And now, The Colonies: Australian Democratic Reform mid 19th Century through the British Press.

Now before I dive too far into this I want you to take a moment. I want you to think about Liberty. What does it mean to you? What is it? take a minute, write it down commit it to memory, go ahead I can wait…

All good? Got it? right you are going to need that later but first you are going to need context.

We are going to touch here on some Australian history. Australian history to me and some of the people i asked has a fairly traditional Arch: Captain cook shows up, Convicts everywhere, maybe something gold related, suddenly its 1901 and Australia is a country Edmund Barton does his thing, 13 or so years fall down a hole and its World War One, ANZAC all up in this. Sound familiar? There’s obviously a whole lot of issues with this, the lack of mention of Indigenous Australians or of women- but those are both topics for another day- leaves some gaping holes. If we jump into the middle of the 19th century we can find some pretty interesting things going on in the Australian colonies.1855 rolls around and then NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia all granted limited self-government. In 1856 Victoria gives the vote to all Men over 21 and a secret ballot (McKenna, 2001). Most of the other states follow suit, South Australia in the same year Tasmania and NSW in 1858. All this is the good stuff, democracy is starting in Australia at this time and eventually will lead to the one we have today I mean South Australia allows women to vote in 1895, this was some forward thinking stuff going on in Australia.

Britain had some shenanigans going on as well. While the 19th century for Britain is mostly suns never setting on them and disliking the French in terms of their domestic politics they were having some big shifts. in 1832 the First Reform Act gets passed in the British parliament, big news. Issue is, that now only about one in every five men can vote. Then we end up with pro reform movements in Great Britain really kicking into gear, the Chartists get to work protesting and picketing to extend voting beyond just the few men who have it. The British pass a pile of reform acts although much later, the Second reform act only comes into being in 1867. Now all of this so far democratic reforms more people being able to vote entire new democracies being built now we stop back in with our friend liberty.

All of this good for liberty right? You have more rights and freedoms? especially Australia so let’s look at them. Well not exactly the consensus opinion on the whole liberty thing. I grabbed and went through newspaper from Britain published between 1860 and ’62. Really a good time to pick up considering that the American Civil War starts in 1861. So democracy was on trial in some regards.

Now not all of it is bad, the papers make some arguments for democracy in Australia, my personal favorite is basically the argument that all of those Australian types are of low breeding and class anyway and to make matters worse they are “a society so thinly scattered over a great country”. So Australia needs democracy just for practical purposes yeah okay not so bad. But then it seems that the only reason they need it is because they don’t have any leaders already, no aristocracy and such. Maybe that whole liberty thing is more about being ruled by the right people than individual rights?

Then of course there’s all the other newspapers, (I’m looking at you The Times) not all but a lot more who looked at democracy and saw something which would upset the metaphorical tea cart of the British Empire. It appears the British press were rather concerned with the democracy being a means of destroying the freedom and liberty of Britain! Democracy will lead to tyranny, or worse Socialism!

I mentioned the US Civil War before and the United states is one of those double sore points for the British press talking about the Aussies. As well as the civil war there is that whole ‘they used to be our colony’ thing. The press was looked at Australia and saw that if things keep going how they were going that Britain would lose Australia too. And to be fair at the time Australia democratic reformers were talking that a Full Australian Republic would be ideal (Hirst, 1988). But there was a massive fear that Australia would revolt against Britain or just descend into Chaos as governments of “no great strength and no very high character” run the colonies and those rebellions and that unrest is a direct attack on freedom and liberty.

Now remember why I asked you to do the whole Liberty thing. Is it about individual freedom? Is it about freedom from fear or tyranny. It’s complicated really but I can say this much, most of the British press looked at Australia and looked at democratic reforms and saw not growing liberty but something which might just destroy it.


Hirst, J. (1988). The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy: New South Wales 1848-1884. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

If there is Some Misfortune. (1861, October 18). The Times .

London. (1861, July 10). Daily news .

McKenna, M. (2001). Building a ‘closet of prayer’ in the New New world: the story of the ‘Australian Ballot’. In M. Sawer, Elections: Full, Free and Fair (pp. 45-62). Sydney: Federation Press.

The preesent mood in the House of Commons. (1860, May 5). The Times .


2 comments on “And now, The Colonies: Australian Democratic Reform mid 19th Century through the British Press.

  1. An interesting piece. You made a really good point about Australia segmenting their history and largely leaving out almost 100 years between settlement and federation. It’s interesting that you took the approach of this through the British, rather than the Australian media. In your opinion, do you think the British viewed Australians as still British, in the way many Australians did, or do you think that they were already beginning to view them as external? Also did British perspectives change in Britain depending on class, or were the opinions largely universal?

  2. Fantastic post. I am a huge fan of your links between nations and their goings-on at the same time; the brief mention of the United States and their civil war speaks volumes about the scope of the issues at play at the time and your essay. The correlation between liberty, democracy and tyranny is just as engaging and interesting. Not ideas one normally puts in that particular order, and yet it seems to have been a relatively common view at the time. I have to wonder how the British across the pond viewed those British who had migrated to the Colonies and were now on the side of Australian independence/the side of liberty. Were they well received in Britain? Do the papers make specific mention of them, or were they a non-issue?

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