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Abbott, Joseph (1843–1903)

by Ruth Teale

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

Joseph Abbott (1843-1903), wool-broker and politician, was born in August 1843 at Parramatta, son of Henry Kingsmill Abbott, gaol official, and his wife Martha Ann, née Lefroy. He came of a poor Irish family, and was a distant cousin of Joseph Palmer and William Edward Abbott. He was educated at the Church of England Denominational School at Parramatta, but although he was exceptionally able, with a particular aptitude for figures, his parents could not afford to keep him long at school. As he told the electors of Newtown in 1888, he was not born with a silver spoon, but had had to struggle hard: 'he was one of the people'. On leaving school he went to Sydney; intending to become a press reporter he took lessons in shorthand. He also joined several young men's improvement societies and in debating clubs trained his powers in public speaking. In 1863 he went to Queensland on a mining venture but soon returned to Sydney.

Friends in the debating society introduced him to Thomas Mort who offered him a post as clerk in the produce department of Mort & Co. His skill in debating he now turned to account as an auctioneer, for in the 1860s and 1870s wool-selling was still the backbone of the firm's business. In 1875 he inaugurated the Sydney stud sheep sales at the Summer Hill quarantine grounds; the sales were well attended, particularly one held in 1879 in conjunction with the International Exhibition in Sydney, and in 1880 they were transferred to the wool stores of Mort & Co. at Circular Quay. By 1883 Abbott was a partner and managing director of Mort & Co. Ltd, as well as their chief auctioneer; he continued as a director on the Sydney board after 1888 when the firm was amalgamated with Richard Goldsbrough & Co. By the 1890s Abbott was acknowledged as the senior wool auctioneer in the colony.

As a businessman Abbott was widely respected in the city. He became a director of the Commercial Union Assurance Co. and of the Sydney Exchange Co. (later Royal Exchange). He was a director of the Waratah Coal Co. and, for twelve years, of the Australian Mutual Provident Society, both founded by Mort. In his relations with employees he followed Mort's example; his genial personality won him much popularity among the younger men entering the firm, who often sought his advice. He was, by conviction, a Wesleyan Methodist and continued throughout his life a firm supporter of the Young Men's Christian Association.

Abbott's interest in wool made him 'an earnest and consistent supporter' of free trade throughout his public career. In February 1888, on six days' notice, Sir Henry Parkes induced him to stand for Newtown, at a by-election. The campaign was vigorously fought on the fiscal question, much enlivened by cries of 'the Orange rooster' and 'Papal protectionists', the protests of a displaced free trade candidate and allegations that Abbott had been foisted on the electorate by leaders of the free trade party. Abbott won the seat and retained it at the general election a year later. In July 1891 he again held Newtown as a free trader, but his two colleagues were defeated by candidates of the newly-formed Labor Party. After the redistribution into single electorates Abbott won Newtown-Camperdown in July 1894; when the session ended in July 1895 he retired from politics because of ill health.

In politics Abbott was always a free trader, particularly while Parkes led that party in the assembly, but he never held office. He was known for his 'clear grasp of state finance, and enunciated his views when necessary with logical clearness'. In particular, his long experience in managing the pastoral holdings of Mort & Co. made him an authority on land administration. His speeches reflect his interest in the progress of self-made men: he advocated the spread of technical education to develop artisan skills and supported reorganization of the civil service on the basis of merit. Although he believed in Federation, he spoke against the Commonwealth bill because he wanted better terms for New South Wales.

At Surry Hills in 1866 Abbott had married Margaret Ann Bennett; their first home was in the Glebe, but they soon moved to Newtown where he became an alderman in 1875. About 1880 he moved to the more fashionable suburb of Croydon, where he lived till his death on 15 June 1903. He was survived by his widow, six sons and three daughters. Of his sons, all educated at Newington College, the eldest, George Henry (1867-1942), became a medical practitioner, lectured in clinical surgery at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1911-27, was a founding fellow of the Royal Australian College of Surgeons, and a councillor and later president of the New South Wales branch of the British Medical Association. He was also a keen numismatist, sometime president of the Royal Australian Historical Society and fellow of the Sydney University Senate. The second son, Joseph, followed in his father's steps, and was for many years a partner in the firm of Wright & Abbott, wool scourers, brokers and commission agents. The third son, Arthur Edgar, studied law, was articled to R. W. Lambton, admitted to the Bar in 1900 and later became a partner in Lambton, Milford & Abbott, solicitors.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Barnard, Visions and Profits (Melb, 1961)
  • G. H. Abbott, ‘Reminiscences of Newtown and Neighbourhood’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 24, part 1, 1938, pp 1-16
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Jan, 4 Feb 1888, 16 June 1903
  • Bulletin, 11 Feb 1888
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 28 June 1894
  • Newtown Chronicle, 20 June 1903
  • Mort papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Ruth Teale, 'Abbott, Joseph (1843–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/abbott-joseph-2856/text4065, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 2 September 2014.

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

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