Major General Sir Richard Bourke Governor of NSW, 1831-1837

Our History and the Christian Connection

The ‘Fair Go’ Governor

There were sectarian tensions in County Limerick, Ireland where Richard Bourke and his wife Elizabeth lived. They stood up against people from their own privileged Protestant social class to help poor Catholics in their home county. Despite religious differences they respected Catholics as fellow Christians. The Bourke’s were peacemakers in their own community.

From landed gentry in Ireland who were descended from King Richard the Lionheart, Bourke went to Westminster School, then Oxford University. Vacations were spent with his relative Edmund Burke and wife Jane. Edmund was a famous thinker and politician. Richard was deeply affected by the way the Burkes were a mixture of Protestant and Catholic who didn’t let that affect their relationships.

Richard met Elizabeth through the Burkes. Blessed with a strong marriage and five much loved children they shared a deep Christian faith.  The governor had fought in the Napoleonic Wars and was scarred for life when he was shot in the jaw. As Acting Governor of Cape Colony, South Africa he sought to end slavery of coloured servants, he granted freedom of the press and made other important reforms.

On December 3, 1831 the new Governor of New South Wales, now Major General Richard Bourke arrived in Sydney on the brig Margaret with his wife Elizabeth and three of their children and an exhausted ship’s company. They hoped that coming to NSW would help Elizabeth’s poor health. But the rough voyage left her desperately weak. Five months later she died suddenly at Government House, Parramatta.

It was a very tough way to start as Governor. Elizabeth had always been a true companion and strength to her husband. Both were devout followers of Jesus Christ, and they had a reputation for making society fairer. Just before she died Elizabeth wanted to know who was helping their poor neighbours back in Ireland.

Bourke erected this tribute to her in St. John’s Church, Parramatta:

Despite his loss, the new governor had been well prepared for leading the 44-year old colony.

When he came to NSW he saw the mistreatment of convicts by brutal masters, so he made the law fairer and got rid of unjust magistrates. He also wanted to give ex-convicts a full place in society, allowing them to sit on juries.

Once he walked out of church when his own Anglican bishop preached against one of his policies. The bishop didn’t agree with his fair go approach. But the Church Act of 1836 put the Anglicans, Catholics and Presbyterians on a level playing field for funding for new churches and church schools. This was a great success and settlers everywhere felt very encouraged. Even the bishop didn’t complain too much. Bourke extended the funding to Jews, Wesleyans and Baptists.

He cared greatly about the aborigines, but like most Europeans back then did not understand how important their culture and land were to them.

Bourke wanted the Irish National Schools model used for public education in NSW, which his supporters used to start public schools in 1848.  The religion of students was recognised through Religious Instruction, allowing the different denominations to teach their students, which supported religious freedom and sought to reduce religious conflict. Bourke wanted to create a democratic society that gave people a fair go based on the common Christian beliefs of most settlers.

The town of Bourke on the Darling River is named after him, and he named Melbourne and its streets, including Elizabeth and Bourke Streets. But his greatest legacy was a fairer society, community building through new churches and schools, and public education based on common Christian values and religious freedom.

Thousands gathered for the governor’s departure on Sydney Harbour on December 5, 1837. Australia’s first civic statue was erected in his honour five years later and is now outside the Public Library of NSW. Most of those who donated to it were Irish Catholics, showing affection and respect for the governor who first gave them a full place in society.

Richard Bourke was a great social reformer who put his beliefs into practice, and truly was the ‘fair go’ governor.