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Robert Patten (1859–1940)

by Peter Woodley

Robert Patten, by T. Humphrey & Co, 1913

Robert Patten, by T. Humphrey & Co, 1913

National Library of Australia, 24283753

Robert Patten (1859–1940), teacher, farmer, and pioneering rural politician, was born on 18 June 1859 at Brixton, London, the son of Robert Patten, ‘gentleman’ of the British War Office, and Elizabeth, née Thorning.[1] At the age of seventeen he emigrated to Sydney, New South Wales, where he lodged with relatives and worked as a clerk.[2] Robert became a primary school teacher with the New South Wales Department of Public Instruction in February 1883, and for fourteen years taught at small schools near Tumbarumba, Menindee, Cowra, and Maitland. Though he had no relevant experience, he developed an interest in bee-keeping while at Cowra.[3] At Maitland he established a school farm, and was invited to judge the apiculture exhibits at the local show in 1895.[4] He was an earnest and committed teacher, and energetic in these extra-curricular pursuits. But he was often unsuccessful when he sat exams to attain promotion, admitted to debilitating bouts of depression, and towards the end of his teaching career was not regarded highly by his superiors.[5] A school inspector noted in 1896: ‘Mr Patten is a respectable, hard-working man who performs his school duties to the best of his ability—but that ability is of very poor order…. He talks volubly, but does not teach’.[6]

For most of his time as a teacher, Patten was accompanied by Australian-born Amelia Bridget Bernasconi, whom he had married on 23 June 1885, at the Church of England, Wellington, New South Wales. She was the daughter of Anthony Bernasconi, from Lombardy in Italy, and Sarah Victoria, née Coates, from Manchester in England. They were well-off store- and land-owners of Montefiores near Wellington in central-western New South Wales.[7] Between 1886 and 1896 Amelia gave birth to two girls and four boys. In March 1897 Patten resigned from teaching and, in his late thirties, moved with his family to Comobella near Wellington where they became his father-in-law’s tenants on a 465 acre (188 hectare) farm.[8]

Patten’s political journey began in 1900 when he sought fellow farmers’ collaboration to establish a local branch of the New South Wales Farmers and Settlers Association.[9] The association had formed in southern New South Wales in 1893 to advocate for land reform and other policy affecting agriculture and mixed farming. By 1900 the FSA had extended its influence and membership across the colony.[10] It is unclear why Patten was so driven and successful as a farmers’ advocate. He is likely to have been better educated than many of his peers, and certainly attuned to the ways of bureaucrats and government. He rose quickly through the association’s ranks, attending the annual conference in Dubbo in 1902 as a branch delegate, being elected to the FSA executive council in 1906, serving as vice president in 1906, and as president from 1908.

During Patten’s tenure on the FSA executive, the association became a more prominent and assertive, even strident, voice in rural politics, amplified when it entered into arranged with a private publishing company to adopt the Farmer and Settler as its official newspaper.[11] Whereas the FSA had previously embraced members with a range of political allegiances, and views on the relative merits of freehold and leasehold land tenure, from 1906 the executive supported freehold title to the exclusion of all others, and purged the association of Labor-aligned members.[12]

The former teacher and novice farmer had found a new strength and direction. Patten used humour and metaphor to promote the age-old agrarian vision of the sober, industrious and virtuous man working the soil on a modest-sized family holding. Locally, he was elected inaugural president of the Cobbora shire council in 1906.[13] In July 1908, with some FSA members urging the association to form a farmers’ party, Liberal premier Charles Wade appointed Patten (with fellow FSA executive member John Wetherspoon) among twelve new appointees to the Legislative Council, a coterie trusted to support his government’s legislative agenda, and conceivably to head of the formation of a competing country party.[14]

Perhaps harbouring higher political ambition, Patten resigned from the Legislative Council in February 1910 to contest the federal lower house seat of Gwydir in northern New South Wales. Under the prevailing first-past-the-post system, conservatives were wary of splitting the non-Labor vote, so rather than run in opposition to the Liberal Party as a farmers’ candidate, Patten became an endorsed Liberal candidate. He campaigned vigorously, but as Andrew Fisher led the Labor Party to its first federal general election victory, Patten could muster only forty percent of the vote.[15] He was unsuccessful again just months later when he contested the state seat of Liverpool Plains, in the election that saw James McGowan installed as the state’s first Labor premier.[16] Despite his high profile as the FSA president and a recent MLC, Patten’s several stumbles appeared to have depleted his political capital. Even in his home electorate of Macquarie he failed to win Liberal Party pre-selection to contest the 1917 state election against an incumbent Labor member.[17]

Patten had another tilt at federal politics in 1913 when he stood—again as a Liberal candidate—in the southern New South Wales seat of Hume, held by the aged William Lyne, an independent member with a reputation for voting with Labor. Patten and five other FSA-endorsed candidates were successful. Hume was the last contest to be declared, delivering government to the Joseph Cook-led Liberals by the barest of margins.[18] Patten retained his seat at the 1914 election, but reverted to the opposition benches with Fisher’s Labor Party being returned to power.

Two substantial matters engaged Patten in his time in the federal parliament. As a commissioner conducting the Royal Commission on Commonwealth electoral law and administration (January 1914–July 1915), he and the other Liberals recommended preferential voting in the House of Representatives, ‘in order that public opinion may be portrayed in distinct broad tones of thought’.[19] It would be enacted finally in 1918, with the strong urging of farmers’ associations, and as a crucial pre-condition to the rise of a distinct country party.[20] The second matter absorbing his energy was military enlistment. Initially, he opposed conscription and lent his energies to encouraging voluntary enlistment. One of his sons had done so, and another two would follow, and in June 1915 Patten urged that the Hughes Labor government not to hold potentially divisive referendum on conscription.[21] That December he accompanied a recruitment march—the ‘Kangaroos’—on their 320 mile (515 kilometre) journey from Wagga Wagga in his electorate to Sydney (the other marchers dubbed him ‘Old Man Kangaroo’).[22] He also visited New Zealand at this time, seeking ideas on how to boost recruitment.[23] By May 1916 though, with recruitment numbers falling, he was resigned to supporting conscription as the only means by which Australia could meet what he considered to be its obligation to Britain.[24]

As a parliamentarian, Patten continued to articulate his agrarian vision of a productive and patriotic farming class: ‘If we give them a chance of owning their homes, we produce a contented yeomanry, who will not go about the country airing their grievances’.[25] He repeatedly represented himself as a ‘practical’ man, farmer or wheat grower, implying that he was thereby uniquely qualified to comment on anything concerning rural policy. His was a bold, vaguely anti-intellectual stance, curious in someone who had spent considerably more time being a teacher than a farmer: ‘I want to see with my eyes and feel with my hands, and get my information at first hand’.[26]

Patten was a combative politician. He devoted most of his energy to land legislation, supporting rural leaseholders’ entitlement to convert to freehold title, limiting the amount of freehold land an individual could obtain according to the quality of the land, and resisting a land tax. He agitated against Labor governments’ and unions’ efforts to include farm workers under state and federal industrial arbitration legislation. In the federal parliament he advocated for access to services and concessions in his electorate. Throughout his brief parliamentary career, he embodied the stresses brewing within farmers’ organisations, over whether there should be a separate farmers’ party, or if their energy was best aligned with other non-Labor interests. He walked a fine line between being a loyal supporter of the conservative but urban-based Liberal Party on the one hand, and independently representing ‘the man on the land’ on the other, but was never able to resolve that dilemma.[27] The Farmer and Settler newspaper, by then entirely independent of the FSA, delighted in highlighting his inconstancy. In Perth in March 1914 he claimed that the eight FSA-endorsed Liberals in the federal parliament were ‘recognised in the House as independent of either Liberal or Labor’. Then in Brisbane he urged the local rural advocates to reconcile with the Liberals to combat the common enemy—Labor: ‘The interests of the men on the land are the interests of the commercial and industrial classes’, he is alleged to have said.[28] The matter came to a head soon afterwards when Patten resigned as President of the FSA, putatively because of the pressures of his parliamentary duties. His adversaries at the Farmer and Settler though, took it as confirmation that he was merely a self-serving politician with no interest in establishing an independent country party.[29]

After four years as a backbencher in the federal parliament, Patten did not contest the 1917 general election ‘owing to the pressure of private affairs’.[30] There were signs that his regular absences on parliamentary business were affecting his relationship with his family. Two of his sons gave their mother’s name as their next of kin when they applied to enlist in 1916 and 1918.[31] Nineteen-seventeen brought distress too, though after his decision to depart politics, when another son died of pneumonia in Sydney, aged twenty-three.[32] And in May son Leslie was wounded in France, seriously enough to end his war.[33] Rather than return to the farm on his departure from parliament, Patten travelled to Great Britain, having been appointed by the Minister for Defence to recruit and dispatch Australian navvies and labourers to work for the Ministry of Munitions in support of the war effort. He spent the rest of the war there.[34]

By the time he returned to Australia in September 1921, Patten was aged over sixty, and a new generation was driving rural politics.[35] As preferential voting was introduced at both New South Wales and Commonwealth elections, Earle Page—twenty years Patten’s junior—was elected to the federal parliament as an FSA-endorsed candidate in 1919. By April 1921 he was leading the new federal Country Party, and by October 1923 serving as deputy prime minister in a conservative coalition government with Stanley Melbourne Bruce. In New South Wales a distinctly country-based party formed under Michael Bruxner—twenty-two years younger than Patten—who had entered parliament in 1920. Patten remained interested, and to some degree connected with rural politics, attending the annual meeting of the Land’s shareholders in 1924.[36] He was vocal too. The former Liberal Party representative lauded Bruxner for maintaining the New South Wales party’s independence and prerogatives on the parliament’s cross-benches, and deplored Page’s decision to lead his party into a coalition in the federal parliament, which he considered compromised the party’s principles and independence.[37]

From his mid-sixties, Patten fell into obscurity. Over the course of a relatively brief but boisterous political career, he had made a telling impression on supporters and opponents alike, but failed to leave a more substantive legacy. He was stout of stature (‘somewhat corpulent’ according to one report of his participation in the Kangaroo march)[38], and sported a lush walrus moustache (Labor’s Frank Tudor called him ‘Wire Whiskers’ across the chamber in 1916)[39]. His political opponents found him pugnacious, voluble and self-confident. One described him as ‘a very worthy man, but … unfortunately, a victim of his own vanity’.[40] The Farmer and Settler newspaper, after it had parted from the FSA in 1911, was particularly virulent, characterising him as a bully during his term as president of the association, and as having undue regard for his own ability: ‘a politician of the common type, of very ordinary ability, but with a self-sufficiency that is truly colossal’.[41] Despite his shortcomings, he saw the value for rural interests in engaging directly in parliamentary politics rather than advocating from the periphery, though he did so only from within the leading non-Labor party of the time. His main political achievement was to consolidate the FSA’s platform such that, once preferential voting was introduced, the emerging county parties could form often testy, but ultimately effective working alliances with city-based non-Labor parties.

Patten moved to Victoria in around 1929 and was living at Barwon Heads when he died on 16 October 1940, aged eighty-one. He was buried at the Eastern Cemetery, Geelong. Whereas his death certificate recorded that he was a ‘retired manufacturer’, his daughter gave him the status of ‘retired farmer’ when she signed papers valuing his assets in New South Wales at £9, in the form of a handful of shares in the Land newspaper.[42] His short obituary—as though to inadvertently emphasise that his days as a powerful and well-recognised figure were long past—noted none of his former parliamentary and leadership roles, but wrongly claimed that had he been a member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly.[43] He was survived by five of his children.

[1] Birth certificate; Sydney Morning Herald, 3 July 1885, p. 1.

[2] Farmer and Settler, 18 October 1907, p. 3, 7 July 1908, p. 2.

[3] Wallaroo school administrative file, 5/17990, SARNSW, NRS 3829.

[4] Memo, Patten to the District Inspector of Schools, 17 April 1895, Bolwarra school administrative file, 5/14992, SARNSW, NRS 3829; Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 26 September 1891, p. 3.

[5] Teachers’ Rolls, 1869–1908, State Archives and Records New South Wales (SARNSW), NRS 4073, roll 4, p. 211, reel no. 1993.

[6] Memo, Inspector to the Under Secretary, Department of Public Instruction, 11 May 1896, Bolwarra school administrative file, 5/14992, SARNSW, NRS 3829.

[7] Sydney Morning Herald, 9 October 1858, p. 7, 31 December 1923, p. 6; NSW Births, Deaths and Marriages, at

[8] Teachers’ Rolls, 1869–1908, SARNSW, NRS 4073, roll 4, p. 211, reel no. 1993; Farmer and Settler, 18 October 1907, p. 3

[9]  Wellington Times, 4 October 1900, p. 5.

[10] William A Bayley, History of the Farmers and Settlers’ Association of NSW, Farmers and Settlers’ Association, Sydney, 1957, p. 43; Ulrich Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, Melbourne University Press, Parkville, 1963, p. 13; BD Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1966, pp. 56–7.

[11] Farmer and Settler, 18 April 1906, p. 3.

[12] Peter Andrew Woodley, ‘“We are a farming class”: community, class and place in Dubbo’s farmlands, 1870–1950’, thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of The Australian National University, August 2021, p. 131.

[13] Sydney Morning Herald, 22 June 1906, p. 8; Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate, 1 December 1906, p. 3.

[14] NSW Government Gazette, 9 July 1908, issue no. 81 (supplement), p, 3759; Sydney Morning Herald, 9 July 1908, p. 9; Michael Hogan, ‘1910’, in Michael Hogan and David Clune (eds), The People’s Choice: Electoral Politics in 20th Century New South Wales, Vol. One, 1901 to 1927, Parliament of New South Wales and University of Sydney, Sydney, 2001, p. 100.

[15] Moree Gwydir Examiner and General Advertiser, 8 April 1910, p. 10; Sydney Morning Herald, 19 April 1910, p. 7.

[16] Michael Hogan, ‘1910’, in Michael Hogan and David Clune (eds), The People’s Choice: Electoral Politics in 20th Century New South Wales, Vol. One, 1901 to 1927, Parliament of New South Wales and University of Sydney, Sydney, 2001, pp. 114–15. 

[17] Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate, 20 October 1911, p. 4.

[18] Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties, p. 93; Ulrich Ellis, The Country Party: a Political and Social History of the Party in New South Wales, FW Cheshire, Melbourne, 1958, p. 25; Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 27 June 1913, p. 46.

[19] Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Report from the Royal Commission upon the Commonwealth Electoral Law and Administration, July 1915, p. 7.

[20] Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties, pp. 126–9; Land, 20 December 1918, p. 2.

[21] Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, Hansard, 17 June 1915, p. 4130.

[22] Sydney Morning Herald, 8 January 1916, p. 17; Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, Hansard, 18 May 1916, p. 8036; Sherry Morris and Harold Fife, The Kangaroo March: From Wagga Wagga to the Western Front, Sherry Morris, Wagga Wagga, 2006.

[23] Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, Hansard, 18 May 1916, p. 8037.

[24] Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, Hansard, 18 May 1916, p. 8035.

[25] New South Wales, Parliamentary Debates, Twenty-first Parliament – Third Session, Legislative Council, 24 November 1908, p. 2728.

[26] Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, Hansard, 18 May 1916, p. 8038.

[27] Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, Hansard, 12 August 1913, p. 74.

[28] Farmer and Settler, 7 April 1914, p. 1.

[29] Farmer and Settler, 7 July 1914, p. 1.

[30] Wellington Times, 15 March 1917, p. 4.

[31] ‘Leslie Thorning Patten’ service file, NAA series B2455, item 8010196; ‘Francis Irvine Patten’ service file, NAA series B2455, item 8009384. Patten was no longer on the Commonwealth electoral roll for the Division of Gwydir by 1925, but his wife and several of his children remained, resident at Comobella: Commonwealth of Australia, Electoral Roll, State of New South Wales, Division of Gwydir, Roll of Electors for the Sub-division of Dubbo, Second Print, p. 64.

[32] Wellington Times, 13 December 1917, p. 4.

[33] Daily Telegraph, 8 June 1917, p. 6.

[34] Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 7 June 1917 [Issue No.82], p. 1235; Wagga Wagga Express, 29 May 1917, p. 3; Argus, 8 June 1917, p. 8.

[35] UK and Ireland, Outward Passenger Lists, 1890–1960, 8 September 1921.

[36] Land, 15 August 1924, p. 13.

[37] Land, 21 November 1924, p. 8, 5 December 1924, p. 6.

[38] Tumut and Adelong Times, 9 December 1915, p. 2.

[39] Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, Hansard, p. 80.

[40] John Dacey, speaking in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, 22 July 1908, Hansard, p. 80.

[41] Farmer and Settler, 14 April 1914, p. 1.

[42] Death certificate; Robert Patten Probate File, SARNSW, Item B73465.

[43] Argus, 17 October 1940, p. 5.

Original Publication

Citation details

Peter Woodley, 'Patten, Robert (1859–1940)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 April 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Robert Patten, by T. Humphrey & Co, 1913

Robert Patten, by T. Humphrey & Co, 1913

National Library of Australia, 24283753

Life Summary [details]


18 June, 1859
London, Middlesex, England


16 October, 1940 (aged 81)
Barwon Heads, Victoria, Australia

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Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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