BOURKE, Sir Richard (1777-1855)

BOURKE, Sir Richard (1777-1855)
governor of New South Wales
was born at Dublin, Ireland, on 4 May 1777. It has been stated that the date on his tombstone is 1778, but as he matriculated in 1793 and qualified as a barrister in 1798, that date seems unlikely to be correct. He was the only son of John Bourke of County Limerick by his marriage with Anne, daughter of Edward Ryan of Dublin. The family was related to the famous Edmund Burke. Richard Bourke was educated at Westminster School and Oxford university, where he graduated B.A. in 1798. He had succeeded to his father's estates in 1795. He qualified as a barrister, but never practised, and joined the army as an ensign in 1798. He was severely wounded on active service in Holland, and was promoted lieutenant in 1799. Returning to England he was placed on the staff, became a captain in 1805, fought at Buenos Ayres in South America in 1806, was promoted major in 1808, and was on service in the Peninsula war from 1809 to 1814. He attained the rank of colonel in 1814 and was made a C.B. in the following year. He was for some years on half-pay and became a major-general in 1821. From 1826 to 1828 he did useful work as lieutenant-governor in the eastern district of the Cape of Good Hope. On 25 June 1831 he was appointed governor of New South Wales and arrived at Sydney on 2 December 1831.
Bourke was fortunate in the time of his appointment. He came after an unpopular governor, Sir Ralph Darling (q.v.), and various changes were coming that tended to reduce the difficulties and anxieties of the governor. One frequent cause of dissatisfaction, the power of making grants of land, was taken from the governor early in 1835. The status of the emancipists was still a difficult problem, but in 1834 judicial rulings had restored practically the whole class to full civil rights. There was a large increase in free settlers from Great Britain, and during Bourke's administration a practical system for general immigration was established. The income from the sale of crown lands became an important source of revenue, and the combination of these things had great effect on the expansion of the colony during the period of nearly seven years that Bourke was governor.
Though Bourke no longer had the autocratic powers enjoyed by Macquarie (q.v.) he exercised an important influence on the evolution of the constitution of Australia. In a statesmanlike dispatch dated 25 December 1833 he pointed out some of the disadvantages of the existing nominated council of 15 members, and suggested that the council membership should be enlarged to 24, two-thirds of whom should be elected by the colonists. Two years later he came to the conclusion that a larger council would be better and suggested one of 36 members of whom 12 were to be nominated by the crown. (Sir) F. Forbes (q.v.), the chief justice, at his request drafted a bill embodying these suggestions. Several years were to pass before representative government was established, but Bourke's action at this time had an important influence in bringing about the reform. Bourke was also responsible for the introduction of state aid to the religious bodies. New South Wales was no longer the sink of iniquity that Macquarie found, but there was need to help the various churches, all striving for righteousness in their different ways. Bourke's influence was also wisely used in favour of the introduction of civil juries in criminal trials.
The opening up of the Port Phillip district, which began in 1835, was an important development in Bourke's period. In October of that year he pointed out in a dispatch to Lord Glenelg that though the treaty of Batman (q.v.) with the natives could not be recognized, it would be advisable to survey a township and to appoint a police magistrate and an officer of customs. His views were accepted. Bourke visited Port Phillip in March 1837, and having approved of the situation chosen for the township arranged for the first land sale. In June he forwarded a dispatch to the colonial office making suggestions for the administration of the new settlement. These formed the basis for the government eventually established.
In December 1835 Bourke had come into conflict with C. D. Riddell, the colonial treasurer, and had suspended him from the executive council. The matter was referred to the colonial office and Glenelg, while generally supporting the governor, directed that Riddell should be re-instated. He considered that so long as Riddell held the office of treasurer, he should be a member of the council, and that to depose him from his treasurership would be "to inflict a penalty far more than commensurate to the offence" (H.R. of A. ser I, vol. XVIII, p. 482). Bourke was not satisfied and resigned his office on 30 January 1837, but the acceptance of his resignation was not received until near the end of the year. He left Australia on 5 December 1837 and lived the life of a country gentleman in Ireland. In his youth he had been a frequent visitor at the house of his kinsman Edmund Burke, and with Charles William Earl Fitzwilliam he now busied himself in preparing an edition of Burke's Correspondence. This was published in four volumes in 1844. Bourke was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-general in 1837 and to that of general in 1851. He died suddenly on 12 August 1855. He was survived by two sons and three daughters. He had married in 1800 Elizabeth Jane, daughter of John Bourke of London. She died at Parramatta in 1832. Bourke was created K.C.B. in 1835. His statue, erected by public subscription, is at Sydney.
Bourke was the most popular of all the early governors. But he was more than that, his ability and wisdom entitled him to be described as a great governor. Between 1830 and 1837 the population of New South Wales nearly doubled itself, the revenue was more than trebled, imports rose from £420,480 to £1,297,491 and exports from £141,461 to £760,054. All the credit of this cannot be given to Bourke, but his wise and impartial rule was an important factor in bringing about improved relations among the people and a great increase in general prosperity.
Gentleman's Magazine, 1855, vol. II; Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, vols. XVI to XIX; J. W. Metcalfe, Journal and Proceedings Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. XXX. Reprinted as a pamphlet, Governor Bourke—Or, The Lion and the Wolves.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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