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Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899

Atkins introduction

The New South Wales Journal of Richard Atkins

Diary 1792   Diary 1793   Diary 1794

Richard Atkins was the most controversial judge in the most controversial period of New South Wales history.  He first took office as Acting Judge Advocate in 1796, in place of David Collins.  Atkins remained in judicial office until 1798, when he was replaced by the newly arrived Richard Dore, an attorney who became the first legally qualified judge in the penal colony.  Dore died at the end of 1800, and Atkins was again appointed as Acting Judge Advocate, until his appointment was confirmed by the British government in 1802.  He then remained in office as Judge Advocate until the end of 1809.  In the meantime, however, the military coup which deposed Governor Bligh also displaced Atkins from 26 January 1808.  After a year, the unlawful government of 1808 and 1809 found that it could not do without Atkins' undoubted, if amateur, legal skills.  He was restored to practical office for the whole of 1809.

The controversy surrounding Atkins was based on three facts: his drunkenness, his lack of money, and his attachment to the governors whom the leaders of the coup disliked.  Atkins clashed with the coup leaders, including John Macarthur.  One of them described him as a man who ``lies, cheats, drinks, forbears no Lewd Delights, a hateful Fiend by Day - a monster thro' the Night".  Governor Bligh described him as a ``disgrace to human jurisprudence."

The controversy about Atkins continues today.  Some historians see him as a hopeless drunk, while others see a humane, sensitive, though weak, gentleman of his aristocratic background.  For a study of this journal, see Michael Meehan, ``The Fallen World of Richard Atkins" in S Corcoran (ed), Law and History in Australia, Adelaide, 1991.  For comments on his career, see John Bennett, ``Richard Atkins: an Amateur Judge Jeffreys"(1966) 52 Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 261; CH Currey, The Brothers Bent, Sydney, 1968, pp 14f; B Kercher, Debt Seduction and other Disasters: the Birth of Civil Law in Convict New South Wales, Sydney, 1996, ch.2 esp.

The journal published here was written by Atkins before he took office as Judge Advocate.  This copy of the journal was reproduced from a typescript version of the manuscript which is kept in the Macquarie University library.  This version has been proofread against the typescript but not against the original manuscript.  The original manuscript is held by the National Library at MS 4039.

Bruce Kercher, June 1999


Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University