5 Sex Scandals in Australian politics that didn’t make a blind bit of difference

Australians don’t do political sex scandals terribly well.  Perhaps it’s because Australia is a very secular society, and a good dose of Protestant prurience or Catholic guilt helps – Berlusconi’s strippers dressed as nuns.  And while not a classless society, few of our children spend their formative years in boarding schools under the rule of Matron, like the children of the British elite.  As for the French, in My Fair Lady Henry Higgins said that ‘The French don’t care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly’ – but even they seem finally to be taking Dominique Strauss-Kahn seriously.

Our current scandal involving the Speaker, Peter Slipper, rates a bit higher than usual, though it hardly scales the heights of Monica Lewinsky, John Edwards or most of the poor fools outed by News of the World over the years.  It is unusual though, because it (allegedly) involves homosexual, not heterosexual, activity, and because, since the numbers in the House of Representatives are so tight, it might actually bring down a government.

In the 19th century, Australian politics had its fair share of sexual hanky panky, but I can’t think of any that brought down an administration.  So here, for your delectation and delight, are 5 sex scandals that didn’t make a blind bit of difference to the stability of government.

1. Governor King and his bastards.

Philip Gidley King RN arrived with the First Fleet.  On 14 February 1788 he led a party to Norfolk Island with 15 convicts, to set up a secondary settlement.  One of those convicts was Ann Inett, who became his mistress – though concubine is perhaps a better description.

While King was in charge at Norfolk Island, Ann gave birth to 2 boys, Norfolk (1789) and Sydney (1790), whom he acknowledged.  Shortly afterwards King went back to England.  In March 1791 he married Anna Josepha Coombe and the couple left for Australia 4 days later.  In 1796, Philip and Anna Josepha went back to England, taking Norfolk and Sydney with them, and placed them in boarding school.  The two boys went into the Navy, and may never have seen their mother again.

That, to me, is the really scandalous thing, but there was no scandal.  In 1800 King was appointed Governor of New South Wales.  His peccadillo was completely normal.  On the contrary in providing for his children and giving them his name, he was better than many.

2. Colonel George Johnston and Esther Abrams

The real scandal for an early 19th century officer was not living with a convict woman, but marrying her.  The marine George Johnston also came out on the First Fleet.  On the convict transport Lady Penrhyn, he met 20-year-old Esther Abrams and her baby, born in the Fleet Prison.  They lived together as man and wife from then on.  Johnston rose through the NSW Corps until 1808, when he led the mutiny against Governor Bligh.  In England he was court martialed and cashiered, whereupon he returned to Sydney as soon as he could.  As a civilian he could finally marry the mother of his 7 children.  When he died in 1823, he left her a life interest in his estate.

3. The galloping stallion, Governor Sir Charles FitzRoy

FitzRoy arrived in NSW in 1846 with his wife and son.  The following year, Lady Mary and an aide-de-camp were killed in a carriage accident at Parramatta.  Sir Charles was driving.  As the Australian Dictionary of Biography coyly states:

within a year [he] was enduring allegations of undue partiality for the opposite sex. Later these attacks on his moral character increased and affected his reputation in the colony and in London.

FitzRoy, it seems, had been looking for love in all the wrong places.  Much more scandalously to the reputation of a 19th century gentleman, his son was accused of cheating at cards.

Less coyly, the radical paper The People’s Advocate described ‘TWO SUPERIOR STALLIONS … a sure Foal getter… stood several seasons at Parramatta and Windsor’.  That was in 1856, just as FitzRoy and his son were leaving.  Despite all that moralists like the Presbyterian Rev. J. D. Lang could throw at him, FitzRoy served out his term.

The Night Birds of Melbourne

4. Queen Victoria’s son visits a brothel in Melbourne

I can only guess what the media would do with this today.  In 1867, Prince Alfred, Victoria’s second son, was the first royal visitor to hit our shores.  While in Melbourne, the Prince was shepherded around town by the Commissioner of Police, Frederick Standish, who introduced him to one of the best brothels in Little Lon, run by Sarah ‘Mother’ Fraser.  Standish died shortly after of cirrhosis of the liver, while the Prince survived an assassination attempt in Sydney.

It is rumoured that, after the Prince left for Sydney, Mother Fraser put up a sign announcing that the brothel had royal patronage, and the police had to persuade her to pull it down.

5. Robert Herbert and John Bramston

Robert Herbert came out to Queensland in 1859, as private secretary to the Governor, Sir George Bowen, and at 28, became the first Premier of the new colony.  With him came John Bramston.  A year younger, Bramston was at Balliol with Herbert.  They became close friends, and later shared rooms in London.  They lived together in Brisbane on a property they called ‘Herston’ (an amalgam of their names), now the name of an inner city suburb.  Bramston took up horse-racing, sailing and rowing; Herston, who was just over 5 feet high, took up gardening and poultry (both, in the 19th century, typical housewifely pursuits).

They returned to England together in late 1866.

Herbert never married.  He joined the Colonial Office in 1870 and worked there until his retirement in 1892.  Bramston went back to Queensland in 1870, where he married Eliza Russell, the niece of the new Governor’s wife, but there were no children.  In 1876 he returned to England, where he joined Herbert at the Colonial Office.  The two remained close friends into old age.

We have no way of knowing whether they were lovers or not.  Homosexuality was illegal, and the hint of a sexual relationship would have caused enormous scandal, whereas separately, they were highly successful public servants, both knighted for their services to the British Empire.  They both appear in the Australian Dictionary of Biography – but their entries are not cross-referenced.

Clive Moore, Sunshine and Rainbows: The Development of Gay and Lesbian Culture in Queensland (2001)

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