Royal Reels: Gambling


A cover was addressed to the Hon. B.R. Wise, Attorney General, Macquarie St., Sydney with a manuscript Confidential notation and the mauve 2d Victoria “Postage” stamp (ASC # 86) postmarked MELBOURNE/ PM/ 4 30/ 19 6 03/ 20 (Figure 1).

The reverse had a (Victoria) House of Representatives over the Lion and Unicorn, on either side of a shield with ‘Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense’, seated above ‘Dieu et Mon Droit’ (Figure 2).

B. R. Wise (1858-1916) was a significant figure in N.S.W. politics who played an important role in the Federation of Australia. He was born at Petersham, Sydney on 10 February 1858, the second son of Edward Wise, barrister, and his wife, Maria Bate, both English born. After his father’s death in 1865, the family returned to England. Bernhard and his brothers attended a grammar school in Leeds where they were exposed to bullying on account of their homemade clothes. He excelled at his studies, as an athlete and a debater. In 1876 he entered The Queen’s College Oxford and graduated brilliantly in jurisprudence in 1881. He had a wonderful year in 1881, for he was president of the Oxford Union, the British amateur mile champion, and he emerged as a radical Gladstonian Liberal. He was called to the Bar at Middle Temple in 1883 and he set his sights on public life in his native Sydney.

He landed in Sydney in August 1883, and in the same month was admitted to the N.S.W. Bar. He was joined later by his future wife Lillian, and they were married at the St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Melbourne on 1 April 1884, with the Bishop of Sydney as officiant. The lure of parliamentary life was strong and Sir Henry Parkes influenced his decision. In 1887 he nominated for the working class constituency of South Sydney, taking on strong opponents as the Mayor of Sydney (A.J. Riley), the brewer James Toohey, and a local sporting identity. The stylishly attired patrician talking social reform with an Oxford accent was a new phenomenon in colonial politics, and surprisingly he was elected. His association with Parkes was not always looked on kindly by the press, as shown in the political satire in ‘The Bulletin’ (Figure 3).

He was appointed AttorneyGeneral in May 1887 in Parkes’ administration, but he was forced to resign on account of inexperience and financial problems, and in the 1889 elections he lost his seat. This was but the first of several setbacks that plagued Wise’s political career. He continued to influence public opinion by writing pamphlets and giving public addresses and as president of the Free Trade Association he took a leading role in formulating a policy of social reform. 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 member for South Sydney. Along with Parkes he lost his seat at the 1895 election and he 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, Melbourne of 1897-98 and his valuable contribution to the proceedings was acknowledged by Alfred Deakin who placed him in “the first rank of men of influence in the Convention.” His photo is shown in Figure 4.

However he failed again in his political aspirations, for he was unsuccessful in his attempt to enter the first Federal Parliament of 1901 as member for the country seat of Canobolas, NSW. In 1898 Wise won the Legislative Assembly seat of Ashfield as a member of (Sir) William Lyne’s Progressive Party, and in the same year he was appointed a Q.C. He later became the Attorney General (September 1899-1904) and Minister of Justice (July 1901-June 1904) in the Lyne ministry and the subsequent government of Sir John See. He attained his highest office as acting Premier for 2 short periods in 1904. This period was “the best and happiest period of my political life” and he took a leading part in the framing and passage of social reform legislation, including the Old-age Pensions Act (1900) and the Women’s Franchise Act (1902). He also had significant influence on prisoners’ welfare, as well as that of neglected children and juvenile offenders. His crowning achievement was the Industrial Arbitration Act of 1901 which he piloted through the Upper House, when he was a Member of the Legislative Council. Wise was ready to succeed John See as N.S.W. Premier, but was passed over by Governor Sir Harry Rawson.

This disappointment effectively finished his parliamentary career in Australia, for in 1904 Wise took leave to visit England. Never financially secure, he resumed practice at the English bar in 1906. He wrote ‘Australia and its critics’ (London, 1905) and ‘The Commonwealth of Australia’ (London, 1909). His health prevented lengthy travel until 1908 when he returned to Sydney that year. His Legislative Council seat had been declared vacant, and he found that it was difficult to regain his former legal and political standing. However, he resumed legal work and published ‘The Making of the Australian Commonwealth 1889-1900’ (London, 1913) and ‘The War of Nations’ (Melbourne 1914). In 1914 he was appointed Agent-general for N.S.W. in London. He died suddenly on 19 September 1916 at his Kensington home, survived by his wife and son, and was buried at Brookwood, Surrey.

His career was generally assessed as one of unfulfilled promise. He wrote: “My failure in Sydney has been so complete – my qualities those which Australia does not recognise, my defects those which Australians dislike most”. A sad self-commentary for a gifted man.

Acknowledgements: This paper relies heavily on the work of J.A. Ryan’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1990, Vol. 12, pp. 546-9, and his greatly expanded paper in the J. Roy. Aust. Hist. Soc. (JRAHS) June 1995, Vol 81 Part 1 pp. 71-84. My thanks to Prof. John Courtis (Hong Kong) who donated this cover to me.

Categories: Political