Charles Cowper Ministry 1859
This is an extremely rare one-off photograph of the New South Wales Premier, Charles Cowper and members of his second ministry. Cowper, sometimes referred to as 'Slippery Charlie', formed this group in the turbulent first years of self-administration in New South Wales in the 1850s. Although an able politician and a popular figure in New South Wales his popularity was grounded in his support for the abolition of transportation and his leanings towards land reform, both traits which branded him a radical in the eyes of the then governor-general Sir William Denison.
It is felt that these were the main reasons Denison refused to appoint him as the colony's first premier, instead offering the position to a Sydney merchant S. A. Donaldson in June 1856. The instability of New South Wales politics were almost instantly exposed as harassment from the 'liberal' side of politics supported by Cowper forced Donaldson to resign some two months later, on 25 August. Cowper was then appointed New South Wales's second premier and immediately found himself attacked from all sides by his fellow politicians. The pressure was intense, especially from the legal fraternity over his attempts to appoint the relatively inexperienced James Martin to the office of attorney-general, and on 2 October he resigned. His first office had lasted just one month and two days.
A new government under Henry Watson Parker was then formed and Cowper found himself the de-facto leader of a disunited opposition. In March 1857 he led the opposition to a new electoral bill which would add representatives to the assembly but did not extend the franchise to more voters. The bill was defeated and yet another New South Wales premier 'bit-the-dust'. Parker resigned leaving Cowper the obvious choice, and he formed his second ministry from the ashes of the old on 7 September 1857.
After the elections of January 1858 Cowper was returned for East Sydney but failed to gain a sure majority in the assembly. In an attempt to strengthen his position he appointed the popular land reformist John Robertson as secretary for lands and public works and in a perhaps pragmatic move asked Martin, the cause of so much trouble first time around, to resign in November 1858. By mid-1859 Cowper had formed the ministry we can see in the photograph, from left to right: John F. Hargrave (solicitor general), John Robertson (secretary for land and public works), Charles Cowper (premier), Elias Carpenter Weekes (colonial treasurer) and Lyttleton Holyoake Bayley (attorney general). But the legal fraternity in Sydney were obviously a tough crowd to please for Cowper was faced with howls of complaint over the appointment of Bayley, ex-captain of the Eton cricket eleven who had been in Australia only two months. They also complained about experience of the solicitor general Hargrave, who had arrived in Sydney in 1857 after recuperating from mental fatigue and a spell in the Colney Hatch asylum in Middlesex. Weekes, the last member of the team seen in the photograph, was a radical politician who like Cowper had supported the abolition of transportation. He had made his money as an ironmonger and importer of wines and was appointed to Cowper's second ministry in April 1859.
It was during his second ministry that Cowper introduced the Electoral Act which gave the vote to adult males and changed the face of Australian politics. But this success was followed by the failure of his education bill which Cowper hoped would merge public and religious schools. Instead the bill caused heated debate and foundered and Cowper in turn resigned from office 26 October 1859, at least able to measure his term in years rather than months. The ending of his second ministry also gives us a more accurate idea of when this ambrotype photograph was taken for John Robertson had 'public works' taken from his portfolio soon after the June general election allowing us to date the photograph to between June and October 1859.
This was by no means the end of the story however for Cowper was returned as New South Wales premier from 1861 to 1863 before being deposed by his old nemesis John Martin, who he in turn ousted again in 1865 to form his fourth ministry. In one last turn of the cards Cowper was again appointed premier and formed his fifth ministry in January 1870, before being ousted again by, you guessed it, John Martin.
Geoff Barker, Curatorial, March 2009
J. Cato, The Story of the Camera in Australia, Third Edition, Institute of Australian Photography, Hong Kong, 1979
F. K. Crowley, A New History of Australia, William Heinenmann, Melbourne, 1974
Trevor McMinn, 'William Forster', The Premiers of New South Wales, The Federation Press, 2006
Nairn, Bede and Serle, Geoffrey (eds.), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Volume 3, 1969
Nairn, Bede and Serle, Geoffrey (eds.), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Volume 4, 1972
Nairn, Bede and Serle, Geoffrey (ed), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Volume 6, 1976
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