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Sir Robert Wisdom (1830–1888)

by Elizabeth Guilford

This article was published:

Sir Robert Wisdom (1830-1888), barrister and politician, was born on 31 January 1830 at Blackburn, Lancashire, England, son of John Wisdom, collector of customs, and his wife Alice, née McGuinness. In August 1834 in the Arab he arrived in Sydney with his parents who soon moved to Morpeth. Educated at Maitland and at the Sydney College, he returned to Morpeth and embarked on a literary career. He wrote political articles and much indifferent poetry, some of which was published in the Empire. On 23 August 1855 at Hexham he married Elizabeth Avard. He became a shareholder and one of four managers of the Northern Times and Maitland Advertiser, established in Maitland in August 1856, and quickly won repute as a 'trenchant and graceful writer'; but he left the newspaper in January 1858 after Dr Henry Grattan Douglass had sued him for libel, although the attorney-general (Sir) James Martin refused to prosecute.

Wisdom's literary and political activities attracted the attention of Rev. John Dunmore Lang, (Sir) Henry Parkes and (Sir) John Robertson. Clerk of Petty Sessions at Stony Creek from 30 November 1858 he became a magistrate in 1859. In June with Parkes's support he was elected unopposed to the Legislative Assembly for the Goldfields West which he represented until November 1864; he was chairman of committees in 1861-64 with a salary of £500. He was admitted to the colonial Bar on 26 October 1861 and practised in Sydney. In 1862 he refused to be solicitor-general under (Sir) Charles Cowper and next year declined the public works portfolio in a proposed ministry of William Forster. He represented the Lower Hunter in 1864-72, and Morpeth in 1874-87. He was defeated by one vote by (Sir) George Allen for the Speakership in 1875.

Noted in the 1870s for his 'equable temperament and well-governed temper', he refused office under Roberston, James Farnell and (Sir) Alexander Stuart in 1877 and Parkes's offer of the Treasury next year. However on 13 August 1879 he became attorney-general in the Parkes-Robertson coalition and was made a Q.C.; he was complimented by the Bulletin (30 October 1880) for his prosecution in the previous December of the Wantabadgery bushrangers led by Andrew George Scott (Captain Moonlight). Wisdom quit office on 4 January 1883.

He became testy in Opposition, and was disorderly in the House: in February 1884 his 'habit of persistently cheering' enraged David Buchanan, who called him 'a d—d liar', with the result that Wisdom 'violently assaulted' him within the precincts of Parliament House. In August he challenged the right of twenty members, either squatters or land agents, to vote on the crown lands bill; and in July 1886 after repeated obstruction he was removed by the serjeant-at-arms, despite his protest that it was unlawful without a vote of the assembly. He did not contest the 1887 general election and on 2 February was appointed to the Legislative Council but never took his seat.

Wisdom visited England that year and with (Sir) Patrick Jennings represented New South Wales at the Colonial Conference in London; created K.C.M.G. he returned to Sydney in December. In the 1880s he was a director of the Civil Service Co-operative and the Civil Service Permanent Building societies, the City Bank of Sydney, the Mercantile Building, Land, and Investment Co. Ltd and the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd. He was also a commissioner for the 1876 Philadelphia International Exhibition, a member of the Council of Education in 1879-81 and a trustee of the National Park.

Weighing 18 stone (114 kg), Wisdom died of cirrhosis of the liver and kidneys at his home, 7 Richmond Terrace, Domain, on 16 March 1888 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. Predeceased by a son and two daughters, he was survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter. Over the years he had amassed a considerable fortune by land speculations and his estate was valued for probate at £37,921.

Select Bibliography

  • Ex-M.L.A., Our Present Parliament, What it is Worth (Syd, c1886)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1885-86, 1, 379-402
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1884, 1596, 1601-05
  • Maitland Mercury, 15 Dec 1857, 20 Mar 1888
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 29 May 1875
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Dec 1879, 20 Apr 1887, 17, 19 Mar 1888
  • 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)
  • manuscript catalogue (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/583/560, 588/116, 600/112, 601/284, 606/66.

Citation details

Elizabeth Guilford, 'Wisdom, Sir Robert (1830–1888)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 23 May 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

Robert Wisdom, n.d.

Robert Wisdom, n.d.

National Library of Australia, 23531098

Life Summary [details]


31 January, 1830
Blackburn, Lancashire, England


16 March, 1888 (aged 58)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cirrhosis of the liver

Cultural Heritage

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