The storm hit our part of Sydney on Saturday evening just before 6pm. We were in the car, a fragile bubble of dry in a liquefied world. The air was viscous. Stabs of lightning coincided with claps of shuddering thunder. Trees shed leaves and branches. The traffic lights flashed on amber. Roads became rivulets, impassable in their lowest sections.
The political storm hit about an hour later. The electorate of Wentworth had fallen, taken by an independent after representation by a conservative party for its entire existence. The person after whom the electorate was named would have been shattered by the political implications of this result – while he was often described as a ‘radical’ during his lifetime, that ‘radicalism’ took the form of fighting for Australian emancipation from British rule, with the intention that the power would be held solely by those with property and wealth. Nevertheless, given the discrimination he and his wife suffered for failing to conform to the prim standards of the day, and his reported propensity for passion and drama, I wonder if part of him may have been intrigued by this victory of a person whose most recent claim to public fame has been in championing same-sex marriage.
Established at Federation in 1901, the electorate was named after William Charles Wentworth, the eldest son of D’Arcy Wentworth. D’Arcy had arrived in the colony in 1790 on the Neptune with the NSW Corps, a free man acquitted of highway robbery on four occasions between 1787 and 1789. Wentworth had trained as a surgeon, and was sent first to Norfolk Island. He did very well for himself there as constable, acting superintendent of convicts and acting assistant-surgeon, and with a series of grants of land, on which he raised swine and goats and grew wheat and maize. He and Catherine Crowley, a convict, had formed a liaison while on the Neptune and their first three children, William, D’Arcy and John, were born at Norfolk Island (William was born while they were waiting to land in 1790). In 1796 the family was sent to Sydney. Wentworth was appointed assistant-surgeon by Governor Hunter and once again proceeded to accumulate wealth through grants of land, official appointments and trade.
In 1800 Catherine Crowley died. D’Arcy Wentworth went on to have a further eight children with Ann Lawes, the last one (D’Arcy Charles) arriving in 1828 after his father’s death.
William Charles Wentworth had been sent to school in England to become a ‘young gentleman’. He became a barrister, and wealthy in his own right, but his standing in the tight world of Sydney society was affected by his father’s past. William Charles trod in his father’s footsteps when he became involved with his client Sarah Cox, who had brought an action for breach of promise of marriage against a sea captain. Sarah was the first daughter of convicts Francis Cox and Fanny Morton[i]. While many convicts didn’t marry, this couple couldn’t marry because Francis would have been committing bigamy. He had a wife and four children in England.
Sarah and William’s first child, Thomasine, was born in 1825 and they went on to have another nine children together. They married in 1829, a month before their third child was born. Despite the marriage, Sarah continued to be seen as tainted, both as the daughter of convicts and as Wentworth’s mistress, and was shunned by the local gentry. When Thomasine married in 1844, her husband, Thomas Fisher, shocked the family by forbidding his wife to see her parents, not wanting his own fortunes to be affected by association with them. It was not until 1862 that the Wentworths, after a period of high-spending life abroad in England and Europe, felt able to hold their first ball in Sydney, with guests including the governor and his wife and other leading lights.
William Charles Wentworth died in 1873 and was given a state funeral, the first in the colony. His funeral procession was observed by as many as 70,000 mourners who lined the streets. His coffin was placed in a vault at the family’s beloved Vaucluse House. In death, he had finally arrived.
Sarah, still travelling the world to see her children and grandchildren to the end, died in Eastbourne, England, in 1880. She was buried there in a simple grave, with no monument.
[i]Liston, C. 1998. Sarah Wentworth: Mistress of Vaucluse. Historic Houses Trust NSW.