William Charles Wentworth. Unknown photographer, c1860. Sydney Living Museums COL_V88_0369

Putting Wentworth to rest

Edward Champion is responsible for opening the doors of Rose Seidler House, Elizabeth Bay House and Vaucluse House to audiences of all kinds and for keeping these important places in excellent condition. 

He recently caught up with Gary Crockett, of Sydney Living Museums, for a quick chat about his new position, only to be sidetracked by the fascinating story of William Charles Wentworth, who in Ed's opinion is one of the more misunderstood 'big-hitters' of Australian history.

As Ed tells us, not only was W.C. Wentworth the first colonial statesman to be born in the colony, but both he and his wife Sarah had convicts lurking in the family background. It seems that throughout their lives, the 'convict stain' remained difficult to budge, sidelining the family socially and probably influencing them to build their castle-like retreat - Vaucluse House - far away from critical eyes in a secluded, forested valley at the other end of the harbour.

And here lies the twist: despite his shady past and his family's ongoing brushes with snobbery, and following a frenetic lifetime of public, political, legal, commercial, intellectual and cultural involvement, not to mention fathering at least 10 children, WC Wentworth's death in 1872 was accompanied by the largest state funeral of 19th century Australia. 

The following interview sheds new light on the life and death of William Charles Wentworth - a towering, multi-talented and, as you'll discover, multi-layered figure.

So, what's something we probably don't know about William Charles Wentworth?

ED CHAMPION: Well, its pretty clear that most people who visit Vaucluse House, or first come to work here, do know that William Charles Wentworth was one of the first Europeans - they're usually called 'explorers' - to blaze a trail across the Blue Mountains in 1813.  What's really interesting is that Wentworth himself didn’t consider this event particularly important. To him it was a minor, albeit worthwhile, event in a long and complex story marked by several significant achievements.

I think, above all, Wentworth was one of the first colonists to really consider himself Australian. He saw himself as a citizen of New South Wales, rather than a European who happened to be born over here due to circumstance.

From a young age he fought for, I guess, recognition of colonial born citizens, and believed that this colony should not be linked too tightly to England. In total contrast, there were the Macarthur children, who tended to consider themselves English, doing their bit for the British empire in a foriegn land. They might have been born in the colony but England remained the 'great place', the cosmopolitan centre, the place to be educated and to be forever bound.

Colour image of a man and woman lighting candles inside the sandstone mausoleum. A they are backlit by a stained glass window.
Edward Champion and Belinda Sculley, in approrpiate mourning dress, leading a gothic-themed tour in the Wentworth family mausoleum at Vaucluse House. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums
b/w photo of stone chapel standing in open bushland with scattered trees.
Wentworth family mausoleum on the Vaucluse estate. Unknown photographer, 1901. Sydney Living Museums NVPT5_2
Before we go on, let's look at his funeral, which I understand was huge. What does this tell us about the kind of man Wentworth was?

EC: Well, by the time of his death, Wentworth was probably the most famous Australian. For many reasons, he had pervaded most people’s lives, in one way or another. He was the founder of the free press in Australia. He founded Sydney University, the colony’s first place of tertiary education. He was the key driver behind New South Wales developing its own Parliamentary system. He was responsible, with a small core of others, for lobbying England to give this former prison colony its own governing body in the form of a legislative assembly and council. As a lawyer he brought several very high profile cases against powerful people including colonial secretaries and found himself the target of counter libel and slander suits, which I think led him to be lionised as this figure standing against the establishment by the masses who were reading these newly independent newspapers.

A man of the people in many ways, arrested a couple of times for being drunk and disorderly ... someone that people believed they could relate to.

He was an orator, a politician and an influential landowner. He was a giant of a man. He was tall for the time, standing over six feet; he had a distinctive beard, a strong voice. A man of the people in many ways, arrested a couple of times for being drunk and disorderly. I think he was someone that people believed they could relate to. He was also an incredibly intelligent man.

I guess, in a way, the big things he did were always undertaken for the good of the colony. A colony independent from England - independence for New South Wales - that was his grand vision. In his own words, the colony was run as a dictatorship. Colonists paid taxes but had no vote. One person came out from England and made all the rules, but all these colonist were paying his taxes.

View of large country house across open paddocks with ridge of trees in the background.
Vaucluse House and estate photographed in the late 1870s shortly after Wentworth's death. NSW Government Printing Office. Sydney Living Museums NVPT2_1

He also got rid of things like trial by military jury. He really thought the colony needed trial by jury of your peers, not just of an exclusive group of military figures who probably held grudges against most people brought them. And as I mentioned, he also co-founded and co-edited the colony’s first independent newspaper, called the Australian, with his colleague Robert Waddell, which was the beginning of a free press as we know it. So lots of other things as well as crossing those famous mountains!

So walk us through the funeral. It took place in the centre of Sydney, at St Andrews didn’t it?

St Andrews, that’s right, beside the Sydney Town Hall. It was Tuesday May the 6th, 1873, and Wentworth had died in England in 1872. Just to touch on that, while he died in England he had expressed a wish to be buried on his estate at Vaucluse, so his body was shipped back in a coffin and arrived late April 1872, laid in some unknown location for a week, before being brought into St Andrews for the funeral.

Ten o’clock, the cathedral was full. It was decked out in black cloth, or black velvet, head to toe, the whole cathedral. So you’ve got to imagine this huge interior space with flowing black cloths, even on the floor. It was a very sombre, very big occasion. It must have been hard getting that much black cloth to cover the interior of the cathedral. Admission was by ticket only, limited to two thousand. Two thousand men - and I say men because tickets were only available for gentlemen. There were only four females present - his widow Sarah, two daughters and a daughter-in-law. So out of two thousand mourners, there were just four women present.

The service took about forty minutes, led by the Bishop of Sydney. The Herald gave a very nice description of it the day after, so we know about the order of service and exactly what hymns and songs were sung. His coffin was wreathed in flowers native to Vaucluse estate, which was a nice touch as well, linking him back to his spiritual home here in Sydney. And then at 10:40am, 10:45am, the procession got underway. He was buried in a mausoleum built on his land here on South Head, so we’re talking about 8, 9, 10 kilometres away.

The number of people who lined the streets was estimated at between 60,000-70,000, which is an awful lot considering the size of the colony in the 1870s. There are descriptions of onlookers having no room to move, of people being elbowed out of the way, people climbing up lampposts or on top of drinking fountains. The new Town Hall was just being built, so there were people climbing all over the scaffolding of this half built structure. 

illustration showing large public procession with funeral carraige and official mourners walking in line between thousands of onlookers with large buildings in the background.
Huge crowds line the streets for the state funeral of William Charles Wentworth, with carriages and official mourners moving along George Street past St Andrews cathedral and the soon to be completed Sydney Town Hall in 1873. State Library of Victoria
The new Town Hall was just being built, so there were people climbing all over the scaffolding of this half built structure
Tell us about the scale of the procession.

What I picture most is something like today’s Mardi Gras, except that's a joyous, fun occasion for celebration and Wentworth’s procession was a solemn funeral. The scale, however, was enormous. 

The procession was over 130 carriages long, 130 different carriages, led by the Governor and the members of Parliament. Following the hearse, there were volunteer fire brigade, volunteer police, all these gentlemen clubs and guilds were represented. It was declared a public holiday, so no one was at work, which kind of gives you an idea of how big the event was.

Reports from the time claimed that when the head of the procession reached Rushcutters Bay, the back of the procession was still waiting to start off in George St, back in town. It took about an hour and half to pass one spot, so lengthy and slow and sombre was the procession. It’s an event on a huge scale; it ground Sydney to a halt that day.

And amazingly, this was the first ever state funded funeral in colonial New South Wales. The offer of a state funeral was made by the two chambers of Parliament to Sarah Wentworth, which she accepted. So it was, in its size, unheard of. I don’t know of any other event that would have gotten that many people into the centre of Sydney for any event, let alone a rich man's funeral. 

I think by the 1870s it really shows you how Wentworth’s reputation had grown. Maybe it didn’t need to be rebuilt, but a surprisingly huge amount of respect for him was disseminated throughout the colony, that people travelled from a long way away, including consuls from many different countries, to be present at the funeral as well. It was not just the funeral of a private figure who might have been well known; he was probably the best known public figure to die during that era. It was certainly unprecedented for a funeral, I don’t know whether the horse races or other public spectacles would have had that many people turning out as well.

colonial water colour with sweeping views over semi cleared bushland with bays and the distant ocean over dramatic headlands. there's a gothic chapel on the side of a hill and distant houses dotted across the picturesque landscape.
The newly built Wentworth mausloeum, with its steep roof and gothic finials, can be seen nestled into the rocky outcrop in the centre of this picture called Vaucluse Bay by Constance Gordon Cumming (detail), 1875. Sydney Living Museums COL_V88_0077

 

So what happened here when the funeral arrived?

Well the crowds were stopped a certain way away by the police, and after that it was only family and VIPs, religious people and officials representing the establishment. Sarah Wentworth, between William dying and the funeral - the six to nine months between that - had prepared a mausoleum on site. It’s actually a big chamber built into a rock ledge that was one of the favourite places for the family to sit and from there you can look back to their house. It’s north-east of the house, between the house and the harbour, so it was perfectly located to view the house or to look over the harbour at the time. She had sent instructions to Mr Fisher, the son-in-law who was inhabiting Vaucluse at the time, to start preparing this with the right dimensions. It was a huge six foot tall chamber hollowed out of this rock.

... a big chamber built into a rock outcrop that was one of the favourite places for the family to sit and ... look back to their house

The little church chapel was not completed in time for the ceremony. The mausoleum was actually finished later that year in 1873, so people were standing around this hollowed-out rock. A couple of prayers were said, words of praise and sympathy from the governor – a large funeral oration where he talked at length about Wentworth’s achievements. Interestingly, there was no mention of the Blue Mountains crossing, with most of the oration focusing on his political achievements. Then he was buried. And slightly later in the day, when the crowds had dissipated and the VIPs had left, three of his children were buried in there with him. These were members of the family who had also died in England - who had settled there on one of the family trips and married, but they had died before William Charles. Their bodies were also brought out from England and given a small, private burial.

So, a long day, everyone in Sydney would have known about it, most of them showed up by all accounts. It’s pretty difficult to imagine someone now who would command that sort of respect. The paper even made a point of saying that his political enemies were there and well behaved, in an acknowledgement of this man and his achievements.

Gothic stone chapel, with pointed finials and patterned slate roof, viewed from above with tree branches in the foreground.
Undated photo of the Wentworth family mausoleum, Vaucluse, Sydney. Sydney Living Museums
The little church chapel was not completed in time for the ceremony. The mausoleum was actually finished later that year in 1873, so people were standing around this hollowed-out rock
You’ve summed him up as an admired public figure and family man. But he was obviously a successful landowner with a selfish interest in developing his estate. What were his real talents?

That’s right, let’s not forget that he was one of the largest land owners in the colony. And the Blue Mountains crossing was very much a means of furthering his personal wealth. He was 23 when he crossed the Blue Mountains. He wasn’t well known at that time, he was beginning to make a name for himself, but certainly he saw the opportunity to join two older men, Blaxland and Lawson and, yes, he was greatly rewarded.

He was well known for being one of the most powerful orators in the colony. The phrase used is: he won people over if not by his words but by his force. He was obviously an incredibly persuasive person, he obviously had natural leadership, he was a tall imposing man who stood over people to talk and would talk loudly, from all accounts, and very powerfully. He obviously had a way of gathering momentum for causes he believed in. I think he found himself quickly at odds with a lot of the 'exclusives' or members of the colonial elite, because he was trying to open up the vote, and open up land owning for people, perhaps, who hadn’t been offered that opportunity before. There were moments when he swapped sides and took a conservation position on the franchise but overall I think he was visionary in that he saw the colony becoming less than a prison colony and more an economically self-reliant, self-confident outpost of the growing Empire. He recognised the colony needed its own institutions, and not to rely on somewhere that would take six months to send a request, six months to be considered and six months to be sent back.

Politics consumed much of his life in later years. He was also a very keen gardener; we know that he won prizes for a peach of some giant circumference at some of the early agricultural shows. He rode some of his father’s horses to victory in the Hyde Park races; we know the names of some of the horses he rode, so he was obviously interested in that. He definitely was interested in ownership of land for himself. He ended up, halfway through his career, trying to sign half of New Zealand across to himself with the Maori chiefs’ say so. That plan was halted in Parliament eventually. He had grand ideas of becoming, I guess, a colonial leader, with fingers in many pies.

scrap of faded and torn printed paper with illustration of large man wearing waist coat and jacket and neck tie with long hair hair swept backwards. There is text at the bottom of the image and handwriting on the right hand side.
Newspaper clipping with illustration with the text 'William Charles Wentworth, Australia's Patriot, Died March 20th, 1872, Aged 80 years'. Sydney Living Museums COL_V89_0179
He was an incredibly persuasive person, he obviously had natural leadership skills, he was a tall imposing man who stood over people to talk and would talk loudly ...
A case of progressing the colony to progress himself?

Absolutely. You should read his 1819 book 'A statistical, historical and political description of the colony...' the first book published by a colonial born Australian. He’s 29, and writes very clearly and fluently about many things, minor things like what to plant in what month in Australia, so he’s obviously keen on gardening to put this section in his book. About systems of government, about why New South Wales should be colonised ahead of North America, the first half of the book was a treatise on trying to get people over here, people of skill and independent means to emigrate.

The second half is about the system of government, so even in his 20s he’s thinking about self-government, self-representation, needing chambers of bicameral Parliament, having the vote for colonials. He was very much ahead of his time. When the chambers were set up he was a member of the first Parliament in the 1850s as well, so he followed through on his institutions.

Twenty years after responsible government, his love and commitment to the country had started to bear fruit and then to some extent that may have been what the public expression of appreciation and gratitude was all about.

That’s exactly right. That’s what led to the rapprochement between him and his former enemies, as well – I guess ‘enemies’ is quite a strong word – political adversaries, the exclusives. I think they eventually found common ground in the fact that people wanted New South Wales to run as independently as it could. Wentworth went about things very stridently to that regard, but he found a common ground with people like the Macarthurs because it became increasingly clear he also believed in only allowing people with money, power and status to make decisions  about the colony and, indeed, that he was against allowing ex-convicts to vote. So we shouldn’t think that he was the ultimate democrat, he certainly still have his standards and he certainly, from what I understand, opposed efforts to dismantle the convict system, for instance. I think sometimes we’ve gone too far in pushing this agenda for him when actually, by the end of his life he was collaborating closely with the former exclusives and other people on the understanding that what he did was really for the country rather than self-glory.

Watercolour painting of front of house and garden viewed from the north-east.
Vaucluse House around the the time of Wentworth's death, by Frederick Leycester Fisher, 1874. Sydney Living Museums
Big funerals don’t always mean that the person was universally loved or admired. Take Margaret Thatcher for example, where all the pomp and ceremony tended to reinforce the huge amount of contempt many still held towards her. Would there have been colonists pleased to see this fellow gone?

Look, I think that’s really interesting, because its actually hard to find a bad word about him, by that time. Certainly, had he died thirty or forty years earlier there would have been, if not rejoicing, a certain mixture of secret smiles from members of the establishment, but I guess looking at the analogy with Thatcher’s funeral there were police deployed because protests weren't out of the question. Reports about the funeral itself and the procession tell us that everyone, when the procession started, fell silent, took off their hats and showed the respect for the hour and a half as the official mourners passed by. Nonetheless, there was no indication that this was a public celebration or cause for being upbeat. The whole thing, I think, was really unusual, especially when you remember he was a politician. Had he died earlier, the public opinion of him might have been more divided. But certainly by the 1870s, this had passed.

Perhaps because he'd spent the previous few years in England, where he actually died, the time away from Australia had allowed old animosities to wear off. Its pretty clear that later in his life, Wentworth had realised that more could be done to loosen the colonial chains from England by being closer to the seat of power, as it were. So perhaps over there [in London] he was considered a tricky colonial - a kind of rough speaking person, from far across the seas, loosely connected to a rich colonial family, a trouble maker nonetheless. He was certainly no longer a trouble maker in New South Wales.

So what about the mausoleum itself? I love the location, I love the siting, looking up and seeing the building through the trees and the way it squats on that rock. It’s under a south facing escarpment, so it always feels a bit mossy and shaded.

Definitely, I think it was well picked. It’s pretty difficult now with the surrounding development to picture it, there’s a few old photographs that show it isolated against open fields. There’s a couple of smaller trees in the picture, but it’s very much on display, like a little village church. But you could see it from the house. One of Sarah’s letters indicates, ‘you know the rock I’m talking about, the one you can see from the north east corner of the veranda’, so it was obviously on a sight line between there and the harbour. It’s now surrounded by new houses but it’s a really nice ... you’re right, it’s has got now trees over hanging.

It’s truly gothic. When you get the opportunity to step inside, your eyes are drawn to this huge, huge, marble sarcophagus, which is just purely decorative. As I said earlier, he’s buried underground in this big cavern, this big hollowed out chamber.

Tell us about the Triton mosaic.

Yes. It’s just inside the grill gate; it’s a very Roman looking mosaic. We can find other examples in Herculaneum and places in Italy which indicate that it’s Triton, the son of Neptune in Greek myth, who always carries with him a trident and a conch shell, which you can very clearly see in the one at Vaucluse. The conch shell he used to part the waves or raise the waves, depending on what he wanted to do. There’s no evidence that I’ve found, or we’ve found, that indicated where it came from or why it was there in particular. It looks like it might have been cut from a larger mosaic; there are some motifs that have been cut in half. Now, whether that’s just to fit the space that was left or … it seems like it might come from a larger original piece, and I guess without analysis on the mortar we can’t tell whether its Roman or not. But, certainly it could be.

What’s your theory about the links between this Triton and Wentworth?

Well, Wentworth’s father, D’Arcy Wentworth came over on the Second Fleet. He was the assistant surgeon on a boat called the Neptune. It was on this boat that he met William’s mother, Catherine Crowley, who was actually in the holds, so she was a convict. Nine or ten months later, after boarding, William was born. He was actually, we think, born on the Neptune or on Norfolk Island having just departed, D’Arcy and Catherine just got off the Neptune. So we think, and it’s our best guess at the moment, that the reference is to Triton being the son of Neptune, William Charles Wentworth being either born on the Neptune, or the son of D’Arcy who was on the Neptune.

Or, perhaps, was conceived on the Neptune…?

Indeed, just as likely conceived on the Neptune. Although that’s conjecture at the moment; we certainly don’t think there’s a particular link between Triton and funerary rites, or anything else. It’s not depicted in their coat of arms or anything else.

But you can't deny its a good story and it kind of makes sense - a nice little play on his background. Being the child of a convict mother was one thing he never forgot and in many ways it’s something that defined his life.

And then it surfaced that his father had some history with the law…

Yes, he had been in trouble. It was actually announced in Parliament that he was a convict. William Charles had to quickly find out that that wasn’t the case, and that D’Arcy had actually come over of his own free will, as an assistant surgeon. He was arrested, D’Arcy, in England several times for highway robbery, and seemed to get away with it each time, except for the fact that next time he was caught he would have been thrown into gaol either in England or perhaps even transported depending on the severity of his case. Interestingly, I think he decided that his time was up, time to start a new life somewhere and volunteered to be on the Second Fleet.

Fascinating. If you could teleport back to Vaucluse House in the 1850s, do you think William Charles Wentworth would be the kind of guy you would warm to? How do you think he’d treat you?

That’s a good question. I do, I think he’d be quite a difficult person to get on with. I think I would have to, and I probably do, lean his way politically, but I think certainly he sounds like someone who would harangue you about his beliefs and his very passionate … I’m imagining having a glass of wine with him and him espousing government and Parliament, and really taking task to a lot of his detractors, who in the 1850s were still quite loud.

Do you think he’d be proud of his house, or his family?

I do. While the house is unfinished, it was always his house. He had an office in town as a lawyer, but this was his pride and joy. Certainly in his family as well, there’s lots of letters between various members of the family, he seems to be very concerned and caring about his family. That obviously meant a lot to him in the fact that they had ten children, and most of them brought up here. Sarah stayed at Vaucluse for a long time; they considered it their family house. I think he would be proud, if he was looking at it now he’d be slightly happy about the fact that people are still coming to his house. He was, I think, a slightly proud man.

Do you think he’d be a good host?

Definitely, I think he would. He was arrested a couple of times for being drunk and disorderly, so he clearly liked to drink and to entertain: so, yes I think he would have been a good host.

Not like visiting the Marsden’s…?

No, indeed, or even the Macleay’s, who were known as not particularly good hosts, or at least Alexander and his wife Eliza, and the next one, William Sharp. I think it would be entertaining, if you were not one-on-one and you had a nice big group of people, you could sit back and watch, I think it would be an entertaining evening. You might not be able to get a word in edgeways, but maybe I’m doing him a bit of a disservice. But certainly he had a close group of friends who were all aligned with him politically, so he wasn’t this outcast that maybe we thought, or people have talked about before, there was certainly lines in society that would follow him.

What's something else we should know about Wentworth? 

There's a story that William popped a marriage offer to the young Elizabeth Macarthur sometime around 1819, only to be sent home empty handed. Apparently John Macarthur had some reason to decline the offer, but its unclear why. Had that marriage gone ahead and William Charles Wentworth married the young Elizabeth Macarthur, and the Wentworth’s and the Macarthur’s would have formed an extremely influential bond - a social and economic powerhouse. But think about what the wedding might have been like. [Laughs] I think you’d have kept the two halves of the families very separate! Having also worked at Elizabeth Farm in years gone by - that was my first job at SLM - I was engrossed in Macarthur’s story without knowing that much about Wentworth other than as a peripheral colonial figure who had some desire to marry the Macarthur's eldest daughter. I understand why it didn’t happen, especially if John had anything to do with it. In many ways, John was D’Arcy Wentworth’s equivalent. I mean, they both came over on the Second Fleet and were actually both on the Neptune to start with, before John swapped ship halfway through the journey.

But as for the marriage, I can’t even fathom how that would have worked. Although maybe we’ve gone too far, because certainly William got on with some of the Macarthur sons, especially later in life. And some of the Wentworth children stayed with the Macarthurs in Europe. The Wentworths even borrowed money from them during their stay. Certainly, there was more interaction than I think people think there might have been. Perhaps they were on better terms than we know?

Or perhaps it was another irrational moment for John Macarthur…?

Quite possibly. D’Arcy, William’s father, and John Macarthur certainly shared a hatred of Bligh, so they were on the same side of that rebellion. There’s certainly areas that they agreed on. It interesting that when I started working with SLM the accepted story was that Macarthur was on one side and Wentworth on the other. But it’s not as simple as that. At the beginning of their careers they were on the same side and at the end they were as well: certainly in the middle there was conflict and rivalry. I don’t know, it’s an interesting one. If William and Elizabeth had married, they would certainly have created this huge dynasty. And you’ve also got the Macleay’s and Onslow’s coming into the Macarthur family as well.

It’s both sad and interesting. Elizabeth never married, and I think she had some kind of disability or she had been ill as a child, I don’t think she was a particularly well person. There must have been something desirable in her for William, but then again, maybe, it was just another commercial venture. It does seem, however, that he was quite distraught when it didn’t happen, so I think there might have been something more than wealth or commercial practicality.

Whatever might have been happening, I still love to think of them in the church there, the Macarthur and Wentworth families. John was a teetotaller, and probably a very difficult person to have a conversation with, unless of course he was talking. But with William, you get the sense that he was a much more jovial, rounded person. He had gone back to study in Cambridge. He was well educated. John was from Plymouth with Scottish roots, a self-made man, who only really made himself when he came to the colony, having taken the opportunity to come over. But I think it would have been a very strange match, I think he would have had a very strange relationship with his father-in-law had that happened, for the ten or twelve years that John was still alive. I would’ve liked to have seen that happen.

So, as they say, thanks to William Charles Wentworth…

Well, at the time of his death, in the early 1870s, New South Wales was on a course for its own self-government, heading towards federation and the birth of an independent country - a lot of which had to do with Wentworth and his work over the last three or four decades. By setting up as many institutions as possible: a free press, university, Parliament, trial by jury, he was really laying the groundwork for Australia’s nationhood, which happened thirty years later.

About the Author

man smiling in blue shirt with glasses and cap on boat with 'red ensign' flag flying behind him and waters of Sydney Harbour and the Sydney Harbour bridge in background.
Gary Crockett
Curator, Interpretation
Curatorial and Exhibitions
It was the dog‐eared world of Rouse Hill House, back in 1991, that inspired Gary Crockett to become a curator.
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