University anniversaries

Sesquicentenary 1999-2002

Sesquicentenary Dinner, 6 September 1999

The University of Sydney Sesquicentenary celebrations commenced in 1999 and commemorated various important phases in the foundation of the University.

A Sesquicentenary Dinner was held at 7.00pm on 6 September 1999 in the Strangers Dining Room, NSW Parliament House, to mark the historic occasion on 6 September 1849 in the Legislative Council of the NSW Parliament when William Charles Wentworth moved for an enquiry into the establishment of a University. It was an introduction to the University of Sydney's sesquicentenary celebrations, and the University used the dinner as an opportunity to thank its many benefactors for their generosity.

The evening's Parliamentary host was NSW Minister for Education and Training the Hon John Aquilina MP.

Many of the University's benefactors, alumni and staff listened to the Chief Justice of NSW, the Hon J J Spigelman, a distingushed graduate of the University, who reflected on Wentworth's views and their consequences for the contemporary university.

Photos by Karen Mork are from 'The University of Sydney News' 16 September 1999, University of Sydney Archives.

Guest of Honour: The Hon William Charles Wentworth AO and Professor Sir Bruce Williams

From left, guest of Honour the Hon William Charles Wentworth AO, former Minister in the Gorton and MacMahon govemments and great grandson of NSW parliamentarian W C Wentworth, with former Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Bruce Williams.

Guests John and Susan Conde

Guests John and Susan Conde

  • Pre-Dinner drinks
  • Music: String Quartet, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, The University of Sydney
  • Parliamentary welcome: The Hon John Aquilina MLA, NSW Minister for Education and Training
  • University welcome: Emeritus Professor Dame Leonie Kramer AC DBE, Chancellor, The University of Sydney
  • Scene setting: Professor Gavin Brown FAA, Vice-Chancellor, The University of Sydney
  • Entree
  • Main course
  • After dinner address: The Hon James Spigelman QC, Chief Justice, Supreme Court of NSW
  • Vote of thanks: Emeritus Professor Dame Leonie Kramer AC DBE, Chancellor, The University of Sydney
  • Dessert & coffee
  • Close
  • Guest of Honour: The Hon William Charles Wentworth AO
  • Entree:
    Smoked salmon, blue swimmer crab and prawns with ginger and lemon grass dressing
  • Main course:
    Chicken fillet wrapped in prosciutto and baby spinach with tomato and anchovy butter
  • Dessert & coffee:
    Lemon and almond tart with creme anglaise

After dinner address by The Hon James Spigelman QC
After dinner address by The Hon James Spigelman QC

After dinner address by The Hon James Spigelman QC.

We assemble here today only a few yards from the chamber of the Legislative Council, now occupied by the Legislative Assembly of the New South Wales Parliament, in which on 6 September 1849 William Charles Wentworth moved the resolution for the establishment of a committee to inquire into the creation of a University. That committee, chaired by Wentworth, reported within 15 days and, within a similar period, on 4 October 1849, Wentworth moved the Second Reading of the University Bill in the Legislative Council.

Accordingly, this day represents the 150th Anniversary of a critical stepping stone for the creation of the University of Sydney: a prelude, our invitation for tonight’s dinner states - perhaps even an overture - to the sesquicentenary celebrations which the University will commence to celebrate next year.

The legislative chamber in which Wentworth delivered the two speeches to which I have referred, is one of the oldest parliamentary chambers in continuous use anywhere in the world. It is well, on occasions like this, for us to pause and reflect on just how old many of our most important institutions are.

Australians like to think of this as a young country. However, in many respects, and particularly in the basic mechanisms of governance, this is not a young country. This is an old country.

On 17 May of this year the Supreme Court of New South Wales celebrated the 175th Anniversary of its foundation. The number of nations which have judicial institutions of such vintage can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The Supreme Court and the first Legislative Council were both created under the New South Wales Act, a statute of the British Parliament of 1823. That was the first written constitution in Australian history. The beginnings of representative government occurred over 150 years ago. In a few years we will celebrate 150 years of representative and responsible government - the pursuit of which was, perhaps, the single most important theme of Wentworth’s political life.

The twin great institutional traditions of our civilisation - the rule of law and the need for consent of the governed - form part of the core content of Australian national identity. Their force today, reflected in the universal acceptance of the legitimacy of the institutions which perform these functions, is derived in large measure from the longevity of the traditions by which they are performed. There is an embedded wisdom in institutions which have grown and developed over long periods of time. It is fitting that we commemorate anniversaries of the character we gather here today to mark.

The speech which Wentworth gave on 6 September 1849 reveals some of the strengths of our society, strengths which have enabled us to enjoy a history of economic prosperity and social stability, which is reflected in the longevity of our institutions, and which most nations in the world have reason to envy.

The William Charles Wentworth of 1849, was no longer the firebrand of the 1820s when he returned from Britain with his legal qualifications and university experience. Shortly after his return he was admitted as one of the first two barristers of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Immediately upon his admission, he moved a motion in the Court that henceforth, as was the custom in England, solicitors should no longer be permitted rights of audience in the court.

It is pertinent to note that in 1846, one of Wentworth’s political rivals, Robert Lowe, supported legislation which would have lead to the amalgamation of the two branches of the legal profession. At that stage Australians who wished to be admitted to the Bar had to go to England and take up residence at one of the Inns of Court merely, as Lowe put it, “to eat 36 dinners there”. Lowe argued, in terminology which is reminiscent of recent debates, for “Free Trade in Law”. He maintained that the “barrister monopoly” was “a tax on the administration of justice”. Wentworth protested that the Bill would destroy the dignity of the legal profession by making barristers stoop to collect their own fees. Some things change very little.

Although this measure was defeated, a highlight of the debate was the necessity, if separation of the two branches of the legal profession were to continue, to establish a means of training Australians for the independent Bar, without the cost and inconvenience of travel to England. Lowe and Wentworth both agitated for the creation of a University, inter alia, by reason of this need. Similar demands came from the medical profession.

Both Lowe and Wentworth were members of the committee established by the resolution of the 6 September 1849 and which reported with such commendable speed.

I wish to highlight two aspects of the speech that Wentworth delivered 150 years ago today. The first, the personal origins of an individual in either convict status or freedom, was the dominant social divide of the first century of Australian life. The second subject, conflict amongst the major Christian denominations, lays claim to be the dominant social divide of the second century of Australian life.

Wentworth, as is well known, was the son of a convict mother. Notwithstanding his education, his contribution to society and his obvious personal capacity - not always consistently displayed - his entire public life was marred by a battle for social acceptance. His speech of 6 September 1849 refers on a number of occasions to the “tainted population” of the colony of New South Wales. He propounded the greater responsibility of the Government of a convict colony to provide for education than in other British colonies, without such “moral taint”. He said:

“If it was the duty of the State to instruct the free and virtuous population of those colonies, how much greater the necessity to enlighten the tainted population of this. The governments of those colonies had to deal only with the ignorance of untaught multitudes - here it was the duty of the government to do all in its power to subdue their vices.”

The Hansard report of this speech indicates that at this point members of the Council burst into cries of “Here here”.

This debate reflected the passions that convict origins could still incite at this time, and their significance to the social, economic and political life of the colony. However, within a few decades, other than in the most narrow of conservative circles of ever reducing size, this, the most important social issue of the early decades of colonial life, had passed into irrelevancy.

This was the first manifestation of an extraordinary capacity for adaptation which our social institutions have displayed on a number of occasions, including the second theme of Wentworth’s address - the importance of religious differences - but also more recently in the absorption into our society of waves of non-Anglo Celtic migration.

As I have said a second theme - perhaps the main theme - of Wentworth’s two addresses on the 6 September and 4 October was the importance of creating a secular institution. All proposals for public involvement in education had been bedevilled by the claims of the various denominations to control the education of their adherents. Indeed early in his political career, Wentworth had conducted a campaign opposing plans by the Anglican establishment to create what would have been, effectively, a monopoly of educational provision in the colony.

The proposal which Wentworth put forward in his speech of 6 September 1849, which the committee endorsed and, indeed, which was established, was for a tertiary institution free from religious teaching, so that no sectarian influences would impinge themselves upon the educational process and, accordingly, that members of all denominations could allow their adherents to attend. A compromise, somewhat characteristic of our society, was put forward in the form of affiliating denominational colleges to the University so that the religious instruction, which most then thought to be essential, could occur within the context of those colleges, but not in the University itself.

At that time, of course, Cambridge and Oxford were Anglican institutions with a strict religious test for entry. The non-denominational University of London had only recently been established. However, as Wentworth pointed out during the course of debate, the Universities of Scotland and of Ireland had no religious test. The then controversial nature of this proposal was manifest in the refusal of the Anglican Bishop of Sydney to nominate a member to the first Senate.

The social division between Catholics and Protestants, overlapping as it did very substantially with class divisions, remained of central significance in our society until comparatively recently. When I was pursuing my legal studies at this University in the late 60s, only 30 years ago, the significance of this division was quite apparent in the law. There were law firms in this city which had never had a Catholic employee, let alone partner. There were others, which had never had a Protestant. The position of Commissioner of Police was filled alternatively by a Catholic and a Mason and that remained the case for many years. However, over the last three decades this basic social divide has dissipated. A sense of harmony has replaced longstanding tensions. The speed and frictionless nature of this transition is another manifestation of the extraordinary strength of our social institutions and their capacity for adaptation.

The report of the 1849 Committee contrasted the failure to create a university after sixty two years of British settlement with the position in the United States. The Report said:

“The University of Harvard, to our shame be it mentioned, was established by the Pilgrim Fathers of New England in less than twenty years after its settlement.”

In his speech of 6 September 1849, Hansard reported Wentworth to have said:

“He should not weary the House by enumerating the endowments of the educational establishments of the United States. It would be sufficient to say that the endowment generally did not proceed from the revenue of the State.”

Even at that early stage, the contrast between Australian and American traditions of philanthropy was clear. It has remained so since. Nevertheless, over the century and a half of its existence, this University has been able to attract substantial private support by Australian standards. I am sure everyone present is acutely aware that contemporary developments in government funding make such support more necessary than ever.

It would be appropriate to conclude this address with a quotation from one of Wentworth’s two speeches. However, the modern ear is not well attuned to the bombast of Victorian rhetoric. Suffice it to say that Wentworth’s comments were particularly focussed on a patriotic assertion of the potential contribution of Australians to education and to civilisation. After 150 years they remain worthy and noble sentiments, appropriate for commemoration.

Vote of thanks by Emeritus Professor Dame Leonie Kramer

The unluckiest person in the world is the one who has to present a vote of thanks - no matter what the speech is like. If it's a bad speech, there's nothing you can say that won't offend the speaker. If it's a speech like the one we've just heard, there's nothing you need to say, because I don't need to tell you, not only how appropriate were the words of the Chief Justice, but how wise. He began with some remarks of institutions and their age, and I gloss that a little by saying that age is wisdom and experience, but not necessarily a virtue, though in the institutional sense, it often is, and certainly is in regard to the law, and I hope, to the University of Sydney. He denied that we are a young country; a denial which reminded me of the words of our poet A.D. Hope: "They call us a young country, but they lie". Now he talked in terms of geology, not in human history, but the same applies. The Chief Justice's endorsement and wise comments on the value of institutional experience I think are very much to the point at this moment in our history, where we look back tonight, but we also look forward.

And that leads me to what I think was his second principal theme, which is not the flexibility but the adaptability of our major institutions. And that is another way of looking at the history of the University of Sydney. It's strange to me how often universities are thought of as out-of-date, as retrograde, as conservative, as ivory tower places. One of our senior members of staff of a few years ago who gave a speech at a graduation said that an ivory tower wasn't a bad place to be because you could see a long way from the top. There's something in that. But the most important thing for us, I think, in what the Chief Justice said was this whole question of adaptability. We have, over the years, ever since we began, responded to new circumstances, to changes in history, to changes in student choices, to changes in our own levels of funding and that's what we're doing of course right now, but most of all we have changed because, unlike any other institution in society, at least that I can think of, we receive into the university every year, thousands of young people around about the age of eighteen. And I can't think of any other institution which could adapt to that extraordinary circumstance. Eight thousand I think was our enrolment thereabouts last year. Can you imagine eight thousand people descending on the Macquarie Bank, for example, at the age of eighteen, in the one year? And being able to go out of that place in three or four years time, able themselves to make a contribution to the community.

Thank you very much for what you've said to us tonight, it was not only entertaining and historically important to us, but it also gives us food for thought and a way of thinking about ourselves which we will remember for a long time.