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Top Australian honours for Clon-born newspaper man

June 12th, 2022 3:00 PM

By Kieran O'Mahony

Top Australian honours for Clon-born newspaper man Image
The recently installed plinth next to the Robert Atkin memorial in Sandgate Brisbane, behind St Margaret’s Church.

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A CLONAKILTY man who emigrated to Australia in the nineteenth century and became a well-known campaigning journalist, as well as an MP, was remembered last Sunday in Brisbane as locals marked the 150th anniversary of his death.

A monument which been previously erected at St Margaret’s Church in Sandgate in memory of Robert Travers Atkin ¬– who incidentally was born in 1841 in Fernhill House, (now a hotel) – was re-dedicated, with the chief justice of Australia Susan Kiefel delivering a speech at the ceremony.

Members of the Robert Travers Atkin Restoration Project  installed a plinth in front of the monument and their work has also involved landscaping and a the construction of a shelter, which will contain noticeboards in the near future, that will tell the story and history of Robert Travers Atkin.

Despite the fact that Robert died at the young age of 30 due to tuberculosis, his legacy to democracy in Queensland  is one that is cherished by the community.

In fact, years later, his son Lord Richard ‘Dick’ Atkin revolutionised the law in 1932 by finding a duty of care was owed to consumers in one of the legal profession’s most famous cases of Donoghue v Stephenson, in what became known as ‘The Snail in the Bottle’ case.

Robert Atkin became the editor of the Queensland Daily Guardian  but soon fell out with the tone and control of the paper and in 1868 set up an alternative newspaper Queensland Express and Mining Advocate, which was then followed by a third paper The Colonist.

Robert was first elected to parliament in 1868 but had to resign as he had failed to register on the electoral roll.  However, two years later he got elected again and was a vocal member in parliament.

A Protestant, Robert Travers Atkin married his wife Mary Elizabeth Ruck and they both emigrated to Australia in 1865. He became not only a well-known journalist and newspaper editor, but also a member of the Queensland Legislative Assembly.

‘Robert and Mary tried to succeed as farmers but drought and economic depression forced them to settle in Brisbane. While there he joined other progressives like the Irish nationalist, Dr Kevin O’Doherty.

As a medical student, O’Doherty had been convicted for his political writings and transported to Australia, hon justice Peter Applegarth AM told The Southern Star.

‘These reformers opposed the vested interests of the ‘squattocracy (wealthy and ruthless land-grabbers who wielded undue political influence). Atkin opposed the legalised kidnapping of South Pacific islanders to toil on sugar plantations. He and his friends wanted new industries, an end to corruption and a fairer distribution of wealth,’ he added.

Shortly before he died in May 1872, his young sons had been sent to live with a grandmother in Wales.

‘Young Dick Atkin won scholarships to schools and to Oxford. He worked hard, became a leading barrister and then one of the greatest judges of all time and 90 years ago in the Snail in the Bottle case he revolutionised the law by finding a duty of care was owed to customers.’ In 1943, he advocated the new idea that there were ‘crimes against humanity’ that transcended domestic law and these ideas led to the law applied at Nuremberg against Nazi war criminals.

Following Robert’s death in 1872, a monument was erected in his memory by the members of the Hibernian Society of Queensland, of which he was vice-president. Despite being in Australia for only eight years, the West Cork man did indeed leave a lasting legacy in his adopted country.

‘We are delighted to see that this amazing man who was born at Fernhill over 180 years ago was being honoured in Australia where he achieved so much,’ said Michael O’Neill Jr of Fernhill House, where Robert was born.

‘Robert, in his short life, was able to improve the lives of so many disadvantaged people, and especially Irish ones in Australia. He was an inspiration to many, including his son Richard, who changed the world – with the help of a snail!’

Michael Jr thanked the committee for their efforts and for an invitation to the rededication of the monument.

‘Between welcoming our daughter Ada in March and hosting so many wonderful weddings this summer, we were not able to make it, but we do plan to visit the refurbished monument in time,’ he told The Southern Star.

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