COWPER, Sir Charles (1807-1875)


COWPER, Sir Charles (1807-1875)
premier of New South Wales
was the third son of the Rev. William Cowper, D.D (q.v.). He was born in Yorkshire on 26 April 1807, and was brought to Sydney by his father in 1809. Educated by his father, in 1825 he was in the public service, and when barely 19 years of age was appointed clerk of the Clergy and School Lands Corporation. He held this position for some years and in 1831 married the second daughter of Daniel Sutton. When the Clergy and School Lands Corporation was dissolved in 1833, Cowper went on the land and held extensive properties in Cumberland and Argyle counties. He was elected a member of the legislative council in 1843 and held his seat until 1850. In September 1848 he sent out a circular convening a meeting to consider the establishment of a railway company. The company was formed and the first railway in New South Wales was begun on 3 July 1849. This railway was taken over by the government some six years later. At the end of 1851 he was elected for Durham and he was also active as president of the anti-transportation league. When responsible government was established he was elected a member of the legislative assembly for the city of Sydney, and was offered and declined the position of colonial secretary in the first ministry under the leadership of S. A. Donaldson (q.v.). This ministry lasted less than three months, when Cowper formed his first ministry, which had an even shorter life. He again came into power in September 1857. This was a ministry of many changes, no fewer than 13 men holding the seven positions in its life of just over two years. Among the acts passed were the electoral law amendment act, municipalities act, and an act to prohibit future grants for public worship. In the John Robertson (q.v.) ministry which was formed in March 1860 Cowper held the position of chief secretary, and in January 1861 he became premier with Robertson as secretary for lands. Early in this year Cowper introduced a bill intended to substitute elected members for the nominee members of the legislative council. The council suggested amendments which Cowper could not accept, and a little later a similar position arose over his land bills which had passed the assembly. Cowper induced the new governor Sir John Young to appoint 21 new members to the legislative council, but before administering the oath to the new members the president of the council, Sir W. W. Burton (q.v.), announced his resignation and left the chamber. Other members followed his example, there was no quorum, and on the same day parliament was prorogued. Defeated in October 1863 Cowper was premier for the fourth time in February 1865, but his ministry had a life of less than a year. He was premier for the last time in January 1870 and was appointed agent-general for New South Wales in London at the end of that year. He died in London on 19 October 1875 and was survived by Lady Cowper and children.
Cowper did useful work but does not rank among the more distinguished Australian politicians. Parkes (q.v.) in 1852 referred in public to his "mild, affable and benignant character". In later years he spoke of his "quick insight in dealing with surrounding circumstances, and much good humour and tact in dealing with individuals". His political adroitness was such that it secured for him the popular sobriquet of "Slippery Charley". Probably Cowper deserved this title no more than bishop Wilberforce deserved his of "Soapy Sam", but Rusden speaks of Cowper as "ever anxious to link himself with a majority" and frequently shows animus when speaking of him. He was personally popular, and towards the end of his life the estate of Wivenhoe was purchased by public subscription and settled on his wife. He was created K.C.M.G. in 1872.
The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 October 1875; Autobiography and Reminiscences of William Macquarie Cowper; Sir Henry Parkes, Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History; G. W. Rusden, History of Australia; Historical Records of Australia, vols. XII and XIV; The Times, 22 October 1875.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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