Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Blyth, Neville (1825–1890)

by Keith R. Bowes

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

This is a shared entry with Arthur Blyth

Neville Blyth (1825-1890), by unknown photographer, c1865

Neville Blyth (1825-1890), by unknown photographer, c1865

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3650

Sir Arthur Blyth (1823-1891) and Neville Blyth (1825-1890), ironmongers, land investors and politicians, were born at Birmingham, England, the third and fourth sons of William Blyth and his wife Sarah, née Wilkins. They were educated at the King Edward VI Grammar School, Birmingham. In 1839 they emigrated to Adelaide with their parents and older brothers, William and Howard. After two years as general merchants and agents within the family business, Arthur and Neville entered into a prosperous partnership as ironmongers. They also invested heavily and successfully in land. Arthur was a promoter of the Northern Australia Co., and a director of the Burra mines and the National Bank, and Neville was a director of the Bank of South Australia.

Arthur, born on 19 March 1823, married on 5 March 1850 Jessie Forrest of Birmingham; they had three children and lived at Rust Hall, Mitcham. After serving his political apprenticeship on the Mitcham District Council, of which he was chairman for many years, and on the Central Roads Board, in 1855 he won the Yatala seat in the part-elective Legislative Council. After responsible government he entered the House of Assembly, representing Gumeracha in 1857-68 and 1870-75 and North Adelaide in 1875-77. Wide knowledge gained from extensive reading, literary skill, administrative efficiency and a capacity for hard work quickly won him recognition as a key figure in politics. Yet his leadership was not outstanding: he was precise rather than perceptive and in a crisis his nervous temperament, customarily hidden under a 'somewhat pompous manner', prevented swift decisive action.

Blyth was commissioner of public works in John Baker's twelve-day ministry in 1857 and under (Sir) Richard Hanson in 1858-60, treasurer under George Waterhouse in 1861-63, premier and commissioner of crown lands and immigration from August 1864 to March 1865, treasurer under Henry Ayers in 1865, and chief secretary under (Sir) James Boucaut in 1866-67. Hoping to restore his wife's health, he took her to England in 1868, but after two years was pleased to return 'to the people and the country I love so well'. In his absence the Strangways's Act had been passed under which land could be selected on credit. As commissioner of crown lands under John Hart in 1870-71 and then as premier from November 1871 to January 1872 and from July 1873 to June 1875 he became involved in administering the rapid northward expansion. In 1874, captured by public enthusiasm, he for once ignored the wise counsel of the surveyor-general and made available for selection land in the upper north beyond Goyder's line. The aftermath was disastrous both for the farmers who settled and for the pastoralists who were dispossessed. The Blyth government fared little better than its predecessors in solving other urgent problems such as main roads, settlement of the Northern Territory and education. Appointed treasurer under Boucaut in 1876, he won little support for a penny post. The judgment of a contemporary that he originated no measure of first-rate importance was fair.

After Francis Dutton died, Arthur was appointed agent-general for South Australia in London in February 1877, and held the post until 1891. He was criticized for being out of touch with the colony which he represented, for during these years the agent-general was becoming less a commercial agent and more a political ambassador, but no serious thought was given to replacing him. He was a commissioner for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in 1886 and a delegate to the Colonial Conference in 1887. He had been appointed K.C.M.G. in 1877 and C.B. in 1886. He died at Eastbourne, Sussex, on 7 December 1891.

Despite his simple habits he was a founder of the Adelaide Club. He was a devout Anglican, strongly opposed like his father to state aid to churches. A member of the synod of Adelaide and a governor of the Collegiate School of St Peter, he was known as 'a really religious man'.

Neville Blyth was also a liberal Anglican and member of synod. He had more originality than his brother but was much less successful in public affairs. Unlike Arthur, who retired from business in 1861, Neville held on until 1865 and at first did not have the necessary time for ministerial duties. Nor did he win ready support at the hustings, partly because electors remembered him advocating that only those 'with a stake in the country' should control political affairs, and partly because people assumed that his views were only an echo of his brother's. Neville was not at home in politics. In the House of Assembly he represented East Torrens in 1860-67 and then resigned. A year later he was persuaded to stand for Encounter Bay, and was treasurer in Hart's three-week ministry; he held his seat until he was defeated in the 1870 election; he represented Victoria in 1871 and then retired, spending most of 1873 to 1875 in England and Europe. He returned to the assembly in 1877 to become the first minister for education, but resigned next year because of ill health and returned to England. He lived in retirement at Sutton, Surrey, where after a short illness he died on 15 February 1890. He was survived by his wife Julia Barnes whom he had married at Alderley Edge, Cheshire, in 1852; they had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Hodder, The History of South Australia, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1893)
  • Register (Adelaide), 17 Feb 1890
  • Observer (Adelaide), 12 Dec 1891
  • Arthur Blyth letters (State Records of South Australia)
  • John Hart diary, 1865-72 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Keith R. Bowes, 'Blyth, Neville (1825–1890)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blyth-neville-3320/text4417, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 22 November 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Neville Blyth (1825-1890), by unknown photographer, c1865

Neville Blyth (1825-1890), by unknown photographer, c1865

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3650