ROBERTSON, Sir John (1816-1891)


ROBERTSON, Sir John (1816-1891)
five times premier of New South Wales
was born at Bow, London, on 15 October 1816. His father was Scotch, his mother English, and the family emigrated to Australia in 1820 on the advice of Sir Thomas Brisbane (q.v.). They were apparently in good circumstances, for, according to the custom of the time, anyone bringing to the colony a sum of not less than £2500 was entitled to a first class grant of 2500 acres of land, and this they received in the upper Hunter district. Robertson at five years of age was sent to the school in Sydney just opened by Dr Lang (q.v.). Subsequently he attended schools kept by Messrs Bradley Gilchrist and W. T. Cape (q.v.). Among his schoolfellows were two other boys destined to become premiers of New South Wales (Sir) James Martin (q.v.) and William Forster (q.v.). On leaving school about the year 1833 Robertson went to sea and worked his passage to England where, through the medium of some letters of introduction, he accidentally came in contact with Lord Palmerston. The personality of the young man so impressed Palmerston that he invited him to stay with him for a few days in the country. There he introduced him to various distinguished people, and afterwards when he was leaving England gave him a letter to the governor, Sir Richard Bourke (q.v.). Robertson visited France and South America, and, after an absence of two years, left the sea and joined his family in northern New South Wales. He engaged in squatting and farming for some years, married at 21, and made himself prominent in the struggle between the squatters and Governor Sir George Gipps (q.v.). With the establishment of responsible government he was elected a member of the legislative assembly in 1856, and took his seat with the Liberal party. His views were then considered extremely radical, his policy including manhood suffrage, vote by ballot, the abolition of state aid to religion, national education, and free selection over the public lands of the colony. His personal investments were more largely in pastoral properties than in agriculture, but he felt strongly that agriculture was being unfairly handicapped by the then state of the land laws. In January 1858 he joined the second Cowper (q.v.) ministry as secretary for lands and public works. This ministry was defeated in October 1859, but Robertson came into office again, this time as premier, in March 1860. He introduced a land bill which was rejected, but coming back from a general election with a majority in January 1861, he went into the upper house as secretary for lands, while Cowper became premier again. The bill duly passed the assembly and Robertson skilfully piloted it through the council. The resulting act remained the law of the country for many years. He became involved in financial difficulties through the failure of some properties he held in northern Queensland, and was out of parliament for a while, but in February 1865 was again secretary for lands in the fourth Cowper ministry. In January 1868, holding the offices of premier and colonial secretary, Robertson formed his second ministry, but two years later he left office and Cowper took his place. Robertson rejoined the ministry in August 1870 as secretary for lands. This government had a very small majority in the house, and when Cowper was appointed agent-general in London it resigned. Sir James Martin was sent for and to the surprise of the country Robertson joined him as colonial secretary in his ministry. At the general election held early in 1872 three members of the government were defeated, and Parkes (q.v.) came into power on 14 May 1872, There was a constant struggle between the parties under Robertson and Parkes for some years. Robertson was premier again in February 1875, Parkes in March 1877, Robertson in August 1877; but this ministry only lasted until December. The coming-in of the J. S. Farnell (q.v.) ministry in 1877 gave the main contestants time to take breath and consider the position, and in December 1878 a coalition was made between Parkes and Robertson which led to a ministry which lasted for over four years and did some really useful work. Parkes was premier, and Robertson went to the legislative council as vice-president of the executive council. During Parkes's absence in England, between December 1881 and August 1882, Robertson was acting-premier and colonial secretary. The general election held in December 1882 was adverse to the government and it resigned. Robertson formed his fifth ministry in December 1885 but resigned in the following February, and shortly afterwards retired from parliament. A grant of £10,000 was made to him by the government. Henceforth he lived in retirement, his health was impaired and he was unable to take part in public life. He was strongly against federation, almost his last act was the sending of a letter opposing it to the Sydney Morning Herald, which appeared on the day preceding his death. He died in the early morning of 8 May 1891 and was accorded a public funeral. He was created K.C.M.G. in 1877. His wife pre-deceased him and he was survived by a family of grown-up sons and daughters. A statue to his memory is in the botanical gardens at Sydney.
B. R. Wise (q.v.), a contemporary of Robertson's later days, has left a striking description of him after his retirement. His "long experience of affairs and keen insight into character made him still the political oracle of a large circle; while his chivalrous loyalty . . . attached with the closest ties all who came under his influence. His presence was strikingly handsome—the features clear-cut, flowing white hair and agile figure—while a natural gift of profanity and an uncompromising directness of speech, expressed in husky tones—(he had no palate)—have enriched our annals with many pleasant anecdotes". As a young man he was independent and forceful, with a quick observant mind and much practical experience, which was of great use in dealing with the difficulties of political questions. No man of his period was more often in office, and he closed a useful life high in the opinions of the country he had served so long.
The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May 1891; J. H. Heaton, Australian Dictionary of Dates; P. Mennell, The Dictionary of Australasian Biography; Henry Parkes, Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History; B. R. Wise, The Making of the Australian Commonwealth.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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