight behind Therry who was elected. He vacated his seat in January 1845 but returned to the legislature in May 1856 as a nominee member of the first Legislative Council under responsible government.

In December 1844 he was appointed resident judge at Port Phillip. There he administered justice with the goodwill of Superintendent Charles La Trobe, the legal profession and the public until February 1846 when he was transferred to the Supreme Court of New South Wales. In 1850 he presided at the first sitting of the Supreme Court, on circuit, at Brisbane. He was the primary judge in Equity, and no decree of his in that jurisdiction was reversed. When the Supreme Court sat in banco he occupied the bench with Alfred Stephen and John Nodes Dickinson, both sound lawyers, and was frequently content to concur in their judgments.

Each of the three governors under whom Therry served before his elevation to the bench commended him to the Colonial Office. 'He has on all occasions since his arrival', reported Governor Ralph Darling, 'conducted himself in a manner to merit the approbation of this Government'. Governor Richard Bourke described him as 'a barrister of character … whose zeal and ability in forwarding the views of His Majesty's and of the local Government entitle the fullest consideration'. 'During the time that I have held the Government', wrote Sir George Gipps in 1838, 'I have had ample cause to form a very favorable opinion of his discretion and ability'. This, apparently, was also the opinion of men of commerce, for late in 1834, Therry was elected to the first board of directors of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney.

In Gipps's rating, Roger Therry and John Hubert Plunkett were 'the two most distinguished barristers' then in the colony. They were also the two outstanding Catholic laymen. 'The circumstance of Mr. Plunkett and Mr. Therry being both Roman Catholics', reported the governor, 'has, without any undue bias on the part of the Government, necessarily, on more than one occasion, proved disadvantageous to the professional advancement of the latter'.

According to the Catholic historian, James Murtagh, 'Therry found the Catholics of the Colony in a sad plight … During the first thirty years, [they] formed a quarter of the population, but their religion was unrecognised and their spiritual needs unprovided for'. In May 1820, however, John Joseph Therry arrived as one of two Catholic chaplains. In him his co-religionists found a devoted and indomitable missionary and General Darling an uncompromising stickler for their claims to religious freedom. Roger Therry was his close friend and exerted himself on his behalf in influential quarters.

In January 1830, to remove any doubts as to the application to New South Wales of the British Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, it was adopted by the local Act 10 Geo. IV, no 9. During the next decade Roger Therry was assisted in his campaign for the more equitable treatment of his co-religionists by men of the calibre of J. H. Plunkett, Vicar-General William Ullathorne, Father John McEncroe, Bishop John Bede Polding and William Duncan, editor of the Australasian Chronicle. His most formidable antagonist was Archdeacon William Grant Broughton whose denunciation of subscriptions by Protestants to the building of a Catholic chapel evoked, in 1833, a letter from Therry to Edward Blount, M.P., for which he was admonished by the Colonial Office. He may have been indiscreet but his protest did him credit. Bourke's Church Act of 1836, 7 Wm IV, no 3, and his plan for undenominational public schools embodied principles that Therry espoused. His regard for the governor bordered on idolatry, and he was the secretary of the movement which resulted in the erection of an arresting monument in recognition of Bourke's services.

Therry never hid his light under a bushel and the energy and success with which he pressed his advancement exposed him to charges of pluralism and cupidity. Furthermore, as counsel, now for the defence, now for the prosecution, in several inflamed cases, and as an eloquent advocate in matters highly controversial, he incurred the bitter enmity of some of his opponents. Two of these, James Mudie and Richard Jones, encompassed his defeat when, in 1835, he sought election, by the benches of magistrates, to the chairmanship of the Courts of Quarter Sessions. The success of the other candidate, Campbell Riddell, the colonial treasurer, and the support given the latter by the Colonial Office led to Bourke's resignation.

When he resigned his judgeship in 1859, Therry retired to England. There in February 1863 he published his Reminiscences of Thirty Years' Residence in New South Wales and Victoria. The edition was limited to a thousand copies, three hundred of which were sent to Sydney. In the United Kingdom the reviews of the book were so favourable and the demand for it so insistent that the publisher suggested a second edition. This was published in April 1863. In it Therry corrected the most egregious, but by no means all the factual errors that blemished the first, and added a few pages and a map. By October 1863, however, he heard that his book had been so adversely criticized in New South Wales that it had become unsaleable in Sydney. Thereupon he arranged with his publisher for the return of all the unsold copies there. 'The best evidence I could afford that I had no intention at least of awakening painful feelings', he remarked on 25 March 1865, 'is that I suppressed the book when I learned that I had done so. The cost was no serious inconvenience to me and annoyed me less than the lesson I have learned of the valuelessness of some friendships on which I had relied'.

The Reminiscences, or vetted recollections, should be read in conjunction with Therry's letters from 1851 to 1866 to James Macarthur, who contributed material for the book and helped in the correction of the first edition. In this correspondence is to be found inter alia the explanation of Therry's misleading account of the Rum Rebellion and of Hannibal Macarthur's part in the case of Henry Bayne, and of his own silence in respect of Gipps's relations with Robert Lowe. Factually, even the second edition has to be corrected again and again: names and dates are awry. Yet, as a descriptive narrative of places, natives, dramatis personae and events, it is a very readable, useful piece of work devoid of rancour and disclosing deep human sympathies.

Therry was always politically minded, and, as a member of the several Legislative Councils, he was in close touch with leading men and measures in an exciting period of Australian history. His deep and active interest in the promotion of education at all levels was lifelong. On 24 December 1850 Sir Charles FitzRoy, with the advice of the Executive Council, nominated and appointed him one of the sixteen original members of the senate of the University of Sydney. His intense hostility to voting by ballot, manhood suffrage and Edward Gibbon Wakefield's views on the upset price for crown land were shared by many eminent men of his generation.

Therry was knighted in 1869 and died at Bath in May 1874. Of his children, a son became a captain in the army in India, one daughter married a British naval officer and another entered Subiaco Convent.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 14-25
  • J. D. Lang, An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1852)
  • J. G. Legge (ed), A Selection of Supreme Court Cases in New South Wales, from 1825 to 1862, vols 1-2 (Syd, 1896)
  • J. G. Murtagh, Australia: The Catholic Chapter (Syd, 1959)
  • Thomas Callaghan diary, 1838-1845 (Royal Australian Historical Society Library, Sydney)
  • Macarthur papers, vol 34 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under Roger Therry (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

C. H. Currey, 'Therry, Sir Roger (1800–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 13 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Roger Therry (1800-1874), by Richard Read, 1834

Roger Therry (1800-1874), by Richard Read, 1834

State Library of New South Wales, Original : ML 180

Life Summary [details]


Cork, Cork, Ireland


May, 1874 (aged ~ 74)
Bath, Somerset, England

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