Robert Wardell

1793-1834    |    NSW    |    Publisher

Barrister Robert Wardell and his colleague William Charles Wentworth established Australia’s first independent newspaper, The Australian, in 1824. The paper was at first welcomed by Governor Brisbane, but from 1825 there was friction between his successor Governor Darling and the paper, which challenged him as an ”ignorant and obstinate man”. Wardell was charged with libel, but conducted his own defence brilliantly and escaped conviction. Wardell and other publishers fought off Darling’s attempt to introduce a newspaper tax, thus winning an important victory for press freedom.

By the time of his murder in Sydney at the age of 41, Robert Wardell had been a passionate newspaper editor, a campaigning lawyer, a rich property speculator and an openly acknowledged adulterer.



Robert Wardell

By the time of his murder in Sydney at the age of 41, Robert Wardell had been a passionate newspaper editor, a campaigning lawyer, a rich property speculator and an openly acknowledged adulterer.

Born on 11 May 1793 at Healaugh in Yorkshire and educated in law at Trinity College, Cambridge, Wardell had become editor and proprietor of the London evening paper The Statesman before the age of 30. But his eyes were set firmly on the growing opportunities in the young colony in Australia.

In 1823 Wardell applied for the new position of attorney-general in New South Wales. The job went instead to former army captain and Oxford-educated lawyer Saxe Bannister. Unperturbed, Wardell then convinced his friend William Charles Wentworth - the famous explorer who had returned to London after conquering the Blue Mountains with Gregory Blaxland and William Lawson - to work in a legal partnership in the colony and establish its first independent newspaper.

After he sold The Statesman the pair travelled to Australia in 1824 aboard the Alfred, with Wardell’s mother, niece and the necessary printing press and materials in tow.

On their arrival in Sydney, Wardell used his superior legal skills to sue the owner of the Alfred for subjecting him to a “wet and comfortless cabin” and denying him “sufficient nourishment and refreshments” on the voyage. He was awarded 200 pounds damages plus costs – a handy war chest for his publishing ambitions.

On 14 October 1824 Wardell and Wentworth published the first edition of The Australian. It was the colony’s first independent newspaper, with George Howe’s already established Sydney Gazette dependent on the government for information and printing.

In its first editorial, The Australian declared: “A free press is the most legitimate, and, at the same time, the most powerful weapon that can be employed to annihilate influence, frustrate the designs of tyranny, and restrain the arm of oppression,” The Australian declared in its first editorial. No relation to today’s The Australian, the colonial paper favoured the abolition of military juries to be replaced by public ones, and an elected assembly with ex-convicts getting the vote.

The paper’s independent, often irreverent, anti-government stance, along with Wardell’s satirical pen on the editorials, resulted in circulation quickly surpassing that of the Gazette, while eventually drawing the ire of Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane, who had initially welcomed the publication.

With fewer restrictions than in Britain, newspapers flourished in the colony with The Australian soon joined by Edward Smith Hall’s The Monitor, and later by the short-lived Gleaner.

Brisbane’s replacement as Governor, Sir Ralph Darling, was unimpressed with the editorial criticism from the colonial free press and tried unsuccessfully to introduce a newspaper tax. He also had the government institute libel charges against two editors, Wardell and Hall. While Hall was found guilty on some charges, and continued for a time to produce The Monitor from inside Parramatta jail, Wardell’s legal talent ensured his freedom despite The Australian having referred to Darling as an “ignorant and obstinate man”.

Such was the reputation of Wardell that Darling said: “Mr Wentworth and Dr Wardell … keep the Court and The Bar, by their effrontery and their talent, equally in subjection.” By December 1826 Wentworth was no longer involved with The Australian, leaving Wardell as the major influence on the paper until he stepped aside in 1828.

A successful lawyer with a townhouse in Sydney’s Upper Pitt Street, Wardell had also speculated wisely on a property known as Sara Dell at Petersham, off Parramatta Road. With a moderate fortune, still writing occasionally, and completing some legal work for the Government, Wardell remained an influence on the growing colony even after finishing as The Australian’s editor.

However, some in the colony remained unhappy that Wardell was openly living with a married woman. Sarah Rowe (née Mills) had left her husband, another lawyer called Thomas Rowe, after discovering he was having an affair. In the 1828 census, she was listed as Miss S. Wardell, living with Wardell, his mother and his niece at the Petersham property, whose title was a play on her name - Sara Dell.

After his mother’s death in 1830, Wardell and Sarah considered returning to England. But on 7 September 1834, while inspecting his estate on horseback, Wardell came across three runaway convicts camping on his land. Wardell tried to persuade them to give themselves up but ringleader John Jenkins picked up a gun and fatally shot him.

The men were arrested a few days later. The youngest convict, Emanuel Brace, turned informer while Jenkins and the other convict Thomas Tattersdale were subsequently hanged. Jenkins, 26, admitted to the murder and many other crimes in his final speech on the gallows in November 1834.

Wardell was given a grand funeral before being buried at Devonshire Street Cemetery in Sydney. His remains were later disinterred and shipped to London to be buried next to his father in the family vault.

Wentworth, a sworn enemy of Sarah’s husband Rowe, managed Wardell’s estate after his death and ensured his friend’s lover stayed at Sara Dell as long as possible. Sarah died in 1837 at the age of 38.

A white marble tablet moulded with a side profile of Wardell’s head was erected on the south wall of St James’ Church in King Street, Sydney, on the application of his former business partner and good friend Wentworth.

Mike Osborne has been editor of the national news agency, Australian Associated Press, since 2008.