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Richard Windeyer (1806–1847)

by J. B. Windeyer

This article was published:

Richard Windeyer (1806-1847), journalist, barrister, agriculturist and politician, was born on 10 August 1806 in London, the eldest child of Charles Windeyer and his wife Ann Mary, née Rudd. He remained in England when in 1828 his parents with the rest of their family migrated to New South Wales. He was admitted as a student in the Middle Temple in March 1829 and called to the Bar on 23 May 1834. In the meantime, as a journalist and parliamentary reporter, he was connected with the Morning Chronicle, the Sun and the Mirror of Parliament, and in 1834 was London correspondent for the Australian, using the initials 'W.R.'. He assisted Dodd in compiling the Parliamentary Pocket Companion, and was associated with Colonel Perronet Thompson in the early anti-Corn Law movement. On 26 April 1832 he married Maria, daughter of William Camfield of Groombridge Place and Burswood, Kent. Their only child, William Charles, was born on 29 September 1834. Although he always intended to follow his parents and their family to Sydney, Windeyer's departure from England was hastened by a letter from his father, saying that Dr Robert Wardell's death and 'Wentworth's expected departure … and the division of the Bar … makes the moment particularly favourable for your debut'. He set out with his wife and infant son arriving at Sydney on 28 November 1835.

Windeyer soon gained a considerable practice. Even John Dunmore Lang described him as 'a barrister of superior abilities'; and of his closing speech in the case of the Bank of Australasia v. Breillat in 1845, the Herald said, 'For learned research, and subtle reasoning, and adroit use of circumstance, and occasional bursts of true eloquence, and powerful appeal to the understandings of the jury … we have no hesitation in believing that at that bar it had never been surpassed'. In July 1846 Windeyer and Robert Lowe appeared for the defendant in Attorney-General v. Brown, concerning the right of the Crown to grant the Australian Agricultural Co. the sole right to mine coal near Newcastle. The arguments for the defendants failed, but enabled Windeyer to array much legal and historical learning in support of the political view that the lands of the colony should be in the control of the colonists, not in the grant of the crown. However, he spent Christmas 1846 in Darlinghurst gaol, for calling John Darvall, the opposing counsel, a liar and shaping up to fight him during the hearing of a case before the chief justice, Sir Alfred Stephen, who therefore committed them both for contempt of court. The matter rankled with Windeyer until his death.

Windeyer's legal work was only a small part of his activities in the colony. In February 1838 he bought his first land in the Hunter valley, and by 1842 he held about 30,000 acres (12,141 ha). Vast sums of money were spent, especially on draining extensive swamp lands in the vicinity of Graham's Town, building a homestead at Tomago and on other improvements, but with little return. He planted thirty acres (12 ha) of vines, imported a German vine-dresser from Adelaide, made his first wine in 1845, and received permission to import seven vine-dressers and one wine-cooper from Europe. He ran cattle, horses and pigs, tried growing sugar-cane and wheat, and in 1846 with Reynolds, president of the local agricultural society, he imported the colony's first reaping machine from South Australia. Despite all his expensive improvements and mechanized farming the one prize he won was for pumpkins. However, after his death wine from Tomago won a certificate of merit at Paris in 1855.

In 1842 Windeyer was present at the meeting at Sydney College at which petitions for representative government in the colony were adopted. In 1843 at the first elections for the Legislative Council he stood for Durham County against Andrew Lang and Ogilvie and polled 122 votes to Ogilvie's 77 and Lang's 55. Windeyer at once took a prominent part in the affairs of the council. In 1843 he introduced his monetary confidence bill. Believing that the current depression was aggravated by a decrease of currency in circulation, and a lack of confidence and credit, he proposed a solution based on the Prussian Pfandbrief scheme as outlined by Thomas Holt before a select committee: the government was to give credit in the form of pledge certificates, or Pfandbriefe, on the security of land. The bill passed the council, but Governor Gipps withheld his assent. Windeyer's main interest in economic matters was directed at effective supervision and control by the council of revenue and expenditure. He worked so persistently for retrenchment that Lang described him as 'the Joseph Hume of the Council'. As a believer in free trade and the representative of an agricultural county, Windeyer worked to open the Van Diemen's Land market to tobacco from New South Wales and the United Kingdom market to the colony's wheat. In the debate on the tariff bill of 1843, however, he voted for an import duty of 1s. a bushel on foreign wheat but explained that he considered it a revenue not a protective duty.

Always interested in education, Windeyer set up a school on his estate, was on the committees of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts and the Australian School Society, and prominent in the education debates. Although a member of the Church of England he favoured a National school system, but in 1844 when its introduction was discussed he proposed an amendment to provide primary education for the poor, 'gratuitously if necessary', and to permit denominational schools to receive government aid in some circumstances.

From his youth Windeyer had been interested in law reform, and in 1844 he introduced a bill to amend the jury laws of New South Wales. Trial by assessors was to be replaced by trial by a jury of four special jurors, with a decision by a majority of three to be acceptable if unanimity were not reached after six hours. His model was an Act that Alfred Stephen had introduced in Van Diemen's Land. The bill was passed, although the clause allowing majority decisions was carried only by the casting vote of the chairman of committees. 'Mr. Windeyer's Libel Act', passed in August 1847, was based on Lord Campbell's Libel Act of 1843, but it went further in adopting almost all of the recommendations of the select committee of the House of Lords. It thus established in New South Wales the principle that in neither a civil action nor in criminal proceedings could a libel be justified by showing that the words published were true only if its publication were both true and for the public benefit could defamation be justified.

Windeyer was a member of the Aborigines Protection Society. His attention had been attracted to their legal disadvantages in the trial of an Aborigine, Murrell, and the trials arising out of the Myall Creek 'massacre' in which he had appeared. As the law stood, Aborigines were not allowed to give evidence in the courts because they could not understand the nature of an oath. Windeyer supported proposals, later in substance adopted, that they should be allowed to make unsworn statements. On his motion a select committee was appointed in 1845 to consider Aboriginal welfare generally, but the committee ceased work with his death. Other ways in which he showed his concern for social welfare were by his membership of the New South Wales Temperance Society, of the committee of the Benevolent Society and as first president of the Debating Society.

In his political activities Windeyer was no friend of Governor Gipps. In 1846 he unsuccessfully challenged the legality of quitrents. But in the disputes arising from Gipps's squatting regulations of 1844 he took a middle line between squatters and the executive. He condemned the squatters as 'cormorants' and 'robbers', but he also opposed the regulations, as he objected to the executive powers on which they were supposedly based. He, with Lang, Lowe and William Bland, led a 'constitutional' party who sought to secure control of the land revenue for the colonial legislature. It was not as an advocate of squatting interests, but rather because of his insistence on what he asserted was correct constitutional doctrine, that he became a member of the committee of the Pastoral Association. In the Legislative Council he worked hard for what he believed were the interests of the colony and after each session he made a point of touring his electorate to give an account of his stewardship.

Ill from overwork, financial worries and some internal disease, Windeyer died on 2 December 1847 at the home of his wife's brother-in-law William Henty, near Launceston. He was described as 'an able, enlightened, honest, and uncompromising public man'. He died when his role was far from completed, as Wentworth and many others recognized. But his private affairs had suffered. His optimism and enterprise had led him to entertain projects that he could not afford and to incur large debts. From this cause and the economic depression of the 1840s, he died impoverished. His widow, a woman of remarkable character and determination, was enabled by money received from her family to retain a part of Tomago, where she lived, devoting herself to the prudent management of the property, the welfare of her infant son and local affairs. The obituary of Windeyer in the Herald, written by Lowe, his ally and friend, seems a balanced and fair assessment of his character: vigorous, ambitious, honest, liberal in outlook, but aggressively independent. He was ruthless with opponents, but kind to his family and friends.

A portrait is in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, and others are in private possession.

Select Bibliography

  • J. B. Windeyer, Richard Windeyer: Aspects of his Work in New South Wales from 1835 to 1847 (B.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1961)
  • Camfield-Windeyer letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Windeyer family papers (privately held).

Additional Resources

Citation details

J. B. Windeyer, 'Windeyer, Richard (1806–1847)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 29 May 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

Life Summary [details]


10 August, 1806
London, Middlesex, England


2 December, 1847 (aged 41)
Launceston, Tasmania, Australia

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