Windeyer, William Charles

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Windeyer, William Charles

William Windeyer was [media]born in Westminster, London, in September 1834, and came to Sydney with his parents, Richard and Maria, the following year. The family arrived in Sydney via Hobart aboard the Medway on the 28 November 1835. [1]

Family in the colony

William's father, Richard Windeyer, was following his own parents and their other nine children, who had arrived in Sydney in 1828. Richard, who had been a lawyer in London, continued this in Sydney, building up a large and respected practice. Law was the profession of the family, as Richard's father Charles was a magistrate in London before becoming Chief Clerk of the police in Sydney, then assistant superintendent of police, and eventually being appointed police magistrate for Sydney, a position he held until 1848. Charles also dabbled in politics, standing unsuccessfully for the 1843 Legislative Council and serving as the first Mayor of Sydney between its incorporation and the first elections.

Charles had been granted 2,560 acres (1,036 hectares) on the Williams River in the Hunter Valley, which he named Tilligra, and his son Richard purchased 30,000 acres (12,275 hectares) of land in the Hunter Valley between 1838 and 1842, calling his estate Tomago. Tomago estate (although much reduced) remained in the Windeyer family until the 1940s.

In 1843 Richard was elected in the first elections for the Legislative Council, sitting as the member for Durham County. In addition to his legal and political aspirations, Richard was also keenly interested in education, establishing a school on his estate, as well as being involved with the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts as a committee member, president of the debating society and an occasional lecturer. Indeed Richard had followed his father Charles's lead here as well, as Charles Windeyer had been a founding member of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts in 1833. [2] At one stage both Charles and Richard were on the SMSA committee together. Charles and Richard died within eight years of each other, Richard in 1847 at the age of 41 and Charles in 1855, aged 74.

A legal and political career

William Charles Windeyer was schooled at William Timothy Cape's Elfred House Private School at Paddington and the King's School, Parramatta. At Cape's school, Windeyer was an average student – his report card for 1846 commented that his Greek was very humble and his Latin improving. [3] Following graduation from King's, he entered the University of Sydney on a scholarship in 1852, winning prizes and awards in every year of his undergraduate degree and is credited as the university's first undergraduate. [4] He continued his studies, graduating with a Master's from the university in 1859. The year before, 1858, he had married Mary Elizabeth Bolton of Hexham, on the Hunter River.

From university he followed his father's footsteps, entering the chambers of Edward Broadhurst where he studied law and was admitted to the colonial Bar in March 1857. [5] From 1857 until 1859, Windeyer worked as a crown prosecutor for the Northern Districts, before entering the Legislative Assembly where he served as the member for Lower Hunter (1859–60) and for West Sydney (1860–1862) resigning in December. Windeyer said the reason for the resignation was that his Parliamentary work was affecting his legal practice, although his recovery after being rescued from the wreck of the steamer City of Sydney in October 1862 has also been cited. [6] He served again as member for West Sydney (1866–72) before being defeated in the 1872 election. He returned in 1876 as member for the University of Sydney (1876–79). During this period he was appointed Solicitor General between 1870 and 1872 and Attorney General between 1877 and 1879.

On leaving the Parliament in 1879, Windeyer, returned to law, being first appointed a puisne judge of the Supreme Court in August 1879 and then a permanent judge two years later. During his tenure, Windeyer became known for his competent, clear and learned written judgements. He was a well known advocate for victims of crime and women's rights, as well as being a controversial figure in a series of criminal cases, most particularly the Mount Rennie rape case. Although prominent for his advocacy of victims and for social reform, including involvement in the foundation of the Discharged Prisoners Aid Society and playing prominent roles in the City Night Refuge and Soup Kitchen, Windeyer was also a vocal supporter of the Anti-Chinese movement in Sydney, addressing a large crowd at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts in July 1861 on the subject. [7]

Shooting and shipwreck

In October 1862, along with 140 other people, Windeyer was rescued from the wreck of the City of Sydney, a steamer plying the route between Sydney and Melbourne. On the evening of 6 October, 1862, the ship hit rocks off of Green Cape on the New South Wales south coast and sank in a little over an hour. Everyone on board was rescued. Windeyer was travelling with the New South Wales volunteer rifle team, who had been competing in an intercolonial competition in Melbourne. In the wreck event, Windeyer lost everything except his trousers, a shirt and an old cap. [8] Windeyer had been involved in the volunteer rifles since December 1860, when he was appointed as Captain of the 2nd Central Sydney Company of New South Wales Volunteer Rifles. During his time he competed in a series of intercolonial and other matches. Indeed he returned to Melbourne for a large intercolonial shoot in November 1862, just three weeks after being rescued from the wreck of the City of Sydney. Windeyer remained in the rifles until 1870, when he retired with the rank of Major.

A life in education

With inspiration from his father and grandfather, and from his early teacher and mentor Professor John Woolley, William Windeyer was as interested in education as he was in the law. While still at University, he worked as the esquire bedell at Sydney University, officiating at degree ceremonies from 1855 until 1865 during which time he kept up a regular correspondence with Woolley. Indeed such was his attachment to Woolley, that in 1880, 14 years after Woolley's death, Windeyer claimed to have been contacted by Woolley in a séance he was attending in Melbourne. The medium at the séance told Windeyer that his own daughter, Mena, who had died some years prior, was safe and well in the afterlife and was being taught by Woolley, just as Windeyer himself had been. [9]

In 1866 he was elected a member of the university senate, on which he continued to serve until 1897. [10] The senate elected him as Vice Chancellor from 1883 to 1886 and as Chancellor from 1895 to 1896, and he was the founding chairman of the Women's College at the university. Besides the university, Windeyer was also a trustee of the Sydney Grammar School.

While in Parliament Windeyer was an advocate for public education, calling for the extension of free and secular education. In 1866 he supported the Public Schools Act which was an attempt to rationalise government spending on education while encouraging the spread of schools in rapidly developing areas of the state. The Act replaced the Board of National Education and the Denominational School Board with a single Council of Education and added two new types of schools, Provisional and Half-Time Schools. These new school types permitted a school to be established with fewer pupils, allowing for the spread of formal education facilities into smaller communities than had previously been eligible.

Windeyer also supported the establishment of grammar schools in Bathurst, Maitland and Goulburn and the creation of public funds to enable boys to attend grammar schools and proceed to university.

Member and President of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts

In 1847, at the age of 13, Windeyer was signed up as a member of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts (SMSA), paying 12 shillings for the year. [11] His membership may have been encouraged by his father or even grandfather, both of whom had long associations with the School of Arts.

Windeyer was elected to the committee for the first time in 1856, staying for one year, before becoming one of six trustees of the aid granted by the colonial government in 1857 and 1858. He also donated £25 to the new building fund in 1859, one of the largest contributions for the year. [12]

By 1865 he was teaching classical Greek at the school, taking over the class from his mentor and friend, Dr John Woolley. Although the class size was relatively small, Windeyer taught both at an elementary and advanced level, reporting at the Annual General meeting for 1865 that:

the attendance, though small, has been regular and uniform throughout the year and the progress made, steady and satisfactory. [13]

Windeyer taught for only two years, with his increasing professional commitments forcing him to resign as teacher in 1867. He did however remain on the Mechanics' committee, having been re-elected as one of four vice presidents in 1866, and he returned to teaching, Latin this time, in 1869.

In 1874, Windeyer was elected as President of the School for the first time. One of Windeyer's first duties was to see through the incorporation of the SMSA by the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, formalising in law the by-laws of the SMSA and defining the responsibilities and the powers vested in the committee. [14]

1874 was also the year that the SMSA began to gain traction in its campaign for the establishment of the Technical and Working Men's College. The idea of a Technical and Working Men's College had been first mooted in the 1860s by Woolley, but it was not until 1872 that the committee agreed to investigate the possibility. By 1874, the committee had agreed that a technical college could help revive the SMSA's teaching capacity as well as draw the institution closer to its original goal of educating the working people of the city, rather than just the middle and upper classes. Access to education was one of Windeyer's passions, as demonstrated throughout his Parliamentary career, and so he took on the establishment of the Working Men's college with some gusto.

Windeyer steered the committee towards securing funding from the Government for the Working Men's College by proposing the affiliation of the college with a new School of Mines, however he remained cautious about any new college taking over the role traditionally held by the SMSA, that of educating the working man. Partly in order to ensure the SMSA's continued role, in March 1879 the committee of the SMSA drafted a set of rules for the proposed college, the first of which enshrined the management of the college within the committee of the SMSA. Although this was met with hostility from the other organisations involved in the establishment of the college, including the Trades and Labour Council, the Engineering Association and the Builders and Contractors Association, who wanted some say in the running of the college, Windeyer and the SMSA prevailed, in part because of the 1874 incorporation which gave them control over activities in their buildings.

The chemistry labs were the first part of the new college to open, in 1878, while the official opening of the remainder took place in May 1879. The college was a success, with enrolments across the technical classes doubling within the first year and a series of public lectures revitalising the SMSA in the public eye.

In 1881, Windeyer stood down as President and from the committee of the SMSA, but he returned for a second term as President in 1883, a position he held until 1886. Windeyer may have been enticed back to the SMSA by the increasing interest in the Technical and Working Men's College being displayed by the government. The government, through the Minister for Public Instruction, had taken a keen interest in the development of the college since its inception, while the SMSA, aware of the costs of running the college, had also been courting the minister for funds to assist it. Perhaps inevitably, as the college grew in prominence, the government took the view that if they were funding it, they should also be running it.

In the first half of 1883, Windeyer canvassed the University of Sydney Senate (of which he was still a member) to request that the technical college exams be brought under university supervision. Windeyer saw this as mutually beneficial, broadening the reach of both institutions and bringing new students to the university.

Windeyer made his thoughts on the subject clear in a commemorative address he gave celebrating the 50th anniversary of the SMSA in March 1883. Windeyer acknowledged that the SMSA was limited in its ability to reach all levels of students, affording good opportunities to the rank and file of artisans but not to the potential leaders of the various sectors. With the aim of spreading education generally among the artisan class, Windeyer saw collaboration between the SMSA and the University of Sydney as an opportunity to expose the mechanics to the broader education possibilities the university could provide. The danger of a separate institution being established was that it would perpetuate a sectarian style of education, with two universities dividing into two hostile camps, the intellectually focussed on one side and the mechanically minded on the other. Windeyer's hope was that by keeping control of the technical college but having the university supervise exams, he could 'put end to the delusion that head work is more respectable then hand work'. [15]

Windeyer hoped that neither would be seen as less valuable than the other, saying:

Those who are really the friends of the industrial classes will oppose a system of education which will keep as the exclusive possession of the few a knowledge of abstract truths, and induce the operative whose work is in the practical application of those truths, to put up with his more limited knowledge as the only thing that is of value to him. The permanency of knowledge that is valuable to the world will be kept secured, not by instituting a learned caste whose peculiar privilege is the cultivation of the abstract truths of science or philosophy, but by spreading the knowledge of those truths amongst all ranks of society. [16]

Despite Windeyer's passionate plea, in September 1883 the government announced its intention to take over the administration of the technical college, under the supervision of the newly appointed Board of Technical Education, of which Windeyer was a member. The loss of his college may have been tempered somewhat by his election as Vice Chancellor of Sydney University in October. [17]

While the transfer was underway, Windeyer was also embroiled in a libel case over the SMSA and the technical college. In 1882 Mr EP Field, on behalf of the Brisbane School of Arts, applied to study the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts technical college teaching style with the view of assisting the establishment of a similar institution in Brisbane. When the SMSA committee agreed to the proposal, Field was given access to all classes. His report, which was subsequently published in the Sydney Morning Herald, was critical of the teaching methods, the accuracy of the lectures and even the official reports of numbers attending. Field then applied to have access to the examination papers and the answers provided. [18] This was too much for the committee, already smarting from the public attack by Field.

In response, Windeyer, as President of the SMSA, drafted a letter which, after approval by the committee, was sent to Field. Windeyer, in refusing Field access to the exams, stated he believed Field had abused the committee's confidence and taken advantage of the SMSA in a manner calculated to injure rather than benefit the SMSA. Windeyer reminded Field that he had not forgotten that the SMSA had previously refused him employment and suggested that his motives were affected by this previous rebuttal. The letter was subsequently placed on the record at the SMSA meeting, after which Field issued a writ for £1000 in damages. Happily for Windeyer, the case was dismissed. [19]

Resignation and later years

During his two terms as president, Windeyer led the SMSA through a series of difficult but successful transitions, including its incorporation, the establishment of the technical college and then the loss of the college to the government. However by 1886 his enthusiasm had waned, and he announced his retirement in January, prior to the Annual General meeting. When he stepped down from the role in 1881 it had been because his professional life demanded too much of his time to be able to devote enough to the SMSA. In 1886 though, Windeyer wrote to the committee explaining that he regretted severing his association with the SMSA but felt the tone of the general meetings and the indifference shown by the great majority of the members to its interests showed him that it was time to leave. [20]

Windeyer's years after his resignation from the SMSA saw him reach great heights, but were also clouded by controversy over his involvement in a series of high-profile legal cases. In 1887 he travelled to England for the Golden Jubilee celebrations for Queen Victoria and was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws by the University of Cambridge. He was knighted in 1891. In 1892 Windeyer was appointed a temporary judge in Queensland to break a deadlock in the Supreme Court.

His well known sympathy for the victims of crime was seen sometimes to affect his judgements. He sentenced nine men to death in the Mount Rennie rape case in 1886, causing a public outcry. In 1895 he imposed (and then commuted) a death sentence against George Dean for attempted murder of his wife. Dean's innocence was loudly protested, with public meetings and defence funds established. A Royal Commission found Dean not guilty and gave him a pardon, only for him later to confess. Although his original verdict was vindicated by Dean's confession, the public attacks on his judgement had unsettled Windeyer. Following the Dean case, Windeyer continued to work until December 1895, when he applied for a leave of absence from the court, travelled to England for a rest and then, when a request for a second period of absence was refused, retired from the bench. He did however continue his advocacy for education, delivering an address to the Technical Education Congress in London in June 1896 on the success of the New South Wales system.

Windeyer died in Bologna, Italy, of heart paralysis in September 1897, having previously accepted a temporary judgeship in Newfoundland, to have begun in October.


[1] Sydney Morning Herald, 30 November 1835, p 2

[2] Sydney Herald, 25 March 1833, p 2

[3] Windeyer Family Papers, State Library of NSW, Mitchell Library ML MSS 186/12 Item 1 Miscellaneous Papers

[4] 'Students at the University of Sydney', University of Sydney website,, viewed 16 August 2012

[5] 'Windeyer, Sir William Charles (1834–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 6, 1976, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, viewed 16 August 2012

[6] 'Windeyer, Sir William Charles (1834–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 6, 1976, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University; Sydney Morning Herald, 23 December 1862, p 1

[7] Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 1861, p 5

[8] Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 15 November 1862, p 3

[9] Windeyer Family Papers, State Library of NSW, Mitchell Library ML MSS 186/12/6 Notes on a Séance

[10] University of Sydney Archives, Windeyer Papers

[11] Windeyer Family Papers, State Library of NSW, Mitchell Library ML MSS 186/12 Item 1

[12] Annual Report of the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts for the years 1855, 1857, 1858 % 1859

[13] Sydney Morning Herald, 7 February 1866, p 3

[14] An Act to incorporate the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts and for other purposes therein mentioned, 4 May 1874, available online at, viewed 16 August 2012

[15] William Charles Windeyer, Commemorative Address on the celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts March 22, 1883, p 18

[16] William Charles Windeyer, Commemorative Address on the celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts March 22, 1883, p 23

[17] Sydney Morning Herald, 27 October 1883, p 11

[18] Sydney Morning Herald, 13 December 1883, p 12

[19] Sydney Morning Herald, 4 December 1883, p 5

[20] Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, Minutes 18 January 1886, State Library of NSW, Mitchell Library, ML CY2144