Two Characters from Sydney in the 1880s

Jason Roach (English 34 [now 27], 1991)

Australia in the latter decades of the 1800s was a frontier society in many ways akin to the American West of the same era. By far the largest urban area at the time, Sydney's population by the turn of the century approached one half million. This was nearly double the population of a quarter century earlier, and the rapid rise in population was accompanied by significant social problems, notably lawlessness. As in the American West, the leading civic figures in Sydney were often every bit as brazen as the law breakers themselves. Having chosen to align themselves on the side of so-called respectable society, they were nonetheless figures of controversy, and equally offensive as the hooligans themselves to many in Sydney.

Two individuals, in particular, typified the Sydney of the late nineteenth century. The first, William Charles Windeyer, was a barrister, Member of Parliament (Australia), and judge, rising to the Supreme Court, despite opposition. Windeyer had a tendency to find himself on the bench in the most controversial cases, such as the "Mount Rennie Case," the "Dean Case," and the "Ernest B¨ttner Case," all of which transfixed Sydney, the entire city choosing up sides. Notorious for his partiallity, Windeyer was decried for keeping sixteen-hour court sessions, abusing barristers, and keeping the jury sequestered in a state of exhaustion until he could deliver his legendary jury directions, which the defense often felt left the jury with little room to maneuver. In the "Mount Rennie Case" Windeyer delivered the death sentence to four young men on dubious evidence and in the other two cases ruined the reputations of two prominent Sydney figures amid much controversy, only to have his decision in the "Dean Case" overturned years later on new evidence. Despite consistent petitions to Parliament for his removal, he retired on pension after ten years of controversy on the criminal division of the Supreme Court.

The second of these figures was Adolphus George Taylor, known as "Mudgee" after the town of his birth. He, too, began as an MP, gaining a reputation as combative and brilliant. He publicly belittled fellow MPs, especially the leadership and was usually at the center of the rowdy parliamentary sessions of the day. After one particular incident, Taylor was suspended by the Speaker of Parliament, whereupon he challenged the Speaker's authority to do so, winning his case in parliamentary court and in the subsequent appeal and serving as his own defense. Upon winning these decisions, he resigned and turned to journalism, founding his own paper, Truth, with financing from prominent citizens. Constantly in court defending himself from libel suits, Taylor was for a time the sole writer, editor, and publisher. After several weeks of intense controversy, Taylor was forced to hole himself in the printing building and defend his paper at gunpoint, hauling up his food and brandy in buckets from his supporters. It was individuals like Windeyer and Taylor that set the tone of Sydney's society at the turn of the century, and they are indicative of the first and second generation Australians who dominated the public eye.

Postcolonial Web Australia Victorian Web