A thoroughly dissolute life?
The Journal of Richard Atkins, 1791–1810
30 March 2015
Like many early reputations, that of Judge-Advocate Richard Atkins (1745–1820) is being revised as new information comes to light. Governor Bligh reviled him ‘a disgrace to human jurisprudence’ who pronounced ‘sentences of death … in moments of intoxication’. John Macarthur denounced him for being ‘a public cheater living in the most boundless dissipation’ who was ‘addicted to liquor, immorality and insolvency’. Yet Governor Hunter found him ‘fully capable’, Governor King praised his ‘strict justice and impartiality’ while that unlikely representative of the convict class, pickpocket George Barrington, spoke of his ‘justice and humanity’.
Richard Atkins—whose journal is now on public display in the Library’s Treasures Gallery—occupied some of the most senior judicial offices in the colony for eighteen years between his arrival on the Pitt in 1792 and departure to the Hindostan in 1810. He was second only to the governor in rank. Although not a fluent writer, his journal reveals a lively, curious mind with an interest in travel, natural history and poetry, with commentary on various topics. New analysis suggests that as judge-advocate, he generally strove to apply the principles of law with diligence and humanity, despite having no legal qualifications.
Considered to be Australia’s first remittance man, Atkins was the youngest of five sons of Sir William Bowyer, third baronet of Denham Court, Buckinghamshire. As the heir presumptive to his childless cousin and godfather Sir Richard Atkins of Clapham, Surrey, he changed his name from Bowyer to Atkins to ensure his inheritance. When Sir Richard died, only his sister Lady Penelope Rivers stood between him and the Clapham estate. This looked promising as Lady Penelope was childless, separated from her husband, living in Italy and unlikely to produce an heir. Atkins borrowed heavily against his expectations, which failed to materialise. Faced with debtors’ prison, he fled to Australia.
One of Atkins’ mistakes was to borrow £26 from John Macarthur in 1793. This bill of exchange was eventually acquired by visiting sea captain Richard Brooks. Twice Captain Brooks presented the bill to the Bowyers at Denham Court in England; twice he was refused. When Atkins was recalled to London in 1810 to give evidence at Lieutenant-Col George Johnston’s trial for deposing Governor Bligh, Brooks enforced the port regulations and reclaimed the debt which had blown out to £82. Under instructions from Viscount Castlereagh to ensure Atkins’ return, Governor Macquarie transferred Atkins’ 500-acre ‘rebel grant’—named ‘Denham Court’ after his ancestral birthplace—to Brooks in settlement. When the captain emigrated in 1814, he retained the name ‘Denham Court’ for his country estate. It is now an outer suburb of Sydney near Campbelltown.
It would be a mistake to think of Atkins as an ‘amateur Judge Jeffries’. As eminent historian Alan Atkinson observed, Atkins had ‘the insouciance of an aristocrat and the refinement of a litterateur, but also in some respects, the innocence of a child’. He was hopeless with money, a catspaw with women and partial to strong drink, but along with boisterous behaviour and irreverence, these were traditional Georgian pastimes, much celebrated in contemporary literature. Australian colonial history would be much less colourful without him.