Sir John Robertson
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Sir John Robertson
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Sir John Robertson
Sir John Robertson
There has been so much written about Sir John Robertson, it is hard to know what to write here. 
 The Australian Dictionary of Biography has a comprehensive article on the life of Sir John Robertson. 
Newpaper Reports including his Obituary and Funeral Procession, written for the Sydney Morning Herald, give a comprehensive and contemporary insight into his life and family.


9 MAY, 1891



            Sir John Robertson died at Clovelly, Watson’s Bay, on Thursday night. The career of a statesman so well known, and so deservedly respected, deserves more than a passing mention.



            Nearly sixty years ago a school was opened in Sydney to pay off the debt on a Presbyterian kirk in Princes-street, and on the opening day the school had but one scholar. The teacher was a young man, the scholar was a child of 5 years old, and there was nothing more remarkable about them than the oddity of two persons comprising a whole scholastic establishment. But in after years the dominie the well known divine, politician and author, Dr.Lang, and the pupil merged into one of the most successful and best known Australian statesmen - Sir John Robertson, K.C.M.G.. With disadvantages which would have been insuperable barriers to the advancement of most men, Sir John Robertson, in his early life, set his foot upon the lowest rung of the political ladder in New South Wales, and overcoming all difficulties, ascended till he reached the apex. Possessed of energy, resolution, and great perseverance, never was he so happy as when maintaining an uphill fight; and entering into public life at the time when great struggles in the cause of public liberty and progress here commenced, he rapidly developed and improved those qualities which fitted him for the position of a leader in the arena of colonial politics. No one could manage his supporters or guide his Cabinet with safety over the shoals and quicksands of office better than he. His extensive knowledge of men enabled him to secure for himself and his friends the assistance of many of the most influential of those who in one way or another contribute to political success. His genial disposition drew towards him all with whom he became acquainted, and his steadfastness in the defence of a colleague was more than once exhibited to a remarkable degree. All men will not be disposed to accord to him the same mee of praise, but few will question the legitimacy of his claim to be considered a very prominent public man who, apart from some mistakes connected chiefly with his land law, contributed much towards the well being and progress of the country.



            John Robertson was born at Bow, near London, on October 15, 1816, and was the third son and fourth child of a family of eight. His father, on the advice of Sir Thomas Brisbane, a school fellow of his, came out to New South Wales at the same time, though on a different ship, as Sir Thomas Brisbane did, and immediately applied his energy and his means to pastoral pursuits. According to the custom at that time anyone bringing to the colony a sum of money not less than 2000 Pounds was entitled to a first-class grant of 2500 acres of land. This grant the Robertson family received, and locating themselves upon their property in the Upper Hunter district they entered into the pastoral business of squatting. Times then were very different from what they are now, and occupiers of land were oppressed not only by defective laws or regulations, but by the acts of tyrannical or bungling officials, to an extent that colonists of today would scarcely credit. But in the grievances of the time lay the opportunity which a few years after brought young John Robertson into notice and eventually to popularity and power. The boy’s first schoolmaster appears to have the late Dr.Lang, and he was first brought under he tuition of that able man by the circumstance of Mr.Robertson, the boy’s father, who was a Scotch Presbyterian, being one of Dr Lang’s personal friends. Brought within the sphere of Dr.Lang’s influence from this cause, it is not to be wondered at that the queer companionship on the opening day of the school should have given rise to a feeling between the teacher and his pupil, which, as time went on, ripened into warm and lasting friendship and esteem. “From the first day I was at Lang’s, and he was my teacher,” said Sir John Robertson, earnestly, one day in his later life, “he was my staunch friend.”

            It was only for the first day that the boy comprised the whole of the school; next day his brother put in an appearance, and other scholars came until the number increased so largely that John Robertson lost for the time that odd identity which his position as the first and only pupil had secured for him. From Dr.Lang’s school he went to those of Mr.Bradley, Mr.Gilchrist, and Mr.T.W.Cape, several of his schoolfellows being boys who subsequently became distinguished or prominent public men. The late Sir James Martin, Chief Justice, was one; the late Mr.William Forster was another; and the Hon.Geoffrey Eager and the late Mr.George Lord were others.



            On leaving school young Robertson became filled with a desire to travel and see the world, and he commenced with the object of being a sailor. This was not in accordance with the ideas of his parents, but the roving spirit was strong in the boy, and contrary to the advice of his friends he determined to gratify an ardent wish to visit England. A favourite ship called the Sovereign, commanded by Captain Mackellar, a friend of the boy’s father, was then trading between London and Sydney, and on board the Sovereign an opening was found for the young sailor. The boy was no more than 16 years old at the time, but he had studied navigation and in Sydney Harbour had won the reputation of being a good boatman; it was something to be proud of therefore, that he was put on pay immediately the vessel set sail for London. Nothing eventful occurred during the passage home, but after the voyage had ended young Robertson had an adventure such as biographers, when examining the incidents in the early experiences of prominent men, love to point to as the probable source of subsequent fortune and success. At the period when the good ship Sovereign made this particular voyage - about the end of 1833 - people did not rely much on the post office and the system then in vogue of transmitting correspondence between England and the Australian colonies, and everybody going to England was asked to carry letters. In accordance with this custom the young sailor received numerous requests from Australian correspondents to carry their missives home, and not dreaming of any difficulty in disposing of the letters when he should reach England, he speedily became the custodian of something like a bushel. Among them was one that led to a very singular circumstance, which directly or indirectly may have had much to do in influencing the boy’s career. One of the convict servants, who in accordance with the practice of those days, had been assigned to his father, was a young man whose mother was a tenant on the estate of Lord Palmerston, at Broadlands, and one of the letters entrusted to the care of John Robertson was from this young man to his mother. On the arrival of the Sovereign in the Thames, young Robertson landed, and directing his steps to the office of William Walker and Company, his father’s agents, to whom he had a letter of credit, he left with them the correspondence he had brought from Australia and dismissed the matter from his mind. But a few days afterwards, when he again visited the office on some business, Mr.Walker greeted him with - “There’s a letter here from Lord Palmerston for you.” The boy was sufficiently well acquainted with the politics of the day and with public men to know that Lord Palmerston was a man of high position and great influence in the world, and thinking the agent was joking he laughingly remarked that he supposed the letter contained some complimentary cards from the queen. But the letter was there, and Mr.Walker having handed it to his amused young friend it was found to be from Lord Palmerston, asking Mr.Robertson to call upon him at his chambers at Westminster.

            The boy went, and the great political chief, influenced doubtless by that frank and pleasant manner which throughout John Robertson’s life surrounded him with friends, and perhaps by a little of that subtle affinity which exists between kindred spirits, seemed to take a fancy to him at once. Lord Palmerston questioned his young visitor concerning the condition of the young man whose relative was at Broadlands, and made many enquiries respecting New South Wales. He could scarcely believe that the boy before him had come so far merely for the purpose of seeing England and something of the rest of the great world outside the boundaries of Australia. “You have come to England from this far colony merely for the purpose of travel!” he exclaimed in surprise. ‘What is your father?”  “He is connected with the pastoral agricultural business in that colony,” replied the boy. “And have you come to see England; will you come with me to Broadlands?” The boy had no idea where Broadlands was, but he knew the value of an invitation of any kind from a nobleman of Lord Palmerston’s standing, and he said, yes, he would go with him anywhere. Seated, then, in the Viscount’s curricle, he was driven to Broadlands, where he met a large number of ladies and gentlemen, stayed for four or five days, and was for the time a kind of exhibit. He was pressed by his noble patron to repeat the visit, but young Robertson’s time was getting short, and he was obliged to express his regret at being unable to comply with the second invitation. This he did by calling upon the peer at Westminster; and with an earnest desire to assist the boy Lord Palmerston wrote for him a letter to the Governor of New south Wales introducing young Robertson to his Excellency, saying a great deal about him, and expressing a hope that the Governor would be of service to him. The young sailor was pleased at this attention and kindness from Lord Palmerston, but thought very little of the letter, and never attempted to use it for his advantage. On his return to the colony he was strongly advised by his father to wait upon the Governor with the document, but having no taste for any such patronage as that which might be expected to result from the interview, he could not be prevailed upon to do anything more than send the letter to its destination. But before he returned from his trip to Europe he visited Scotland, Ireland, France, and some parts of South America; and eventually he landed in Sydney with a mind enlarged and a store of information which he never would have acquired in any way but travel.

            Having seen so much, and gratified the desire he had felt to learn something of the world, his first sea voyage in the profession of a sailor was his only one; and soon after his return to Sydney he devoted himself to squatting enterprise.




            The first occasion when he took an active part in connection with matters relating to the question of land was when he was about 18 or 20 years of age. He felt great interest in the effort, ultimately unsuccessful, made to induce the Government to take complete governmental control of the land beyond what were then known as the 19 counties. This land was held to be separate from the other part of the territory within the counties; it was not under police protection, for example. Stations were formed upon it, and among others the Robertsons had taken up land upon it at Liverpool Plains; but the districts round about were in a state of confusion, and even anarchy, through a want of proper government protection and supervision. Doubtless the circumstance of Mr.Robertson’s father being a station-holder in this unsettled locality gave rise to the interest which was awakened in the young man’s mind, and he took a very active part in connection with a petition to the Governor for the right of depasturing beyond the counties and beyond the ranges, and for the levying of a fee by which a fund could be provided for the purpose of securing sufficient police protection. Such was one of Sir John Robertson’s earliest efforts in the public interest. Long afterwards, the action of Commissioner Mayne (the Northern Commissioner of Crown Lands) became so annoying to the squatters about the Liverpool Plains district that a strong feeling of opposition and resentment was aroused, and Mr.Robertson, entering with a Dr.Gill into the struggle against what was regarded as official tyranny, upheld the claims of the squatters with such success that he and those who acted with him ultimately secured what they were striving for. It was on the advice of Commissioner Mayne that the Governor of the day, Sir George Gipps, made an order that no new stations should be formed, and as this was during a period of great drought, when stock were dying in large numbers, the pastoralists considered that speedy ruin was inevitable unless they were allowed to move their stock to parts of the country where they could find the necessary grass and water. In this emergency, John Robertson, though quite a youngster, being no more than 21, was deputed by the squatters to obtain an interview with the Governor, represent to him the injuries which the recent order respecting the formation of new stations was bringing upon the pastoral tenants, and endeavour to secure the necessary concession. He came to Sydney, and waited upon Sir George Gipps, who, at the first interview, refused to make any concession whatever. But Mr.Robertson persisted in his mission, and called a meeting of squatters at the Royal Hotel to further consider the matter. The hotel does not exist now, for it was subsequently burned down, but it occupied the site of the present Royal Hotel in George-street, which therefore forms an interesting feature of old colonial days as being a building erected on the spot where the first meeting of squatters was convened. At that meeting some 40 or 50 squatters were present, and among them were Mr.Alexander Busby, Mr.Robert Crawford, and Sir Saul Samuel (then a very young man); but before business could be proceeded with, a messenger from the Governor arrived with a letter for Mr.Robertson, informing him that the required concession had been made, and that the squatters might take up new runs and move their stock upon them. The success which had thus attended Mr.Robertson’s efforts brought him into prominence in connection with the land question, and he received the thanks of those who had sent him to Sydney. In 1842 the Governor issued certain regulations which were regarded as extremely arbitrary, making a variety of alterations with respect to the squatters and the pastoral holdings without the assent of the Legislature; and petitions against the right of the Governor to deal with the matter without Legislative authority were with the aid of Mr.Robertson prepared, and distributed throughout the country. Speeches upon this matter, which was one of great moment to those who had taken up land in the interior, as well as to all those who desired the country to be governed constitutionally, were delivered by Mr.Robertson at Scone, Muswellbrook, Singleton, Jerry’s Plains and Maitland, and as the new regulations were of a character calculated to agitate the whole country, Mr.Robertson and those with whom he acted, applied themselves vigorously to the defence of the squatter’s claims, and in condemnation of what was pronounced to be arbitrary and unjust. But somewhere about this time the squatters formed the Pastoral Association, led by the Boyds, and the association demanded that the squatters should have the freehold of their land. Mr.Archibald Boyd in an interview with the governor on the subject of what his tenure should be, putting his request with the words of a tolerably well known couplet:

                                                            It seems more clever

                                                            To me and my heirs for ever.


            These proceedings on the part of the holders of pastoral land aroused a feeling of antagonism in the mind of their former associate, for though himself a squatter Mr.Robertson was not of that nature which seeks advantages and profit for an individual or a class at the expense of others, and he strongly objected to a proposal which to him looked very much like an attempt on the part of this association to become possessed of the whole country. He was opposed to this monopolist movement also because those who were engaged in it were attempting to secure their object by means of the popularity which many who had worked with them had given them; and he and his friends determined that this should not be used for the purpose of getting the freehold. So Mr.Robertson took sides against the squatters.




            The next event in his career was the introduction of Mr.Wentworth’s Constitution Bill. Although Mr.Wentworth joined with the Boyd party of squatters, Mr.Robertson remained a faithful friend of his up to the time of his proposal for the appointment of a nominee Upper House, which was not unconnected with extravagant concessions to the squatters, and then he attacked Mr.Wentworth and his party, especially in letters published in the “Herald”. The Constitution Act being passed, an alliance was made between Mr.Wentworth and the squatting party, and those who filled offices under the old Imperial regime, and one of the results of the alliance was the passing of certain squatting regulations which gave the squatters a large control over the public estate and which remained in effect until the land law was altered. Rightly or wrongly this proceeding and others associated with it aroused Mr.Robertson’s indignation and induced him - perhaps not altogether justifiably - to take an extreme course in opposition to what had been done. Matters went on, and the first general election under the new constitution took place. Mr.Robertson was invited to stand for the three counties of Phillip, Brisbane and Bligh, which at first he consented to do, but afterwards declined on account of his voice, which at that time was greatly failing him. His general health was very critical also, and to such an extent was this apparent that his medical advisor declared that any attempt at public speaking would probably cause his death. He therefore retired, and strongly advised not to go into parliament or enter the turmoil of political life, as he was supposed to be suffering from aneurysm of the aorta, he remained for six weeks out of the contest, in the constituency from which he had received an invitation, and then upon representations that he was the only person likely to succeed against the anti-Liberal party of the district, he was induced to go on, and he was returned by a large majority. But anterior to this - in 1855 - it should be mentioned Mr.Robertson gave evidence before a committee on agriculture, of which committee Sir Henry (then Mr.) Parkes was chairman, and at the request of the committee he subsequently wrote a paper on the land system, in which he showed the difficulties besetting agriculture in the colony, and suggested the idea of selling unalienated land on more liberal terms than before had been offered - that the improvements made on the land should be regarded as in the nature of purchase money, because those improvements would increase the value and promote the sale of neighbouring lands. Having been elected to Parliament he immediately took his stand with the Liberal Party, and voted with them to put Mr. (now Sir) Daniel Cooper into the chair, the other candidate for the speakership being Mr. (afterwards Sir) Henry Watson Parker. A Land Bill was first introduced by Mr. (now Sir) John Hay, but as it did not propose any concession in relation to improvements made on land other than to the squatters - no more advantage to the man who covenanted to personally reside and to improve than to the mere speculator - it did not meet with Mr.Robertson’s approval.




            When Mr. (afterwards Sir) Charles Cowper’s Government was formed, Mr. (Afterwards Sir) Terence Aubrey Murray, Secretary for Lands and Works, brought in a Land Bill but little dissimilar from the previous one, and Mr.Robertson, seeing how the Bill might be amended and improved by introducing into it the principles which he advocated, prepared certain clauses or resolutions to be added to he measure. The object of these clauses was to enable people not only to buy land under the provisions then proposed, but to purchase without competition or the delay attendant upon survey previous to the sale, (his words being “surveyed or unsurveyed”) at a fixed minimum price, on condition that the purchasers resided on the land and made improvements upon it. Believing rapid settlement and improvement of the land to be the best means for a proper development of the resources of the country, he considered that the advantages which would accrue to the whole colony in this way should be held by the state an equivalent for the proposed escape from competition, the purchase or selection before survey, and the long period over which the payment of the purchase money would be allowed to run. One great desire he had was to increase the value of Crown Lands adjacent to those occupied, for at that time land could not be sold except in very favourable places; and an increase in the value of land, he argued, would extend the area that was likely to be purchased. On these grounds he brought forward his clauses or resolutions and the only man in the house who supported him the first time he submitted them was the late Mr.D.H. Deniehy, who gave as the reason for his support, not his faith in the principles embodied in the clauses, but a dislike of seeing Mr.Robertson by himself. Not successful on that occasion, Mr. Robertson introduced his clauses again in another way, and nine members voted with him. Then, the resolutions having been negatived, he moved that the chairman leave the chair, and report progress that day six months. The squatters, who did not like the Cooper-Murray Land Bill, considering it too liberal, and who thought they could defeat Mr.Cowper by means of an extreme member of his own party, voted with Mr.Robertson, and the motion was carried. Mr.Cowper was about to resign, but a meeting of some of his friends was held, and Mr.Robertson urged upon the Colonial Secretary that the object of the motion recently passed was in no way to injure his government, and he was recommended to bring in only the clauses of the land Bill containing the provisions for increased rent and assessment, leaving the other portions of the land question to be dealt with separately. This advice Mr.Cowper took, and the clauses were introduced by way of a bill, but the bill was rejected, and a dissolution of Parliament followed.




            During the period while the elections were proceeding Mr.Robertson was induced by Mr.Richard Jones, an old friend and ally from the Hunter, and Treasurer of the Cowper Government, and by Mr.Cowper also, to join the Government as Secretary for Lands and Public works, and afterwards he was appointed Secretary for Lands alone, Public Works being formed into a separate department, and placed under another Minister. On taking office Mr. Robertson published an address, declaring his steadfast adherence to the principles connected with the sale and occupation of lands which he had advocated during the previous years of his public life, and promising that they should be again submitted to Parliament. this was in January, 1858, and the ministerial elections  having terminated favourably to the Government, Mr.Robertson applied himself with vigour to the duties of the Lands Department. Finding an immense number of applications for squatting runs undisposed of - ministers having been unwilling to grant them and equally unwilling to refuse them - he decided to deal with them promptly, and within 11 or 12 days of his taking office he issued the regulations of the 22nd February, 1858, which provided that all new acceptances by the Government of applications for pastoral holdings should be subject to the control of Parliament whenever it should deal with the question. On this condition - which left the terms on which the land should be held to the decision of the Legislature when the land question should be decided - the applications for the runs were disposed of. Unwilling, however, to deal with the whole question of land before there was a reform in the electoral law, the Electoral Act of 1858 was introduced and passed, and necessarily Parliament went again to the country. But previous to the dissolution Mr. Robertson submitted his Land Bill so that it might be considered by the constituencies, and opinions be expressed upon it at the elections. matters, as far as the elections were concerned, resulted very favourably for the Ministers, and for a time they went on satisfactorily; but in 1859 they left office. The Forster Ministry came into power, and Mr.Cowper retired from public life. Before these events, however, and about the time the electoral Act was before Parliament, Mr.Robertson introduced and succeeded in passing the Increased Rental assessment Act, which was the cause of a split between Sir James (then Mr.) Martin, who was Attorney-general at the time, and his colleagues. The life of the Forster Government was short - no longer than 5 months - but during that period they introduced a short bill dealing with the land question, and succeeded in getting the measure through the House, not, however, before Mr.Robertson and Mr.Martin, co-operating in this instance, though not at the time on friendly terms with each other, had entirely altered the Bill even to giving it a new name. The retirement of the Forster Administration following soon afterwards, The Governor successively sent for Sir Terence Aubrey Murray, Mr.Richard Jones, Sir Daniel Cooper, and one or two others, and ultimately for Mr Robertson, who formed a Government, which subsequently merged into a Cowper Ministry, and lasted 3 years and 9 months, a longer existence than that enjoyed by any Government before and by several Governments since. This, of course, brought Mr.Cowper back to public life. Recognising him as the natural head of the party then known by his name and afterwards as the Cowper-Robertson Party, Mr. Robertson succeeded in inducing his former colleague and chief to return to Parliament, but, there being no vacancy in the assembly at the time, he was nominated to the Upper House where he became the leader of the Government. Afterwards he took his seat in the Legislative Assembly again, Mr.Robertson, who had insisted upon the nominal change of leadership, remaining Secretary for Lands only.




            It was in 1860, while Secretary for Lands, that Mr.Robertson brought in the Land Bill which until a few years ago was the law, and having got the bill through the Lower Chamber, he went with it into the Legislative Council, where he had to contend against some of the ablest men we have had in the country. He was not yet destined to be successful in passing the measure through Parliament. Being unwilling to yield to certain propositions from his opponents, he let the bill go until the new Legislative Council was formed, when being again nominated to a life seat in that House, he renewed his efforts to pass his Land Bill, and ultimately succeeded.




            Not very long after the termination of that struggle he joined in the memorable contest when the fight for freetrade won the day. At East Sydney the struggle was between the Martin and Cowper candidates - Mr.Robertson giving up his seat for Shoalhaven to enter into this contest, which resulted favourably for the advocates of free trade, and, as far as Mr. Robertson was concerned, increasing his popularity at this time very much and returning him to Parliament at the head of the poll. It was subsequent to this that he became involved in difficulties arising from enterprises in which he had engaged at the Gulf of Carpentaria where he was part owner of several large station properties; and he retired from Parliament with a determination to give more of his attention to his private affairs. But he was not long away from active public life, and for the second time he entered the Assembly as a member for West Sydney .




            In 1865 he was again Minister for Lands in Mr.Cowper’s fourth Ministry, and in October, 1868, he was chief of an administration which lasted until December, 1870. It was during this period that Mr.Cowper was brought back for a second time to political life by his old colleague, Mr.Cowper taking the position of Vice-President of the Executive Council; and subsequently, on Mr.Robertson retiring from the Colonial Secretaryship, and from the Government, Mr Cowper became Colonial Secretary and Premier. On December 6, 1870, Mr.Cowper was appointed Agent-General for the colony, and on December 15 of the same year the Ministry retired from office, giving place to the Government formed by Sir James Martin in which Mr.Robertson took office as Colonial Secretary, a step that did not meet with the approval of many of his friends. This Ministry lasted until May, 1872, when it as followed by that of Mr. (afterwards Sir Henry) Parkes. In February, 1875, Mr.Robertson was again called upon to form a Government, and he succeeded. This administration remained in office a little more than two years, during which period the late Mr.William Forster, then Colonial Treasurer, was appointed Agent-General, Mr.Robertson taking upon himself for a time the duties of Acting-Treasurer in addition to those of the Colonial Secretary’s Department; and then it gave place to the second Parkes Ministry, which had the very short career of less than five months, being defeated on a resolution moved by Mr.Garrett respecting the administration of the law under the 31st clause of the Land Act. At the time when the previous Robertson Government was defeated the Governor was advised to dissolve the House, but his he declined to do except on condition that the house first granted supply, which they refused; and the Legislative Assembly being in a very unsettled state at the time when the Parkes Ministry was outvoted, his Excellency was again advised to grant a dissolution. He, however, still refused to do so except on the condition he had placed before Mr.Robertson and his colleagues, and the Parkes Ministry retired. Again was Mr.Robertson (now Sir John Robertson, he having a short time before been created a K.C.M.G.) called upon to form an Administration, and once more he succeeded in the task allotted to him; but, beset with difficulties from the first, the Government resigned on the very day when it had completed an existence of only four months, and a Ministry was formed by the late Mr.James Squire Farnell from what was known as “the third party”. Following upon the Farnell Ministry there came into existence the Parkes-Robertson Administration, which remained in office from December 21, 1878, until January 4, 1883, and in which Sir John Robertson was, in the first instance, Vice-President of the Executive Council and representative of the Government in the Upper House, and subsequently Minister of Public Instruction, Minister of Lands, and during the absence in England of Sir Henry Parkes, Acting-Colonial  Secretary. There was a difficulty in the way of either Sir John Robertson or Sir Henry Parkes alone forming a Ministry at the time the Farnell Government were obliged to retire from power, and to clear the way, Sir John Robertson resigned his seat in the Assembly. Then as Sir Henry Parkes, when entrusted by the Governor with the duty of forming a Government, immediately sought the assistance of Sir John Robertson, the two chiefs and their followers coalesced, and Sir John Robertson entered the Legislative Council in the capacity stated.




            The tenure of office of this Government was marked by some very good work in Parliament, among other measures passed being the present Public Instruction Act, which led to the functions of Minister for Justice and Public instruction being divided by the appointment of an additional Minister and the establishment of a separate Department. The Government were compelled to resign in consequence of being defeated on a bill brought forward by Sir john Robertson to amend the land law. For some time previous there had been a growing demand for a radical amendment to the existing Land Act - the Act of 1861, - and to meet this in some respects the bill of the Parkes -Robertson Government was brought in. But it failed to satisfy those who were persistent in their cry for thorough reform, and as it was practically only a consolidation and re-establishment of the system which was being loudly condemned, the Assembly rejected it on the motion for its second reading. A dissolution followed, the Stuart Government came into office, and Sir John Robertson re-entered the Assembly as one of the members for Mudgee. His long and determined opposition to the passing of the present land law is well known. He was never tired of condemning it, and never lost an opportunity to predict its failure. When the Dibbs Ministry, which followed the Ministry under the leadership of the late Sir Alexander Stuart, resigned, Sir John Robertson was sent for by Lord Carrington, and he formed a new Government, but its life was exceedingly short, and an unsuccessful attempt was then made to bring into existence a coalition Ministry with the assistance of the party led by Sir Patrick Jennings.




            Sir John was in failing health before he formed his last Government, but for a time he seemed to improve and become stronger. The improvement, however, was soon seen to be temporary, and, acting on the advice of his friends and his medical advisor, he resigned his seat in the Assembly with the intention of retiring altogether from public life. To this intention, until the last days of his life, he adhered. Parliament voted him a sum of 10,000 Pounds in recognition of his public services, and for the remainder of his days he took no very prominent part in politics. In the general election, when the second great struggle in the history of the colony between the advocates of free trade and those of protection took place, he appeared before the public on the side of free trade as the proposer of Mr.J.H.Want; but, with that exception, he kept aloof till then from active political life from the time he bade adieu o Parliament. When the present Federation movement grew to a head, and the “Commonwealth of Australia Bill” had been passed by the “National Australasian Convention”, he began to take a prominent part in opposition to the movement; and perhaps his last act in this direction was writing a letter to this journal on the subject, which appeared in our issue of yesterday. He was a well known figure at public banquets, and every year as the anniversary of his birth came round, there appeared in the newspapers an account of a dinner given in his honour at the Reform Club; but apart from this his later years were spent in rest and quiet, and he was recognised by the public for what he had been more than for what he was.

            With reference to his knighthood it should be stated that he received his title after he had more than once declined distinctions of the kind. He was elected between 20 and 30 times to the Assembly, and was twice nominated to the Upper House. As a Minister he was in office, he was fond of saying, more frequently than any other man in the country; and he claimed that his policy of selling land while under lease, and of allowing consideration in the price and the mode of obtaining the land to those who entered into an agreement to reside upon and improve it, was not only novel, but had been adopted throughout the Australian colonies.

            When the news of Sir John Robertson’s death became known among the residents of Watson’s Bay yesterday morning quite a gloom was cast over the small community. It would appear that Sir John had attended a private picnic with some friends at Vaucluse on Thursday Afternoon, and seemingly enjoyed himself, and was in the best of spirits all day. In the evening he walked down to the jetty at Watson’s Bay and gave a letter to the captain of one of the ferry steamers to be taken to Sydney for him. He then walked quietly home, and an hour or two later retired to rest. He was then in his usual health and spirits, and did not complain of anything being wrong with him. It was usual for his male attendant to call him every morning at 7 o’clock. This was done at the usual time on Friday. As Sir John did not appear shortly afterwards the attendant again knocked, but he received no answer. Being then thoroughly alarmed, he opened the door, and on entering the room he found his master apparently asleep in bed. On going closer the man discovered that Sir John was dead. He at once informed the other inmates of the house, and the health officer at Watson’s Bay was called in, and he pronounced life extinct, giving it as his opinion that Sir John had passed quietly away during the night. Dr.Mackellar, the family physician, was then sent for from Sydney. In connection with the death of Sir John, a well-known Sydney gentleman informs us that only a week ago the genial old knight, in the course of a long conversation on public affairs, spoke in a melancholy and despondent tone of his physical condition; and when he was assured that he looked as well as he had done during the last few years, Sir John replied that he had a presentiment that “he was not long for this world”.




            The arrangements for the public funeral of Sir John Robertson, which will take place tomorrow at 2 o’clock, are to be finally determined by a committee of gentlemen, consisting of Mr.G.R.Dibbs, Mr.J.Want, the Mayor of Sydney (Alderman W.P.Manning), Alderman Riley, Mr.D.O’Connor, Mr. Fosberry (Inspector-General of Police) and others, to-day. The remains of the deceased gentleman will be brought from Watson’s Bay in the Government launch, the “Premier”, at 1 o’clock tomorrow. A procession will be formed at Circular Quay at 2 o’clock, and it will proceed via Queen-street to George-street, and along George-street to King-street, through College-street, William-street, Rushcutter Bay-road, and the South Head-road to the cemetery at South Head, where the wife of Sir John Robertson and other members of his family are buried. Several steamers will depart from Watson’s Bay on Sunday for the convenience f the public. The Government launch will only carry the relatives of the deceased and his executors. Sir John Robertson and other members of the Reform Club were to have been guests at a dinner to be given at the Athenaeum Club this evening, but in view of Sir john’s demise the affair has been postponed. It has already been mentioned that Sir john Robertson was a guest at a picnic at Vaucluse on Thursday, but it is worthy of note that the deceased gentleman, in response to a toast proposed by Mr James Hill, made a speech in which he denounced the proposed form of federation, and in a short biographical sketch of his own life, pointed out that he had as a young man stood shoulder to shoulder with the late Mr.Wentworth, whose mausoleum was within a few yards of where he spoke; that he had devoted his fortune in fighting for the liberty of the people; and now, as an old man, he hoped he would be spared a little longer to see their liberties preserved; but whatever way the battle went, he would give his life to secure his country freedom and happiness.

            Mr.Dibbs had a consultation with the Premier yesterday afternoon, and as a result of the interview a “Gazette Extraordinary” was published last evening, embodying the following arrangements for the funeral, which will take place at Watson’s Bay: “The funeral procession will move from the Circular Quay at 2 p.m. on Sunday, the 10th instant and his Excellency the Governor, with a desire to show every respect to the memory of the deceased, invites the attendance of all officers of the Government and other citizens  who may desire to be present. A detachment of the permanent military forces will follow in the procession.” All the members of the Government will attend the funeral in their official capacity. The Minister for Mines and Agriculture (Mr.Sydney Smith) had arranged to address his constituents at Oberon tonight, but, in view of the decision of the Government to pay their personal respects to the deceased gentleman, he has postponed his engagement. By a notification which appears in another column the officers of the Education Department and the Public School teachers are asked to join in the cortege, and the senior cadets, including the High school and college corps, will also be present. Sir Henry Parkes received yesterday evening the following telegram from the Government of Queensland:- “This Government desires to record its deep regret at Sir John Robertson’s death, and it’s high regard for the eminent services he rendered to Australia. - S.W.Griffith.”



            The N.S.W. Rowing Association has been invited to organise a procession of boats to meet the steamer Premier (conveying the deceased’s remains) in the lower harbour between Fort Denison and Bradley’s Head, and accompany it to Circular Quay. Mr.Arthur Holmes, hon. secretary, is arranging for eight-oar crews from the Sydney, Mercantile, North Shore, and East Sydney Clubs, also fours and skiffs, to meet at the northern end of Garden Island at 1 p.m. and form a procession, the eights ranging on either side of the steamer, the fours in front, and skiffs in rear, in lines. It is hoped even at such short notice, that members of rowing clubs will arrange to be present and do honour to a worthy statesman, as special arrangements will be made to ensure a clear course. Club members in crews are requested to wear one colour, and a band of crepe on the left arm. All clubs are invited to participate, whether associated or not, but apart from those mentioned, fours and skiffs are most desirable.






            The death of Sir John Robertson has caused quite a sensation in town, as he was expected to be one of the main props against federation.



            The news of Sir John Robertson’s death was received here with profound regret by all classes.



            Much regret is expressed at the demise of Sir John Robertson, who at one time represented the Clarence in the legislative Assembly. When the news of his death was announced, the land court sitting to-day immediately adjourned till to-morrow out of respect to the deceased.


Obituary, Sydney Morning Herald

Funeral, Sydney Morning Herald

Margaret Emma Davies

Children of Sir John Robertson


1.   Agnes Rodd ROBERTSON

       bd. 30 May 1841

       dd. 15 Dec 1902

     & George Douglas BELL

       bd. 11 Oct 1836, Corinda, Hunter Valley, NSW

       dd. 11 Sep 1918

       m. 12 Feb 1862


2.   Lavalette Mary Maria ROBERTSON

        bd. 18 Jan 1842

        dd. 19 Feb 1920

      & Frederick Robertson WILSHIRE

        bd. 1836

        dd. 1929, Watson's Bay, Sydney, NSW

        m. 1863, "Clovelly", Watson's Bay, Sydney


3.   Kate Louisa ROBERTSON

       bd. 10 Jan 1847, "Strowan", Hunter Valley, NSW

       dd. 1926

      & John Kerr CLARK

       bd. 1838, Scotland

       dd. 1910, Paddington, Sydney, NSW

       m. 1870, NSW


4.   Richard Windeyer ROBERTSON

       bd. 1851

       dd. 24 May 1907, "Kaloma", Milton St., Ashfield, NSW

     & Janet Editha RODD

       bd. 19 Jul 1849, "Barnstaple Manor", Five Dock, Sydney

       m. 30 Sep 1879, "Barnstaple Manor", Five Dock, Sydney


5.    Amy Brisbane ROBERTSON

       bd. 5 Aug 1853

       dd. 16 Jul 1886

     & Henry (Jack?) GILLIATT


6.a   Margaret Emma ROBERTSON*

       bd. 21 Jan 1855, "Yarrundi", Scone, NSW

       dd. 1 Jan 1936

     & Robert Kerr CLARK

       dd. 4 Jan 1876

       m. 1873, "Clovelly", Watson's Bay, Sydney, NSW

6.b   Margaret Emma ROBERTSON*

       bd. 21 Jan 1855, "Yarrundi", Scone, NSW

       dd. 1 Jan 1936

     & Nicholai Nicolaevitch MIKLUHO-MACLAY

       bd. 1846, Rozhdestvenskoye, Russia

       dd. 2 Apr 1888, St Petersburg (Now Leningrad, USSR)

       m. 27 Feb 1884, Sydney, NSW


7.   Arthur John Thomas ROBERTSON

       bd. 24 Jun 1856, "Yarrundi", Scone, NSW

       brd. Narranderra, NSW

     & Lucy A (Louie) MORGAN

       m. 1891, reg Waverley, Sydney, NSW


8.    Alice Struan ROBERTSON

       bd. 18 Jun 1858, "Yarrundi", Scone, NSW

       dd. 17 Sep 1890, "Goree", Near Morundah, Narranderra, NSW

       brd. 21 Sep 1890, South Head Cem., Sydney, NSW

     & Duncan ROBERTSON

       bd. 10 May 1840, "Ballinluig Farm", Alvie, Parish of Inverness, Scotland

       dd. 16 May 1913, "Goree", Near Morundah, Narranderra, NSW

       brd. 20 May 1913, South Head Cem., Sydney, NSW

       m. 25 Mar 1879, "Clovelly", Watson's Bay, Sydney, NSW


9.    John ROBERTSON

       bd. 11 Mar 1860

       dd. 4 Apr 1860

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