John Robertson (Australian politician)

John Robertson (Australian politician)

Infobox Officeholder
honorific-prefix = Sir
name = John Robertson
honorific-suffix = KCMG

imagesize =

caption =
order = 5th
office = Premier of New South Wales
term_start = 9 March 1860
term_end = 9 January 1861
predecessor = William Forster
successor = Charles Cowper
term_start2 = 27 October 1868
term_end2 = 12 January 1870
predecessor2 = James Martin
successor2 = Charles Cowper
term_start3 = 9 February 1875
term_end3 = 21 March 1877
predecessor3 = Henry Parkes
successor3 = Henry Parkes
term_start4 = 17 August
term_end4 = 17 December 1877
predecessor4 = Henry Parkes
successor4 = James Farnell
term_start5 = 22 December 1885
term_end5 = 22 February 1886
predecessor5 = George Dibbs
successor5 = Sir Patrick Jennings
birth_date = birth date|1816|10|15
birth_place = Bow, London, England, UK
death_date = death date and age|1891|5|8|1816|10|15
death_place = Watsons Bay, Sydney, New South Wales
party =
spouse = Anna Maria Ripley

Sir John Robertson, KCMG (15 October 1816 – 8 May 1891) was an Australian politician and Premier of New South Wales on five occasions. Robertson is best remembered for land reform and in particular the Robertson Land Acts of 1861, which sought to open up the selection of Crown land and break the monopoly of the squatters.

Robertson was elected to Parliament in 1856 supporting manhood suffrage, secret ballot, electorates based on equal populations, abolition of state aid to religion, government non-denominational schools, free trade, and land reform. He saw free selection of crown land before survey as the key to social reform with poor settlers being able to occupy agricultural and pastoral land, even that occupied by lease-holding squatters. This insight enabled him to dominate the politics of 1856-61.cite web
title =Robertson, Sir John (1816 - 1891)
publisher =Australian National University
work=Australian Dictionary of Biography
url =
accessdate = 2007-03-13


Robertson was born at Bow, London. His father, James Robertson, was Scottish, his mother English, and the family emigrated to Australia in 1820 on the advice of Sir Thomas Brisbane. They were apparently in good circumstances, for, according to the custom of the time, anyone bringing to the colony a sum of not less than £2500 was entitled to a first class grant of 2500 acres (10 km²) of land, and this they received in the upper Hunter district.cite web
title =Robertson, Sir John (1816-1891)
publisher =Project Gutenberg Australia
work=Dictionary of Australian Biography
url =
accessdate = 2007-03-13
] James Robertson was also appointed general superintendent of government clocks and received a 35 hectare grant at Robertson's Point, Cremorne Point. Robertson at five years of age was sent to the school in Sydney just opened by John Dunmore Lang. Subsequently he attended schools kept by Bradley Gilchrist and W. T. Cape. Among his schoolfellows were two other boys destined to become premiers of New South Wales James Martin and William Forster. On leaving school about the year 1833 Robertson went to sea and worked his passage to England where, through the medium of some letters of introduction, he accidentally came in contact with Lord Palmerston. The personality of the young man so impressed Palmerston that he invited him to stay with him for a few days in the country. There he introduced him to various distinguished people, and afterwards when he was leaving England gave him a letter to the governor, Sir Richard Bourke.

Robertson visited France and South America, and, after an absence of two years, left the sea and joined his family in northern New South Wales. He engaged in grazing and the farming of crops for some years. He married Madge Davies when he was 21 and they were to have three sons and six daughters. He made himself prominent in the struggle between the squatters and Governor Sir George Gipps, who attempted to restrict the expansion of grazing in northwestern New South Wales in an attempt to protect Aboriginals from dispossession and massacre.

Parliamentary career

With the establishment of responsible government in 1856, Robertson stood for the Legislative Assembly seat of Phillip, Brisbane and Bligh, promising manhood suffrage, secret ballot, electorates based on equal populations, abolition of state aid to religion, government non-denominational schools, free trade, and free selection of crown lands before survey. Although unable to campaign due to poor health he won and took his seat with the Liberal party. Although he held rural freehold, squatting leases and leased land to tenant farmers, he became convinced that agriculture was being unfairly handicapped by the land laws. He believed that social equilibrium could be achieved through land reform and he gained great support in urban and rural areas as a result.cite web
title =Sir John Robertson (1816 - 1891)
work =Members of Parliament
publisher =Parliament of New South Wales
url =!OpenDocument
accessdate = 2007-03-13

In January 1858, he joined the second Cowper ministry as Secretary for Lands and Public Works. He was largely responsible for amending the electoral law to introduce adult male franchise, increase Legislative Assembly seats from 54 to 80, although eight of these were abolished when Queensland separated in late 1859. It also included a seat for the University of Sydney once it had 100 graduates, which did not occur to 1876. In the June 1859 general election, he was re-elected to his seat, now called Upper Hunter. The Cowper government was defeated in October 1859, partly as a result of Robertson's opposition to the education bill. The succeeding Forster government was forced to resign when it lost a parliamentary vote in February 1860.

First ministry and land reform

Robertson became Premier, in March 1860 and completed the deafting of legislation to put into effect his land reforms, the Crown Lands Alienation bill and the Crown Lands Occupation bill, which allowed free selection before survey. These bill were defeated in committee in October. This enabled him to obtain a dissolution from Governor Denison and to fight an election on the issue in December, which gave him a clear majority in the Legislative Assembly, all the candidates who publicly opposed land reform having been defeated.

Robertson handed over the Premiership to Cowper on 10 January 1861, while Robertson concentrated on the land bills as Secretary for Lands. He had his land bills passed by the Assembly on 27 March and resigned from the Assembly so that he could be appointed to the Legislative Council on 3 April to complete the process. As the Council was resolutely opposed to the land bills, he persuaded Premier to ask the new Governor Sir John Young to swamp the Council with 21 new members. Before administering the oath to the new members the President of the Council, Sir W. W. Burton, announced his resignation and left the chamber. Other members followed his example, there was no quorum, and on the same day Parliament was prorogued. [cite web
title =Cowper, Sir Charles (1807 - 1875)
publisher =Project Gutenberg Australia
work=Dictionary of Australian Biography
url =
accessdate = 2007-02-15
] The five-year terms of the 1856 Council appointments had run out and the Governor appointed a new Council to life terms, including Robertson. Due to the reappointment of Council, the land bills had to be passed again by the Assembly in September and were passed by the Council on October 1861. The resulting act remained the law of the country for many years.

Robertson resigned from the Council in December 1861 and John Garrett resigned the seat of Shoalhaven to allow him to win it at a by-election in January 1862. He successfully contested the seat of West Sydney, a working class electorate, in the November 1864 general election. In February 1865, he was appointed as Secretary for Lands again in the fourth Cowper ministry. He resigned from Parliament to sort out his financial difficulties through the failure of some properties he held in northern Queensland in October 1865, but he was renominated to fill the vacancy eight days later. In the January 1866 election, he was defeated in West Sydney, due to opposition to the Government's policy of preserving some crown land for public purposes, such as water supply, and to a false claim, reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, that he was "the President of the Fenian Society." Martin compared him to Tiberius Gracchus: "both advocated the cause of free selection, both hit upon the same amount of land for each individual … [and] both had been the idols of the people … [and] deserted by the people." He won a by-election for Clarence in August 1866, and represented it to November 1869.

econd ministry

In January 1868, holding the offices of Premier and Colonial Secretary, Robertson formed his second ministry and he won back West Sydney in the December 1869 general election. He was unable to get any of his own legislation passed and relinquished the premiership but to Cowper in January 1870 and in February, he was forced to resign from Parliament due to bankruptcy. A committee was formed to raise and invest funds to sort out his financial problems and he won back West Sydney in March and discharged his bankruptcy in August.

Robertson rejoined the ministry in August 1870 as Secretary for Lands. This government had a very small majority in the house, and when Cowper was appointed agent-general in London it resigned. Sir James Martin was sent for and to the surprise of the country Robertson joined him as Colonial Secretary in his ministry. At the general election held early in 1872, three members of the government were defeated, and Parkes came into power on 14 May 1872, there was a constant struggle between the parties under Robertson and Parkes for some years.

Third and fourth ministries

Robertson was Premier again in February 1875, Parkes in March 1877, Robertson in August 1877; but this ministry only lasted until December. He called an election in November 1877, at which he was beaten in West Sydney, but won Mudgee and East Macquarie and chose to represent Mudgee until December 1878. The coming-in of the Farnell ministry in 1877 gave the main contestants time to take breath and consider the position, and in December 1878 a coalition was made between Parkes and Robertson which led to a ministry which lasted for over four years and did some really useful work. Parkes was Premier, and Robertson went to the Legislative Council as vice-president of the Executive Council. In 1879, he founded the Royal National Park. During Parkes's absence in England, between December 1881 and August 1882, Robertson was acting-Premier and Colonial Secretary. On 31 December 1881, he resigned from the Legislative Council and was returned as member for Mudgee at a by-election in January 1882. The general election held in December 1882 was adverse to the government and it resigned.

Fifth ministry and retirement

Robertson formed his fifth ministry in December 1885 but resigned in the following February. He was a trustee of the Royal National Park and he injured his leg while working on it, which increased his depression and this together with his poor finances led him to retire from parliament in June 1886. A grant of £10,000 was made to him by the government. Henceforth he lived in retirement, his health was impaired and he was unable to take part in public life. He was strongly against federation, almost his last act was the sending of a letter opposing it to the "Sydney Morning Herald", which appeared on the day preceding his death.

Robertson died in Watsons Bay and was accorded a public funeral.


He was made a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in 1877. A statue to his memory is in the botanical gardens at Sydney. The Federal division of Robertson, the former state electoral district of Robertson, and the NSW Southern Highlands town of Robertson were all named after him.

One of his daughters, Margaret-Emma, married the Russian explorer Nicholai Miklukho-Maklai.


NAME=Robertson, John
SHORT DESCRIPTION=New South Wales politician and Premier of New South Wales
DATE OF BIRTH= 15 October 1816]
DATE OF DEATH= 8 May 1891
PLACE OF DEATH= Watsons Bay, New South Wales

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