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Sir John Wylde (1781–1859)

by R. J. McKay

This article was published:

Sir John Wylde (1781-1859), deputy judge advocate, was born on 11 May 1781 at Warwick Square, Newgate Street, London, the eldest son of Thomas Wylde (1758-1821) of London, and his wife Mary Anne, née Knight. He was educated at St Paul's School, London, of which he became captain, and Trinity College, Cambridge (LL.B., 1805). In 1805 he was called to the Bar, and at St Benedict's, Cambridge, married Elizabeth Jane, described in his will as daughter of John and Mary Moore, late of Horningsea, near Cambridge, who bore him nine children. He signed his marriage certificate Wylde and used that spelling thereafter, though some members of the family, including his brother Thomas, chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas and later lord chancellor as the first Lord Truro, and his nephew John Plaisted, Lord Penzance, baron of the Court of Exchequer, adopted the spelling Wilde.

Wylde was successful at the Bar, and in 1815 accepted the position of deputy judge advocate of New South Wales at a salary of £1200. He was also appointed judge in the Vice-Admiralty Court there. On 5 October 1816 he arrived in Sydney in the Elizabeth, accompanied by his wife, six children, Joshua John Moore, his brother-in-law and clerk, and his father, a man of fashion and amateur naturalist of some distinction, who was estranged from his more noted son, Thomas, and had sold his prosperous practice as a London attorney. Before sailing John Wylde had mentioned Ellis Bent's report of the need for 'a professional person … as Clerk of the Peace' to help the judge-advocate and had recommended that his father be appointed to this position. On 1 January 1817 Governor Lachlan Macquarie made Thomas senior clerk of the peace and crown solicitor. He was the first to hold these offices which he kept until his death on 4 December 1821, aged 63. John Wylde also recommended to Bathurst the appointment of Barron Field as judge of the Supreme Court. He thought Field would give 'constant and able Co-operation in my judicial functions', but later had cause to regret his choice.

Wylde's judicial duties in New South Wales were onerous and diverse, for as judge-advocate he had to combine the roles of 'committing Magistrate, public prosecutor and Judge'. He discharged these duties faithfully and simplified the rules of procedure and pleading in so far as they related to proceedings before him. Within six weeks of his arrival Wylde expressed his concern about the 'Colonial paper Currency', discussed with the governor the difficulty of recovering debts because of the condition of the notes issued by individuals and the need to ignore the colonial proclamations which declared them void; as he felt that there was no time to refer to London, he drafted the charter of the Bank of New South Wales, assured Macquarie that the power to grant it 'could not but belong' to the governor's Commission and so by 'intelligent and zealous Co-operation' played a prominent part in its foundation in 1817. He refused to allow convict attorneys to practise in his court when the cases they had already begun were disposed of. He raised the question of the domicile of persons sued for debt, soon to become important in the case of Garnham Blaxcell. He advocated the establishment of a supreme court in Van Diemen's Land. He held that D'Arcy Wentworth as a surgeon was not liable to be tried by court martial, suggested to Macquarie that the judge-advocate's office be used as a register of deeds, successfully opposed the governor's desire to arrest the officers of the convict transport Chapman for murder after a shooting affray on board, compiled for the governor a digest of government orders of the colony, revised the port regulations to which Ellis Bent had taken such exception, and took part in inquiries into the administration of Provost-Marshal William Gore and Commissary Frederick Drennan.

In 1821, after Wylde had conducted a circuit in Van Diemen's Land, Macquarie reported on his 'earnest Zeal for the Public Service'. Later that year the judge-advocate reported at length to Commissioner John Thomas Bigge on the judicial establishments of the colony, stressing the difficulties incidental to applying the 'laws of England' in New South Wales and recommending a 'modified' jury system and a proper court of appeal to overcome the anomalies of his own position in relation to the governor and the existing military jury. One special grievance was the possible influence of the governor in appointing laymen with no legal knowledge to the Governor's Court, over which the judge-advocate presided. Wylde's report was criticized at length by Bigge in a confidential letter to Bathurst on 9 September 1822. According to Bigge, the judge-advocate 'rendered plain subjects unintelligible' and expressed himself with 'such an habitual and studied obscurity of phrase and meaning that the members of the Criminal Court have been placed in a state of greater embarrassment by written and verbal addresses of the Judge-Advocate than if they had been left to their own unassisted consciences and judgment'; he said that though Macquarie had commented favourably on Wylde's 'friendly and placable disposition' the governor avoided communication with the judge-advocate because of his 'mode of treating and discussing the most trifling subjects of business'. Bigge also criticized the employment of Wylde's connexions in duties which related to his office, stated that he had been informed by several persons who were present that Wylde had shown bias when presiding in the trial of J. T. Campbell for his libel on Samuel Marsden, told Bathurst that this trial had had 'powerful effect in producing' a petition for trial by jury, and concluded that the judge-advocate had 'not commanded the respect of the Colony in his judicial capacity'.

This criticism was far too harsh. Wylde, in his farewell speech on the final sitting of the Governor's Court in May 1824, powerfully and ably defended himself against the charge of bias made by Bigge in his public report, and Frederick Garling, who spoke on behalf of the assembled solicitors, said that 'from his own knowledge of the case' the 'explanations' of Wylde were 'perfectly correct' and assured the judge-advocate that 'he took with him the blessings of the Public'. During Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane's administration Wylde was to prove himself a courageous defender of the independence of the judiciary and of the rule of law against the convenience of the executive, but his relations with Brisbane were strained. In August 1822 he joined other magistrates in passing a resolution designed, according to Brisbane, to 'intimidate the measures of my government' in the affair of Henry Grattan Douglass. This followed Wylde's decision three months earlier in Burn v. Howe that the colonial wage-fixing regulations were illegal, and soon after the case he gave to the justices of the peace his opinion that no civil jurisdiction could be conferred on them by governor's proclamations. Brisbane sharply criticized Wylde's failure to mention this matter earlier, so that it might have been referred to London. Already irritated by Wylde's claim to be a member of the Court of Appeal and not merely an adviser to the governor on it, and by his insistence that few capitally convicted prisoners be reprieved despite the large number of offences then punishable only by death, the governor urged Wylde's recall and said that he hoped he had prevented the recurrence of future mischief by 'the judicious appointment' to the Governor's Court 'of two members on whom he could depend', namely two clerks 'in the employ and pay of the Government'. Bathurst, on the advice of James Stephen junior, upheld Wylde's decision in Burn v. Howe, and endorsed his objections to what approached an attempt to 'pack' the Governor's Court; though he criticized Wylde's conduct in other respects, he refused to remove him on the ground that the contemplated remodelling of the courts, which was carried out by the New South Wales Act, 1823 (4 Geo. IV, c. 96), would soon make new judicial appointments necessary. When told of the new arrangements Wylde, having regard to the criminal and civil jurisdictions still in his charge, said that he did not feel at liberty to return to England until the new chief justice arrived. Field, less mindful of his obligations, left immediately and, to prevent inconvenience to suitors in the Supreme Court, Wylde offered to add Field's duties to his own. Brisbane gladly accepted this offer, and Wylde was sworn in as judge of the old Supreme Court on 23 March 1824, and so continued until Francis Forbes opened the new court on 17 May.

Wylde had received several land grants, including 2000 acres (809 ha) at Cabramatta and 50 (20 ha) on Pott's Point, Sydney, where he built a palatial home which he kept for many years. He had founded a famous horse stud, was interested in the formation of the Agricultural Association and became president of the Benevolent Society. Widely read and familiar with the classics as might be expected, he also had a love of music. He imported a piano into New South Wales and among his prize possessions was a choice century-old cello and a treasured flute. He sailed for England in February 1825, leaving behind three children with his wife who was about to give birth to her last infant, and having already requested 'a higher official Station' in the colonial department. In 1826 Field told Marsden that there was 'not much chance of [Wylde] getting any appointment anywhere' and asked the chaplain to look after Mrs Wylde; but he gained his LL.D., and in 1827 was knighted and appointed chief justice of the new court of the Cape of Good Hope, which was reconstituted as the Supreme Court in 1834.

Most of his children, to whom he was a very devoted parent, came to live with him, but his wife, whom he divorced in 1836, remained in New South Wales. He never left South Africa, but retired in October 1855 because of ill health and died on 13 December 1859. His portrait, painted in 1827 by Sir Martin Shee, is in Parliament House, Cape Town.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 9-11, 14-15, series 3, vols 3-4, series 4, vol 1
  • A. C. V. Melbourne, Early Constitutional Developments in Australia (Oxford, 1934)
  • M. H. Ellis, Lachlan Macquarie (Syd, 1947)
  • S. J. Butlin, Foundations of the Australian Monetary System, 1788-1851 (Melb, 1953)
  • F. St Leger Searle, ‘Sir John Wylde’, South African Law Journal, vol 50, 1933, pp 284-97
  • manuscript catalogue under Wylde (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Bigge Report, Appendix, Bonwick transcripts, Box 28/6710 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

R. J. McKay, 'Wylde, Sir John (1781–1859)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 14 June 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]

Alternative Names
  • Wilde, John

11 May, 1781
London, Middlesex, England


13 December, 1859 (aged 78)
South Africa

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