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à Beckett, Thomas Turner (1808–1892)

by Betty Malone

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Thomas Turner à Beckett, by Batchelder & Co, c1867

Thomas Turner à Beckett, by Batchelder & Co, c1867

State Library of Victoria, H29426

Thomas Turner à Beckett (1808-1892), lawyer and politician, was born on 13 September 1808 in London, the second son of William à Beckett, solicitor, and his wife Sarah, née Abbott. After education at Westminster School, he studied law at Lincoln's Inn, was admitted as solicitor and attorney in 1829 and joined his father in practice in London. Always interested in law reform, à Beckett was accepted as a member of the Law Amendment Society and in London published several pamphlets, including Remarks on the Present State of the Law of Debtor and Creditor (1844), Railway Litigation, and How to Check It (1846), and Law-Reforming Difficulties (1849).

In 1850 he went to Australia to visit his two brothers who had emigrated to Sydney: William to practise law, and Arthur Martin (1809-1871) who practised as a surgeon and served in the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1856-60. Thomas decided to settle in Victoria; as he wrote later, 'No better opportunity will ever be afforded to a man who is prepared to stick to his work'. He soon built up a prosperous private practice as a solicitor and notary public. His legal experience proved valuable to the developing colony and his services were sought by savings banks, by the London and Liverpool Fire Insurance Co., and as chairman of the Melbourne and Hobson's Bay Railway Co., a position he held for more than twenty years.

He was drawn into active politics as a non-official nominee in the Legislative Council in 1852-56 and later, after failing to gain the Collingwood seat in the Legislative Assembly, as representative in the council for Central Province in 1858-78. There he continued his crusade for legal reforms, in 1860 introducing two bills: his insolvent estates compulsory sequestration bill lapsed, but his law of evidence amendments bill became law. Later pamphlets by à Beckett showed a swing of interest to current constitutional matters, particularly the vital issues of control of government finance in 1867 and of Legislative Council reform in 1874. From November 1860 to November 1861 he was a minister without portfolio in the Heales ministry. In 1868, after McCulloch's retirement, he attempted unsuccessfully to form a coalition ministry. From April 1870 to June 1871 he was commissioner for trade and customs in the third McCulloch ministry. He also acted on several royal commissions, including those on the civil service in 1862 and 1870 and on the volunteer forces in 1875. He retired from active public life in 1878.

His wife Eliza, née Stuckey, bore him four daughters and three sons, the best known being Sir Thomas. They had settled in Brighton where à Beckett became a leading citizen and a member of St Andrew's Church of England. He attended the Rechabite Lodge and as a keen gardener belonged to the local horticultural society. He often entertained his fellow colonists as a lecturer; at least one of his lectures, Painting and Painters (1871), was published. He also read extracts of Dickens's works at charity concerts, often with (Sir) Archibald Michie, with whom he was briefly associated in unsuccessfully backing a newspaper, the Melbourne Morning Herald, in 1852-53. Among his honorary positions he was trustee of the Public Library, and a member of the University Council for twenty years.

à Beckett's writings, speeches and life reveal him as a cultured man of many interests, an upright, God-fearing citizen, conservative in thought and often rigid and severe towards those with whom he disagreed. He never succumbed to the egalitarian spirit of the colonials, and his speeches were laced with references to 'our glorious constitution' and to the need to 'keep in order … the highly dangerous temper of the masses'. Nevertheless he was a realist and, while opposing the ballot and defending property rights to the full, he advocated payment of members of parliament and denounced as dangerous and futile attempts to curb freedom of speech.

A devout Anglican, à Beckett served his church well. He was registrar of the diocese of Melbourne in 1854-87, and acted at various times as treasurer of the Church of England Society for Promoting Temperance, and secretary of the Melbourne Grammar School and of the Religious Tract Society of Victoria. In parliament and through pamphlets he stoutly defended the close ties of church and state, and state aid to religion, though he was opposed to granting an educational allowance to Jews as he believed 'no religion a religion except the Christian religion'.

à Beckett died at Brighton on 1 July 1892. He left his estate to his surviving children and his second wife Laura Jane, née Stuckey. He is a good example of the educated Anglican gentlemen who grouped themselves at the conservative end of the colony's nineteenth-century ruling caste.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Goodman, The Church in Victoria During the Episcopate of the Right Reverend Charles Perry (Melb, 1892)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • Leader (Melbourne), 26 Nov 1862, 9 July 1892
  • Illustrated Australian News, 21 May 1870
  • Tatler, 21 May 1898
  • L. C. Duly, The Land Selection Acts: Victoria 1859-69 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1959)
  • G. R. Quaife, The Nature of Political Conflict in Victoria 1856-57 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1964)
  • T. T. à Beckett, family memoirs (privately held).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Betty Malone, 'à Beckett, Thomas Turner (1808–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/a-beckett-thomas-turner-2861/text4075, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 26 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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