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Allen, Sir George Wigram (1824–1885)

by Norman Cowper and Ruth Teale

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

Sir George Wigram Allen (1824-1885), solicitor, politician and philanthropist, was born on 16 May 1824 at Surry Hills, Sydney, the eldest son of George Allen and his wife Jane, née Bowden. After distinguishing himself at William Timothy Cape's school and at the Sydney College he was articled to his father in 1841 and five years later was admitted as a solicitor. In July 1851 he married Marian, eldest daughter of Rev. William Boyce. He set up his home, opposite his father's, at Strathmore, Glebe. In 1881 he moved to Toxteth Park, where he added a third storey, a tower and various Victorian embellishments, including a ballroom, which his father would never have approved. There he entertained royally everyone from English visitors and public men from neighbouring colonies to members of the Australasian Wesleyan Conference.  

In 1847 Allen entered into partnership as a solicitor with his father. When his father retired in 1855 George Wigram brought into partnership his cousin, Thomas Kendall Bowden, in 1857, his brother, Arthur Mansfield, in 1869 and his son, Reginald Charles, in 1882. Two other sons, Arthur Wigram and Herbert, became partners after their father died. This successful legal business has continued uninterruptedly since 1822 and has always had at least one member of the family as a partner. Since Alfred Macartney Hemsley joined in 1894 it has been known as Allen, Allen & Hemsley. In George Wigram's time its clients included the Bank of New South Wales, the University of Sydney, the Australian Gaslight Co., and many public and private figures. Sir Henry Parkes borrowed from Allen several times: the last in January 1885 was a loan of £9000 for three years at 8 per cent. Wigram Allen was president of the Law Institute of New South Wales for many years from 1870. In 1859 he became the first mayor of the Glebe, after leading the movement for its incorporation, and for eighteen years was re-elected. In 1860 he was appointed to the Legislative Council where he sat until May 1861. He represented the Glebe in the Legislative Assembly in 1869-82. As magistrate, mayor and member of parliament he sponsored such local improvement societies as the Wentworth Club and the Young Men's Christian Association, and land reclamation schemes.

Allen's political convictions were conservative, in keeping with his wealth and social position. After Edward Butler resigned as attorney-general in November 1873 Parkes reshuffled his administration and chose Allen to lead a new ministry of Justice and Public Instruction. To qualify for appointment Allen resigned and sought re-election for the Glebe in December. Vigorous efforts were made to ensure his defeat by Parkes's opponents who maliciously advertised that Allen had sixty relations in the public service. Yet according to the Sydney Morning Herald he 'brought strength and character' to the administration. When Parkes was defeated in February 1875, Allen was elected Speaker in March by a margin of one vote. David Buchanan claimed that he was ignorant and incompetent and 'did not possess sufficient determination of character to occupy the position'; but he was attacking the 'worship of the golden calf' and pointedly referred to Allen's private income of £15,000 a year. Allen resigned within a week because the ballot was irregular, but was immediately re-elected with a large majority. The Herald dismissed the personal attacks as unqualified political abuse, and defended his amiability and political experience; ten years later an obituarist claimed that 'possessing a clear intellect, and gifted with patience and perseverance, his decisions as Speaker were sound, and seldom was any of them disputed'. Allen remained Speaker till November 1882 and declined further office as treasurer under Parkes. He was knighted in 1877 for his services as Speaker, and appointed K.C.M.G. in 1884.

Allen's greatest public contribution was in the field of education. He inherited his father's interest in the extension of the primary, state-controlled system, and served as a commissioner of National education in 1853-67. In 1873 he took his father's seat on the Council of Education, but resigned on accepting office as the responsible minister. With keen interest also in secondary education he supported the incorporation of the Sydney Grammar School in 1854 as a non-denominational school, and in 1859 was elected one of its six trustees; he later endowed the school with annual prizes in mathematics and natural science. To the trustees of Newington College he lent £12,000 for the new buildings at Stanmore in the 1870s, and later endowed a scholarship for boys proceeding to matriculation. In 1878 he succeeded to his father's seat on the Senate of the University of Sydney and served until 1885. He was also involved in schemes for the proposed Wesley College, although at the time Professor Charles Badham considered the movement 'one of mere show'. In 1867 and 1883 Allen made gifts to the university, which endowed the first scholarships for the faculty of law. His two eldest sons, George Boyce (B.A., 1877) and Reginald Charles (B.A., 1879), both took first-class degrees in classics and mathematics at the University of Sydney; later George Boyce went to Balliol College, Oxford, and Charles to Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Herbert and Walter went direct to Cambridge.

Like his father, Wigram Allen was active in many religious and charitable societies. He was by profession a Wesleyan, but as the Herald remarked, 'a Wesleyan of the original type, who loved the liturgy of the Church of England … Regularly for years he read the beautiful liturgy every Sunday morning in the church which his father built on the Toxteth Estate'. He supported the Church Missionary Society and the British and Foreign Bible Society of which he was president at his death. Lady Allen, too, was indefatigable in charitable works. Together with her neighbour, the wife of Andrew Garran, she began the boarding out of orphan children from the Benevolent Asylum, and her husband's influence with Henry Parkes helped to secure to the scheme after 1880 a government grant of £400 a year. She also helped to found the Children's Hospital (Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children) at the Glebe.

Because of his great wealth and business connexions Allen became a director of many public companies engaged in steam, mining and commercial ventures, of insurance firms and building societies, including the Bank of New South Wales and the Gaslight Co. He was a vice-president of the royal commissions on international exhibitions at Sydney in 1879 and Melbourne in 1880. He died suddenly on 23 July 1885, survived by his wife, six sons and four daughters. His estate, sworn at £300,000, was later broken up. Lady Allen sold her home to the Roman Catholic Church; George Boyce let most of the adjoining land in tenement and building leases, and the orchard eventually became the Harold Park race-way. The eldest daughter married Dr Alexander Leeper, principal of Trinity College in the University of Melbourne.

Allen had enjoyed a full life, marked by courtesy and fairness in his private dealings and crowned with public honours. 'A man of calm judgment and much practical wisdom' he was never a partisan in political causes and preferred to devote himself to his private business and to education and philanthropic works.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Colwell, The Illustrated History of Methodism (Syd, 1904)
  • G. W. D. Allen (ed), Early Georgian (Syd, 1958)
  • R. R. Garran, Prosper the Commonwealth (Syd, 1958)
  • L. G. Norman (ed), Historical Notes on the Glebe (Syd, 1960)
  • D. S. Macmillan, Newington College 1863-1963 (Syd, 1963)
  • G. W. D. Allen, The Elizabeth Street Cottage (Syd, 1964)
  • 'The Late Sir G. Wigram Allen', Sydneian, no 58, Aug 1885, p 2
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24, 27 Mar 1875, 24, 27 July 1885
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 24 July 1885
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales) Stenhouse letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Norman Cowper and Ruth Teale, 'Allen, Sir George Wigram (1824–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/allen-sir-george-wigram-2877/text4111, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 26 July 2014.

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

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