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Edward Wise (1818–1865)

by J. A. Ryan

This article was published:

Edward Wise (1818-1865), politician and judge, was born on 13 August 1818 at Carisbrooke, Isle of Wight, England, second son of Edward Wise, of Bembridge, and his wife Amelia, née Wilson. He entered Rugby School in 1831 under Dr Thomas Arnold and became a private tutor before entering the Middle Temple, London. Sustained by the affectionate interest and advice of Arnold, he was called to the Bar on 22 November 1844.

While working as a barrister on the Western Circuit and in London, he published six volumes, with D. T. Evans, of The Law Digest: A General Index to the Reports (and Statutes) (1846-56); The Law Relating to Riots and Unlawful Assemblies … (1848), and The Bankrupt Law Consolidation Act, 1849 (1849). He also helped to edit Reports of Cases in the Law of Real Property … Court of Queen's Bench (1843-48). Associated with Lord Shaftesbury, (Sir) Edwin Chadwick and Dr John Sutherland in investigating slum housing, he observed the relation of crime to social distress.

Wise decided to join his brother George and brother-in-law (Sir) William Manning in Australia and reached Sydney on 26 February 1855 in the Pacific. He was admitted to the colonial Bar on 16 June, living first at Enmore, then at Edgecliffe House, Woollahra. He soon represented the Bar on the Barristers Admission Board. On 1 January 1856 at Kyneton, Victoria, he married Maria Bate, sister of Bernhard Smith. Wise's experience and legal talents were soon recognized, and on 19 February 1857 he was appointed to the Legislative Council; from May to September he was solicitor-general in (Sir) H. Watson Parker's ministry. His ability, capacity for hard work, and character soon dispelled criticism of his appointment and he became attorney-general in William Forster's government on 27 October 1859.

Wise devoted himself to the welfare of his adopted land, advocating state responsibility for the moral and social condition of the people; as attorney-general he introduced legislation on district courts which would bring justice 'as near as possible to every man's home'. Anxious to establish a proper system of court reporting and recording, he offered to find and train reporters and to locate a publisher. In December 1859 in evidence to a Legislative Assembly select committee on the condition of the working classes of the metropolis, he presented cases and facts gathered from slum inspections with a police officer, and described his lectures on basic hygiene, sanitary reform and domestic economy. He emphasized that a fruitful source of crime and demoralization was the lack of adequate housing.

Wise saw education as a means of uplifting the underprivileged. In 1861 he was a founder and committee-man of the Sydney Ragged Schools and the Working Men's Book Society and Book-Hawking Society. To further his project he went on poetry-reading tours to country towns. He also served on the committees of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, the Union Club and the Home Visiting and Relief Society and was a councillor of the Australian Horticultural and Agricultural Society and the Philosophical Society of New South Wales. He was also a patron of art and literature. A liberal, devout Low Church Anglican, Wise was a member of the Church Society and of the 1859 Church of England Conference to re-define the Church's government and constitutional committee. He advocated that the Church should not be too dependent on the state and urged a wider role for the laity.

Wise resigned from Forster's ministry and was appointed a puisne judge of the Supreme Court on 13 February 1860. He took part on the Full Court in two important cases involving the legal position of church and state in the colony. In (James) Purves v. Attorney-General he concurred with Judge Samuel Milford in dismissing Rev. John Dunmore Lang's appeal against exclusion from the Scots Church; however, their decision was reversed by the Privy Council. In January 1861 with Judge Sir John Dickinson, in Ex parte the Revd. George King, he upheld King's general challenge to Bishop Frederic Barker's ecclesiastical authority but ruled that the bishop could solely hear his case. In his judgment Wise defined how the legal position of the Church of England in the colony differed from its position in England and Ireland.

In September at the Goulburn Circuit Court Wise tried the anti-Chinese Burrangong rioters amid scenes of great excitement. His summing-up was strongly against the accused and led David Buchanan to move for a select committee to inquire into his conduct. Buchanan compared him to Judge Jeffreys, but the motion was defeated, as was his attempt soon after to have Wise removed.

In 1865 overwork led to a breakdown, and on a visit to Melbourne Wise died suddenly of softening of the brain and apoplexy on 28 September and was buried in St Kilda cemetery. Manning ascribed his death to 'overtaxation of the brain in the performance of his duties', and the Sydney Morning Herald spoke of his 'scrupulous integrity and uprightness'. Wise was survived by his wife and four young sons, one of whom was Bernhard Ringrose (1858-1916). His personalty was valued for probate at £3000 and the New South Wales government granted his wife a pension of £200 a year. A memorial stained glass window placed in St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney, by the New South Wales Bar Association commemorates him and Judge Milford. Wise was the first to collect Australiana systematically. His widow gave part of his library to the people of New South Wales; it is now in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • J. G. Legge (ed), A Selection of Supreme Court Cases in New South Wales, vol 2 (Syd, 1896)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1859-60, 4, 1263, 1861-62, 1, 131, 206, 1866, 4, 915, 1900, 4, 591ff
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1859-60, 1, 735
  • R. Border, Church and State in Australia 1788-1872 (Lond, 1962)
  • J. A. Dowling, ‘The judiciary’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 2 (1906-09)
  • G. D. Richardson, ‘The colony's quest for a national library’, and R. Withycombe, ‘Church of England attitudes to the social question in the Diocese of Sydney, c. 1856-66’, JRAHS, 47 (1961)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July 1858, 20, 21, 30 Sept, 10, 20 Oct 1861, 30 Sept 1865
  • Empire (Sydney), 28 Sept 1861
  • B. R. Wise letters, and manuscript catalogue under E. Wise (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

J. A. Ryan, 'Wise, Edward (1818–1865)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 19 July 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]


13 August, 1818
Carisbrooke, Hampshire, England


28 September, 1865 (aged 47)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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