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The politics of convict control in colonial New South Wales--'the notorious OPQ' and the clandestine press.

'The notorious O.P.Q.' is how the Sydney Gazette described an anonymous contributor to the Sydney Herald who mounted a prolonged and spirited attack on Governor Richard Bourke and his supposedly lenient approach to convict discipline in the 1830s. (1) The Gazette had earlier revealed that OPQ was Hunter Valley magistrate and settler James Webber. (2) Under the cover of his nom de plume, Webber was one of three anonymous writers who featured prominently in the colonial press during the debate on convict discipline, disorder and control in New South Wales.

There was more to this contest than the issue being debated, and consequently the writings of OPQ and his clandestine opponents Humanitasy and the Unpaid Magistrate yield a fascinating insight into the political, economic, social and moral tensions of the colony in the 1830s. Their machinations provide a lens through which to observe part of the transition of New South Wales from an autocratically governed penal colony to a democratic society, a transition which bristled with factional contests for voice in both government and public opinion, as established colonial values and social structures were threatened and reshaped.

Although OPQ gained his notoriety as a contributor to, and alleged phantom editor of, the Sydney Herald, he made his press debut in the inaugural issue of the New South Wales Magazine in August 1833. (3) The significance of the pseudonym OPQ is not known--perhaps Webber borrowed it from the better known OPQ who wrote for the Paris Spectator. (4) Regardless of its origin, the colonial OPQ used the new monthly magazine to launch a bitter attack on Governor Bourke and his policies of convict administration and control.

OPQ's first article, titled 'The Transportation System' defended transportation as an effective means of punishment and refuted criticisms that convicts were better fed and treated than typical English agricultural workers. OPQ gave detailed examples of work and conditions on his own farm and, although obviously not identified in the anonymous article, this was Webber's estate, named Tocal at Paterson in the lower Hunter Valley. OPQ illustrated the reformatory nature of convict assignment using his personal experience of London pickpockets assigned to Tocal. Webber was in a sound position to make these observations as the Tocal estate was worked by up to 34 assigned convicts at any one time. (5)

Had OPQ confined his observations to the merits of transportation he may not have earned the epithet 'notorious'. He would simply have been a settler with a vested interest in the continuance of transportation as a source of cheap, albeit problematic, labour. (6) But in an intemperate outburst, OPQ claimed there was no strict, orderly system of convict administration and New South Wales under Governor Bourke was sadly lacking in comparison to Van Diemen's Land under Colonel Arthur's governorship.

OPQ railed at Bourke and called for his dismissal, saying, 'At present there is no controlling power within the Colony ... Greater attention is required in the selection of the higher officers who may be, in future, appointed to carry such delicate and highly responsible duties into operation.' (7) OPQ added that it was unfair for the Archbishop of Dublin and others to criticise transportation when 'the sole fault exists in the perverse and unstatesmanlike conduct observed in the administration of penal discipline'.

To understand why Webber attacked Bourke so vehemently and why Webber's views were shared by many landholders in the Hunter Valley, it is necessary to briefly examine the background and preceding events. The Hunter Valley was not opened to large-scale settlement until 1822 and was then quickly taken up by moderately wealthy settlers.

By 1828 the district constituted about half the colony's population outside the Sydney area, with a disproportionately high number of free immigrants with large landholdings. (8) Consequently huge numbers of convicts were assigned in the Hunter Valley to work the large estates, and the economic importance of this convict workforce partly explains the district's intense concern with convict discipline. (9)

In addition, many Hunter landholders had settled or increased their landholdings under the Tory patronage of Governor Darling, who had also appointed the majority of Hunter Valley honorary magistrates. In 1830 the political climate in Britain changed when the Tories were defeated and replaced by a Whig government that was determined to pursue social and political reform. This change was soon felt in New South Wales.

In 1831 Darling was recalled and replaced by Richard Bourke, who was a Whig and liberal. Party politics, however, can only partly explain the extent of Hunter Valley opposition to Bourke because, as argued later, there was more at stake than party loyalty.


One significant reason for Hunter Valley discontent with Bourke was his legislation to curtail the power of magistrates to punish convicts. In August 1832 his Summary Jurisdiction Act (Will. IV No. 3) came into force as a single, comprehensive Act to define and consolidate magistrates' powers in relation to convict discipline that were previously covered by four separate acts.

The Summary Jurisdiction Act went further than the clarification and consolidation of previous Acts. It removed the power of local benches to send convicts to penal settlements (such as Norfolk Island), vesting that power exclusively with the higher courts. It also reduced the maximum sentence by a single magistrate from 150 to 50 lashes, and required at least two magistrates sitting together to sentence convicts to iron gangs, where previously a single magistrate had this power. (10)

As an indication of resistance to Bourke's judicial reforms, some Hunter Valley magistrates continued to exercise their previous powers. Three convicts assigned to Webber's Tocal estate, for example, were illegally sentenced to iron gangs by single magistrates in the Hunter Valley after the new legislation, and when Bourke discovered the magisterial intransigence, he revoked the sentences. (11)

Another reason for OPQ's tirade in the New South Wales Magazine was that Bourke not only curtailed magisterial powers, he also publicly cast aspersions on the integrity of the magistracy itself. This skirmish began a few months before his new Act, when Bourke censured Hunter Valley magistrates John Bingle and John Pike because Pike sentenced three of Bingle's men to 100 lashes each in Bingle's house as he was passing by. Bourke informed Bingle that his actions were irregular and reprehensible while he told Pike that 'a more unnecessary, indiscreet and unseemly exercise of such jurisdiction cannot be imagined'. (12)

This incident no doubt influenced the tenor of a detailed circular to all magistrates that Bourke issued in September 1832 to explain his new Summary Jurisdiction Act. In this circular he wrote that justice loses its moral force when convicts believe magistrates are governed by self-interest or are influenced by those with an interest in the case. He stated that every magistrate is exposed 'when he quits the independent position in which he is placed by law, and sits in judgement under circumstances of seeming obligation, however slight, to any one who has an interest however remote, in the issue of the trial'. The circular was reprinted in the colonial press, so Bourke's salvo quickly became public knowledge. (13) OPQ's alter ego, Webber, had been a magistrate since 1825 (14) and was outraged by Bourke's slur on the magistracy in general. OPQ wrote: 'I bitterly deplore the publication of this [circular]. I regret that the Governor has permitted such a writing to go forth under the sanction and protection of his authority.' (15)

In the months preceding OPQ's 1833 press debut, Webber, Bingle and another Hunter Valley magistrate, James Mudie, drew up and circulated for signature a petition to Governor Bourke declaring anxiety and concern regarding the increase in crime and convict insubordination since Bourke's Summary Jurisdiction Act. (16) The petition, dated 22 August 1833, contained 128 signatures, representing a majority of landholders and magistrates in the Hunter Valley. It emphasised the need for severity in the management of convicts and called for the Act to be repealed. A similar but more mildly worded petition was also sent to Bourke at this time by landholders at Newcastle and Port Stephens. (17)

Bourke responded to the two petitions by instructing police magistrates to observe floggings and report on their severity. After receiving their grisly observations he concluded that floggings were sufficiently severe and where cases of leniency had occurred they were due to negligence or possibly corruption of the scourger. (18) No doubt Governor Bourke hoped the issue of convict discipline would abate after his response, but within a few months a convict revolt in the Hunter Valley reignited the conflict and paved the way for heated anonymous press battles by the opposing factions during 1834.

In November 1833 four convicts assigned to James Mudie's Castle Forbes estate in the Hunter Valley (between present-day Maitland and Singleton) absconded and attacked a police constable who was escorting three prisoners to Newcastle to serve time in an iron gang. Two of the three prisoners were convicts from Castle Forbes who had recently been convicted and sentenced by the local bench. The attackers freed the two Castle Forbes men and as a group returned to the estate, robbed the house and tried unsuccessfully to shoot the overseer who was also Mudie's son-in-law. (19)

Mudie immediately wrote to Governor Bourke to inform him of what he described as a violent and determined outrage. A 70 [pounds sterling] reward was posted and the six men were captured within 10 days. All were subsequently found guilty, five were hanged and one sent to Norfolk Island. (20)

Bourke's Hunter Valley opponents used the incident as conclusive evidence of the lack of convict discipline since Bourke's restriction of magisterial power. Others pointed to the frequent floggings and harsh treatment meted out at Castle Forbes as proof of the brutality and ruthlessness of Hunter Valley convict masters.

Much to the chagrin of the Hunter Valley cabal, Bourke ordered an inquiry into convict conditions and treatment at Castle Forbes, as well as into the conduct and impartiality of the Patricks Plains bench. The enquiry found little to support the allegations of ill-treatment, brutality and rough justice but it confirmed that Mudie's son-in-law was a harsh master, that Mudie was frequently absent from his estate but when present he played a moderating role. (21)

Following the revolt at Castle Forbes, another event finalised the incendiary backdrop to the anonymous press battles of 1834. This was a meeting of Hunter Valley landowners and magistrates in February 1834 at Leed's Tavern at Black Creek, on the road between Patricks Plains (Singleton) and Maitland, to draw up yet another petition on convict discipline, this time to the King in England rather than to Governor Bourke. The exclusive nature of this meeting was later debated in the press: one side claimed it was held by a few men in secret while the other side claimed it was a well-attended public meeting. (22)

The Sydney Gazette's account of the meeting illustrates the sarcastic and ornate style of press writing at the time:
   there the 'lairds of the North' were assembled in legislative
      conclave--there, in a
   small, snug apartment, boasting of--
   'The white-washed wall, the nicely-sanded floor;
   The varnished clock that click'd behind the door',
   the statesmen of the Hunter 'talked with looks profound'--there the
      rival talents of
   the houses of Tocal and of Glendon were marshalled in emulative
      excellence ... and
   there the 'Hole and Corner Petition' was initiated. (23)

Tocal and Glendon refer to the estates of the principal proponents of the petition--James Webber at Tocal and Robert Scott at Glendon. Scott, like Webber, was a prominent Hunter Valley landholder and magistrate. Webber was elected as petition secretary to nurture the petition to completion and despatch. The quote was from the poem 'The Deserted Village', by Oliver Goldsmith, and Webber, who was an aficionado of literature and art, would have recognised the parody on the original verse: 'Where village statesmen talked with looks profound, And news much older than their ale went round.'

The label 'Hole and Corner' referred to the alleged secrecy with which the petition was drawn up and the fact that signature was by invitation only. The 'Hole and Corner' men of the Hunter Valley were said to creep around like rats in dark holes and corners rather than invite public scrutiny of their anti-Bourke petition. This label dogged the petition throughout its debate in the press.

In April 1834 the second anonymous salvo was fired in the colonial press when an open letter to the Secretary of State for the Colonies was published as a 77-page pamphlet printed in the office of the Sydney Gazette. Its author was stated to be 'Humanitas, An Emigrant of 1821'. (24) The veil of anonymity in the colonial press was thin indeed, and it was widely known that Humanitas was William Watt, a ticket-of-leave man employed by the Sydney Gazette. (25)

The pamphlet was titled Party Politics Exposed, with a long subtitle that included 'comments on convict discipline in New South Wales' and 'the treatment of assigned convict servants'. The pamphlet comprised a verbose defence of Bourke's administration of convict discipline, from a liberal/emancipist perspective. A careful reading reveals four factors that evidently gave impetus to its production.

The first is that the Sydney Herald had become an increasingly effective mouthpiece for conservative views since its inception in 1831 and was now a thorn in the side of the liberal/emancipist faction championed by Watt. The second was the need to respond to OPQ's tirade in the New South Wales Magazine; the third was the need to qualify the findings of the Castle Forbes inquiry that were somewhat disappointing from a liberal point of view; and the fourth was the proposed Hunter Valley petition to the King.

The hyperbole of the Humanitas pamphlet was excessive in places, even for its time, as this sentence illustrates: 'The Press is free, and through its medium, the wrongs of your persecuted, though criminal Brethren, languishing in the bitterest bonds of Slavery, are wafted to your sea-girt shores.' (26) What was really wafting to Britain's sea-girt shores was a pre-emptive strike to neutralise the Hole and Corner petition before it also landed there.

The pamphlet began in much the same way as OPQ's article by claiming that transportation was an effective punishment, but Humanitas quickly diverged from OPQ by arguing that an increase in severity of punishment would harden convicts to commit further crimes and lead to an increase in bushranging. Justice, he said, must be tempered by mercy. Humanitas advocated that punishment go hand in hand with reformation and that convict masters should attend to the moral welfare of their assignees rather than simply exploit their labour services.

The Humanitas pamphlet is notable for its advocacy of the emancipist cause and its view of the opposing conservative or emigrant faction. It argues the merits of emancipists as productive, moral and upright citizens who are essential to the economic and social fabric of the colony. At the same time it derides the attempts of Hunter conservatives to exclude emancipists from the rights of free citizens, including the right to sit on juries.

Humanitas claims 'a handful of men, the self-constituted guardians of public morality, attempt to arrogate to themselves the power of creating disqualifications of citizenship against this portion of their fellow Colonists'. (27) He also accuses Hunter magistrates of using their powers in a timid fashion to cast Bourke's judicial reforms in an unfavourable light. His pamphlet includes extracts from the trial of the Castle Forbes men and subsequent enquiry, carefully selected to advance his arguments. Humanitas claims, probably with some justification, that Mudie's assigned convicts would not provide unfavourable testimony at the enquiry for fear of retribution.

The pamphlet also claimed that the Sydney Herald's editors were mere puppets and that the paper's stated independence was 'entirely devoid of the truth'. Its real editors, according to Watt, were drawn from those opposed to the government and consumed with party spirit. This claim, and in particular the allegation that OPQ/James Webber was the real editor of the Herald, would reappear in the Sydney Gazette a few times over the next two years. As shown below, it is evident that Webber wrote the editorial content of the Herald on several occasions, but the claim that he was its regular editor appears to have little substance and was probably just a case of press rivalry and rumour in action.

Before examining further press events in 1834 it is useful to note the political leanings of the Sydney newspapers at that time, leanings that could now be expressed without government stricture, apart from the laws of libel, since Governor Darling's departure in 1831. The Sydney Gazette was established in 1803 and although the Government had its own gazette from 1832, the Sydney Gazette still earned significant revenue from printing the Government Gazette and its editorials usually supported Governor Bourke. (28) Most of the Sydney Gazette's printing staff were convicts and its editor was an ex-convict, Edward O'Shaughnessy. (29)

Nevertheless the Sydney Gazette reacted mildly and with some accommodation to OPQ's first article and to the first Hunter Valley petition, but by 1834 it was openly hostile and scathing in its criticism of the northern conservatives. This abrupt hardening of its position is probably due to the arrival on the Gazette's staff of the outspoken William Watt, the ticket-of-leave convict and author of the Humanitas pamphlet, who joined the paper in 1833 and had become its co-editor by April 1834. (30)

The Australian was established in 1824 by W. C. Wentworth and Robert Wardell and, infused with a spirit of reform, it was outspoken, independent and disrespectful of authority. Its ownership had changed by the time OPQ began writing, but it remained faithful to the liberal and emancipist point of view. It spoke for ordinary people, who it believed were entitled to a say in the conduct of their affairs. (31) The Australian, like the Gazette, opposed the claims of the Hunter River settlers and heartily disagreed with their Hole and Corner petition. (32) The Australian was, however, less fiery than the Gazette in its response, presumably because it did not feel the same obligation to defend Governor Bourke.

The Sydney Monitor was established in 1826 and was edited by its owner, E. S. Hall. It was an advocate of the underprivileged and oppressed but claimed it never took sides in politics. (33) This claim is supported by the paper's ambivalent position on the Hole and Corner petition--it believed convict insubordination was a real problem and Bourke was too lenient, but it continued to champion convict rights for fair treatment by their masters, particularly in the provision of reasonable food and clothing. Hall criticised the insulting tone of the Hunter Valley petitions and their disrespect for Bourke, and thought many of their complaints were 'twaddle' and 'foolish'. (34)

The following quote typifies Hall's stance: 'It is such men, however, as O. P. Q. who have been and still are the bane of the Colony by their being all for severity & nothing for food and raiment.' (35) Some have claimed that Hall sided with the conservatives after Mudie and a few others bought the Monitor's press and type when auctioned by the Sheriff in 1833 to recover Hall's debts, (36) but close scrutiny of Hall's editorials in 1833 and 1834 shows little to support this claim.

Two factors markedly changed the footprint of the Sydney press in the early 1830s. One was the establishment of the Sydney Herald in 1831, which gave the conservative faction their own newspaper for the first time and shifted the balance of political voice in the colony. The other factor, more subtle but equally potent, was the increased readership of newspapers by workers, convicts and emancipists. This sector was moving rapidly out of their old oral world into the written world that had previously been the almost exclusive domain of their masters. Access and literacy levels were not barriers, as convicts could obtain newspapers from their masters after they finished with them or read them at public houses. If they could not read, newspapers were frequently read aloud by others. (37)

Their greater engagement with the media more effectively promoted their interests and enhanced their capacity to influence the formation and reporting of public opinion in the colony. This increase in the vox populi of the colony profoundly affected the social and political fabric of New South Wales. The conservatives were now battling not only a liberal governor, they were also pitted against a more empowered and proactive emancipist faction at a time when the colony was in a state of flux on issues of convict discipline and representation on juries and in government itself.

In the autumn of 1834 the armaments of the opposing liberal and conservative factions were on the move. The Humanitas pamphlet was on its way to London while the Hole and Corner petition was being refined in the Hunter Valley and signatures collected. Governor Bourke was anxious to learn the details of the secret petition in order to prepare his defence, but found it difficult to acquire a copy. (38) Eventually the Police Magistrate at Patricks Plains, who was a salaried government officer, managed to procure a draft copy from Robert Scott at Glendon and forward it to the governor. (39)

Bourke discovered that the petition was similar to the one that he had received from the Hunter Valley the previous year. The petitioners intended to inform the King that, among other things, they were suffering in their property and peace of mind from the insubordinate state of the convict population, due to the leniency of the Summary Jurisdiction Act and lax discipline in government gangs. (40)

Manning Clark once described Governor Bourke as 'an innocent not versed in the art of uncovering the cunning of the fox or the wiles of the devious and deceitful'. (41) But when it came to defending himself against the Hunter Valley conservatives, Bourke was no 'innocent'. Armed with a copy of the petition, he now enlisted the 'Unpaid Magistrate' to join OPQ and Humanitas in the clandestine press corps. This new recruit wrote and published a pamphlet titled Observations on the Hole and Corner Petition by an Unpaid Magistrate, that was also serialised in the Sydney Gazette in August and September 1834. (42)

The pamphlet refuted, paragraph by paragraph, the draft copy of the Hole and Corner petition that Bourke had obtained. It was soon revealed that Bourke had engaged Roger Therry as the 'Unpaid Magistrate' to anonymously rebut the petition on his behalf. It is clear that Bourke acted here with dubious integrity on several counts.

First, Therry was far from unpaid: at the time he received a government salary of 800 [pounds sterling] a year and held two colonial offices, Commissioner of the Court of Requests and Commissioner for Claims to Land Grants. (43) Second, Bourke paid Therry to have the pamphlet printed and Bourke sent the finished work to London as part of his defence against the petition, stating that 'although it cannot be considered as an official document' it may 'safely be consulted for information, if at any time the matter of the Petition should be brought into discussion'. (44)

The press debate on the Hole and Corner petition reached its peak between August and October 1834 and consisted mainly of alternating claims by the Unpaid Magistrate in the editorial columns of the Sydney Gazette and counter claims by OPQ in the same columns of the Sydney Herald. The Herald did not directly attribute its response to Webber/OPQ but the Gazette, the Australian and the Sydney Monitor repeatedly alleged and assumed it was the work of OPQ. After a vague denial early on, the Herald tacitly accepted this without refutation and, accordingly, Webber's authorship for the Herald is assumed in the discussion below. In fact the Gazette gleefully observed that when the first comments of the Unpaid Magistrate appeared in print, the 'notorious OPQ' immediately arrived in Sydney 'in proper person' to write the replies that soon appeared in the Herald. (45) (At this time the Hunter Valley enjoyed regular steamship services to Sydney from the port of Morpeth near Tocal.)

In edition after edition Therry and Webber argued the extent of convict insubordination and sufficiency of punishment under Bourke's Summary Jurisdiction Act. The debate was couched in the melodramatic style of the day. Tongue-in-cheek, the Sydney Gazette lamented the recent rash of pamphlets, even though it had printed each of them in its office. It stated, 'The Cacoethes scribendi (46) has, of late, become epidemical. Pamphlet succeeds pamphlet--the din of "Humanitas" had scarcely ceased to fall upon the ear, when up starts "An Unpaid Magistrate".' (47)

The substance of the debate was predictable given the background to the dispute and factional positions of the participants. In the Herald, OPQ decried the insubordinate state of the convict population while the Unpaid Magistrate responded that the official statistics for punishments showed the colony was tranquil. OPQ lamented the lax discipline and slack work habits of convicts in the government iron gangs and Therry pointed to the much-reduced number of escapes from these gangs (due to Bourke putting them under military guard). Therry claimed the Hole and Corner petition had cited the wrong Act but Webber said this was just pedantry and that the meaning was clear. OPQ said Bourke had not gained sufficient experience in the colony before reforming its summary jurisdiction but the Unpaid Magistrate pointed out that the Act was passed unanimously by the Legislative Council, which comprised experienced colonists.

And so the debate continued over successive editions. The Unpaid Magistrate argued that floggings under Bourke's reforms were sufficiently severe while OPQ countered that reports on the severity of floggings had been made by police magistrates who were in the employ of government and not likely to report unfavourably on Bourke's new arrangements. (48)

During the debate Therry repeated Bourke's previous swipe at the integrity of the honorary magistrates at the time of the Bingle affair. Therry indicated that Bourke's restriction on the number of lashes that could be ordered by single magistrates was highly appropriate given that single magistrates in the bush often looked after each other by sentencing each other's convicts. He added that magistrates were not appointed to further their own interests, and were 'permitted to exercise power for the protection, not the oppression of the subject--to further and promote the happiness, security, and prosperity of the community, not the gratification of personal malice, hate, revenge, or cruelty'. (49)


Webber replied that the current punishments were so weak that convicts were absconding from settlers so as to be sent to iron gangs where they could take it easy. He said in some instances the convicts 'told their masters, that as there was a good Governor now, and as they had the power of leaving the settler's service, they should continue to run until they were sent to an Iron Gang'. (50)

At this distance in time it is difficult to gauge the validity of the Hunter Valley claims of an increase in convict insubordination under Bourke. Insubordination and disorder were part and parcel of everyday life in the colony regardless of who was governor. (51) For example, between 1822 and 1840 nearly half of Tocal's convicts were flogged at some stage during their sentences for summary offences such as absconding (walking off the farm), refusal to work, disobedience, neglect of work, disrespect, and drunk and disorderly conduct.

Moreover, their offences and punishments were typical of those of convicts in the colony in general. (52) The Sydney Gazette regularly published lists of convicts who had absconded and were still at large. It is understandable, therefore, that Hunter Valley settlers were anxious about law and order, particularly as more violent incidents were periodically perpetrated by convicts, incidents that posed a real threat to the safety of persons and property in the region. Just in the vicinity of Webber's Tocal estate, for example, in 1832 a settler named Edward Cory was hit on the head with a spade by one of his assigned convicts and nearly killed; his attacker was convicted and executed a short distance from Tocal. (53) The residence of James Adair, who was a neighbour and friend of Webber's, was subject to a violent house invasion and robbery in 1829, and four assailants were eventually caught and hanged. (54)

Armed bushranging by gangs of absconded convicts disturbed the district from time to time and their activities usually ended in executions or exile to a penal station such as Norfolk Island, but the critical question is whether these incidents were more frequent under Bourke.

A detailed analysis of the incidence of crime during this period has not been able to validate the claims of either faction regarding convict disorder and insubordination, and so the issue remains as contestable now as it was then. (55) There is little doubt that Hunter Valley settlers held a degree of genuine concern for their safety in a region teeming with convicts and few police constables. There is also little doubt they manipulated the issue of law and order to further their own political ends, although Webber denied it, saying, 'It is not the fault of the Petitioners that it has been made a political question, for they are utterly unknown as political characters.' (56)

Perhaps the best indication that their concerns were more associated with politics and power than with convict disorder is provided in a document signed by James Webber and other district landholders in 1833, on the departure from the region of J. Blackburne of the Mounted Police. The written vote of thanks to Blackburne noted that, 'At no other period do we remember this settlement so little infested with runaways.' (57)

It is useful to explore where the politicisation of convict disorder and punishment sits within the factional tensions in the colony in the 1830s. The various labels that were at times pinned to the Hunter River settlers, such as Tories, conservatives, exclusives or emigrants, are too simplistic to assist in understanding their position. To explain the conflict wholly in terms of 'conservatives versus liberals' or 'emigrants versus emancipists' would ensnare the explanation in 'the tyranny of the pendulum view of history' that was recently noted by Grace Karskens. (58)

The loose Hunter Valley faction and its counterpart, variously described as Botany Bay Whigs, liberals, or emancipists, are difficult to define in practice and the typical view of each is largely a caricature popularised by their opponents. The emancipist group was much broader than ex-convicts, as the faction enjoyed the support of many free immigrants and a number of prominent Australian-born citizens. (59) Furthermore, New South Wales was not as deeply divided along factional lines as traditional interpretations suggest. (60)

Nevertheless, the changes in the colony in the early 1830s--in government, judicial control, and most of all in public opinion and the ascendancy of emancipist rights--constituted threats, both real and perceived, to the privileges and power of the Hunter Valley gentry. These were gentry whose prosperity was based on the ready supply of compliant convict labour controlled by a system of rewards as well as the terror and violence of the lash, the iron gang and the scaffold.

Alan Atkinson once observed that Australian historians have generally failed to distinguish between great gentlemen and small ones. Great gentlemen, such as the Macarthurs, had powerful political connections and huge estates that formed the epicentre of a self-sufficient web of families and associated commercial and social activities in their district. (61) Webber, Scott, Mudie and their fellow settlers, the 'bullfrog farmers at the Hunter' as the Sydney Gazette called them, fell into the lesser category of gentlemen. (62) They were a motley bunch in terms of education and pedigree but constituted a new rural gentry of sorts. They gained their cohesion through shared location and circumstances, moderate wealth, and self-styled respectability and moral superiority. (63) But now their privileged and hitherto unquestioned status was threatened by a stirring of public opinion on convict discipline and broader issues such as the composition of juries, the push for representative government and ultimately who should be allowed to vote.

By 1833 ex-convicts who met certain property qualifications and were of good repute were eligible to serve as jurors, and this situation was resented by the so-called 'exclusives', those who sought to reserve such privileges for men untainted by the convict stain. (The term 'exclusives' is used interchangeably with 'emigrants' in some writings and, although it is probably more accurately applied to older, wealthy colonial families rather than the newly arrived emigrants of the Hunter Valley, the attitudes of the two overlapped regarding restrictions on civil rights for ex-convicts.) (64)

Regardless of how they might be labelled, the Hunter River gentry rankled at the general mood of dissent and irreverence for the status quo that was reflected almost daily in the Sydney papers. This mood was heightened by a more empowered emancipist sector and by the increasingly numerous band of enterprising urban emigrants--the merchants and small business people of Sydney--that constituted the colony's rapidly strengthening mercantile/bourgeois sector.

There was a muted yet unmistakable parochial dimension to these tensions, an element of 'city versus country' or 'Sydney versus the Hunter Valley'. Understandably, Hunter Valley farmers facing the vagaries of climate, large convict workforces and fluctuating product prices lived in a different world to Sydney merchants and made sense of their world through different values and attitudes. The rural Hunter Valley was perhaps the heartland of conservative views in colonial New South Wales.

There may also have been sectarian overtones. The Hunter region was a stronghold of Presbyterianism, while the Anglo-Irish Bourke, although a member of the Church of England, had close ties with many Roman Catholics in his administration, including Roger Therry, the Unpaid Magistrate. (65) There is, however, only a faint hint of sectarianism in the press exchange on the Hole and Corner petition, provided by OPQ himself. Webber wrote of one of Therry's arguments, 'It is a species of "Emerald" logic which we "Saxons" cannot understand.' (66)

Geography and sect aside, it was the self-styled moral superiority of the Hunter Valley gentry that placed them out of step with broader social changes. Their advocacy of severe convict discipline based on the violence of the lash clashed with an evolving social conscience that demanded less violence in accordance with the notion of humanitarianism that had emerged in the eighteenth century and now influenced government policy and public opinion. (67) Above all else, the Hunter Valley call for increased violence in convict punishment doomed their cause to failure. Attitudes had changed, but they had failed to change with them.

OPQ, alias James Webber, was evidently stung by the liberal backlash, the impudence of the Humanitas pamphlet, written by a ticket-of-leave convict, and the public assault by the Unpaid Magistrate on Webber's brainchild, the Hole and Corner petition. In August 1834, during the height of the press debate on the petition, Webber sold his Tocal estate and began to sell his other landholdings. (68) The Monitor capitalised on the sale, claiming Webber was forced to leave because of the degree of convict insubordination and crime in the colony. (69)

The Sydney Gazette would have none of that, counter-claiming that James Webber was leaving to care for his aged parents in Britain. (70) In fact, he would never play this role. James's youngest brother cared for their parents in their later years and James was completely disinherited by his father. (71)


From October 1834, Webber refused to sit on the Patersons Plains bench (72) but retained his commission as a magistrate and continued to reside at Tocal after its sale. Bourke sent an unofficial, draft copy of the petition to London in September 1834 but it was not until December that Webber sent the final version with a long covering letter signed by himself and six others. The defence that Bourke transmitted to London was entirely predictable, citing the irregularities of the previous legislation, irregularities in the petition itself and claiming that it represented a minority view. (73) The petition did not fare well in London--Bourke's Summary Jurisdiction Act remained in force and the wave of convict crime and insubordination feared by the Hole and Comer men did not eventuate.

In January 1835 James Webber was given a farewell dinner in Maitland which, true to form, the Sydney Herald reported as a great success, but the Australian used the occasion to bemoan Webber's lack of contribution to the colony. (74) During 1835 Webber was in no hurry to leave, and continued to attract criticism in the press. In October the Sydney Gazette reported that James Mudie was thinking of selling his Castle Forbes estate and using the money to buy the Sydney Herald, which would then be run by himself and OpQ. (75) Later that month it claimed OPQ was part of the Herald's 'editorial council' and noted that OPQ, formerly the sage of the north, was now residing in Hunter Street, Sydney.

In fact Webber was there to make final preparations to quit the colony, but the Gazette could not resist another jibe. It advised OPQ to go back to the Hunter Valley and 'use his assigned servants less tyrannically when he returns to his estate, and there will be no fear of his being constrained by dread of the consequences, to quit residing among them'. (76)

In November 1835 Judge William Burton fanned the flames of the debate with his well-known charge to a Supreme Court jury in which he drew a harrowing picture of the extent of crime and convict disorder in the colony, his mood affected to some degree by recently missing out on the post of Chief Justice. (77) Burton's endorsement was probably cold comfort for OPQ, whose days in the colony were numbered. On 20 November James Webber sailed from Sydney on the ship Canton bound for Britain via China. (78)

The Sydney Gazette had not forgotten nor forgiven Webber's attempts to unseat Governor Bourke, and over three successive editions it revelled in his departure. First it wrote: 'That organ of the faction, Mr O. P. Q. of Hunter's River, and Editorial Herald celebrity, is off to China! The consequence is, that the actual Editorship of the Sydney Herald is in the speculative market.' (79) Next it offered the Sydney Herald its condolences on the 'irreparable loss you have sustained in the departure of Mr O. P. Q.' (80) For its final jibe it published a fake advertisement for a book on sale at the office of the 'S-- -- - H-- -- -', to be published in London as soon as its author arrived there, titled Wanderings of a Philanthropist throughout New South Wales and China, in search of THE BEST CAT, by O. P. Q. of Tocal (!)' (81) The cat in this case was the cat-o-nine-tails, the whip used to flog convicts.

As far as is known, OPQ of Tocal never returned to Australia. James Webber became an international merchant before retiring to the remote island of La Maddalena in the north of Sardinia, where he built his magnificent 'Villa Webber' that remains a prominent landmark today despite its now dilapidated state. He died in Pisa, Italy in 1877. (82)

Webber's career in the clandestine press corps alongside Humanitas and the Unpaid Magistrate marks a formative stage in the history of the colony of New South Wales. The factional tensions and dissent, published in such grandiloquent style, played an important role in the reshaping of the colony as it made its transition, sometimes painfully and spitefully, towards democratic and inclusive government.

Member, RAHS

University of Newcastle


(1) Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 6 September 1834, p. 2.

(2) Webber's identity as OPQ was first revealed in the leader of the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser on 5 April 1834 where it printed 'Mr J. P. Webber, the "Sage of the North" the O. P. Q. of Hunter's River'.

(3) New South Wales Magazine, vol. 1, no. 1, August 1833, pp. 15-27.

(4) The Australian, 19 September 1834, p. 2.

(5) B. P. Walsh, 'Heartbreak and Hope, Deference and Defiance on the Yimmang: Tocal's convicts 1822-1840', PhD thesis, University of Newcastle, 2007, p. 80; Brian Walsh, Voices from Tocal: convict life on a rural estate, Paterson, 2008, p. 57.

(6) Brian Walsh, 'Assigned Convicts at Tocal: "ne'er-do-wells" or exceptional workers?', Journal of Australian Colonial History (JACH), vol. 8, 2006, pp. 67-90.

(7) New South Wales Magazine, vol. 1, no. 1, August 1833, p. 20.

(8) Michael Sturma, Vice in a Vicious Society: crime and convicts in mid-nineteenth century New South Wales, Brisbane, 1983, p. 15.

(9) S. G. Foster, 'Convict Assignment in New South Wales in the 1830s', The Push from the Bush: a bulletin of social history (PFB), vol. 15, April 1983, pp. 35-80.

(10) NSW Government Gazette, 5 September 1832; A. G. L. Shaw, Convicts and the Colonies: a study of penal transportation from Great Britain and Ireland to Australia and other parts of the British Empire, London, 1966 (Melbourne, 1998), p. 200; C. H. Currey, Sir Francis Forbes, Sydney, 1968, p. 451.

(11) Walsh, Heartbreak and Hope, p. 240.

(12) NSW Colonial Secretary (CS) to Bingle and Pike, 28 May 1832, CS Letters to Benches of Magistrates, Justices of the Peace and Superintendents of Police (LB), 32/424 & 32/429 in 4/3831, State Records NSW (SRNSW); Bourke to Goderich, 24 August 1832, Historical Records of Australia (HRA) series I, vol. 16, pp. 719-723.

(13) Sydney Herald, 29 October 1832, p. 1 of supplement.

(14) Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 20 January 1825, p. 1.

(15) New South Wales Magazine, vol. 1, no. 1, August 1833, p. 24.

(16) L. G. Young, 'New South Wales under the Administration of Governor Bourke 1831-1837', MA thesis, University of Sydney, 1951.

(17) Governors' Despatches NSW 1832-35, A1267-13, pp. 1450-1455, Mitchell Library, NSW State Library (ML).

(18) Bourke to Magistrates, 16 October 1833, reprinted in the Sydney Monitor, 2 November 1833, p. 2.

(19) J. B. Hirst, Convict Society and its Enemies, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1983, p. 182; Max Waugh, Forgotten Hero: Richard Bourke, Irish Governor of New South Wales 1831-1837, Melbourne, 2005, p. 63; B. T. Dowd and Averil Fink, 'Harlequin of the Hunter: "Major" James Mudie of Castle Forbes (Part II)', Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society (JRAHS), vol. 55, no. 1, 1969, pp. 86-88.

(20) Bourke to Stanley, 20 September 1834, HRA I, vol. 17, pp. 542-543.

(21) Walsh, Heartbreak and Hope, pp. 244-245.

(22) Sydney Herald, 4 September 1834, p. 2; W. Allan Wood, Dawn in the Valley: the story of settlement in the Hunter River Valley to 1833, Sydney, 1972, p. 274; Sandra J. Blair, 'The Revolt at Castle Forbes: a catalyst to emancipist emigrant confrontation', JRAHS, vol. 64, no. 2, 1978, pp. 83-110.

(23) Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 20 September 1834, p. 2.

(24) 'An Emigrant of 1821', Party Politics Exposed: in a letter addressed to the Right Honorable the Secretary of State for the Colonies, printed by Anne Howe, Sydney, 1834.

(25) S. J. Blair, 'The "Convict Press": William Watt and the Sydney Gazette in the 1830s', PFB, vol. 5, 1979, pp. 98-119. Sydney Monitor, 30 July and 2 August 1834, p. 2.

(26) An Emigrant of 1821, p. i.

(27) An Emigrant of 1821, p. 20.

(28) R. B. Walker, The Newspaper Press in New South Wales 1803-1920, Sydney 1976; Sandra J. Blair, 'Newspapers and their Readers in Early Eastern Australia: the Sydney Gazette and its contemporaries 1803-1842', PhD thesis, University of New South Wales, 1990.

(29) Alan Atkinson, The Europeans in Australia: a history (vol. 2, democracy), Melbourne, 2004, pp. 81-82.

(30) Blair, 'The "Convict Press"', pp. 105-106. Watt worked for the Monitor for a few months early in 1834 before returning to the Sydney Gazette.

(31) Blair, 'The "Convict Press"', p. 135; Walker, p. 23.

(32) Australian, 2 and 5 September 1834, p. 2; 9 September 1834, p. 3; 16 September 1834, p. 2; 30 December 1834, p. 2; 6, 16 and 20 January 1835, p. 2.

(33) Sydney Monitor, 14 January 1834, p. 2; 11 March 1834, p. 2.

(34) Sydney Monitor, 24 August and 7 September 1833, p. 2; 13 December 1834, p. 2; 14 February 1835, p.2.

(35) Sydney Monitor, 23 November 1834, p. 2.

(36) Walker, The Newspaper Press in NSW, pp. 24-25; Blair, 'The "Convict Press"', pp. 104-105. An alternative view is put by: Erin Ihde, A Manifesto for New South Wales: Edward Smith Hall and the Sydney Monitor 1826-1840, Melbourne, 2004, pp. 168-175.

(37) Atkinson, The Europeans in Australia, pp. 65-85.

(38) Young, 'NSW under the administration of Governor Bourke', p. 159.

(39) Campbell to MacLeay, 23 January 1835, Forbes to MacLeay, 26 January 1835, HRA I, vol. 17, pp. 654-655.

(40) Governors' Despatches NSW 1832-35, A1267-13, pp. 1445-1450, ML.

(41) C. M. H. Clarke, A History of Australia H: New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land 18221838, Melbourne, 1968 (1991), p. 184.

(42) 'An Unpaid Magistrate', Observations on the "Hole and Corner Petition" in a Letter to the Right Honorable Edward G. Stanley, printed by Anne Howe, Sydney, 1834.

(43) R. Therry, Reminiscences of Thirty Years in New South Wales and Victoria, London, 1863 (Sydney, 1974), pp. 15-19 of the introduction to the 1974 reprint.

(44) Bourke to Stanley, 19 September 1834, HRA I, vol. 17, p. 541. Bourke's payment to Therry, I, is cited in Young, 'NSW under the administration of Governor Bourke', p. 160 as 'Therry to Bourke 24:9:34 in Bourke Papers, vol. 11'; Hazel King, Richard Bourke, Melbourne, 1971, p. 238.

(45) Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 6 September 1834, p. 2.

(46) The irresistible urge to write.

(47) Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 26 August 1834, p. 2.

(48) Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 26 and 28 August 1834, p. 2; 4, 6, 20, 23 and 30 September 1834, p. 2; Sydney Herald, 4, 8 and 11 September 1834, p. 2.

(49) Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 28 August 1834, p. 2.

(50) Sydney Herald, 11 September 1834, p. 2.

(51) Tim Castles, 'Watching them Hang: capital punishment and public support in colonial New South Wales, 1826-1836', History Australia, vol. 5, no. 2, 2008, pp. 43.1-43.15.

(52) Walsh, Heartbreak and Hope, pp. 210-21 I.

(53) Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 9 February 1833, p. 2; 16 March 1833, p. 2.

(54) 'Rex v. Burrell, Burrell, Sharpe and Savage', 20 April 1830, Returns of Prisoners Convicted by the Supreme Court 1826-30, X728, SRNSW.

(55) Sturma, Vice in a Vicious Society, p. 24.

(56) Sydney Herald, 8 September 1834, p. 2.

(57) Sydney Herald, 25 February 1833, p. 4.

(58) Grace Karskens, The Colony: a history of early Sydney, Sydney, 2009, p. 5.

(59) Walsh, Heartbreak and Hope, p. 239; Sturma, Vice in a Vicious Society, p. 13.

(60) Sandra Blair, 'The Felonry and the Free? Divisions in colonial society in the penal era', Labour History, vol. 45, 1983, pp. 2-3.

(61) Atkinson, Alan, Camden: farm and village life in early New South Wales, Melbourne, 1988, p. 68.

(62) Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 26 May 1835, p. 2.

(63) Sturma, Vice in a Vicious Society, p. 25.

(64) For example, Michael Roe, Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia 1835-1851, Melbourne, 1965, p. 43; Blair, 'The Felonry and the Free?', p. 1; Carol Baxter, An Irresistible Temptation: the true story of Jane New and a colonial scandal, Sydney, 2006, pp. 68-71; Kirsty Reid, Gender, Crime and Empire: convicts, settlers and the State in early colonial Australia, Manchester, 2007, pp. 188-189.

(65) Blair, 'The Felonry and the Free?', p. 11.

(66) Sydney Herald, 11 September 1834, p. 2.

(67) Atkinson, The Europeans in Australia, pp. 108-109; Castles, 'Watching Them Hang', pp. 43.9-43.10.

(68) Brian Walsh, James Phillips Webber: the man and the mystery, Paterson, 2008, pp. 30-31.

(69) Sydney Monitor, 8 April 1834, p. 2.

(70) Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 3 May 1834, p. 2.

(71) Walsh, James Phillips Webber, p. 33.

(72) Campbell to CS, 8 October 1834, CS In-letters, Police Paterson 1834, 4/2252.2, SRNSW.

(73) Bourke to Stanley, 19 September 1834, HRA I, vol. 17, p. 541.

(74) Sydney Herald, 26 January 1835, p. 2; Australian, 23 December 1834, p. 2.

(75) Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 3 October 1835, p. 2.

(76) Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 13 October 1835, p. 2.

(77) Sturma, Vice in a Vicious Society, pp. 12-13; King, Richard Bourke, pp. 175-176.

(78) Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 24 November 1835, p. 2.

(79) Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 26 November 1835, p. 2.

(80) Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 28 November 1835, p. 2.

(81) Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 1 December 1835, p. 1.

(82) Alberto Sega, L 'uomo di Padule: la storia di James Webber e della sua villa a La Maddalena, Sassari, 2002; Giovanna Sotgiu and Alberto Sega, Inglesi nell' Archipelago da Nelson alla Fine dell' Ottocento, La Maddalena, 2005.
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Author:Walsh, Brian
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
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Date:Dec 1, 2010
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