‘Bunyip Aristocracy’ by Ged Martin

Ged Martin Bunyip Aristocracy: the New South Wales constitution debate of 1853 and hereditary institutions in the British Colonies, Sydney, Croom Helm, 1986, 198 pages & notes.

To understand the past in its full roundness, the historian must acknowledge that the ideas and plans which did not come to fruition are sometimes as significant as those which did.  Any other approach is tantamount to accepting that what has happened had to happen, it which case there is really no point in writing history at all. (p. 197)

“Bunyip aristocracy”- what a delicious phrase! It was coined by Daniel Deniehy to describe the squatters and pastoralists who, if they got their way in the constitutional debates of the early 1850s,  would style themselves as earls and lord it over the rest of the people. He was speaking  at a protest meeting held at the Victoria Theatre (in Sydney) on 15 August 1853, on the eve of the Select Committee of NSW’s debate about a hereditary aristocracy.

People may have laughed at the idea of a jumped-up bunyip aristocracy  but, as Ged Martin points out

From the standpoint of modern Australia the scheme is exotically bizarre. To men who saw themselves as a resident outpost of a British world, it was eminently appropriate… In many ways, New South Wales and 1853 were the logical place and year for the idea to surface.  As a colony of large pastoralists it had a superficial similarity to landed society in Britain. Its convict past had accustomed its landowning and conservative classes to equate the defence of political control with social exclusivism.” (p. 195, 196)

The idea of a hereditary colonial aristocracy that could sit in an upper house was not new, however, and nor was it confined to New South Wales alone.  In the early chapters of this book, Martin examines the idea of hereditary institutions across the empire.  Hereditary honours for Canadian colonists were mooted in the British parliament during the debate over the 1791 Canadian constitution, but the suggestion was not acted upon.  The governor of British Guiana, Sir James Carmichael Smyth, urged the establishment of a colonial order of knighthood in 1831 and again in 1837.  It was an idea that bubbled up from time to time, only to subside again when derided or frowned upon at either the London or colonial end.

In its favour was the argument that as British subjects, colonists should be able to be considered for imperial honours.  It was felt that by instituting a framework of honours, not-quite-aristocratic-but-close-enough families would be encouraged to migrate to the colonies, where they would improve the temper of society.  An upper house composed of hereditary peerages, with perhaps the odd lifetime peer thrown in to give people something to aspire to, would act as a brake on democratic excess. After all, the colonial lords would have the long-term interests of their families and their dignity at heart, and so could be trusted to do the right thing.

But should they be ‘proper’ titles, that had good standing back home? What if England was flooded with newly minted lords, flaunting their new titles when there was such demand for titles in Britain itself?  Was it possible to invent an instant aristocracy, or was it the outcome of centuries of slow growth?

These problems were never really resolved, and by the time the British government considered the new constitution for New South Wales, the proposal for a hereditary upper house had been withdrawn at the colonial end.  Not that it was envisaged that it would be an instant House of Lords in New South Wales: instead, it was envisaged that an order of baronets, uniting wealth and merit, would be established by nomination, which over time would become an electoral college for the upper house.

As Martin points out, it turned out that Australian politics ended up with a number of legislators styled ‘Sir’ and a number of families that developed a tradition of political service anyway : Sir Robert Menzies, Sir Richard Casey and political dynasties like the Anthonys, the Downers, the Jenkins, the Cains and the Newmans.   It was sobering to remember the occasional re-emergence of quaint ideas of Australia as a cadet monarchy with suggestions that Prince Charles might become governor-general, or a rather weird suggestion that Princess Alexandra might become Queen of Australia.  Sir Robert Menzies was her first son’s godfather, and his middle name was Bruce (after Sir Stanley Bruce, I assume, and not because the name ‘Bruce’ summons up a broad-shouldered farmer with big hands?)

Queen Sandy of Australia?

Apparently this idea was treated with derision, with critics suggesting that Sir Robert Menzies or Sir Richard Casey could be appointed governor-general of Great Britain instead.

In many ways this book is a good counterpart to Peter Cochrane’s Colonial Ambition, although it lacks the rollicking characterizations of Cochrane’s book. The typesetting is of its time and awful: dense, single-spaced, typed pages with footnotes jammed up against the lines of text.   It’s not a what-if history, but it does finish by noting the things that could have brought a hereditary honours system or a cadet monarchy into existence, had they fallen differently.  And had a more systematic association with the royal princes developed,

Historians would still have gently derided the whole thing, because historians are usually good-humoured progressives.  But historians are also very good at being wise after the event.  If the persistent rhetoric of transferring British institutions to the colonies had actually led to an attempt to imitate the distinctively hereditary features of Britain’s constitution, no historian today would express much surprise. (p. 198)

2 responses to “‘Bunyip Aristocracy’ by Ged Martin

  1. I like the quote at the beginning of the post – a salutary reminder!

  2. We do have a minor aristocracy on the first rung of the peerage; there are baronets of colonial creation, such as the Clarkes of Rupertswood, a hereditary baronetage.

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