Sir Edmund Barry

I’ve already talked of Jenny M Thomas and the System, if you missed them at Kulcha last month check out their webpage and music.  Their CD of edgy colonial songs has been in my car since the concert; so I got to thinking about Australia’s colonial past and wondered why Australian’s seem to know more about English and American history, than our own?

A case in point is Sir Redmond Barry.  A man rarely celebrated or recognised, but whose colourful life makes him a candidate for dramatisation in film or TV.  Barry arrived in Sydney in 1837, was immediately admitted to the Bar and two years later moved to Melbourne.  His list of achievements include the establishment of the University of Melbourne, the Supreme Court and State Libraries of Victoria, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Museum and the Melbourne Club, all significant Melbourne institutions of the time and today.

So why do I say Barry is colourful?  Read on:     “ I confidently assert that fertile as this province is in liable and prostitution of talent there never was a case yet tried entitled to larger damages, there could be no greater crimes than those which the defendant has charged the plaintiff, they are detestable in their character and have been abhorred by upright men in all ages, gibbets were erected and dungeons had yawned for the punishment of these execrable crimes with which the plaintiff is charged, people shrink instinctively from the perjurer, and view with horror the man who seals a lie by kissing the book of life….. Look at the relative positions in life of the libeller and the libelled, the plaintiff has a large family without a profession and entirely dependent in his position in society for support, if deprived of him by the fowl slanders of the defendant he will be irretrievably ruined. The defendant on the other hand is childless and possessed of great wealth, a good deal of which, it is hoped will be taken from him by the verdict of the jury ”.  Harsh and loquacious words Barry used in summing up to a jury, especially when Barry was representing a Mr St.John in a case of liable for being accused of bribery.  Even more so when they were spoken of John Pascoe Faulkner, one of the founding fathers of Melbourne and a man who not too long previously had sponsored Barry’s move to Melbourne.

Whilst philanthropic libraries were not rare in the colonies, Barry’s development of the State Library of Victoria was, insomuch as anyone over the age of 14 could use the library for free, furthermore they could select their own books, unknown anywhere else.  Barry was to some extent a man of the people, no more so than in his role as the Standing Council for Aborigines.  He offended polite society by defending indigenous plaintiffs, who of course were not allowed to give evidence.  This resulted in them being tried solely on the evidence of the white squatters, farmers and police.  In an attempt to address the inequity and give a stronger voice to aboriginals he would represent indigenous people accused of murder as well as lesser crimes.

Barry never took a wife, choosing instead to have sexual relations with other men’s wives; he did however have a long-term relationship with Louisa Barrow, both before and after she became widowed.  But he still chose not to formalise the relationship.

If you have ever heard of Redmond Barry, it would be as the Judge who sentenced Ned Kelly to death.  There are several versions of the comment Kelly made to Barry after sentence was passed, but it went something like I will see you when I get there (Hell).  12 days later Barry died from an infected cyst on his neck; poetic justice for Ned.

I’d like to put the case for the likes of Edmund Barry in forming the Australian character and spirit, just as much as a tragic battle on foreign soil on behalf of another country.

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