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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Abbott, Robert Palmer (1830–1901)

by Bede Nairn

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

Robert Palmer Abbott, c.1896

Robert Palmer Abbott, c.1896

National Library of Australia, 22670079

Robert Palmer Abbott (1830-1901), solicitor and politician, was born at Broadford, County Clare, Ireland, son of Thomas Abbott, policeman, and Eleanor, née Kingsmill. In January 1838 he arrived in Sydney with his family as assisted immigrants. He was the uncle of Joseph Palmer Abbott and cousin of Joseph Abbott. He attended the Sydney College, was articled to Archibald Little and admitted a solicitor in 1854. In 1858-59 he had his own practice in Sydney and later was senior partner in various firms until his death. In the late 1860s he lived for a time in Armidale where he opened a branch office. He was a magistrate of the City of Sydney, and commissioner of the Supreme Court of Queensland for taking affidavits in New South Wales.  

When the 1861 Land Acts of John Robertson opened a new phase in land litigation, Abbott specialized in these cases and gravitated to politics. In 1872 he won the seat of Tenterfield supposedly as a follower of James Martin, whose government he at once helped to overthrow on the border duties question. With reservations he supported the ministry formed by Henry Parkes but voted against it in February 1874 in the Francis Rossi case and in June in the first crisis over Frank Gardiner. Late in 1873 he had been prominent in debates on the mining bill and in July 1874 accepted Parkes's offer to become the first secretary of mines. Soon afterwards the Gardiner case exploded again, resulting in a general election in December and the government's resignation in January 1875. In November Abbott had been absent from the decisive vote. He did not join any other ministry, but represented Tenterfield until 1877 and Hartley in 1880-82. He sat in the Legislative Council in 1883-88 and in 1886 was a London commissioner representing New South Wales at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition. He failed to regain the Tenterfield seat in the 1891 elections.

Although not a major parliamentarian, Abbott was one of the majority who professed independence but were prepared to offer their votes for office or favours for their electorates. At the 1874 Tenterfield by-election which followed his appointment to the ministry he told the voters, 'in all matters affecting the Parkes Ministry I have voted and acted thoroughly independently, both for and against them'. Like most members of the 1870s he was a free trader and had more in common with Parkes than Robertson after some initial confusion about 'Measures and men [appearing to him] to be so mixed up … that it is somewhat difficult to distinguish between them'. He retained his admiration for Parkes and in 1888 persuaded him to help Joseph Abbott to win a by-election at Newtown. Abbott's only bill, introduced in 1875, went no farther than the notice paper. He was a mild electoral and land reformer and sought an elective upper house; above all he was a typical local member who consistently pressed for roads, bridges, schools and railways, but left many letters unanswered. After a long illness he died, unmarried, in a private hospital at Tempe on 31 October 1901 from a stroke. He was buried in the Church of England cemetery at St Leonards, with a service conducted by his nephew, Rev. T. K. Abbott.

Select Bibliography

  • Town and Country Journal, 15 Aug 1874
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Nov 1901
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Abbott, Robert Palmer (1830–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 3

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