Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Sir William Charles Windeyer (1834–1897)

This article was published:

William Charles Windeyer (1834-1897), by Freeman & Co.

William Charles Windeyer (1834-1897), by Freeman & Co.

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23530049

Sir William Charles Windeyer (1834-1897), politician and judge, was born at Westminster, London, on 29 September 1834, only child of Richard Windeyer and his wife Maria, née Camfield. He arrived in Sydney with his parents in the Medway on 28 November 1835. His father died in 1847; his mother, with help from friends and relations, managed to retrieve the house and part of the land at Tomago from the insolvent estate. William's letters to her reveal the strong influence of her affectionate, God-fearing character and methodical good sense. All his life he liked to return to Tomago and work in the garden.

Windeyer was educated at William Timothy Cape's Elfred House Private School and in 1850-52 at The King's School, Parramatta, partly with the help of (Sir) Charles Nicholson and Robert Lowe. In October 1852 he gained a scholarship and was among the first undergraduates at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1856; M.A., 1859). An admirer of Professor John Woolley, he was strongly influenced by his liberal outlook. Windeyer ran the Sydney University Magazine. His uncle John Thompson described him at this time as 'rather a favourite with us all—very impulsive, original & independent'.

Windeyer read in the chambers of Edward Broadhurst and was admitted to the colonial Bar on 7 March 1857; on 31 December at Hexham he married Mary Elizabeth (1836-1912), daughter of Rev. R. T. Bolton. As a law reporter on (Sir) Henry Parkes's Empire, he came into contact with 'the first distinct party with a Liberal creed and the means of vigorous action'. He also wrote articles for the Empire and was fostered in politics by Parkes. In January 1859 he became crown prosecutor for the northern districts but resigned in May. Defeated that year by (Sir) Daniel Cooper for Paddington, he was returned to the Legislative Assembly for the Lower Hunter and from 1860 represented West Sydney. In 1859 he attacked Sir Alfred Stephen and opposed the motion granting him full salary when on leave, but his apology in August 1863 began warm relations with the chief justice. While Parkes was in England in 1861 Windeyer corresponded with him and (Sir) Charles Duffy about Federation and tried to keep together Parkes's political supporters.

In 1860 Windeyer had been the main mover in the revival of the Volunteer Force; on 4 December he was commissioned captain of the No. 2 company of the Sydney Battalion of the Volunteer Rifles and in 1868 was promoted major. He was a member of the winning New South Wales rifle team in the match against Victoria in Melbourne in 1862. On the return voyage the City of Sydney was wrecked off Green Cape; no one was lost but Windeyer suffered shock and ill health and resigned from parliament on 22 December.

On 17 January 1866 during an absence from Sydney he was nominated, through the machinations of Parkes, and defeated (Sir) John Robertson at a ministerial election for West Sydney. Two years later he complained to Parkes: 'From the part I took towards you I know that I lost the favour of many who had it in their power to help a young and struggling professional man and that to this day in my private life and prospects I feel the effects of my staunch adherence to you … I think that you who pulled the strings in that election took an unwarrantable liberty with my name'. He was solicitor-general in the Martin-Robertson coalition in 1870-72 and was defeated in the 1872 general election.

On 8 September 1876 Windeyer returned to the assembly as first member for the University of Sydney and next March became attorney-general in Parkes's ministry. On 4 August he offered to resign after a political crisis caused by his legal opinion that 'five miles [8 km] square' in the land Acts was equivalent to twenty-five sq. miles (65 km²); however Parkes supported him and the ministry left office on 16 August. In 1878-79 he was attorney-general in the Parkes-Robertson coalition. A law reformer, Windeyer introduced eighteen bills as a private member and carried eight; the most important were the Patents Act and the Married Women's Property Act of 1879 which gave women control of property which was theirs by their own right or exertions; he also carried six private Acts. In 1871-72 he was a member of the Law Reform Commission and was thanked by Stephen for his help; in 1893-94 he sat on the Statute-Law Consolidation Commission.

Windeyer had an abiding interest in education. In 1855-65 he was esquire bedell at the University of Sydney, a member of its senate in 1866-97, an examiner in law, vice-chancellor in 1883-86 and chancellor in 1895-96. He advocated the extension of free and secular elementary education, supported the 1866 Public Schools Act and advocated the establishment of country high schools for both girls and boys. He was a trustee of Sydney Grammar School from the 1860s and of the Free Public Library in 1884-86 and 1888-97, and a member of the Board of Technical Education in 1883-86. He taught Latin and Greek in the 1860s at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts and was sometime president. He believed in higher education for women and in 1891 was founding chairman of the Women's College, within the University of Sydney.

An advocate of social reform, Windeyer was president of the 1873 royal commission on public charities, and strongly vindicated Lucy Osburn in the report, which he wrote himself. Next year he was foundation president of the Discharged Prisoners' Aid Society and in the 1870s was a vice-president of the City Night Refuge and Soup Kitchen. He was also a member of the commissions to make arrangements for the public reception of the Duke of Edinburgh, and for the Philadelphia International Exhibition, and a director of the Hunter River Steam Navigation Co. His efforts helped to preserve Clarke Island in Port Jackson, Belmore Park and reserves on Observatory Hill and Church Hill for public recreation.

On 10 August 1879 Windeyer resigned from parliament; next day he was appointed a temporary puisne judge of the Supreme Court and two years later became permanent. He sat mainly in common and criminal law, as judge in Divorce and as deputy-judge in the Vice-Admiralty Court. His written judgments were notable for competent and careful legal learning, literary quality and clarity of expression. As judge in Divorce he administered the law with compassion and understanding, supporting Stephen's reform efforts in the columns of the Sydney Morning Herald and in his judgments in both divorce and criminal jurisdiction. In 1888 in Ex parte Collins he upheld an appeal against a conviction for obscenity for selling Mrs Besant's The Law of Population.

Windeyer proved controversial in criminal cases. With a rigorous and unrelenting sense of the retribution that he believed criminal justice demanded, he had a sympathy verging on the emotional for the victims of crime, especially women. In 1886 he played a contentious part in the resignation of (Sir) Julian Salomons as chief justice and caused a public outcry by sentencing to death nine young men in the notorious Mount Rennie rape case. In May 1889 150 jurors and residents of Deniliquin petitioned parliament for an inquiry into Windeyer's unjust remarks and 'hurried manner'; in August he was criticized in the House for imprisoning intoxicated witnesses, but Chief Justice Darley pointed out to Parkes that the men 'had been imprisoned for deliberately getting drunk or feigning drunkenness … Mr Justice Windeyer is to be highly commended for what he did in vindication of Justice'. Hostility to Windeyer reached a climax in 1895 when he imposed the death penalty on George Dean for poisoning his wife. Despite such contentious episodes his eminence as a judge was widely recognized by those qualified to assess it. At the instigation of Sir Samuel Griffith in 1892, he was appointed a temporary judge in Queensland to preside over the Full Court to hear a case which the chief justice was disqualified from hearing.

Windeyer had visited England for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1887 and was made an honorary doctor of laws by the University of Cambridge; he was knighted in 1891. Although outwardly unmoved and altogether unyielding, he was grieved by the clamour and obloquy aroused by the Dean case and in 1896 visited England for a rest. He retired from the bench and in 1897 accepted a temporary judgeship in Newfoundland but died of paralysis of the heart on 12 September at Bologna, Italy. He was survived by his wife, three sons and five daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £18,733. Described by Darley as 'singularly able, conscientious, zealous and hardworking … in some respects he was much misunderstood, for those who knew him best know what a tender heart he had and what a depth of sympathy he possessed for all those in distress and misery'. Parkes, in his Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History (1892), wrote 'My friend Windeyer was a young man of high spirit, bold and decisive in the common incidents of life, with a strong capacity for public affairs. He would have made as good a soldier as he has made a sound Judge'.

Encouraged by her husband, Lady Windeyer was a leader of charitable organizations and a pioneer of women's rights, especially their claim to be enfranchised. In 1895 she was a founder and first president of the Women's Hospital, Crown Street, and president of the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales. She was also prominent in the organization of the Women's Industrial Exhibition in 1888 and in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of New South Wales.

Portraits of Windeyer are held by the University of Sydney, The King's School, Parramatta, and some descendants.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 4 Sept 1889
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1889, 2, 1063
  • New South Wales Law Reports, 9 (1888), 505
  • Queensland Law Journal Reports, 1893 supplement
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Apr, 9 Sept 1886, 4 Sept 1889, 18 Nov 1891, 15 Sept 1897, 5 Dec 1912
  • Brisbane Courier, 15 Sept 1892
  • Australasian, 21 Aug 1897
  • M. Rutledge, Sir Alfred Stephen and Divorce Law Reform in New South Wales, 1886-1892 (M.A. thesis, Australian National University, 1966)
  • R. Parsons, Lawyers in the New South Wales Parliament, 1870-1890 (Ph.D. thesis, Macquarie University, 1972)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Windeyer papers (State Library of New South Wales and University of Sydney Archives).

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Windeyer, Sir William Charles (1834–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 18 April 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

William Charles Windeyer (1834-1897), by Freeman & Co.

William Charles Windeyer (1834-1897), by Freeman & Co.

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23530049

Life Summary [details]


29 September, 1834
London, Middlesex, England


12 September, 1897 (aged 62)
Bologna, Italy

Cause of Death

heart disease

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.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Events
Key Organisations
Stately Homes