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1st Meeting of Senate, 3 February 1851

Comments by Sir Charles Bickerton Blackburn about the first meeting of Senate

It will be noted that the Speaker of the Legislative Council - Charles Nicholson - made his chambers available for the meeting, and it may be mentioned that the Senate meeting continued to be held there until the University went into temporary occupancy of the Sydney College - now the Sydney Grammar School - in the following year. It will probably have also been already noticed that there were only eleven Fellows present. Though this is rather surprising, it was quite possibly due to the realization that the business transacted at the first meeting would be more or less that of a planning committee, preparing a programme of business to be dealt with at the next meeting.

The business, however, was not all planning, for after William Charles Wentworth had been called to the Chair there were two items of correspondence to be dealt with.

The chief interest attaching to Dr D A Mackaen's letter is that, while it is the first item dealt with by the Senate in its hundred years of activity, there is probably no other matter recorded in the minutes about which we have so little information. We have no idea as to the capacity in which the services were being offered and we do not know what reply, if any, was sent. The only other piece of information we could uncover about the writer is a note about the library, which records that the first step taken to build up a University library was to purchase a number of dictionaries and other works from the library of the Reverend Dr. Mackaen at a cost of £97 8s. 6d., a goodly sum in those days. After that, so far as the University is concerned, the worthy doctor passed into oblivion.

As regards the other item of correspondence, no more is known of the contents of the "Memorial from certain qualified members of the Medical Profession complaining that the Medical Profession was not adequately represented in the Senate", nor of its disposal, than appears in the minutes. As, however, no reference was made to it at any subsequent meeting of the Senate, it is reasonable to suppose that the memorial met with a chilly reception. A casual reader would probably conclude that, as the selection of the Senate could hardly be expected to be based on Faculty representation, and as there were two M.D.'s among the sixteen Fellows, the medical profession had little cause for complaint. On the other hand anyone familiar with the social life of Sydney at that period would suspect that there was a good deal more under the surface than was evident in the memorial, and would have little doubt that the Fellows of the Senate knew perfectly well what it was.

To explain what it was all about will involve traversing a rather wide historical field, covering facts in the history of universities in general, in the very early history of our own University in particular, and in the class distinction that dominated social life in the Colony at that time. Ostensibly no doubt the letter purported to be a protest that the Medical Faculty had only two representatives on the Senate, while the Faculties of Arts and Law were each represented by four Fellows. Had this been the true reason, it could well have been based upon an age-long inter-Faculty rivalry, in which the two liberal professions were historically ranged against Medicine, representing the then rather frowned-on Science. It will be remernbered that in the early Universities there were four Schools - Theology, Philosophy, Law and Medicine. As in those days the Church, representing the Holy See, held the reins, no definite Theological Faculty developed, for every student had to take Holy Orders and include Theology in his studies, but the other three Schools became the Faculties of Arts, Law and Medicine. The first two, closely related in the nature of their studies, rather naturally tended to combine forces against Medicine and as Universities passed from religious to secular control, this control became largely vested in representatives of the Faculties of Arts and Law.

When William Charles Wentworth, M.A., brought his first University Bill before the Legislative Council in October, 1849, he suggested a Senate to consist of twelve members, and laid stress upon the necessity for excluding clergymen from all share in the management of the institution. This raised a storm of protest from all religious bodies and as a result Wentworth, when he brought in his second Bill a year later, consented to add four to the original number of twelve Senators to permit of the nomination of clergymen of four denominations. Actually when the list was gazetted there were only three clergymen on it.

A hundred years ago Science, as represented by Medicine, was still the University Cinderella, and doctors, having witnessed the successes of the churches in resisting the attempt to oust them, could quite plausibly complain that their profession was being slighted, when only two of its members were among the remaining thirteen nominees. Actually there is good reason to think that the true basis of the memorial was not so much the slighting of the whole profession, but of a particular member, whose colleagues, and a very large section of the public, regarded as outstandingly suitable to assist in guiding the destinies of the University.

This doctor was not only a leading member of his profession, but one of the most popular, energetic and valuable citizens of the Colony. He had been for many years deeply interested in educational problems and had been one of the founders, and the first secretary of the Sydney College and had later succeeded the Chief Justice, Sir Francis Forbes, as president. His choice had seemed so obvious that Wentworth had included his name in the Senate of twelve that he nominated when he moved the second reading of his first University Bill in 1849. From the University point of view, it is of great historical interest that it was the inclusion of this name that wrecked the Bill and delayed the establishment of the University for a year. As soon as the name was announced certain members, led bv William Lowe, afterwards Lord Sherbrooke, strongly protested and the resulting debate was so heated that it was carried on with closed doors. So much unpleasantness resulted that a few days later the Bill lapsed for want of a quorum.

The trouble arose over the fact that the doctor had been exiled from England for taking part in a duel in which the other contestant had been killed. Unfortunately he had been a naval officer, and at that time, though duelling had been made a penal offence, it was still clandestinely regarded in the Navy as the only honourable way of settling a quarrel. Thus an officer, when challenged, was in a most invidious position. If he refused to fight his reputation was tarnished and he was branded as a coward, while if he fought and killed his man he became a criminal. This officer, having killed his man, had had to go into exile, but he had led so exemplary a life that his misdemeanour had been quite forgiven till Robert Lowe, who, we have it on the authority of Wentworth himself, had a venomous tongue, branded him as an ex-convict and social outcast. The affair had caused a great public outcry at the tirne, the great majority of the people, still regarding duelling as a very venial offence and the contestants as heroes rather than as criminals, siding with the doctor. No doubt many hoped that the Governor-in-Council, when he had the opportunity a year later, would make amends by including the name in the new list, and it would appear from the gossip of the time that the doctors' memorial was regarded as a thinly veiled protest against his failing to do so.

Item three of these minutes of the first Senate meeting, which was concerned with planning the business for the next meeting, affords little occasion for comment, other than perhaps to note that the titular head of the University and his deputy were at this stage called Provost and Vice-Provost respectively. This was so until a University Amendment Act was passed in 1860, when the titles were changed to Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor.

As regards the last paragraph of item three, I have already mentioned that subsequent meetings of the Senate until some time in the following year continued to be held in the chambers of the Speaker of the Legislative Council, Charles Nicholson. However, the present-day Chancellor may well feel grateful that he is not called upon to "write a circular to the Fellows severally informing them of the business to be brought forward at the next meeting" as Mr. Wentworth, the Chairman, undertook to do. The present Fellows, on the other hand, inured to sitting at a late hour, might well feel envious of their predecessors, who could look to disposing of their business between noon and lunch time.