Richard Bourke

Sir Richard Bourke (1777 – 1855) governor
Richard Bourke was the eighth Governor of New South Wales. Manning Clark noted, His natural gentleness, his charity and reverence for all men were put to the test and not found wanting. All around him the sectarian battle raged. Yet Bourke remained untouched by either fear or hatred. Christian principles guided his life.

Richard Bourke was the eighth Governor of New South Wales. He was born in Dublin on 4 May 1777. His family was related to the great orator and statesman Edmund Burke. He graduated from Oxford and later became a barrister, but instead of practising law, he joined the army in 1798. He served in Holland, South America and Spain, and reached the rank of Major-General in 1821. In 1825 he was appointed Governor of the eastern district of the Cape Colony. He proved an able and successful administrator, and in 1831 was appointed Governor of New South Wales.

“Bourke was no ordinary man”, according to Manning Clark. Talking about his preparation in Ireland for his assignment as Governor of New South Wales, Clark continued:

There his natural gentleness, his charity and reverence for all men were put to the test and not found wanting. All around him the sectarian battle raged. . . . Yet Bourke remained untouched by either fear or hatred. He imbibed the simple faith of the people. . . . In the Protestant Cathedral Church of St Mary’s in Limerick he read on the tablets in the church those sentiments which so simply expressed the principles by which he guided his life. He read of that Christian holiness of life, of the law of kindness on the lips, and the love of God and man in the heart of man, of patient continuation in well-doing until that day when he fell asleep in full assurance of a blessed and glorious resurrection to eternal life.

Bourke was opposed to any form of religious discrimination. He introduced state aid to all church denominations by the passing of the Church Act 1836. Equal matching funds enabled churches to construct buildings, and salaries of the clergy were subsidised. In 1836, in an attempt to address the inequalities in education, he introduced a system of national schools, similar to those in Ireland, but this proposal caused such strong opposition from the Anglicans and Presbyterians that the plan was abandoned.

Another cause of much ill feeling–the monopoly enjoyed by the Sydney Gazette in government advertising–was destroyed when Bourke established a Government Gazette. He also dealt with other grievances. He standardised regulations concerning the assignment of convicts, reduced the power of the magistrates to inflict punishments on convicts, and restored full civil rights to emancipists. In the face of strong opposition from the “exclusives” (who objected to emancipists serving as jurors), Bourke replaced military juries, in the trial of criminal cases, by the British system of trial by jury. “Exclusive” resistance continued to hamper many of Bourke’s plans throughout his administration. Bourke supported the demands for Christian self-government by putting forward a proposal establishing a legislative assembly consisting of 36 members, 12 to be nominated by the King and 24 to be elected by the people. Despite overwhelming popular liberal support, the “exclusives” were successful in postponing constitutional changes until 1842.

Bourke’s administration marked a period of rapid economic growth. Much of this was due to his wise administration of land. The practice of land grants by previous governors was abolished and replaced by the sale of Crown lands, which helped to raise revenue. He resolved a problem of illegal squatting to claim outlying grasslands by issuing licences that offered greater security for those who paid the small fee. Much new country was opened up by the squatters, as well as through the construction of roads, and by T. L. Mitchell’s explorations. Contrary to the practice of his predecessors, Bourke encouraged the settlement of the country south of the Murray, and directed that a town to be called Melbourne be established on the banks of the Yarra. Not only was new land opened up, but thousands of new settlers, both convicts and free, arrived yearly, so that the population rose from 51,000 in 1831 to 97,000 in 1838.

In 1835, C. D. Riddell, Colonial Treasurer and member of the Executive Council, was elected Chairman of the quarter sessions. Bourke did not feel Riddell could fairly hold the two offices, so he suspended him from the Executive Council. However, Lord Glenelg in the Home Office did not support Bourke’s action so Bourke resigned. Bourke, though a controversial figure, was held in high esteem. His rule had been humane and just. He was a man of strong Christian convictions–moderate and tolerant in his policies.  In his liberalising administrative decisions, he had ever looked forward to the day when the people of New South Wales would be ready to accept full responsibility for Christian self-government.

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Image : Statue of Richard Bourke outside the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney.

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