Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Charles Wilkes (1816–1873)

by Rosilyn Baxter

This article was published:

William Charles Wilkes (1816?-1873), journalist and editor, was probably born in Surrey, England, son of Andrew Robertson Wilkes, reputedly a captain in the East India Co., and his wife Mary Christmas, née Burt. In 1833 while employed as an assistant clerk he was convicted at the Old Bailey of stealing £11 12s. 'from a dwelling house' and sentenced to transportation for life. He arrived in Sydney in the Neva on 21 November 1833 and probably worked as messenger at the Police Office there. In 1839 he gave evidence against Colonel Henry Wilson, accused of employing police for private profit. In 1841 Wilkes was assigned to James Burnett's expedition to trace the Dividing Range north and proceed to Moreton Bay. He became overseer for Burnett, was commended for his service and, after receiving his ticket-of-leave on 3 February 1843, stayed with him on his survey of the Richmond and Clarence rivers. He then worked for James Canning Pearce at Helidon station; a skirmish there with Aboriginals led him to write a mock epic poem, 'The Raid of the Aboriginals', under the pseudonym 'James Arrowsmith Cordwainer'. It cleverly satirized the behaviour of the local squatters and is the earliest evidence of Wilkes's liberal politics and lively sense of humour. In Brisbane on 17 December 1846 he married Catherine Connolly.

While employed as a storekeeper by G. S. le Breton, Wilkes wrote for the Moreton Bay Courier and in 1848-56 was editor. He became a respected member of the community and proved to be a journalist of great ability and integrity. Opposing the reintroduction of convict labour to Moreton Bay, he worked for improved public education and fought for separation. Involved in the movement, he devoted the Courier to it, prepared estimates of revenue and expenditure of Moreton Bay if separated from the parent colony and showed that it would be financially viable. The accuracy of his figures was later praised by William Coote. The Sydney Morning Herald opposed separation for Moreton Bay and Wilkes maintained a running battle with it. In 1864 when he revisited Brisbane, the Ipswich Queensland Times commented, 'there is a gentleman now in Brisbane who probably did more for the cause in the days of its apparent hopelessness than Dr. John Dunmore Lang, with all his boasting, ever accomplished'. Leading citizens and parliamentarians of Brisbane presented Wilkes with a testimonial of a silver cup and a hundred guineas, after which the party retired to McAdam's Sovereign Hotel to celebrate.

Popular and convivial, with an astringent sense of humour, Wilkes was only 5 ft 3 ins (160 cm); his nature seems to have been in no way soured by his early misfortunes. When he left the Courier in 1856 he came to Sydney and joined the literary set of Frank Fowler, Richard Rowe (Peter 'Possum), James Lionel Michael and Joseph Moore. He contributed a serial, 'Charles Wotton, or, Bush Life in Australia', to the Month (then edited by Moore), but it was hastily concluded after six chapters when the magazine ceased publication. After Wilkes's death Moore published these chapters in a much longer version of the tale under his own name in the Tamworth News, of which he was editor. In 1878 he printed the story in the Sydney University Magazine. Accused by the Sydney Evening News of plagiarism, Moore claimed entire authorship, but published his refutation in the advertising pages of the magazine so that it would not be preserved with bound copies.

In 1857 Wilkes had become editor of Sydney Punch but, though praised by George Barton, it ran only four issues. He wrote also for the Australian Era and in 1858 for the Sydney Dispatch. In 1859 he joined Samuel Bennett's Empire and remained with it until 1873. He reputedly edited it for some of that time, and in 1872-73 wrote a weekly column, 'The Flaneur in Sydney': a lively commentary on local and foreign current events and a good vehicle for his wit and broad humanitarian interests. He contributed also to Bennett's other publications, the Australian Town and Country Journal and the Evening News. Imprisoned in Darlinghurst Gaol for failing to pay his rent in 1865, he voluntarily sequestered his estate; he claimed bouts of severe illness had prevented him earning in his 'precarious occupation'. Wilkes died of softening of the brain in St Vincent's Hospital on 13 May 1873 and was buried in Camperdown cemetery without religious rites. He was survived by his wife and by three daughters of their five children.

Select Bibliography

  • G. B. Barton, Literature in New South Wales (Syd, 1866)
  • W. Coote, The History of the Colony of Queensland (Brisb, 1867)
  • J. Campbell, The Early Settlement of Queensland (Ipswich, 1875)
  • Moreton Bay Courier, 19 Feb 1853
  • Brisbane Courier, 15, 22, 24 June 1864, 16 May 1873, 22 June 1926
  • Town and Country Journal, 17 May 1873
  • Evening News (Sydney), 12 Apr 1878
  • insolvency file, 7065/5 (State Records New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Rosilyn Baxter, 'Wilkes, William Charles (1816–1873)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 18 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Cordwainer, James Arrowsmith

Surrey, England


13 May, 1873 (aged ~ 57)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

softening of brain

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Passenger Ship
Convict Record

Crime: theft
Sentence: life
Court: Old Bailey, London
Trial Date: 1833


Occupation: clerk


Children: Yes (5)