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Bernhard Ringrose Wise (1858–1916)

by J. A. Ryan

This article was published:

Bernhard Ringrose Wise (1858-1916), by unknown photographer, 1898

Bernhard Ringrose Wise (1858-1916), by unknown photographer, 1898

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-12

Bernhard Ringrose Wise (1858-1916), barrister, politician and Federationist, was born on 10 February 1858 at Petersham, Sydney, second son of Edward Wise, barrister, and his wife Maria Bate, née Smith, both English born. After Edward's death in 1865, the family returned to England. Bernhard and his brothers attended a grammar school at Leeds where, he recalled, 'our homemade clothes exposed us to ridicule and bullying'. To qualify her sons to attend Rugby School and satisfy a family tradition, Maria took employment in the town. Bernhard's seven years at Rugby as a 'Townie' and a 'Foundationer' were subject to exclusion and persecution, but he excelled in his studies, and as a debater and athlete. In 1876 he entered The Queen's College, Oxford, on a Rugby presentation worth £90 a year. He graduated brilliantly in jurisprudence (B.A., 1881), carried off both the university and British amateur mile championships, emerged as a radical Gladstonian Liberal and was president (1881) of the Oxford Union. Sidney Low considered that, of all his illustrious contemporaries at Oxford, 'Bernhard Wise was in some respects the most gifted and brilliant, with a charm of personality that cannot easily be surpassed'.

After Oxford, Wise spent a year in London during which he narrowly missed election to an All Souls fellowship. Contacts with such sponsors as George Meredith and his election as president of the Amateur Athletic Association opened opportunities for a career, but, together with Alfred Milner and other Oxford contemporaries, Wise became associated with the social reformer Arnold Toynbee and worked closely with him. Called to the Bar at the Middle Temple on 18 April 1883, he was attracted by the prospect of some form of public life and set his sights on his native Sydney. His fiancée Lilian Margaret Baird, who was related to eminent people in university, journalistic and theatrical circles, agreed to follow him.

All in all, it was a young man 'favoured by the Gods' who landed in Sydney in August 1883, 'eager, confident and confiding, not realizing I was coming among men who viewed life through different eyes'. Admitted to the New South Wales Bar on 28 August, he married Lilian at St Paul's Anglican Church, Melbourne, on 1 April 1884: Alfred Barry, bishop of Sydney and primate of Australia, officiated. Wise was an agnostic. Although he was not financially established (he had to borrow money for his wedding), the lure of the parliamentary life was strong. Enticement came from Sir Henry Parkes who had met Wise in London. As a Parkes free trader, Wise surprised many of his associates in 1887 by nominating for the working-class constituency of South Sydney. There on the pub balconies and street corners of Surry Hills and Haymarket, he nightly took on opponents such as A. J. Riley, the mayor of Sydney, James Toohey, the Irish-supported brewer, and Mick Simmons, a local sporting identity. The stylishly-dressed young patrician, talking social reform with an Oxford accent, was a startling new phenomenon in colonial politics: those who listened found him ready with an advanced reform policy of direct taxation, payment of members and an eight-hour day. He held his ground and was elected.

Wise was appointed attorney-general (May 1887) in Parkes's administration, but inexperience and financial quicksands forced him to resign in February 1888 and he lost his seat in the 1889 election. With Toynbee as his exemplar, he continued to try to influence opinion by writing pamphlets and giving public addresses. As president of the Free Trade Association, he took a leading role in formulating a policy of social reform that extended beyond the narrow fiscal issue and liberal attachment to individualism and laissez-faire. He claimed later that his published lecture, Free Trade and Wages (Sydney, 1884), revealed 'at what early date I had formed those “labour views” to which in after years I have tried consistently to give effect'. His ideas were fully developed in Industrial Freedom (London, 1892), published by the Cobden Club, and remained the ideological pivot of his whole political career.

Amid the industrial and class tensions engendered by the 1890 maritime strike, Wise stood 'the political hairs of many of his associates on end' by publicly opposing the 'freedom of contract' principle and claiming a contrary freedom to refuse labour, union preference and a common wage. He argued quixotically that there could be no freedom without equality, which the very concept of freedom of contract denied to the worker. Wise was 'entirely unprepared' for the social and professional storm which burst upon him, and later assessed this crisis as the turning-point in his career. Though many in the embryonic labour movement still found it hard to separate his views from his background and education, he was returned to the Legislative Assembly in 1891 as a member for South Sydney.

When Parkes stood down from leadership of the party in October, Wise proposed (Sir) George Reid as his successor. Committed to the fiscal and tax reforms of Wise's Free Trade, Land and Reform League, Reid achieved office in 1894. After Parkes made another bid for leadership that year with the Federation issue, Wise faced a complicated conflict of loyalties: to party and leader, to his espoused principles and free trade associations, to his patron Parkes and national unity. He withheld his vote when Parkes made his 'unholy alliance' with his former enemy Sir George Dibbs over a censure motion: the defeat of the motion left Wise isolated, reaping the scorn and bitterness reserved for the political apostate. Along with Parkes, he lost his seat at the 1895 election and left the Free Trade Party.

Wise then became an energetic advocate of Federation, speaking, travelling and writing as an editorial committee-member of the Australian Federalist. He was a delegate to the Australasian Federal Convention of 1897-98 where his liberal instinct, constitutional training and persuasive advocacy made a valuable contribution. Strongly supporting equal State representation in the Senate, he suggested the double dissolution proposal for the breaking of deadlocks between the Houses. Deakin placed him in 'the first rank of men of influence in the Convention'. Wise was, however, to be unsuccessful in his attempt to enter the first Federal parliament when he failed in 1901 to win the country seat of Canobolas. There he encountered the same antagonism to the 'city' barrister as he had met in 1889 when, at Parkes's urging, he had taken on 'Paddy' Crick in West Macquarie.

In 1898 Wise had won the Legislative Assembly seat of Ashfield as a member of (Sir) William Lyne's Protectionist Party. He was appointed Q.C. the same year. After Reid's defeat, Wise was attorney-general (September 1899–June 1904) and minister of justice (July 1901–June 1904) in the Lyne ministry and in the subsequent government of Sir John See. Wise attained his highest office as acting premier for two short periods in 1904. Now stabled in a ministry of former Protectionist leaders (but with the fiscal issue removed to the Federal arena), he found himself allied with such democrats as Crick, E. W. O'Sullivan and J. L. Fegan, and co-operating with Labor's W. A. Holman. He found this period the 'best and happiest of my political life', and took a leading part in the framing and passage of social reform legislation, among it the Early Closing Act (1899), Old-age Pensions Act (1900) and the Women's Franchise Act (1902). Having helped to form the Prisoners' Aid Association, as minister of justice he turned to the prison system, incorporating measures for the health and education of prisoners and a reformatory release system in his Crimes Amendment Act (1905). Working closely with child-welfare reformers Frederick Neitenstein, (Sir) Charles Mackellar and Rose Scott, he framed and introduced the state children's bill (1902) which, though defeated, hardly differed from the Neglected Children and Juvenile Offenders Act (1905) to be passed by (Sir) Joseph Carruthers's government. It was Wise who chaired Catherine Helen Spence's meeting in Sydney to support the child welfare movement.

The legislation with which Wise was most closely associated, and his crowning achievement, was the Industrial Arbitration Act of 1901. It was the culmination of the ideas first set out in his address to the 1885 Trades Union Conference and later in Industrial Freedom—the responsibility of the state to establish conditions of justice and equality within the industrial society of capital and labour. Though it was, by then, a position close to the ideas of the Fabians (whose influence is often seen as decisive), it was Wise who framed, advocated, explained and defended the legislation, and who finally took a seat in the Legislative Council in 1900 to pilot the bill through the Upper House.

Despite the recognition and support he received from many in his own party and from Labor, conservative members feared where Wise would carry the party if he succeeded See as leader. Wise felt slighted when Governor Sir Harry Rawson called on Thomas Waddell in June 1904 to form a government. Waddell refused to promote the local government extension bill (incorporating reforms of 'paramount urgency' which Wise had already prepared and committed) and Wise refused to serve under him.

One of the last to have kept up his practice while attorney-general, in 1904 a tired Wise took leave to visit England. Next year in South America he contracted malaria and seriously impaired his health. Never financially secure, he resumed practice at the English Bar in 1906. He contributed to journals and wrote Australia and its Critics (London, 1905) and The Commonwealth of Australia (London, 1909). His illness prevented lengthy travel until 1908. When he returned to Sydney that year, his Legislative Council seat had been declared vacant and he found it difficult to regain his legal or political standing. He resumed legal work and published The Making of the Australian Commonwealth 1889-1900 (London, 1913) and The War of Nations (Melbourne, 1914). Described by Deakin as a 'man of letters, all his tastes are literary', Wise was closely involved in Australian cultural life. A great supporter of artists, he corresponded with a circle of literary friends including (Sir) Mungo MacCallum and John Le Gay Brereton. He entertained Robert Louis Stevenson on his visit to Sydney, and Wise's family connexion with Henry Brodribb Irving kept him in touch with the theatrical world. A trustee of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, he was also able to fulfil his father's wish to have land set aside in the Domain for a free public library. Wise was a member of the Athenaeum and Union clubs, president of the French Club and a patron of the Harriers Athletic Club.

Holman, a long-time friend and admirer, appointed Wise chairman of the royal commission on the mining industry at Broken Hill (1914-15); and as premier in 1914, Holman appointed him New South Wales agent-general in London. Wise threw all his energies into his wartime position, straining his weakened health. After visiting Australian troops at Salisbury, he died suddenly on 19 September 1916 at his Kensington home and was buried at Brookwood, Surrey. His wife and son survived him.

Of a career generally assessed as one of unfulfilled promise, Wise himself had concluded:

My failure in Sydney has been so complete—my qualities those which Australia does not recognise, my defects those which Australians dislike most.

Some have analysed a failure of character—restless inconsistency, inconstancy, insincerity—while others have painted a man unscrupulous, disloyal and scheming, guilty of the great sin of Australian politics, betrayal of his party. Another view, however, can contemplate a committed and principled politician, bringing with him the philosophy of T. H. Green's New Liberalism, the ethos of Arnold Toynbee and an English concept of political party life. Deeply committed to Australia, Wise entered its political life at a time when radical-conservative and nationalist-Imperial divisions were settling into loose fiscal party formations and into an emerging, class-based labour movement; his perpetual isolation might well be considered a political tragedy, rather than a personal failure. His own aspirations for a better society, implemented through parliament, were an influence acknowledged by many of his contemporaries. In 1916 Holman declared that: 'There is hardly anything in our public life which we have to consider to-day that cannot be traced back to his brilliant mind and clear foresight … [Wise] held undisputed supremacy as the foremost debater, foremost thinker and foremost public man in the life of New South Wales'.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Parkes, Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History (Lond, 1892)
  • A. Milner, Arnold Toynbee (Lond, 1895)
  • National Australasian Convention/Australasian Federal Convention, Official Report (and Record) of the Debates (Adel, Syd, 1897, Melb, 1898)
  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader (Syd, 1942)
  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story (Melb, 1944)
  • B. E. Mansfield, Australian Democrat (Syd, 1965)
  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • J. Rickard, Class and Politics (Canb, 1975)
  • A. W. Martin, Henry Parkes (Melb, 1980)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Sept 1916
  • J. A. Ryan, B. R. Wise (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1966)
  • Henry Parkes correspondence (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Wise correspondence and newsclippings (State Library of New South Wales)
  • New South Wales Agent-General correspondence and despatches, 1916 (CO 418/151-52, AJCP microfilm, National Library of Australia)
  • B. R. Wise, Reverie and Reminiscence. A Personal Memoir (manuscript, 1914, privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. A. Ryan, 'Wise, Bernhard Ringrose (1858–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Bernhard Ringrose Wise (1858-1916), by unknown photographer, 1898

Bernhard Ringrose Wise (1858-1916), by unknown photographer, 1898

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-12

Life Summary [details]


10 February, 1858
Petersham, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


19 September, 1916 (aged 58)
London, Middlesex, England

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