Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

There's more to constitutional matters than just the 'vibe of the thing'

Annabella Boswell's dairies present a clear picture of life at Lake Innes including NSW's first election campaign. Jim Belshaw continues the story of Terrible Vale, the Taylors and the early days of the New England pastoral industry
Do you find constitutional matters terribly boring? I did at school and I think that most Australians do now.

In fact, constitutional discussions and decisions are some of the most fascinating historical topics, for they represent then current controversies and set the frame for later events. You only have to look at the current Brexit debate to see what I mean!

We are now at the point in the sprawling story of William Tydd Taylor and his wife Margaretta Lucy Lind and their world where constitutional matters become important, a time when key aspects of our system of Government were established. 

By 1823, the growing colony with its rising number of free settlers, emancipists and locally born required a new system of governance. In that year, the British Parliament passed an act “for the better administration of Justice in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land.”

The NSW Act as it was known created a 5-7 person Legislative Council to advise the Governor It also established a judicial system, with the new Chief Justice given the power to veto colonial legislation that he considered to be in breach of the laws of England

The new Council met for the first time on 25 August 1824. Its first piece of legislation passed on 28 September 1824 was a Currency Act. Then, as now, economics was important!

The first Council’s five members were all officials. However, in July 1825 the Council’s numbers were increased to seven, of which three were to be non-executive members and then in 1829 to ten to fifteen of which seven had to be non-executive members.

Council members were still appointed, but the presence of the non-executive members provided an external and increasing fractious check on executive government.

In 1842, the British Parliament passes the first Constitution Act. Membership of the Council was increased to 36, of which 24 members were to be elected. The franchise was limited, but this would still be the first Parliamentary election in the colony, marking a major constitutional step.

The elections were scheduled for June 1843. Former colonial secretary Alexander Macleay decided to stand for the districts around Port Macquarie where his son-in-law Archibald Clunes Innes, William's cousin, was such a major figure.

We have a very clear picture of that first election from the journal of Archibald Innes’s sixteen year old niece Annabella. By 1843, the depression had forced Innes to retrench, but he still maintained considerable state at Lake Innes including a butler, two footmen, four maids and a personal piper!

The house filled with visitors including Alexander Macleay. There was constant movement, with the girls making favours in Macleay’s colours to be worn by the men on election day.

Polling day Friday 23 June dawned bright. The men left for Port Macquarie by coach and horseback, joined outside the gate by six men on horseback carrying flags to escort the party. It was quite a show.

Macleay was elected and would become first speaker of the new Parliament. But to Annabella, it was the colour and excitement that counted. She mentions the result only in passing!

 Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 6 July 2016. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016.

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