John Jenkins 1834. By John Gardiner Austin. Contributed by National Library

There is nothing like reading about a colourful historical figure to remind ourselves how rich and complicated our society actually is. This week I was struck by the story of Robert Wardell. The name might seem a little bit familiar to you. Wardell Road in Marrickville which leads from Petersham to Earlwood was named after him.

Robert Wardell (1793-1834) is an interesting character in early Sydney. He was a barrister and a newspaper proprietor. Along with William Wentworth, Wardell founded The Australian newspaper in 1824. He was a prickly man and his newspaper editorials and articles could be ascerbic, arrogant, condescending – and heavily sarcastic.

On two occasions, Wardell was provoked into a duel to settle scores. No one was hurt on either occasion. But it did put Wardell out of favour around society circles and particularly with the Governor. Governor Darling hated him.

Wardell was also ruffling feathers due to his adulterous relationship with Sarah Rowe (nee Mills) the wife of Thomas Deane Rowe, a shyster lawyer (also from Yorkshire) who had been in the colony since 1821. Thomas and Sarah had apparently separated due to Thomas having an affair with Harriet Hanks.

Wardell’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography describes him as a bachelor, however John Edwards has investigated Wardell’s private affairs and concluded that Sarah Rowe was Wardell’s mistress. You can read all about it in Edward’s article for the Dictionary. It is a good reminder of how complex society relations were in colonial Sydney. Affairs and de facto relationships were common, if not sanctioned. Wardell named his house on his large estate in Petersham Sarah Dell, after his mistress. And she was probably the mysterious Miss S Wardell listed in the household at the 1828 census.

Wardell’s colourful life came to an abrupt end in 1834 when he was murdered on his property by bushrangers. Three escaped convicts had set up a little humpy in a corner of Wardell’s large property. When Wardell discovered and challenged them, their leader John Jenkins shot him. The three men – John Jenkins, Thomas Tattersdale and Emanuel Brace – were captured the following week. Brace turned witness, and Tattersdale and Jenkins were hung. Jenkins remained unrepentant and newspaper reported his defiant speech from the scaffold inciting others to shoot tyrants.

One of the most mysterious things is that William Wardell died intestate, something unthinkable for a wealthy and accomplished lawyer such as Wardell. But knowledge of his affair with Sarah Rowe puts a new perspective on things.

Portrait of Robert Wardell, detail from marble tablet in St James church c1990. By John Edwards. Contributed by John Edwards

Portrait of Robert Wardell, detail from marble tablet in St James church c1990. By John Edwards. Contributed by John Edwards

John Edwards explains:

The relationship between Robert and Sarah was undoubtedly a long one but was without legitimate issue. In an era before divorce, Wardell could neither marry Sarah nor include a woman whose husband was still very much alive in his will. Something that has always puzzled historians is why a lawyer like Wardell should die intestate – his mother had died in 1830 and a new will was never made – but this new insight into his domestic situation perhaps explains why he never remade his will.

Wardell is remembered in a marble tablet in St James Church, as well as in the naming of Wardell Road.

Further reading

John Edwards, Wardell, Robert, Dictionary of Sydney, 2013
CH Curry, Wardell, Robert (1793-1834), Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1967
THE CONVICT SYSTEM. Execution, The Sydney Herald, 13 November 1834, 2. Available  online http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article28654392, viewed 2 February, 2016.

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