Bernhard Wise

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Bernhard Ringrose Wise

B R Wise.jpg
Wise in 1898 at the Australasian Federal Convention, Melbourne
Member of the New South Wales Parliament
for South Sydney
In office
5 February 1887 – 19 January 1889
Preceded byJoseph Oliffe
Succeeded byWilliam Traill
In office
17 June 1891 – 25 June 1894
Preceded byWalter Edmunds
Succeeded bySeat abolished
Member of the New South Wales Parliament
for Sydney-Flinders
In office
17 July 1894 – 5 July 1895
Preceded byNew seat
Succeeded byArthur Nelson
Member of the New South Wales Parliament
for Ashfield
In office
27 July 1898 – 30 October 1900
Preceded byThomas Bavister
Succeeded byFrederick Winchcombe
Personal details
Born(1858-02-10)10 February 1858
Petersham, New South Wales
Died19 September 1916(1916-09-19) (aged 58)
Kensington, London, England
Resting placeBrookwood Cemetery
Political partyFree Trade Party
Spouse(s)Lilian Margaret Baird (1884–1916)
Children1 son
Alma materUniversity of Oxford

Bernhard Ringrose Wise QC (10 February 1858 – 19 September 1916), commonly referred to as B. R. Wise, was an Australian politician. He was a social reformer, seen by some as a traitor to his class, but who was not fully accepted by the labor Movement. He said, "My failure in Sydney has been so complete—my qualities those which Australia does not recognise, my defects those which Australians dislike most." When he died, William Holman said, "There is hardly anything in our public life which we have to consider to-day that cannot be traced back to his brilliant mind and clear foresight … [Wise] held undisputed supremacy as the foremost debater, foremost thinker and foremost public man in the life of New South Wales".[1]

Early life[edit]

Wise was born in the Sydney suburb of Petersham. He was the second son of Edward Wise, a judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, and Maria Bate (née Smith). After his father's death in 1865, his mother took the family to Leeds, England to put her sons through grammar school, where their "homemade clothes exposed us to ridicule and bullying". She moved to Rugby and took work, so that Wise could be educated at Rugby School as a day student.

Wise won a £90-a-year scholarship to The Queen's College, Oxford, where he had a distinguished career, being Cobden Prizeman in 1878 and gaining a first-class in the honour school of law in 1880. He was president of the Oxford Union and president of the Oxford University Athletics Club (OUAC).

Wise was amateur mile champion of Great Britain, 1879–81, and his interest in athletics led to his co-founding the Amateur Athletic Association, alongside Clement Jackson, and Montague Shearman, of which he was elected the first president. This became a very important body whose influence was eventually extended all over the world. In 1882, he moved to London and worked closely with the social reformer, Arnold Toynbee.

Wise was called to the bar of the Middle Temple in April 1883; and, in August 1883, he returned to Sydney with his fiancée, Lilian Margaret Baird, whom he married in April 1884. He was admitted as a barrister in August 1883 and began to build up a successful practice.[1][2]

Later in life in November 1898, while the member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly for Ashfield, he was appointed a Queen's Counsel.[3]

Political career[edit]

In February 1887, Wise was elected to the Legislative Assembly for the working class district of South Sydney, advocating direct taxation, payment of members, an eight-hour day and free trade. On 27 May, became Attorney-General of New South Wales in Henry Parkes's ministry. Eight months later he resigned because as Attorney-General he was prohibited from taking briefs[4] and he was defeated at the January 1889 election. In the 1890 maritime strike, he supported the right of the workers to strike, and won back his seat in South Sydney, despite his education and accent.

Wise had always been interested in federation and in May 1890 suggested that a journal should be established for the discussion of federal problems. A strong editorial committee was formed and two numbers of the Australian Federalist appeared at the beginning of 1891. In November of that year, when the retirement of Parkes necessitated a new leader being elected, Wise might possibly have been given the position, but though nominated he retired in favour of George Houston Reid.[2] In 1894, he was returned as member for Sydney-Flinders.[4] His failure to choose sides between Reid and Parkes during a no-confidence debate left him isolated and he was defeated for re-election in 1895.[1]


He was elected as a representative of New South Wales at the 1897 Federal Convention and was a member of the judiciary committee. He fought for Federation in the referendum campaign of 1898 and at the New South Wales election allied himself with Edmund Barton. In August 1898, he was returned as member for Ashfield.[4] He left the Free Trade Party because he felt that free trade was being put before federalism. As he afterwards phrased it, "I preferred nationhood to local politics". He was Attorney-General in Lyne's ministry front September 1899 to March 1901. But as a candidate for the Federal House of Representatives rural seat of Canobolas, though really a convinced freetrader, he was labelled a protectionist on account of his association with Lyne and Barton, and he was seen as a "city" barrister.[1] A freetrader gained the seat, and Wise was lost to federal politics.[2]

Legal reform and latter life[edit]

Wise was Attorney-General from September 1899 to June 1904 and, from July 1901, was also Minister of Justice. He was now able to put through some of his ideas for social reform and succeeded in passing important legislation, including the Industrial Arbitration Act (1901), the Early Closing Act (1899), the Old-age Pensions Act (1900) and the Women's Franchise Act (1902). In October 1900, he moved to the New South Wales Legislative Council to pilot the Arbitration bill through. More than once passed a State Children's bill through the Council only to have it thrown out in the Assembly and its ideas were incorporated in the Neglected Children and Juvenile Offenders Act (1905). He was acting-Premier for part of 1903⁠–04.[1][2][4]

He subsequently travelled and, while in South America in 1906, contracted malaria which affected his health for the remainder of his days. Most of his time was spent in England. In May 1915, he was appointed Agent-General for New South Wales. He worked hard despite his ill-health and died suddenly in Kensington. His wife survived him with one son.[2]


The grave of Bernhard Ringrose Wise in Brookwood Cemetery in 2019

He was the author of Facts and Fallacies of Modern Protection (1879); Industrial Freedom A Study in Politics (1892), a more complete statement of the freetrade case; The Commonwealth of Australia (1909), a popular book on conditions in Australia at that time; and The Making of the Australian Commonwealth (1913), which, though sometimes one-sided and generally too much confined to events in New South Wales, is an interesting and valuable document.[2]

Wise had also at one point socialised with Scottish-Australian poet and bush balladeer Will H. Ogilvie (1869–1963); they also played chess.[5]


  • "Australia and its Critics" . The Empire and the century. London: John Murray. 1905. pp. 424–445.


  1. ^ a b c d e Ryan, J. A. (1990). "Wise, Bernhard Ringrose (1858-1916)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Volume 12. Melbourne University Press. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 5 August 2020 – via National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Serle, Percival. "Wise, Bernhard Ringrose(1858-1916)". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Project Gutenberg Australia. Retrieved 29 March 2007.
  3. ^ "MR. B. R. WISE, Q.C." The Daily Telegraph (6052). New South Wales, Australia. 5 November 1898. p. 9. Retrieved 8 September 2020 – via Trove.
  4. ^ a b c d "Mr Bernhard Ringrose Wise (1858-1916)". Former Members of the Parliament of New South Wales. Retrieved 13 May 2019.
  5. ^ "Literature and art". Coolgardie Pioneer. IV (47). Western Australia. 4 February 1899. p. 32. Retrieved 8 September 2020 – via Trove.

External links[edit]


New South Wales Legislative Assembly
Preceded by
Joseph Olliffe
Member for South Sydney
1887 – 1889
Served alongside: Riley, Toohey, Withers
Succeeded by
William Traill
Preceded by
Walter Edmunds
Member for South Sydney
1891 – 1894
Served alongside: Martin, Traill, Toohey/Manning
Succeeded by
Preceded by
New seat
Member for Sydney-Flinders
1894 – 1895
Succeeded by
Arthur Nelson
Preceded by
Thomas Bavister
Member for Ashfield
1898 – 1900
Succeeded by
Frederick Winchcombe